You may have read the recent story in UMC news about the 24-hour suspension (without pay) of two pastors who performed gay weddings. Critics of this decision will argue that the penalty in this case is so light as to embolden others to follow suit in disobedience to the Discipline. It seems likely that this trend of ecclesial disobedience is going to accelerate, particularly in conferences in which the bishops side with the progressive moral agenda.
What is emerging in all of this is a de facto “local option” for annual conferences. Regardless of what the Discipline may say, annual conferences generally determine whether a particular disciplinary statute has any binding force on their members. The only way that this could be avoided would be for the matter to be appealed to the Judicial Council, and for the Judicial Council in turn to rule that the annual conference's decision is not in keeping with church law. The thing is, a minor suspension is in keeping with church law. The Discipline does not stipulate a penalty. Therefore, the local option will likely hold for the foreseeable future.
One wonders if this is a large step toward congregationalism. In other words, if annual conferences are free to abide by or largely disregard particular decisions of the General Conference, why should charge conferences feel bound to the decisions of the annual conferences?
Perhaps this is the only way to salvage what’s left of the “connection.” Perhaps the only way to maintain The United Methodist Church is to decentralize its authority. Let’s be clear, though: there are real dangers in moving in this direction. There are larger consequences of rejecting the authority of the General Conference. Nevertheless, that is our current course. I hope the powers that be are taking these consequences into consideration as we move forward.