Thursday, February 13, 2014

The “Local Option” for United Methodists (Another Post That Is Not About Sex)

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.


  1. If we decentralize then would that mean doing away with clergy deployment and iteneracy?

  2. I would say that the move toward the local option seriously undermines itineracy.

  3. I would be interested in hearing more about the "larger consequences of rejecting the authority of the General Conference," and your opinion of whether or not these are good things or bad things. I ask this because I think the shift towards congregationalism is a good thing, and I would like to hear some of the downsides to it from someone who is more knowledgable about the inner workings of our denomination.

    I think it's a good thing because I see it happening all across our society--large, arborescent (vertically organized) systems are transitioning into rhizomatic (horizontally organized) systems (more on what I'm referring to here: You see it in the movie industry, the recording industry, the book industry, the higher education industry, and within organized religions. Most of these changes (especially the first three) have come about as a result of the internet, just like the cultural and societal change that resulted from the printing press.

    At the moment, I see these large, monumental shifts in the way our society is organized as the hand of God, guiding us towards the future, molding and pruning our values and culture. I see this as the casting off of the old to make way for the new. I understand that there will probably be some negative effects from this shift in the short-term, but I believe in the long-term it's for the greater good.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nathan. Generally speaking, I am very reluctant to affirm a UM move toward congregationalism. Our communal discernment is by no means perfect, but it does yield important insights. In fact, I would affirm stronger centralization, rather than weaker. For example, on matters of Christian doctrine, I think that there are specific teachings of the Wesleyan tradition that are core to our deepest identity as United Methodists. Yet these have often been jettisoned in favor of the individual theological leanings of pastors who would rather affirm revisionist theologies. I don't think this is a good thing. It's very difficult for us to claim as a denomination a particular theological identity if we move toward congregationalism, and I think that our theological heritage is perhaps the most important thing we Wesleyans have to offer.

      Further, if pastors can violate the Discipline based upon a progressive agenda, couldn't hyper-conservative pastors do the same thing based upon their own agenda? Are there boundaries to what is and is not permissible for UM clergy? Could, for example, a pastor be permitted to excommunicate a gay parishioner? This kind of thing should not be allowed, but if there is no authoritative resource prohibiting such action, what is to stop this pastor from doing so?

  4. If we move toward a congregational polity there is really no need for the ministry of episcopacy or the "superintendency," or if the episcopacy is retained, we actually have several churches rather than one.

  5. The "local option" characterized above is not congregational, but at the AC level. This, actually, is not simply a "de facto" reality, but also "de jure." Key phrases in our Constitution: "The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church" (par. 33) ... . While the GC gets to define matters "distinctively connectional" (Par. 16) -- and this includes the requirements for ordination, and matters regarding our form of worship -- it is reserved to the AC (and to >its< supervisory and judicial processes) to determine when these requirements are met or violated, and if violated, how important the violation is, and what consequence is proportionate to it.