Perhaps youâ€™ve heard the joke, â€œHow many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?â€ Sometimes the answer is, â€œChange? What do you mean, Change?â€ The other answer is, â€œAbout a hundred. You need to set up a study commission composed of equal representation from each Conference, Jurisdiction, Racial/ethnic group, every gender, etc. Give them a quadrennium or two and maybe something will happen.â€
One of our current study commissions is looking into ordained ministry. If youâ€™d like, you can read a news report of their latest gathering. What most struck my interest are the final comments.
The Rev. Grant Hagiya said the commission needs to explain the theological foundation behind current practices. He is superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California-Pacific Annual Conference and a member of the ministry study commission.
“We think the church is confused because it’s not presented to them in a way that’s a practical understanding. If we can do that, we can provide a great service to the church,” he said.
“We have a dual ecclesiology, Catholic in that we have bishops and elders, but Protestant in that we have deacons and local pastors,” he said. “There’s a healthy tension about this, but it also points to the practical ways we need to deal with polity.”
Rev. Hagiya could go farther. Our Catholic ecclesiology also shows up in much of our sacramental thinking. The church is seen as the dispenser of grace. I think thatâ€™s a major reason for the outcry against the Ed Johnson decision. When Rev. Johnson denied membership to a practicing homosexual, some took it as akin to shutting the doors of grace to the man. Since grace comes through the church, closing the door of membership to him was equivalent to closing the doors of grace. Rev. Johnsonâ€™s supporters (Iâ€™ve read more from them than from Rev. Johnson himself) take a more Protestant point of view. While the church may be a place of grace, it has no monopoly on grace. Thus the statement, â€œYou are not at the appropriate place for membership nowâ€ is not at all the same (from their point of view) as â€œNo grace for you, bub, until you straighten yourself out.â€
In this sense at least, we have come so far from Wesleyâ€™s position that our membership policies would be unrecognizable to him. Unrecognizable as Methodist, any way. Heâ€™d likely see in them a mirror of the Church of England of his day. In Wesleyâ€™s day it was remarkably easy to become a Methodist â€“ just evidence a â€œdesire to flee the wrath to come.â€ Getting in was easy. Staying in â€“ that was the tough part. The old time Methodists used the General Rules as a sort of â€œepistemology of seriousnessâ€ to see if the evidence was real. If you werenâ€™t living according to the Rules, then theyâ€™d judge you werenâ€™t really interested in fleeing the wrath to come. Wesley practiced strict discipline with his people.
We gave up on strict discipline long ago. Weâ€™ve come to think discipline, rather than an expression of grace, is the antithesis thereof. Oh, we still play at discipline â€“ one the one side we come down on the homosexuals, on the other, we condemn our Presidential and Vice Presidential United Methodists for their participation in war. Because weâ€™ve given up being a disciplined people (who hate nothing but sin and love nothing but God), so many of our current attempts at discipline seem to unchristian pettiness to those in the opposite camps.
Our Catholic/Protestant bi-polarity doesnâ€™t help us in this regard. Notice how Rev. Hagiya divides the territory. On the Catholic side: Bishops & Elders. On the Protestant side: Deacons & Local pastors. Where is the power in the church? Who makes the policy? Who makes the decisions? Sure looks like a power imbalance to me. Is there any wonder our â€œCatholicâ€ side argues for a â€œCatholicâ€ view of church membership?
But donâ€™t think itâ€™s easy for the bishops. While they may have the most power, they also experience the greatest conflict. In their (â€œCatholicâ€) position they have a duty to stand up for the unity, holiness and purity of the church. They are to lead the application of discipline in the church. But many donâ€™t want to. Some donâ€™t want to remove their homosexual friends from ministry. Who would want to remove a friend of any kind from ministry? Some want to have theological freedom akin to their peers who work in the university â€“ to be able to rationalize key doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection without consequence. But they canâ€™t â€“ their job is to uphold the doctrine and discipline.
While I think many things can and should be held in â€œhealthy tension,â€ Iâ€™m afraid, contrary to Rev. Hagiya, the Catholic/Protestant divide within our ecclesiology isnâ€™t one of them.