Bi-Polar UM Ecclesiology

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke, “How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?” Sometimes the answer is, “Change? What do you mean, Change?” The other answer is, “About 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.”

One of our current study commissions is looking into ordained ministry. If you’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 that’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. Johnson’s supporters (I’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, “You are not at the appropriate place for membership now” is not at all the same (from their point of view) as “No grace for you, bub, until you straighten yourself out.”
In this sense at least, we have come so far from Wesley’s position that our membership policies would be unrecognizable to him. Unrecognizable as Methodist, any way. He’d likely see in them a mirror of the Church of England of his day. In Wesley’s day it was remarkably easy to become a Methodist – just evidence a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” Getting in was easy. Staying in – that was the tough part. The old time Methodists used the General Rules as a sort of “epistemology of seriousness” to see if the evidence was real. If you weren’t living according to the Rules, then they’d judge you weren’t really interested in fleeing the wrath to come. Wesley practiced strict discipline with his people.
We gave up on strict discipline long ago. We’ve come to think discipline, rather than an expression of grace, is the antithesis thereof. Oh, we still play at discipline – 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 we’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 doesn’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 “Catholic” side argues for a “Catholic” view of church membership?
But don’t think it’s easy for the bishops. While they may have the most power, they also experience the greatest conflict. In their (“Catholic”) 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 don’t want to. Some don’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 – to be able to rationalize key doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection without consequence. But they can’t – their job is to uphold the doctrine and discipline.
While I think many things can and should be held in “healthy tension,” I’m afraid, contrary to Rev. Hagiya, the Catholic/Protestant divide within our ecclesiology isn’t one of them.

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4 Responses to Bi-Polar UM Ecclesiology

  1. Guy says:

    Two thoughts:
    1. In our culture (church and otherwise), we live as though it is more important to feel good than to be good. So, what is required in order to be good is to help people feel good; and the way to be bad is to hinder people from feeling good. While its good to take feelings seriously and into account, what I’ve described there is not holiness–biblical, Wesleyan, or otherwise…which is what God’s grace is for: to make us holy.

    2. Another complication in the UMC is that the Boards and Agencies have jurisdiction and authority over the life of the church that should probably belong to the Council of Bishops. That group is at least selected by a process of communal discernment with equal lay and clergy delegates from the annual conferences. Willimon wrote about that in A New Connection: Reforming the United Methodist Church with Andy Langford (Abingdon 1995) and I thought he made some compelling arguments.

  2. While I realize that this was not the focus of your thoughtful post, with regard to the idea that Rev. Johnson was “shutting the doors of grace to the man” by denying him immediate formal church membership (and thus eligibility for many leadership positions), please keep in mind that this man was still welcomed to attend the church, sing in the choir, and receive communion. Also, one of the concurring opinions of the Judicial Council did note the little-known provision in the UMC for church discipline of lay members.

  3. PS – furthermore, Rev. Johnson was decidedly NOT telling the man that he would NEVER be welcome as a member of his church, but rather “not yet,” and that he was lovingly counseling the man about his problem.

  4. This is a hugeley relevant discussion involving far more than the “hot button” issue of homosexuality, as your post points out.

    The UMC would do well to engage in a serious and open discussion over the meaning, purpose, responsibilities, and benefits of church membership.

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