Maintain the Discipline? Or Create One?

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The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS


“Why would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of?

This line, from Chad Bowen’s piece published here last week, has stuck with me from the moment I first read it in an early draft of his essay.  It speaks to something essential to the current strife and discord in United Methodism, but which has not always been visible.  It encapsulates both the frustration of traditionalists [1] with the impotence of certain denominational structures and the indignation others feel as they see an energetic minority of conservatives intent on realigning the identity of the denomination.  In this piece I hope to puzzle out some of why this line strikes me so.

Now, there is a certain genre of writing, native to the internet, in which, starting from such a beginning, I would now promise to uncover for you here some secret meaning, some hint of conspiracy, and inform you on “What’s Really Going On.”  That is not the aim of this piece nor its genre.  That is a sort of writing which not only sheds more heat than light but even obscures things by the heat it creates.  The times call for something better than such games.  They call for us to look things straight in the face.  They ask us ever to strive for clarity in our discussions and our deliberations and so I hope merely here to express clearly for you what I think Chad has put his finger on with that excellent line.

The group in question, formed to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of, is of course the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  They and their fellow travelers would have a ready answer for why one would form such a group.  The United Methodist Church has teachings and standards, they would say, but these are not respected in the actual administration of church discipline nor indeed are they held to by many leaders in the church.  Thus there is need for the formation of a group to advocate for the maintenance of teachings and standards which exist but are not enforced or, rather, which are more honored in the breach than in the observance.

This is a case obviously convincing to many and it possesses a fine coherence.  Beneath it, however, is an assumption about the nature of the UMC’s teachings and standards which can easily go unacknowledged.  This assumption is that the teachings and standards of the UMC are a set of documents.  For the sake of argument it must also be assumed that the interpretation of these documents is not in question.  In some way or other, these documents are also generally assumed to be those contained in the Book of Discipline.

It is because these teachings and standards are believed to be contained in documents that they can be contrasted with the administration of discipline in the denomination—discipline can be compared with Discipline.  The documents can serve as instruments to help adjudicate which versions of Methodism are authentic.  But because the standards are simply words on a page, they are also entirely impotent to bring the living community into conformity with themselves.  Hence it is this assumption which allows us to imagine a situation in which the teachings and standards of the group are one thing and its actual practice another.

This is not the only way, however, to imagine our teachings and standards.  One could say that the teachings and standards of the UMC are what the UMC actually teaches and how it actually orders its communal life.  That is to say, the teachings and standards are not documents, but the actual lived reality of United Methodism.  If one imagines the teachings and standards in this way, then it becomes completely nonsensical to imagine a smaller group being formed within the larger group for the sake of maintaining the larger group’s teachings and standards.  For under this definition one could not be a part of the larger group without participating in the maintenance of its teachings and standards.

I am not a historian, nor does this argument depend on claims of history, but it would be a fruitful exercise to inquire into whether the documents of the Book of Discipline have at any point corresponded exactly to the lived reality of what Methodists have taught and how they have lived.  Those statements of the Discipline which are enforced at any given time (and those things not written in the Discipline which are enforced with equal tenacity) are better evidences of the teachings and standards of the denomination than the text of the Discipline itself.

For example, John Wesley’s advice that preachers get up at 4 in the morning every day to pray remained in the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church until the 1939 merger and had been removed by the Southerners at an earlier date.  Shall we then assume that such a practice of prayer was a standard or an ideal in the northern church and not in the southern church?  Likewise there is the constant and disingenuous formula, with which we are all familiar, that the church has condemned homosexuality “since 1972,” that being the year the language appeared in the Discipline.  Really, I would defer here to a student of American queer history, but I would be quite surprised to find that Methodists did not tenaciously enforce anti-gay norms within their community prior to having some words written about them in 1972.

When we view things in this way, then, it might be better to say that a group like the WCA exists not to uphold or maintain the current standards of the UMC, but to create new ones.  Now when something like this is written by a certain sort of commentator (the kind I mentioned above), we would be in for a sort of fearmongering conspiracy story about how the evil evangelicals are out to steal your church.  That is not my aim.  My aim is clarity and an analysis tending not to excitement but sobriety.

Now if we take the purpose of the WCA to be the creation of new standards and teachings, there seem to me to be two ways that can be understood.  The first is that they disagree with the current teachings and standards of the United Methodist Church and wish to change them into something more in line with their own theology and discipline.  This is the idea held out by the peddlers of conspiracies.  Were this the case, then the WCA would be rightly described as a non-United Methodist organization and those who do agree with the teachings and standards of the UMC would rightly see it as a schismatic agent of discord which must be cut off and cast out.  No pleasant thought.

There is, however, another way.  The WCA could seek to create new teachings and standards because they do not perceive there to be any in the UMC of the present day (more precisely, there are no teachings and standards for the denomination as a whole).  In going about this task, they have sought to begin with the documents in the Book of Discipline which have already been a part of our communal life.  They advocate that these be used in a new way, that they be invested with a new positive authority to create teachings and standards in the life of the church.  They argue that we can fix what ails us with tools near to hand, if we but use them in a new way.

This second understanding accords more closely with what I have heard and read from United Methodists sympathetic to the WCA or actively participating in it.  In a way, it is less fearful than the first.  If this group is seeking to provide for our denomination something which is lacking and whose lack has had debilitating results, then they are doing needed work.  The project is a creative one and its fruits could prove a gift to all United Methodists.  It is an effort to save the denomination.

And yet to me this second way is far more chilling than the first.  For if teachings and standards must be created because there are none, then there is no United Methodist Church and we are already in schism.

So indeed may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, preserve and protect us always, that not one of his little ones be lost.  Amen.


[1] I refer the reader to Chad’s note on usage of this term.

Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.

2 thoughts on “Maintain the Discipline? Or Create One?

  1. “We are already in schism” is true, but not because of the premises you’ve attached to that possibility. It is true because persons, Boards of Ministry, Annual Conferences, and whole Jurisdictions have declared themselves – explicitly, in word and in deed – to not be under the authority of the Book of Discipline. We even saw separate communion tables in Portland. To not see this as a de facto schism is either blindness or willful ignorance. There is a United Methodist Church, but it is a house divided against itself, and we know how that story ends.

    This continued litany of fear regarding the WCA is the worst kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking. We watched the dam crack and did nothing, and now we shout at the water as it careens toward us.

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