Many have expressed disbelief at the characterization of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) by Bishop Ough’s statement following the July meeting of the Council of Bishops. In the statement, the WCA was included with annual conferences who have made declarations of non-compliance with The Book of Discipline and the election of Karen Oliveto as realities that have “opened deep wounds and fissures within the United Methodist Church and fanned the fears of schism.”
Critiques have also been lodged more broadly as other commentators have laid out their cases for perceived problems with the WCA:
- that the issue of homosexuality is THE issue of the WCA (Jack Harnish, Jeremy Smith),
- questions about their views on scripture (David Livingston, pt.2, Jeremy Smith)
- a perceived precarious future of women clergy (David Livingston, pt.3)
- that the WCA is doing harm to the UMC by creating a proto-denomination with its own publishing house, membership standards, and membership dues, and will likely cause increased fragmentation of the church (Jason Valendy, Jeremy Smith)
Responses to these criticisms by Kevin Watson and David Watson emphasize the WCA’s desire to be faithful to current, established United Methodist (UM) beliefs. Posts by Shane Bishop, Bob Kaylor, and Chris Ritter express their anticipation that the WCA could come alongside the UMC in the same manner that the people called Methodists once sparked a revival in the Church of England. The WCA has also posted on their official website in response to some of these developments.
These posts share a desire to defend the intent of the WCA, stating that its purpose is to maintain current Methodist teaching while renewing it with some of the best of the practices that got us started in the first place. There is a strong, consistent effort to say, “We’re not working towards division, we want to gather, covenant, and labor with others who want to be faithful and are working with a similar definition of fidelity.”
Nevertheless, there is a powerful sense that something new and different is happening. Bob Kaylor says that his conference and jurisdiction chose the “nuclear option, rendering moot the work of the commission” by electing Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop. He likewise quotes Billy Abraham, who argues that the stated goals of the Bishop’s commission to (a) revise the disciplinary language concerning human sexuality and (b) maintain the unity are at odds with one another. Shane Bishop says, “the storm is not going to pass. I am jumping right.”
The official channels of the WCA are reiterating that they have no intentions to divide the church. Meanwhile, one of their primary leaders denies that there is any discernible way forward for our denomination while others use terms like “nuclear options” and “storms” to describe our current state. This may seem at first like double-speak, but there is more going on.
There is a tension between the WCA’s desire for unity, that’s no secret. But the nature of that tension has yet to be clearly named.
Those attracted to the WCA are ready for doctrine and discipleship to be the primary foundation of their covenantal community. (For a powerful articulation of this idea, see Carolyn Moore’s post this week in which Carolyn Moore shares Don Haynes’s thoughts on emphasizing “doctrine and discipline.”) These are the things which they can adamantly affirm about the UMC and its Discipline.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the foundation of UMC unity is not doctrine and discipline, but on property and process. We have standards for belief and behavior, but they are functionally insignificant when viewed in light of our policies and procedures.
Bill Arnold states the case quite bluntly:
“The accountability of our polity is broken.”
The brokenness of our polity is the best tenable explanation for the existence of the WCA. Why else would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of? Jack Harnish is right that the catalyst for the WCA is the issue of same-sex practice. But the WCA hopes to be much more than a one issue community; it desires to be a source of renewal for the people called Methodists.
Even as the WCA emphasizes its alignment with UM doctrine and practice, it needs to honestly assess whether it cannot affirm UM polity in its current iteration. Broken polity should not be affirmed, it should be repaired. The tension about division emerges when one considers whether our polity is beyond repair, and what members of the WCA might do if such corrections cannot be implemented.
The reality for traditionalists is that affirming the central teachings of the UMC and following the rules no longer assures one that they will be “at home” in the UMC. The General conference speaks for the whole church. But what we say at General Conference and what we do as jurisdictional and annual conferences, are no longer in accord.
Traditionalists have had the votes. They’ve successfully maintained disciplinary language about sexuality quadrennium after quadrennium. They’ve won elections for any number of boards, agencies, and councils. Our standards are clear, but there is no means of accountability. In terms of polity, The Book of Discipline is not a friend to traditionalists. As long as due process is followed, there is no way to question the judgement of the conference. Our polity has proven incapable of ensuring fidelity to the standards established by the General Conference. That means we don’t have standards; we have guidelines or suggestions.
At this point, we’re experiencing multiple systems failure: boards of ordained ministry, annual conferences, and the Western Jurisdiction have all disregarded standards set forth in The Book of Discipline. And that is possible because the standards are subordinate to the discernment of those groups.
This applies not only to standards related to sexuality, but all standards of discipline and doctrine.
Our polity puts us into silos of annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences. And if an entire conference goes astray, we are learning that there is no means for the general church to correct the course. Annual conferences own the property and are responsible for maintaining clergy ministry standards. When they choose to interpret those standards loosely (or disregard them entirely) in matters of ordination, investigating charges, or seeking a “just resolution,” nothing can be done. Representatives of the conference can decide nearly whatever they please, so long as they follow due process. Similar things are true for bishops and jurisdictional conferences.
The Judicial Council’s hands are tied, rendering them unable to rectify the problem because it is the prerogative of the annual conference to interpret the standards set forth by General Conference. While traditionalists assert that such ordinations are against the discipline, the Judicial Council has repeatedly directed their attention to questions of due process instead of investigating the faithful application of standards. They have rightly refused to insert themselves into the processes of discernment that are explicitly given to other groups by the General Conference.
Efforts such as the one to establish minimum penalties for performing same sex weddings at GC2016 would have proven to be merely a Band-Aid for our deeper issues of polity.
There is no mechanism by which any body (individual or corporate) in the United Methodist Church can say authoritatively regarding essential teaching and doctrine: That conference is no longer aligned with our theology. Their actions are not representative of what we believe. They have wandered too far afield. Their teachings are heretical. They are not United Methodist.
The issue is no longer only about unfaithful individuals or conferences, it is about the viability of the entire connection. And solutions cannot be directed only towards contingency planning for disobedience related to same-sex marriages.
The WCA is seen as a threat to the unity of the UMC because it is a gathering of people who are deeply dissatisfied with our polity. Traditionalists have pursued and effectively utilized every avenue available to them to establish and maintain standards for ministry. And they still don’t feel at home in their own denomination. Therefore, they are creating a group that shares the values that the UMC says it has, but cannot ensure.
In this way, Kevin Watson is correct when he says, “The United Methodist Church is not who it says it is.”
If the WCA wants its witness to be coherent, if it wants its efforts to be successful, it must recognize our broken polity and find a way to articulate clear solutions. And it must not get distracted by efforts to maintain its “support of the Discipline,” because the unity currently provided by the Discipline is founded upon property, policies, procedures and pensions, not doctrine and discipleship.
It has proven easy, however, to revert to this cliché of supporting the discipline. Even Bill Arnold, upon declaring our polity broken midway through his article, concludes the same piece by saying, “Through the WCA, I commit myself to uphold and maintain the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church.”
If our polity is broken, no one should not want to maintain it. And if a formal, institutional schism occurs, those who end up chartering new denominations would be wise to avoid codifying the same problems a second time around.
The WCA is gaining steam because our polity is broken. Our doctrine is sound. Our standards for ministry are clearly established. While we can set and maintain standards for due process, we have proven incapable of doing the same for standards of faithfulness. That failure dilutes our identity and corrodes our connection, leaving faithful Methodists craving a covenantal community of like-minded people.
There are two logical solutions for our current predicament.
We can alter our language so that we are what we say. We can embrace and acknowledge that we are functionally a confederation of conferences that unite to support our boards and agencies while maintaining local standards of theology and ethics.
Or, we can become who we say we are: we can establish and utilize mechanisms for accountability across the silos of our connection. The latter would be hard work; it would be an uphill battle of constitutional amendments.
Traditionalists have remained intent on condemning progressives’ actions that ignore the Book of Discipline. In an attempt to avoid being hypocrites, they’ve tried to unequivocally affirm their allegiance to The Book of Discipline. It’s time, however, to make the case that The Book of Discipline is wrong. Discipleship and doctrine should be more constitutive of our identity than property and procedures.
Our polity is broken, and it needs to be mended rather than affirmed.
 I use this term as a simple gloss for “those who believe that sex is never faithful outside of the context of heterosexual marriage.” I use this term because there are some who would self-identify as “orthodox” or “evangelical” who have different understandings of sexual practice (e.g., Jack Harnish), and because “conservative” is decidedly imprecise. “Traditionalist” isn’t perfect either, but we must choose a word to communicate the idea. If you have recommendations for another, I’d be happy to hear it.
 We also have not, to this point, had a satisfactory conversation about whether or not (dis)approval of same-sex marriage should/shouldn’t be determinative for orthodoxy, an essential of United Methodism. There’s no way to say if it would be adequate reason for something as extreme excommunication.
This post was written by Chad Bowen, the pastor of the Shannon Brewer Charge in the MS Conference. You can reach him directly on Twitter @chad_bowen.