When things go wrong

March 18th, 2024

For many decades, The United Methodist Church didn’t have any problems with its structure. When things go smoothly and gently, nobody asks critical questions of our ecclesiastic conference system. It is always in times of crisis and difficult challenges that focus is put on our system and structure. The crisis we have in The United Methodist Church over the issue of human sexuality has shown how our system is not functioning. The idea to govern a church on the basis of a global Book of Discipline, and to think that we can solve the problems by the lawmaking process in General Conference has failed.

How have we ended up in a situation where the Book of Discipline states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” a statement true only in some limited groups in America, even though some groups outside America have adopted the same position? Seen in the perspective of ecumenical, Protestant, and even Roman Catholic theology through the whole history of Christianity, human sexuality has never been a subject of Christian teaching, Christian doctrine, or what Protestant theologians calls status confessionis. Human sexuality is a subject of ethics, biblical exegesis, human rights, and civil law. And it is a subject of our understanding of marriage. In my opinion, including a sentence that marks human sexuality as a subject for Christian teaching is a stupidity in the academic theological world outside some small groups in America. It seems to me that some American theologians have constructed their own definition of Christian teaching. According to Christian tradition and history, bishops hold the ministry of teaching, the responsibility of keeping the church to the creeds and basic doctrines, but in the UMC we have limited the bishops’ power to influence the paragraphs in the Discipline, and by doing so, we have limited the bishops’ ability to oversee even the Book of Discipline and to take away from the Discipline what is a theological stupidity.

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The way we have organized Judicial Council also restricts bishops’ power of ensuring that new legislation is not in violation of the Constitution, including our doctrinal standards. It is beyond debate that the sentence of homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching is not in conflict with our doctrinal standard because no creeds, no Article of Religions, nor other standards of Christian teaching have any paragraphs on human sexuality. There is no piece of text in our doctrinal standards that any human sexual praxis can be incompatible with. The Judicial Council has not succeeded in declaring this clearly wrong formulation null and void. The Denmark Annual Conference appealed to the Judicial Council to declare the formulation null and void, but Judicial Council decided, based on a very old decision (a typical American judicial principle different from European judicial praxis) that Judicial Council cannot rule in a case that is not concrete, even though it is clear that the formulation is in conflict with the Constitution.[1] General Conference after General Conference has had petitions on human sexuality on the table, but no decisions can be made as long as some American delegates agree with the Discipline that “human sexuality is a subject of Christian teaching.” Many other delegates find this formulation a stupidity and have stopped discussing the issue on these conditions many years ago, and are frustrated that our system—with Judicial Council’s right to make declaratory decisions and the bishops’ role to judge in doctrinal issues—has not solved this problem. Many European delegates have given up engaging in any changes in the Discipline on this critical issue.

One reason American delegates and delegates from the central conferences are functioning in disharmony with Methodist theology and ecclesiology is that no central conference follows the Discipline in the same way the UMC follows the Discipline in America. Even from central conference to central conference different parts of the Discipline and the ecclesiastical structure have been implemented. In Europe, we don’t have the district organization, the local churches do not negotiate salaries for the pastors, the pension system and health insurance are in most places not an issue for the church but for civil society, and the ceremonies of marriage follow the tradition of the country rather than the Book of Worship. The annual conferences outside America focus on Article of Religion XXII, saying clearly “that rites and ceremonies should not in all places be the same; for they have been always different, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners.”

American Methodism was first in using Article XXII to change the ceremonies of weddings from full integration in a church worship service to a very short ceremony that can take place in a secular place; this is very different from weddings in Europe. From America, this ceremony of weddings in secular places distant from an ecclesiastical context has spread to many countries outside America. Praxis is also theology!

The handling of finances, salaries, pension, health insurance, and human aid and money for mission work follow one system in America described more-or-less in the Discipline. In all central conferences, other systems are used, and in these areas of administration the Discipline is almost not in use. The UMC apportionment system is part of our connectional obligations, but the system in America has never been implemented in the central conferences. Also, the general agencies play a very different role in America compared to the central conferences.

When the central conferences neither use nor implement quite a number of paragraphs and ecclesiastical structures, then the question is clear: Who decides which paragraphs in the Discipline shall be in function and which paragraphs are not important? Why should we follow the paragraph saying that practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained, when we never have followed all the paragraphs on the structure of districts or the paragraphs directing the flow of money in the church? Do our arguments from history, that human sexuality is not a question of Christian teaching, have the same kind of legality as John Wesley’s argument from history—based on Lord Peter King’s theology, that elders and bishops are the same—when he consecrated Thomas Coke to be a superintendent? It is very difficult to understand in the central conferences that all paragraphs have the same authority.[2]

Even the understanding of democracy is different. In many cultures, the leader is the first to speak on a new subject of discussion, and democracy is understood as voting loyally with the leader. In other cultures, this is considered dictatorship and overruling dominance. In other cultures, it is the democratic praxis that the leader listens to many voices, and when everyone has spoken, the leader can conclude the decision. As a delegate to General Conference, it is easy to see the differences between the delega- tions. In some delegations, all delegates are focused on the leader, who is the one to give his or her opinion first, then everyone votes in loyalty. It is even seen as a provocation if you speak up on a subject before the leader has marked his or her position. In other delegations, all members are in discussion, and the leader is more silent and more of a listener. Democracy is different in different places of the church. At General Conference, the chair is always asking: “Do we have a second?” “Second!” And before you get an answer, the vote is taken. What happened? In Europe, no chair will ever ask that question, and no member knows what a second is. In General Conference committees, it is the normative praxis that the chair does not vote. In Europe it is the praxis, when you have a tie vote that the chair’s vote determines the final outcome, so the chair is always voting. How can anyone think that the General Conference can function according to homogeneous ideas of democracy and only one version of the Discipline, when the fact is that the use of the Discipline is different from region to region, and the very fundamental understanding of democratic praxis is not the same?



Excerpted from Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia. Copyright © 2024 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


[1] UMC Judicial Council, Memorandum 1347.

[2] Book of Discipline, 2016 Supplement (Copenhagen: Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Con- ference, 2017).

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