In my last post (you can read it here), I began to answer the question what we and others mean when we say that the clergy covenant is being harmed by the words and actions of some of our bishops, clergy, and other leaders. I talked about the fact that our clergy covenant connects United Methodists with all ordained clergy of any denomination, but is most practically experienced as our personal partnership in ministry with those of our own Order in our own annual conference.
But what is the nature of the covenant connection that we share with each other? Referring back to ¶303.3 in the Discipline, it is described as a “covenant of mutual care and accountability.” I’ll talk more about how we exercise mutual care and accountability next time. In this blog, I want to look at what we are accountable for.
Discipline ¶304.1j, just one page over from ¶303.3, gives further explanation of the clergy covenant. One of the qualifications for ordination is that persons “be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.” (This statement does not exhaust the meaning of the clergy covenant, but it is an essential part of it.)
This accountability becomes part of the ordination process for deacons and elders through the historic questions that are asked of all who are to be ordained. These questions date back to the time of Wesley and are found in ¶330.5d and ¶336. Some of the questions are:
8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?
11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
13. Will you support and maintain them?
We as clergy promise some things in these questions (and in the rest of the historic questions, as well as the vows of the service of ordination) to which we need to be held accountable. I was recently contacted by a member of a United Methodist congregation who is concerned that the church’s youth director does not believe in Jesus’ virgin birth or resurrection, and who does not acknowledge that Jesus Christ is “truly God.” When she approached her pastor with her concerns, the pastor told her that she “probably was not a Methodist because of [her] unwavering belief in the deity of Jesus, that Methodism is changing, becoming more liberal and open.”
With all due respect, that pastor was wrong. The deity of Christ is one of the core doctrines of United Methodism, which the pastor said they believed was in harmony with the Holy Scriptures, and which the pastor promised to preach and maintain. To do otherwise is a violation of the clergy covenant, to which this pastor must be held accountable.
A number of United Methodist pastors have been in the news recently because complaints have been filed against them for performing same-sex weddings or unions, which are forbidden by our Discipline. This is part of a movement for what they call “Biblical obedience,” wherein they place their interpretation of Scripture above the church’s understanding and above the policies set forth in the Discipline. When they were ordained, these pastors said that they approved of our church discipline and promised to support and maintain it. Now, they are actively undermining it.
The problem is that some pastors lied when they answered these questions. They would not actually preach and maintain United Methodist doctrines, nor would they maintain those parts of the Discipline with which they disagreed. Some came into the ordained ministry with the express agenda of changing the church’s position on homosexuality and other issues. That is like marrying a person so that you can change them. It usually doesn’t work out very well! It is getting married (or ordained) under false pretences.
Other pastors believed these things when they answered the historic questions and vows, and they entered into the covenant in good faith. In years since, however, their thoughts and opinions have changed. If they were asked these questions today, they could not in good conscience answer them in the affirmative. What are such pastors to do? I believe they must live according to their conscience. If they can no longer in good conscience preach and maintain our doctrines or conform to our discipline, I believe their integrity requires them to withdraw from the covenant and enter a different setting for ministry that they can affirm.
I do not agree with everything in the Book of Discipline. But I am willing to live within its requirements because of my promise to do so. If it ever came to the point where the church required me to violate my conscience, as John Wesley says in his sermon “On Schism,” I would of necessity have to separate myself from the church.
What is so damaging to the clergy covenant is when pastors can no longer preach and maintain our doctrines or live within our discipline, and in fact intentionally fail to do so, yet remain within the covenant relationship of United Methodist clergy. Such an approach makes the clergy covenant meaningless, for there is no longer any accountability or agreed-upon standard by which we must live and do ministry.
We cannot call ourselves United Methodist and yet intentionally fail to live by what it means to be United Methodist. And it is not up to individuals to determine what it means to be United Methodist. The General Conference establishes that, as the only body that can speak for United Methodism.
It is instructive that John Wesley ends the historic questions with this admonition: “And do not mend [i.e., correct or change] our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.” Unfortunately, too many United Methodist clergy have decided to live by their conscience by forsaking the promises they made at their ordination. In doing so, they have followed their conscience in one area by violating their conscience in another area. That has got to cause spiritual and emotional harm to those who take that course, in addition to the harm that it causes to the church.
In the next post, I will talk about how we live out our covenant of mutual care and accountability.