This post is part 3 of my analysis of the Talbert complaint resolution. You can read part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE. In this post, I am outlining what the implications of this agreement are for United Methodists and our denomination.
So where does the Talbert resolution leave us? I find nothing in the agreement that upholds or reinforces the church’s current position on marriage or on accountability to our covenant. Instead, this agreement represents a clear victory for those who are bound to overturn our church’s current position, if not by the legislative process, then by the process of continuing disobedience.
Bishop Talbert has experienced no negative consequences for not only advocating such, but actually violating his vows of ordination and consecration. There is no incentive in this agreement for Bishop Talbert or any other clergyperson to bring their actions into compliance with the Book of Discipline.
This agreement further weakens the accountability process for clergy. Bishops who process complaints against clergy who perform same-sex services will be working even more against the tide of opinion by leaders that there should be no more trials.
In combination with several recent Judicial Council decisions, this agreement makes plain the fact that it is no longer possible to hold bishops accountable to the Discipline. The process for handling complaints against bishops needs radical reform. We should stop having bishops be responsible for holding other bishops accountable, since we have seen that such a process does not work. We must also remove accountability from the jurisdictional or central conference level and grant it to the general church level. Proposals will come to the 2016 General Conference to institute a global committee on investigation, made up of laity and pastors from the worldwide church, to handle complaints against bishops and ensure they are accountable to the Discipline.
This agreement is a watershed moment in the life of the church because it publicly illustrates at the highest level that there is a segment of the church’s leadership who have resolved not to be bound by the requirements of our commonly arrived at standards of faith and practice. The lesson is that there is no way for the church to enforce the Discipline. There is now very little cost for disobedience, at least in some parts of the country. We cannot play by two sets of rules, one for progressives who wish to operate in a manner contrary to the sense of General Conference, and one for traditionalists who wish to honor the process of our polity as determined by General Conference. If progressives are allowed to violate the Discipline with impunity, then the same right should be given to traditionalists. Increasingly, traditionalists are also going to adopt that approach, particularly with respect to the payment of apportionments.
The resulting chaos and disdain for discipline that is growing in our church is simply the result of two churches trying to pretend they are one. The disregard for General Conference as the representative decision-making body of our church and the ineffectiveness of the leadership of many of our bishops (and the Council of Bishops) is killing our church.
There are essentially two ways for our church to become one again. First, the General Conference can make reforms to the system to ensure that all United Methodist clergy and bishops will maintain their actions within the parameters set by General Conference. This will undoubtedly cause some progressives who cannot do so to leave the UM Church. Second, if General Conference does not take action, evangelicals and traditionalists will no longer be able to support and participate in a denomination that intentionally allows its leaders to encourage or engage in what the Bible calls sinful behavior. Indeed, many evangelical laypersons and some clergy have already left the UM Church, and many more will follow. It is no longer a viable alternative for us to live together under two different sets of beliefs and their resulting rules.
Evangelicals were not under the illusion that Bishop Talbert would be defrocked over his performing a same-sex union in another bishop’s territory. But it was reasonable for us to expect some modicum of accountability, or at least an acknowledgement of violating the Discipline and a commitment not to do so again. Instead, this agreement gives us nothing. It demonstrates that “the emperor has no clothes;” the church has no power to enforce its standards. The supreme law of the church is no longer the Discipline or General Conference; it is individual conscience. Personal judgment is now the ultimate arbiter of our faith and practice. We are no longer a connectional church, nor even a congregational one, but an individualistic one. Every person is now clamoring to do “what is right in his/her own eyes.”
The outcome of this case has pounded another nail in the coffin of The United Methodist Church as a body unified in mission and ministry. The church is already divided. All that is left is for us to acknowledge that reality.