It is a concept entrenched in modern Western culture that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence, United States). To be governed without our consent is the definition of what the Declaration calls tyranny, or in modern terms we would call dictatorship (by either an individual or a powerful group).
While the church is a completely unique entity compared to a national government, this understanding applies to our denomination, as well. Clergy voluntarily assent to submit to the government of the church by taking vows of ordination. Laity voluntarily submit to the government of the church by affirming the vows of baptism and church membership.
It has become strikingly evident over the past several months that a significant part of The United Methodist Church no longer gives its consent to be governed by the church, despite those vows. German and Scandinavian church leaders have declared they will investigate becoming autonomous churches rather than submit to the decisions of the St. Louis General Conference. Several bishops in the U.S. have announced that they will ignore what the General Conference enacted and operate their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed. Up to a half-dozen practicing homosexuals have been ordained or commissioned in U.S. annual conferences in defiance of the longstanding prohibition in our Book of Discipline. Over a dozen U.S. annual conferences have passed resolutions rejecting the decisions made by the St. Louis General Conference.
Influential mega-church pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, has stated, “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” How exactly does that play out when thousands of local United Methodist congregations say the exact same thing, withholding apportionments and resisting pastoral appointments?
How can The United Methodist Church continue without the consent of its bishops, annual conferences, clergy, and members?
In the colonial era, the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that, when a form of government no longer has the consent of the governed or becomes destructive to the purposes for which that government was established, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That was the justification for the American Revolution.
This spring, in response to the General Conference decisions, the moderate and progressive wings of the church in the U.S. and parts of Europe have decided to revolt against the government of the church and to establish a different foundation on principles amenable to the majority of church members in those parts of the church. We see this in the examples of disobedience cited above and calls to “resist.” In addition, those favoring same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons are determined to reverse the outcome of St. Louis through the perfectly acceptable means of electing more progressive General Conference delegates in some annual conferences.
Yet were the progressive/moderate coalition able to undo what General Conference decided, either explicitly or implicitly allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination, the traditional wing of the church in the U.S., Africa, the Philippines, and parts of Europe would no longer be able to grant the church their consent to be governed by a policy that they see as a direct contradiction of Scripture. The current situation would simply be reversed, with a different group withholding consent.
Even if the 2020 General Conference continues to affirm the traditional definition of marriage and sexual ethics, progressives have stated they will refuse to abide by the church’s policies. Based on apparent success in electing progressive and moderate delegates to the Jurisdictional Conferences, they believe they will have the votes to elect at least a dozen bishops who will refuse to enforce the church’s standards and will carry on the revolution.
Our church is now unquestionably in a constitutional crisis, where our ecclesiastical framework appears to be unable to resolve the conflict. We have two irreconcilable positions, and one faction is willfully choosing to violate the constitutionally established processes of the church. “Resist” is the mantra of the moment, but this will lead to long-term ecclesiastical paralysis, loss of legitimacy, and eventual collapse.
We have one part of the church government (some bishops and annual conferences) choosing to willfully violate church law established by another part of the church government (General Conference) operating under its constitutional authority. This after the law was affirmed by a third part of church government (Judicial Council). So we have different parts of church government operating against each other. What makes this a crisis is that there appears to be no mechanism for resolving the dispute, since some no longer accept the authority of General Conference and see it as “illegitimate.”
There is a safety valve for the church to deal with irreconcilable conflict, in that the church is a voluntary association of like-minded people. When people are no longer of like mind, they can choose not to associate (or can disassociate). Many tens of thousands of United Methodist lay members have chosen over the past 25 years to disassociate from a church they no longer agree with. Many have left because the church has become too progressive, while others have left because the church has remained committed to a traditional reading of Scripture.
Since the current church government has lost the consent of a large group in the church, it cannot continue the way it is. One group will not consent to a church government that does not allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Another group will not consent to a church government that does allow those things. So that means at least two new church governments will need to be established – one for progressives and one for conservatives. Whether either group will need to split into more factions is yet to be determined.
It is difficult for many to accept that we have reached this point. However, by their actions and statements, many progressives and moderates have established that they can no longer bear with the traditional position that has been consistently affirmed by our General Conference for 47 years. They are unwilling to allow the church to insist that its bishops and clergy function according to the General Conference’s reading of Scripture and under the General Conference’s authority.
There is no way to force people to accept a church government that they cannot in good conscience support. Nor would it be at all desirable to do so. Therefore, we must accept the fact that a separation must occur in our church. That separation can be done amicably or it can be done contentiously. One way or another, however, it must happen. We can no longer think that unity under a single church government is possible.