Retired Bishop Ralph T. Alton was appointed our temporary presiding bishop until Jurisdictional Conference could meet to fill the vacancy. At Annual Conference that year, I remember that the Clergy Executive Session started out differently. Bishop Alton called us to order and in a jovial manner said, "This is the Clergy Executive Session. Only elders in full connection are members of this body, and if that doesn't describe you, then we'll excuse you now." I had never heard that before; we had always just presumed everyone had a right to be there. I turned to a friend and asked why the explicit statement. "To keep the press out" was what I was told.
It turns out that our former bishop had had time to re-think his self-destruction and wanted to go back and salvage something from the wreck. He had written a letter to the appropriate powers, clarifying that his resignation should be considered from the episcopacy only, and asking that we affirm his membership among the elders in our Conference. Certain very powerful clergy in a position to know where the bodies were buried were apparently ready to contest this with full disclosure of details that would not be to the credit of anybody. Bishop Alton noted Mr. Armstrong's request, and defused the issue with a simple ruling from the chair.
He said that the resignation had said it was from the ministry, not just the episcopate, and had been received as such, and that therefore there really wasn't anything we could do about it. If Jim wanted to be a UM minister again, he would have to apply for candidacy like anyone else seeking clergy status. The whole room relaxed. And then Bishop Alton said something more, something that has stuck with me ever since. He said, "Sometimes, you've got to love people enough to not let them get away with stuff."
There is no doubt that Bishop Alton and many, many other leaders of our Conference loved Jim Armstrong, despite his flaws. But love doesn't always let you get away with things. Love demands truth, too, and integrity. And how will you ever find your way back from the wilderness into which you've wandered if we enable your dysfunction by making excuses for it? No, sometimes you've got to love people enough to not let them get away with stuff.
And that's where I'm at regarding the disobedient clergy who are trying to force The UMC to accept what they cannot get General Conference to adopt. "Throw the bums out," I've said in several places. That doesn't sound very loving, I know. But not enforcing the rules is even less loving. Not enforcing the rules damages the whole Church. It even damages those who have broken the rules.
The UM judicial system is explicitly designed to settle problems without reaching the trial stage. We don't like church trials; we don't like to be adversarial. And we surely don't like punishing people. But what do you do when people disobey the rules, advocate others disobey the rules, and show no contrition? All you can do is to move the process forward to a trial. And with what do you punish them so that the disobedience stops? The only thing that will fix the problem is to take from them their credentials which allow them to do what they've done. We shouldn't remove their membership in the Church, but we need to remove their ministerial orders; I would also forbid their employment as local pastors.
I don't say that lightly, and I don't enjoy saying it. And I don't say it in order to win the argument we've been having for forty years in The UMC. That argument will go on. But the argument must be conducted within the rules, by those who are willing to obey the rules. And here, a little discussion of the rules, of law, would be appropriate from A Man For All Seasons.
MARGARET. Father, that man's bad.
MORE. There is no law against that.
ROPER. There is! God's law!
MORE. Then God can arrest him.
ROPER. Sophistication upon sophistication!
MORE. No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal and not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal.
ROPER. Then you set man's law above God's!
MORE. No, far below . . .
ALICE. (Exasperated, pointing after RICH) While you talk, he's gone!
MORE. And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
ROPER. So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE. Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER. I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE. (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- man's laws, not God's -- and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
It doesn't matter what your cause is, nor how greatly you believe in it. If you will not obey the rules, you are a destructive force and you must be contained. If you will not submit, you must be dismissed. Either that, or the whole body will be broken apart.