And the reason it's unthinkable is that it would be seen as a denial of collegiality. All of us clergy are supposed to be good fellows, earnestly serving God to our best ability. In The UMC, we pastors are all in covenant with each other and it is an equally chargeable offense to interfere with another pastor's ministry. Technically speaking, accusing another pastor of heresy isn't the same thing as interfering with his ministry, but the pressure is on all of us to stand up for each other. One learns early on that it is an enormous faux pas to disparage a predecessor, particularly a popular one; but to call one's successor on his way in the heretic you know him to be is career suicide.
Besides the professional issue, there is the difficulty of getting people to see what the big deal would be. Isn't a variety of perspectives a good thing? Isn't "freedom of the pulpit" an important principle in Methodism? What about "think and let think?" Well, let's examine the value of good teaching in the clergy.
First Church, Somewhereville, is experiencing a pastoral vacancy. Let us suppose there are three candidates who fit the requirements (salary and otherwise) for the job. At this point, it makes little difference who is picking the winner -- a bishop and cabinet or a local pulpit committee -- since there is a limited pool to choose from. One of these guys, or someone like him*, is going to be the next pastor of First Church, Somewhereville.
Pastor A is smart and articulate. A good preacher and teacher. Knows his stuff, and his stuff is solidly orthodox. He is also good with people, obviously caring. Conscientious and hard-working. He is the best candidate. He is also not available; personal circumstances have caused him to ask not to be considered for this vacancy.
That leaves Pastor B or Pastor C. Pastor B isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He's obviously good with people. Has a heart for the hurting. Can get people to open up their wallets for missions. But his sermons are cut-and-paste, his knowledge of Scripture extends mostly to the well-trod passages, and his doctrine is mostly slogans.
Pastor C, on the other hand, is whip-smart. Very knowledgeable about the Scripture, completely orthodox. But he makes people uncomfortable sometimes. His sermons can sound kind of scolding. He's a hard man to get to know, and also hard to get hold of at times. He keeps his distance. People think of him as a cold fish.
Now, we'd most of us take Pastor A, I think, if we had our druthers. But in his absence, I think most folks would kind of prefer Pastor B, the good-hearted guy with few ideas, to the cold but correct Pastor C. (I call those to witness who have had to make these decisions, this is NOT a forced example; this is pretty true-to-life, I think.) Now, all three pastors have their talents and in the right circumstances all of them will do creditable work and be remembered in some people's lives as an incarnation of the Good Shepherd. But the question is about the impact of the doctrine they teach. If we remove Pastor A from consideration, the choice seems to be between good pastoral practice and correct teaching -- and most of us would prefer good pastoral practice. So, this means that doctrine is of secondary value, right?
Wrong. What we're forgetting is that over time, First Church, Somewhereville, will probably experience all three of these pastors, or those like them. Whether by episcopal appointment or congregational hire, different pastors succeed each other in the lives of most congregations. Even in congregations with one very long-tenured pastor, there are often other pastoral staff members who rotate through the life of the congregation. That means that all of the available clergy have a chance to share their gifts, whatever they might be, with the members of First Church, Somewhereville. If, at various times, they get all three kinds of pastors, above, then they will have experienced two very good teachers and two very good pastoral practitioners. If they are being led by the Spirit as we hope they are, they will tend to absorb what is best in each and forgive what was not well done in each, and they will experience more of the truth of what St. Paul meant when he talked about a variety of gifts from the same Spirit and a variety of ways to serve the same Lord.
So, just because not every minister is equally adept at handling dogma, that doesn't mean dogma isn't important. The church can survive the occasional poor teacher, just as it can survive the occasional poor administrator -- or even the occasional wounded clergy who needs as much love and care from the congregation as the congregation needs from him.
But what about those who don't believe all the right stuff? I mean, we're not talking about people who are simply a bit on the shallow side; we're talking about people who know what they believe, and what they believe is not orthodox. What about people whose attitude toward the Scriptures is that they can be dispensed with? What about those who think the definitions of God found in the Creeds are not only out of date, but wrong? When I, gingerly, allude to this problem with my parishioners, they simply refuse to believe that there could be any great number of clergy out there, certified by their Church, who don't believe the right stuff in the right way. Surely, we wouldn't allow that! They have no idea.
The fact is, The UMC has a very large number of clergy who don't really believe all that stuff in the Articles of Religion, many who are willing to override the Scriptures to get the conclusion they want to address the issues of the day. They've been there for years. Boards of Ordained Ministry see a complicated dance between orthodox and heterodox clergy as they maneuver around each other; candidates seeking ordination must navigate between them like Scylla and Charybdis. In many Conferences, the heterodox are large and in charge. This may not be apparent to ordinary lay people; the heterodox often speak in a kind of religious code where all the right words flow through their talk, so the laity assume they're saying the right stuff. We all talk about the kingdom of God, we all talk about loving your neighbor, we all talk about relieving the poor, we all tell the same stale jokes in our sermons, and many of us have a tendency to use big words not in current usage at Walmart. It takes someone really paying attention to tell us apart. But we clergy know who belongs to which group, generally.
Now, as long as nobody teaches something TOO outrageous -- and as long as there are plenty of good teachers to cycle through the congregations -- we can survive this situation. So it's not been important enough to make a ruckus about and ruin one's career over. The guys you don't agree with may do other things well, and your side'll get a chance to be heard, too, in each congregation's life, right? But imagine a scenario in which the teachers of sound doctrine are a tiny minority, either because everyone believes something else or because the orthodox are actively discouraged in their seeking ordination and employment. Imagine that First Church, Somewhereville, hasn't heard the actual gospel of Jesus Christ in fifty years. If the teaching of sound doctrine is of any value in awakening hearts and minds and bringing people to Christ, then that's a problem.
All this doesn't mean that I'm advocating a rash of heresy hunting. I'm not into pointing fingers and demanding trials and all that. I don't really know what we should do, but I think we have to talk about it. Once we identify the root of the problem in The UMC today to be one of doctrine, then we have to take the next step and begin to talk about the need for sound doctrine. And we have to face the fact that those who are urging disobedience to the Discipline these days are justifying their stance on the basis of an understanding of the Scriptures and of definitions of God and the kingdom of God that should have been rooted out long ago, but we didn't have the integrity to do so.
My instinct is to say that the best cure for bad teaching is still good teaching, and the first duty of the teacher is to teach "the faith once delivered to the saints." If enough of us do that, we can withstand the effects of a lot of poor teaching, whether its source is being inarticulate or heretical. But I am not as confident in saying that as I was twenty or more years ago, when I thought that if I were just smart enough, articulate enough, and worked hard enough, I could have a significant impact upon the life of the Church. I've learned some humility perhaps, or maybe I've just become discouraged. But there it is. The problem is doctrine, and doctrine is in the keeping of the clergy, and some clergy across The UMC are just making it up. No solution to our current problem that doesn't address this is going to work, long-term. So I pray that we address it, and find such a solution.
*I am using the generic male pronoun throughout this piece because to alternate between "he" and "she" when discussing the qualities present in a limited number of clergy would risk misunderstanding. If the poor candidate is "she," some people will think I'm maligning female clergy; if the poor candidate is "he" (in comparison to good candidate "she"), other people will accuse me of political correctness. Take it as read: any of these candidates under discussion could be of any sex, ethnicity, or age.