As fairly new converts looking for someplace to call home, Deanne and I stumbled across The UMC. My parents -- who literally stomped out of a Methodist Church in 1964 (in the middle of the pastoral prayer, all three kids in tow) -- were reconciling with the UM congregation in the town they'd moved to after I'd gone off to college. As part of the new member curriculum of that congregation, the pastor gave my parents and other participants in the class a pamphlet published by The UM Publishing House. It was the excerpt from the Discipline on our theological standards (sadly, no longer available).
I borrowed that pamphlet and there first encountered The Articles of Religion. I said to Deanne, "I'd like to belong to a church that believed that." We then wandered up the street to First UMC of Terre Haute, Indiana, just two blocks from our first apartment. We crashed the doors cold, and that's where we made our professions of faith a few weeks later. The rest, as they say, is history.
Anyway, my orientation toward The UMC has always been primarily theological. I could have joined any denomination, but I joined this one because of its expressed, official beliefs. Nowadays, it's fashionable to pooh-pooh theology, giving it second place to "mission" -- which, all too often, just means, whatever stuff I like to see the church doing. And certainly, theology without mission, like faith without works, is dead. But mission without theology, works without faith, is not the Gospel, either. And I give primacy to beliefs because they are like a compass. Theology defines north and south -- or, rather, truth and error, right and wrong. Without that compass, you can energetically and effectively head off in the wrong direction, to the great loss of everyone accompanying you.
I had only begun on my journey toward leadership in The UMC when I had to deal with the fact that not everybody on the journey with me actually believed our official statements. I thought that was unfortunate, but so long as the Discipline still officially said, "this is what we believe and teach," then there was no reason for me to leave. I was on the right side of the denomination, not they. If they were in error, it was not my fault. And I would do the best I could to preach and teach the truth, humbly seeking to correct any errors that I might fall into myself along the way.
At any rate, while there was a fair amount of falsity or casuistry concerning our official beliefs, for a long time at least everybody knew what the rules were for clergy. And the rules were enforced, at least in behavioral terms. I might grit my teeth and endure heresy or immorality being preached and taught, but at least the practical rules on what we could get away with doing were reasonably consistent, and consistently enforced by bishops and superintendents.
Nowadays, rules are pretty much whatever you can get away with. We have bishops and superintendents who provide cover for some kinds of disobedience, while being stern and inflexible on other kinds of disobedience. Nobody trusts anybody any more, because those who held our trust have shown themselves capricious and willing to connive at disobedience themselves. This is not a reason for abandoning The UMC, just for reforming it. But certainly, if we don't get a handle on this, we will tear ourselves apart.
And behind everything else, there is still that question of theology. Not just our official standards of doctrine, but also our authoritative statements about values. If, in the end, we change those -- or if we so change our rules that those who uphold our doctrine and values are effectively unable to teach them, or punished for teaching them -- then that change is not salvageable.
The Church is a theological organism. If you change the official theology, it isn't what it was, anymore. And if your rules are not in sync with your official beliefs, then the loss of power consequent upon that will doom any effort at "mission," however you define it. Redefining truth, or allowing different bodies within the Church to define it in different ways to justify different things, is like a cell whose enclosing membrane is breached. The cell dies, and so will the Church.