But as we move through the examination of candidates, the new clergy are asked to make a set of affirmations that are also promises. The beginnings of a covenant are here, not merely of mutual support but of mutual accountability. The second batch of questions asked of every candidate for full membership in the Annual Conference concerns denominational standards.
6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?The General Rules are those of the Methodist Societies out of which the Methodist Episcopal Church was created in 1784. They are not so much doctrinal in nature as practical. There are three basic principles: Do no evil; Do all the good you can; Be faithful in your use of the means of grace (worship, prayer, Bible study, the sacraments, etc.). These were the behavioral standards expected of all Methodists back in the day, and those who would not live by them literally had their tickets pulled: in Mr. Wesley’s day, you had to have a ticket (renewed quarterly) to participate in a Methodist class meeting, and without participation in a class, you were no Methodist.
7. Will you keep them?
8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?
11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
13. Will you support and maintain them?
The candidate promises to “keep” the General Rules. This means, obviously, to live by the Rules oneself, but it implies something more. For in early Methodist days, it was the leadership – the Class Leaders and the itinerant preachers – who kept tabs on those who were making the effort to sustain their discipleship and those who weren’t. If you are going to be put in charge of a parish, you will have an outsized influence on determining who gets promoted to leadership. The pastor is thus the “quality control” officer. It is commonly said that a church needs its best givers on the Finance Committee. It could equally well be said that a church needs people who really want to live for Christ in all leadership positions, for without those eager to grow in grace leading the church, the church will wind up coasting under the leadership of the lazy and self-satisfied, and the parish will become a religious club instead of an engine for fulfillment of the mission of the Church. This puts the pastor in a terrible squeeze when faced with the locally powerful, I know, and I’m not trying to make the pastor responsible for all outcomes here. But it falls to the pastor to articulate either a high-demand vision or a low-demand vision of discipleship. To do the job that needs to be done, you are going to step on some toes. Smile when you do it, but don’t let the fear of local poohbahs deter you from getting specific about how we are to live out our three basic Rules.
The candidate also affirms his or her adequate knowledge of our doctrines, agrees that those doctrines are in harmony with the Scriptures, and promises to preach and maintain them. Now, it is to our shame that we have people with MDiv degrees who have been taught everything but our doctrines, and furthermore, don’t care. We have clergy who either think their doctrines are Scriptural, or that the Scriptures themselves don’t matter; either way, they are teaching “their” theology, not the official stuff contained in our denominational standards. You can hear them say, “Well, in my theology . . . “ (I’d like to know when these personal theologies got handed out. I must have missed that day in seminary.) And, of course, you have all kinds of clergy, at every level, who preach and maintain doctrines contrary to our official standards of teaching, and think they have license to do so: “freedom of the pulpit” and all that. But this is a matter of common honesty. You are being paid to teach one thing, but you expect to teach something else and still retain your position. This is fraudulent. Your opinions may be honestly come by, but you are taking money under false pretenses. Honesty would demand that if you don’t agree with our doctrines, you resign your position and go find somewhere your teaching will match the official standards of whatever ecclesial body you wind up in. Both progressives and traditionalists of various sorts are equally guilty here.
The candidates are then asked about our denominational discipline and polity, the rules under which we govern ourselves. They are asked to give their approval of these, so there can be no question of them being subject to rules they did not assent to. And they are asked if they will support and maintain them: no working around them, no wink-and-a-nudge-Bob’s-your-uncle, no refusal to do what is expected of them. And yet, we still find clergy who refuse to obey the rules without a squawk; worse, we have leaders -- bishops and superintendents and senior clergy – who actively subvert or disobey the rules they have been given the power to enforce, who shield others from obeying the plain rules established by our denominational procedures. This is simply shameful.
Much of the dysfunction of The United Methodist Church, which is ultimately leading to separation between its major factions, is because we have clergy who haven’t kept their promises in this section of the examination. They stood before the Annual Conference and promised – but they have let the church grow flabby under their leadership, they have presumed they had license to teach their own doctrines instead of the official ones, and they have made the gold standard of our discipline and polity “whatever you can get away with.” Many of them are very nice people, but they are acting in a manner no organization can accept in its leaders and continue to thrive.
Ah, but people grow and change, Arthur. Yes, they do. But if you are a paid agent of one party who comes to believe in and work for the success of another party’s platform, then you need to be honest with yourself and with those you are in connection with, and leave your cushy position to advocate in that other party’s ranks. And if you won’t, then those of us who still believe in our party’s platform need to expel you from your place – not because we’re mean and intolerant, but because our indifference or impotence is doing actual harm to the stated mission of the movement, and we promised to support and maintain the rules, doctrines, discipline and polity of that movement.
This problem will not go away after the Great and Awful Day of Separation comes and goes. In both the post-separation UMC, the new Global Methodist Church to be, and whatever else comes out of this mess, the need for the clergy to hold each other to their commitments will remain. This is why we have a professional body of clergy in the first place. Somebody has to be responsible for training, credentialing, deploying, supervising -- and holding accountable -- other members of the congregation of the clergy.