1996 was one such year. That was the year the Baby Boomers managed to achieve control of General Conference, and they immediately decided to chuck two hundred years of Methodism and the greater part of two millennia of our spiritual ancestors' practice and -- well -- just make it up. We've been trying to right the ship ever since.
Our clergy system is now so complicated -- a vast machine that could only have been designed by Rube Goldberg -- that we can't even explain it to our own members. As Jackie Mason used to say, "Nobuddy unnuhstans dis ting."
The latest Ministry Study is now being shopped around in draft form for feedback before proceeding to General Conference. It's a mess. And the reason it's a mess is that it has no theological basis. None. Zero. It's all ad hoc, all "fix the problem," and it's all about job issues, not ministry.
Some people want to do away with the guaranteed annual appointment for elders. Others say okay, but then we need to restrict the tenure or appointive power of bishops. Meanwhile, others are concerned that we not create a situation in which women or ethnic minority clergy could be left without appointment because congregations won't want them. We've been licensing local pastors (non-ordained clergy) to perform sacraments in their parishes since 1976, but the system has gotten out of hand, so we want to re-emphasize the connection between ordination and sacraments; however, we think the answer is to take the non-sacramental Deacons in Full Connection we created in 1996 and let them be pastors and give them sacramental faculties.
Nowhere in this vast conglomeration of verbiage is there any coherent thought about what it means to be ordained. Nowhere is there anything that connects our spiritual heritage to our practice. It might as well be a working paper on labor conditions in The Union (which is what we UM clergy sometimes refer to ourselves as).
Up until 1996, our ordination practice was modeled upon that of the Church of England, out of which we grew. The Anglican practice went all the way back to the evangelization of the British Isles: Augustine of Canterbury brought it with him from Rome in 596. It is true that our bishops were modeled on John Wesley's leadership more than on the theory of apostolic succession; it is also true that Conference membership was more fundamental in some ways to Methodist clergy than education or ordination. But these are minor matters; the fact is, we are not a Reformed Church. We are not Restorationists. We are not Emergent. We are, at our best, revivalistic Anglicans with a hearty respect for the ministry of the laity. Our theory and our practice should reflect this.
Faced with the need to convert the heathen and build up the faithful, I continue to ask, WWSCD? -- "What would St. Cuthbert do?" One thing's for sure, I can't see Cuthbert breathlessly awaiting the latest Ministry Study to tell him how to go about his work or deploy the clergy under his direction.