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Illustration Courtesy of RMN Blog
Discipline CoverThe 2012 edition of the Book of Discipline
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Kevin M. NelsonKevin M. Nelson
Upholding the Discipline
“Uphold the Discipline” is a phrase that we hear tossed around a lot these days. Specifically, I hear it asked in the context of the inclusion of LGBT persons within The United Methodist Church, particularly in relation to the marriage equality movement spreading across the UMC—a movement of which I am a proud member.
Leaders of the Renewal movement want to know, will a bishop “uphold the Discipline” if a clergy member under their charge officiates at the wedding of a couple who are of the same sex? In episcopal election years, like last year, it’s the episcopal candidates who are asked some version of this question in order to elicit, or not, the answer, “I will uphold the Discipline.” If a person is a bishop, or aspires to be one, this is a question that must be answered.
Correspondingly, when clergy officiate at such weddings of couples of the same sex, they are accused of acting contrary to the Book of Discipline, of not “upholding the Discipline.”
This question, in fact, has been on the minds of church leaders for more than a decade. As far back as 2003, the Judicial Council itself raised the specter of this question. In Decision 980, the Judicial Council overturned a committee on investigation’s action in relation to the then Rev. Karen Dammann, who had been accused of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” In that Decision, the Judicial Council ruled in part, “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury” in cases such as Dammann’s. It was also ruled that such persons can’t sit on a committee on investigation when such a complaint is under review.
This begs the question, since when did the essence of the Book of Discipline get boiled down to ¶ 2702.1? Or even ¶ 304.3? I can’t speak for others, but the book I have in my hands, the one from 2012, has more than two pages.
I also believe in upholding the Book of Discipline, but I recognize that the entirety of the Discipline isn’t contained in ¶ 2702.1.
Article IV, “Inclusiveness of the Church,” in Division I of the Constitution (¶ 4), which speaks of all persons being of sacred worth and being able to fully participate in the Church, is also in the Discipline.
Articles XXI, “Of the Marriage of Ministers,” and XXII, “Of the Rites and Ceremonies of Churches,” of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church (within ¶ 104) are also in the Discipline. Article XXI says in part, “The ministers of Christ are not commanded.to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage”…and they are permitted to “marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.” Article XXII states that the rites and ceremonies of the church do not have to be “the same or exactly alike” in all places, and they “may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral (in ¶ 105) is also in the Discipline.
¶ 122--which talks about such things as welcoming and gathering persons into the body of Christ; nurturing persons through the means of grace; sending persons into the world to live lovingly and justly, free the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 140—reflecting the Church’s call to inclusivity and the recognition that God made all creation and saw that it was good; that inclusiveness means openness, acceptance and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church; that inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination; the mark of an inclusive society is one in which all persons are welcomed, fully accepted and supported enabling them to participate fully in the life of the church--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 161.F—includes that all persons are of sacred worth—is also in the Discipline.
¶ 162.J—about equal rights regardless of sexual orientation--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 164.F—about recognizing the right to civil disobedience and resisting or disobeying unjust laws--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 202—about local churches ministering to persons in their communities and providing appropriate nurture to all--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 204—about each local church ministering to all its members and having nurture responsibilities for its members--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 214—about all persons being able to participate in the full life of the church--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 228.1—about enlisting all members in participation in the church’s ministries and it being the duty of the pastor and members of the church to provide care and spiritual oversight and individual and family worship--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 303.2—about ordination being fulfilled through ministries of justice and compassion–is also in the Discipline.
¶ 305—which speaks of baptism as God’s gift of unmerited grace; of the incorporation of each person into the church and its ministry; of the primary form of ministry in God’s name is that of service in the world; that all members of the church are commissioned to ministries of love and justice--is also in the Discipline.
¶ 330.C(4) and (6)—requiring probationary members to evidence (4) their willingness to relate to ministry with all persons, including regardless of sexual orientation, and (6) their experience in peace and justice ministries, prior to ordination as a deacon—is also in the Discipline.
¶ 335.C(4) and (6)—requiring probationary members to evidence (4) their willingness to relate to ministry with all persons, including regardless of sexual orientation, and (6) their experience in peace and justice ministries, prior to ordination as an elder—is also in the Discipline.
¶ 332—about Elders being ordained to service and being authorized to provide pastoral care—is also in the Discipline.
¶¶ 340.1 and 340.2—about clergy serving in Christ’s ministries of love and justice; about providing pastoral care; about performing the ecclesial act of marriage--are also in the Discipline.
Much like the Bible, the Book of Discipline is a complex and multi-faceted book; much like the Bible, it has a great many writers; and much like the Bible, it contains depth and nuance and sometimes even conflicting statements and provisions. “Upholding the Discipline” is less a matter of living in a world of black and white and applying the Discipline, or at least one or two provisions of it, accordingly, and more a matter of embracing the ambiguities of a world of gray and seeking to identify the core principles/messages that can guide us in whatever we encounter.
Grace, nurture, pastoral care, inclusion, theological inquiry and reasoning, social justice and love are all important principles or themes espoused across the Book of Discipline.
Turning back to the specific matter of civil disobedience, a principle that permeates the marriage equality movement, ¶ 164.F says in part, “But governments” (this includes church governments), “no less than individuals, are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced. Even then, respect for law should be shown by refraining from violence and by being willing to accept the costs of disobedience.”
Even in our dissent, we uphold the Book of Discipline.
Kevin M. Nelson is a graduate of Drew Theological School and has committed his life to ministry as a lay person. He is a Home Missioner through the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM)/United Methodist Women. Kevin previously worked for the GBGM and provided strong leadership to the New York Chapter of MFSA while a member of the New York Annual Conference. He has recently moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he has joined the New England Annual Conference and works with MathPOWER, a non-profit organization committed to developing both proficiency in advanced mathematics and personal resiliency as vehicles to bring about transformational change in the lives of urban youth.