Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.
Premeditated abdication is a strange way to run for Bishop.
Going back to 1784, American Methodists have been guided by a Book of Discipline. Though it has changed over the years in response to new laws, splits, and mergers, the Discipline has been a staple of Methodist life here in the former colonies. For as long as there has been an entity called the United Methodist Church, the Discipline has also been a source of controversy. Since 1972, questions about sexuality have led the agenda for many Methodists. With increasing fervor, arguments about the clauses related to LGBT persons have raged as the decades rolled on. Rev. Dr. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC, has recently offered these pre-Portland thoughts (high-fived by Bishop Willimon here) on our meddlesome book:
A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?” This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in. The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
I wish we wouldn’t speak in code. Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced. But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all. Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive. Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
It seems strange to argue that enforcing church law “sounds punitive” when it is bound between two covers with Book of Discipline on the front. If what we have is church law, and many churches (along with non-profits, states, cities, and middle school student councils) are governed by laws, then said law can be broken or maintained, defended or flaunted, enforced or ignored.
I also think it’s important to note that Dr. Howell is himself speaking in code. The issue is clearly not whether or not “enforcement” is a positive or negative practice. The real issue is that he disagrees with some parts of the Discipline and, in a coded way, is arguing for ignoring them.
It may sound shocking, but there are times when enforcing the Discipline is wholly uncontroversial.
For instance, when a Virginia pastor was removed from ministry because he refused membership to a gay man, I do not recall progressives decrying the worldly, legalistic culture of “enforcement.”
Moreover, when a pastor runs off with the Sunday offering or with a partner who is not their spouse, we not only expect, but we hope for enforcement of clergy standards. If you’ve ever been in a church wounded and riven because that enforcement came too late, you learn to appreciate it.
In the Christian tradition, discipline can actually be a means of grace, or even an act of love. Augustine argued that it was loving to rein in the Donatists, because their apostasy was ultimately destructive to themselves and others. Dr. Howell rightly notes the example of the eccentric St. Francis, but we might also mention the more ancient Rule of St. Benedict, in which we discover that correction includes not just public excoriation but excommunication and even corporal punishment.
Can enforcement be an act of love?
Earlier this month a judge in Fayetteville, NC sentenced a veteran to 24 hours in jail. The veteran, Sgt. Serna of the Special Forces (retired), spent twenty years in the Army including four tours in Afghanistan. He was almost killed three times, and has one Purple Heart and many other awards to his credit.
His life post-service has been difficult. Like so many combat vets, he’s struggled with PTSD in the ensuing years. Serna turned to alcohol for relief, which has led to several DUI’s. Though he’s been working a treatment program, he confessed to Judge Lou Olivera recently that he had lied about a recent urine test, which led to the 24 hour sentence.
But what came next was astounding. Judge Olivera himself drove the veteran to jail, and then joined him in the cell. Worried that Serna’s PTSD might rear its hideous head if left alone in a cell overnight, he stayed with him. They spent the evening talking about military service. Olivera, you see, is himself a veteran of the first Gulf War and knew Serna’s pain better than most. An overwhelmed Serna had this to say:
I cannot even put into words how I feel about him…I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let him down again.
Compassion and enforcement are not of necessity opposites. As Christians who have tethered ourselves by sacred vow to a church whose foundational doctrine is grace, governed by laws together compiled as the Book of Discipline, this should not be surprising. Grace and discipline. Love and order.
It is fashionable to decry those who are in favor of church order as Pharisees and fundamentalists – cheap attacks are easier than relationship and engagement, sadly – but this of course ignores the many positive references to correction in Scripture. To name just two:
Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding. (Prov. 15:32, NRSV)
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Gal. 6:1, NRSV)
Scripture values correction, and so does our own particular church history. For those following Jesus in the company of the Wesleys, discipline should not a four letter word. John Wesley and later Francis Asbury held their circuit preachers to high standards of accountability. Likewise, band and class leaders who formed the skeleton of the Methodist movement also maintained serious (though loving) boundaries. (Remember, it is not unheard of in our tradition to have to receive a ticket from one’s spiritual overseer to receive Communion!)
I am especially concerned about the outright rejection of enforcement because Dr. Howell is my conference’s nominee for Bishop. Going back to ancient precedent, Bishops are in fact to be foci of unity for the church. Thus, St. Ignatius wrote in the 2nd century, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop.” If one were to imagine the church as a house, Bishops are charged with ensuring there are not termites in the wall or cracks in the foundation. If there are, some action will be necessary.
Elsewhere, Ignatius argued that the unanimity of the bishops and the priests was to model and reinforce the singleness of the one Lord Jesus Christ:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.
The United Methodist Church operates in like manner. We “come together in one place” and decide how to order our common lives. No one is forced to be a United Methodist, but if you have decided to be a lay or clergy member, the results of these quadrennial gatherings shape our mutual life. If some decide instead to follow what is “reasonable and proper to [them]selves apart,” if the oneness of the church is broken, we have a process for restoration that must be followed. The hope is that this can be done short of something punitive or drastic, like de-frocking. But more severe corrective measures are certainly on the table.
To say otherwise, a priori, is an abdication of a crucial apostolic duty that belongs to bishops alone.
The Book of Discipline is an imperfect document by and for imperfect people. In that, let us grant each other grace. But let’s also care enough about our life to not shy away from this sacred bond.
I would hope that someone called to the office of Bishop in our particular corner of Christendom would see that our covenant, warts and all, is a sacred bond: a bond worth preserving where it is eroding, worth defending where it is threatened, and worth enforcing where it is violated.
While I greatly respect Dr. Howell as a preacher, a theologian, and a leader not just in my conference but across the denomination, I cannot support a candidate for episcopal office who has already signaled a premeditated abdication of duty.
This is a path to increased chaos, not coherence.