Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thinking Constitutionally

This year's Southwest Texas Annual Conference will include some voting on the ratification of amendments made to our United Methodist Constitution during our last General Conference. You can read more about all the constitutional amendments on the United Methodist Church website:

Below is a position paper on one of the amendments. It was written by one of my clergy colleagues, Rev. John Wright, who serves as the pastor of Grace UMC in Corpus Christi, TX. John is one of the most gifted theologians in the conference and brings some critical reflection to this seemingly minor change in the way we order the church. There are lots of thoughts and comments stirring around regarding the amendments. It is good to take some time to read some different and theologically based perspectives.

A Reluctant No to Amendment XIX - Rev. John Wright

Digest of the Amendment: Presently, clergy delegates to General Conference are elected from and by ordained clergy in full connection with the annual conference. Proposed Amendment XIX would permit the following non-ordained clergy to vote for clergy delegates as well: associate members, provisional members who have completed all their educational require-ments, and local pastors who have completed the course of study or an M.Div. Degree and served a minimum of two consecutive years under appointment immediately preceding the election.

At first glance, what true blue American or United Methodist would oppose extension of voting rights to a class of people? It would be like voting against Mom and apple pie. Because of the gospel, we are disposed to include people, rather than to restrict people, from decision-making processes. On the one hand, extending the right to vote for General Conference clergy delegates to those clergy not in full connection would appear to be a matter of fairness. Those opposing this amendment run the risk of being tarred with the label of “clerical elitism.”

On the other hand, however, our adoption of this amendment will further confuse our already befuddled understanding of what constitutes “clergy,” “ordination,” and the “core functions” that constitute a church.

Thomas Edward Frank, renowned authority on Methodist constitutional history and professor at Candler School of Theology, makes this point cogently in an article entitled “Is United Method-ism a Church?” First he notes the increasing trend to treat non-ordained local pastors, associate members, and commissioned ministers as functionally equivalent to ordained clergy in “full connection” with the conference: “Every one of these persons has the authority to celebrate the sacraments in the charge to which he or she is appointed…Most recently, the UMC Constitution has been amended to make local pastors "clergy" members as a matter of constitutional church law.

Then Professor Frank asks: “What other Christian tradition terms nonordained persons "clergy" or makes persons not ordained as deacons or elders "clergy" of the church constitutionally—that is, an element that constitutes, makes, creates, or brings into being this church as a church? Is United Methodism a Church? [Or, to summarize Prof. Frank’s words, is it returning to its roots as an evangelical movement that values “functional” leadership without regard to traditional distinctions between clergy and laity?]

“This question has nothing to do with the abilities, integrity, or faithfulness of local pastors, nor the witness and mission of the local churches they serve. Many nonordained pastors do a terrific job and are much-loved by their people. But our practices make no sense ecclesiologically.. . What do we think we are doing? . . .Increasingly we are saying that ordination does not matter. The sacraments constitute the church by bringing people into the family of God through baptism and sustaining them through Christ's presence in Holy Communion. Increasingly we are saying that these constitutive practices, the sacraments, can be administered by people who are not ordained to the office that by tradition and Discipline has sacramental authority.

“As a consequence, the historic core function of annual conference as a meeting of elders who share the covenant of itinerant ministry, once called the "executive session," is less and less central to what annual conferences do. . . . Annual conference is becoming less a covenant community than an association of congregations who look to the conference for the resources to support local ministry and mission. . . .While bishops and cabinets still make the appointments, a substantial number of pastors do not itinerate (or at least are not in the connectional covenant of itinerancy of ordained elders— Methodism's signature ecclesiological tradition).

“One of the most formidable challenges that faces us is the tendency in Methodism — lately more than ever — to make stuff up ecclesiologically. We have taken to inventing terms and practices foreign to the church ecumenical and deeply confusing even to ourselves. Arguably in its American history, at least, Methodism has always done its share of improvising. But in recent decades we have invented even more:
• we have ended the centuries-long practice of ordaining elders first as deacons;
• we made up out of whole cloth something we call "commissioning" that no one can really explain;
• we replaced the ecumenical language of "representative" ministry as a way of describing ordination with corporate lingo of "servant leadership" that lacks any substantive definition in our Discipline;
• we have arbitrarily decided that the term "clergy" is not related to ordination or priesthood;
• we give nonordained persons sacramental authority without providing any theological rationale.”

Prof. Frank’s article leads me to this conclusion: One of the core functions of the ordained clergy in full connection is to elect from its midst those delegates to General Conference who will have the awesome responsibility of making decisions that govern other core constitutive functions of the denomination. Amendment XIX will further confuse what constitutes the core function of the ordained clergy in full connection in The United Methodist Church. Once this distinction is transgressed, it will be logical to argue that licensed local pastors, associate members and provisional members should be permitted to participate in other responsibilities that have traditionally been reserved to ordained clergy in full connection, such as voting on matters of ordination, ministerial character and conduct, etc. Before long, the concept of an “ordained member of the annual conference in full connection” will be left with no real coherent meaning at all.

Furthermore, because provisional members and local pastors must have completed educational requirements to be eligible to vote, there will be inevitable confusion at election times over who among the non-ordained clergy can vote and who among them cannot vote.

For these reasons, I reluctantly oppose ratification of Amendment XIX until such proposed changes can be considered in the context of a much further clarified understanding of what constitutes “the ministry” in The United Methodist Church.

Respectfully offered,

John Wright, Pastor
Grace United Methodist Church
Corpus Christi District