by Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey (Retired)
In what is arguably one of the most significant rulings ever made by the United Methodist Judicial Council, virtually all of the One Church Plan proposed to the upcoming special session of the General Conference was ruled to be constitutional. In that unanimous ruling the Judicial Council stated:
“As a primary principle in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church, connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships—multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust—that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality. Full legislative power of the General Conference includes the authority to adopt a uniform, standardized, or a non-uniform, differentiated theological statement. Our Constitution commands not that all church policies enacted by the General Conference be uniform but that all uniform church policies be enacted by the General Conference. It assigns the legislative function to set standards related to certification, commissioning, ordination, and marriage to the General Conference and the administrative responsibility for applying them to the annual conferences, local churches, and pastors within their missional contexts.”
This landmark ruling does at least these two things: It validates the constitutionality of the proposals of the One Church Plan regarding ordination; and it stands in continuity with the historic practice of Methodist conferences in the administration of the process of ordination.
During a renewal leave some years ago, I had the privilege of studying at the British Methodist Archives located in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. I explored the history of clergy covenant relationships and ordination in Methodism. In my exploration I became convinced of the grounding of the practice of ordination in the annual conference. Indeed, John Wesley saw to that himself! Wesley began calling preachers together annually in Conference in 1744. It is clear that he was the organizer and principal leader of those early annual conferences. The first such conference included John’s brother, Charles, four clergy of the Church of England, and four lay preachers. Wesley led them in exploring three basic questions: What to teach; how to teach; and what to do?” Wesley dominated the meetings, providing both the context and most of the teaching content. In his lifetime the group grew from that original gathering of ten to about 130 in his last conference in 1790. And while he lived, Wesley was the primary decision-maker about the persons who were invited to become participants in the “connexion.” He defined Conference, invited the participants, set the agenda, presided, asked the questions, and in large measure provided the answers. Participants were examined as to their “grace, gifts, and fruit,” and they were either admitted to or dismissed from the Conference by Wesley’s decision.
However, as Wesley drew nearer to the end of his leadership and life, he realized that in order for the “Connexion” to continue, it would be necessary to have some more lasting process in place. He began to ask, in the Conference of 1769, what would become of the new order of preachers that he had founded when he no longer lived. He asked the same question in subsequent annual conferences, and in 1784 the conference adopted the Deed of Declaration of 1784 which constituted a group known as the “Legal Hundred,” consisting of 100 of the preachers, with provision for successors, who would be construed to be “The Conference of the People Called Methodists.” This Deed of Declaration established a process whereby, following the deaths of both John and Charles Wesley, the Conference as an entity of preachers connected to one another would continue. And thereby the decision of membership in the “Connexion,” and later of ordination, was firmly placed in the hands of the Annual Conference.
It is this principle of the grounding of decisions of conference membership and ordination in the Annual Conference that has continued throughout the history of the Methodist movement and that is codified today in Section VI, Article II, of The Constitution of The United Methodist Church: “The annual conference is the basic body in the Church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on… all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy….”
Thus it is abundantly clear, from history and current Constitutional provision, that the proposals of the One Church Plan regarding ordination of clergy are unquestionably supported by our connectional history.
In addition, the importance of contextualization in such decisions is supported by the current statement of “Our Theological Task” in THE BOOK OF DISCIPLINE. In the section of that statement headed “The Present Challenge to Theology in the Church,” we find these words:
“A rich quality of our Church, especially as it has developed in the last century, is its global character. We are a church with a distinctive theological heritage, but that heritage is lived out in a global community, resulting in understandings of our faith enriched by indigenous experiences and manners of expression…. In the name of Jesus Christ we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”
Our doctrinal heritage is grounded in our sacred and historic documents: Scripture, The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, The Standard Sermons of Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon The New Testament, and The General Rules of The Methodist Church. Those standards are fixed.
Our theological heritage is fluid, ongoing, and contextual. It involves exploration and interpretation as we seek to discern God’s will for us as individuals and as a community of faith in the ever-changing world in which we bear our witness.
Our understandings of ordination and marriage are matters of theological reflection, not doctrinal standards. Important as they are, the identity of the Church does not hinge on them in the same way as it hinges, for example, on doctrinal issues of the Trinity, or of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. Thus our theological task, our ethical practice, and our polity allow us more flexibility and diversity in such matters. The flexibility around ordination and marriage accorded in the One Church Plan is thoroughly supported by our history, our heritage, and our practice as a “connexional” church. The adoption of the One Church Plan will not, as some people claim, destroy connectionalism. Rather, it will exemplify connectionalism. For connectionalism is not about rules and exclusion. It is about relationships and inclusion. It is about grace!