I’ve returned to The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church lately in an effort to better understand what it means to be in covenant with my ordained colleagues, and indeed with all baptized members of the Church. While I think I have a reasonably good understanding of the meaning of covenant, I am increasingly aware of the vastly different approaches within the Church on this matter.
As human beings we cannot help but see covenant through the lenses of our own experience of God, faith, grace, and community. In other words, the very meaning of covenant is formed within the ongoing lived experience of faith communities composed of imperfect human beings working together for the common good.
The Book of Discipline says, “Ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all Christians, especially with those whom they lead and serve in ministry” (para 303.3). This covenant is spoken of as one of “mutual care and accountability.” So there is a sense that in whatever ways the Church seeks the Reign of God, we need to purposefully exercise mutual care and accountability.
The Book of Discipline also says, “The effectiveness of the Church in mission depends on these covenantal commitments to the ministry of all Christians and the ordained ministry of the Church. Through ordination and through other offices of pastoral leadership, the Church provides for the continuation of Christ’s ministry, which has been committed to the church as a whole” (para. 303.4).
So there are covenantal commitments that we make to, with, and for one another, and these commitments are naturally tested over time. I have always understood these covenantal commitments primarily in terms of relationship – relationship with God, with my ministry partners, and with the whole Church. Throughout my thirty years of pastoral ministry in a variety of contexts these covenantal commitments have meant renegotiating relationships that continue to grow and change. I am not the same person I was when I entered ministry. My experience of God and of Church has changed. My theology has changed. The world has changed, as has the Church’s role in the world. In other words, covenantal commitments are not static, and those of us who seek to minister alongside one another must exercise grace and humility in our relationships with one another if we are to have any hope of faithfully dealing with the current discord within the Church over how we welcome LGBTQ neighbors into the Church’s life and ministry.
While I view covenantal commitments mainly in terms of relationship, I am aware of how many United Methodists view it mainly in terms of accountability. These are my sisters and brothers in Christ who see accountability as a matter of all parties agreeing to follow rules of conduct and belief as spelled out in the Book of Discipline. I admit this is true as far as it goes. We do have rules for a reason. However, no covenant relationship thrives on the basis of simply following rules. Any covenant relationship that holds the possibility of being life giving and spiritually enriching needs to be a dynamic interplay of diverse voices coming together to give glory to the One who invites all people into abundant life.
Accountability flows in more than one direction. There is a mutual accountability built into the covenant we have with one another. But do we ever hear anything about the accountability of the United Methodist Church for how it has demeaned and dismissed LGBTQ persons from openly participating in the life and ministry of the Church? Is anyone being held accountable for failing to truly recognize the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons? Is there any accountability of General Conference delegates over several decades for the discriminatory language written into church law? When the General Conference gets it wrong, are we to ignore the royal law of scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?” (James 2:8) Such love requires mercy over judgment.
According to paragraph 306 in the Book of Discipline, an order of ministry like the one to which I belong along with other ordained Elders, is “a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church.” I don’t believe that being a part of this order means surrendering my conscience and my integrity to an imperfect book that is revised by the General Conference every four years. Like all other United Methodist Christians, I seek to understand the witness of God’s grace in Scripture by means of my own experience of God, my reason’s ability to understand the many contextual voices of Scripture and to embrace new knowledge, and the historic tradition of the Church (which, for the record, includes John Wesley’s own rule-breaking for the sake of Christ’s work on earth).
I cannot with integrity simply bow to human law – for that is what the Book of Discipline is – when it violates the human dignity of LGBTQ persons. In challenging or disobeying church law I do not believe I am violating my covenant with others in my order. Indeed, I believe I am protecting covenant from the harm that is done whenever a person made in God’s image feels the sting of the Church’s rejection. I believe I am being true to my calling of continuing Christ’s ministry and welcoming to the table of grace all who seek God!
Words (c) 2014 Mark Lloyd Richardson