Recently the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality of the plans that have come from the Commission on a Way Forward. My interest here is not in the rulings on specific proposals within the two plans the Judicial Council considered, but in a single statement offered in the rationale for holding the One Church Plan constitutional. In what follows I will suggest that this ruling is more problematic than it may at first seem.
The Judicial Council and the Discipline on Connectionalism
The descriptions of connectionalism in the 2016 Book of Discipline and the Judicial Council’s ruling on the One Church Plan do overlap, but they also differ in important ways.
According to the Discipline:
¶ 132 – Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships. We are connected by sharing a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 104); by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things (emphasis mine).
In its decision that the One Church Plan is constitutional, the Judicial Council defined connectionalism as follows:
“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 (emphasis mine).”
Both statements affirm that connectionalism is “vital web of interactive relationships.” Both also affirm that this web of relationships is “multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust.”
The differences between these statements, however, bear close consideration.
The Discipline asserts that connectionalism involves “a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules.”
The Judicial Council decision, upholding the constitutionality of the One Church Plan, avers that connectionalism “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives.”
While not diametrically opposed to one another, these statements do differ from one another in ways that have serious implications for faith and practice within The United Methodist Church.
The Return of Doctrinal Pluralism
The omission of the Doctrinal Standards from the Judicial Council’s description of connectionalism is significant, to say the least. The Council could easily have specified that contextualization and differentiation are bounded by the Doctrinal Standards, but it did not. The upshot of this is that if I were to deny some key United Methodist doctrine, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, and then were called to account for it, I could simply cite Judicial Council decision 1366. I would insist that within my context, the pluralistic milieu of twenty-first century North America, the proclamation of this understanding of God is entirely appropriate.
The Judicial Council decision does not dispense with the Doctrinal Standards. It simply creates ambiguity as to their function and force. To what extent are the Doctrinal Standards binding? To what extent may we alter them in ways we understand to be appropriate to our context? The answers to these questions are now not as clear as they were before.
To those who know something of the history of UM doctrine, this ambiguity around the function and force of the Doctrinal Standards may sound familiar. It hearkens, in fact, all the way back to the year 1972. That is the year that we wrote a statement of theological pluralism into “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline. In describing the function of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, the 1972 Discipline states, “They allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing. Jointly, they have provided a broad and stable context for reflection and formulation. Interpreted with appropriate flexibility and self-discipline, they may instruct us as we carry forward our never-ending tasks of theologizing in The United Methodist Church” (¶ 70).
The 1972 Discipline retained the Doctrinal Standards, but its formulation of the “Quadrilateral” made ambiguous the extent to which they were binding on the church. (I offer a fuller discussion of the ’72 statement here.)
In 1988, we revised “Our Theological Task.” We removed the language that gave warrant to theological pluralism and affirmed the primacy of Scripture. We also provided more specificity regarding the functions of tradition, reason, and experience in theological reflection.
How does that work relate to the recent Judicial Council decision? At one time the formulation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral created enough ambiguity around the Doctrinal Standards that it was difficult to identify how they functioned as standards at all. Now the language of “contextualization” serves the same function. “Contextualization,” the principle that our geographical and social locations permit broad variance in our theological and ethical positions, is the new warrant for doctrinal pluralism.
Holiness Without Ethics?
The Judicial Council decision goes on to state that connectionalism, understood as properly contextual, “does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality.” We should be clear that this is an ecclesiological statement. Connectionalism is a particularly Wesleyan way of understanding the structure of the church and the function of its different elements, such as the local church, the annual conference, jurisdictions, and the General Conference. The Council has now made clear that this aspect of our ecclesiology does not require that we share a common set of ethics. We can, in fact, act out of ethical positions that are utterly opposed to one another depending upon the location of our churches.
Following the Nicene Creed, Article V of the Confession of Faith describes the church as “one, holy, apostolic and catholic.” In the Wesleyan tradition, holiness is the work of God forming us into the character of Christ. It cannot be collapsed into ethics, but it is inextricably related to ethics. I have never understood how we can claim that the church is “holy” without a common understanding of what holiness requires. “Contextualization,” as the Judicial Council here describes it, deprives us of such a common understanding. The attribution of “holiness” to the church is now devoid of moral content. Yes, we might say, we are “set apart,” but in what ways, and to what ends?
Our New Normal
By defining connectionalism in the way it has, the Judicial Council has established a new ecclesiological standard by fiat. When I first read the Council’s decision, I thought perhaps it violated the first Restrictive Rule, which prohibits the establishment of any new standards of doctrine or rules contrary to our present standards. This restriction, however, applies only to the General Conference.
The Discipline states in that the Judicial Council shall have authority to “determine the constitutionality of any act of the General Conference upon an appeal of a majority of Bishops or one-fifth of the members of the General Conference…” (¶56). Yet the definition of connectionalism in the Council’s decision is not derived from the Discipline, and certainly not from its constitution. In fact, the word, “contextualization” appears nowhere in the 2016 Book of Discipline. The Council has not simply interpreted the constitutionality of a (potential) decision of the General Conference, but has written an ecclesiological standard. In this sense, it has both exceeded its mandate and created a constitutional crisis.
That said, there’s no revoking this decision. The Discipline states, “All decisions of the Judicial Council shall be final” (¶57). This understanding of connectionalism is now the law of the land for United Methodists, and it is what we will have to work with moving forward.
Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council. This essay first appeared on Dr. Watson’s website.