By Walter Fenton
In less than a month hundreds of people have responded with comments, critiques, and questions regarding the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s release of its draft “Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” The association released the document November 8, 2019, shortly after its 228 member Global Legislative Committee overwhelmingly commended it for review and comment.
The WCA figured the document would stir a healthy response from its members, friends, and critics, but the number of responses it has engendered has proved a pleasant surprise. People have commented on everything from doctrinal issues, to the deployment of clergy, to the role of bishops in a proposed new Methodist church. All of the comments, critiques, and questions are being categorized and then shared with the pertinent WCA Council committees.
As it stated when it released the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” the WCA regards it as a work in process. It believes it is essential local churches, laity, and clergy interested in a new Methodist movement have ample opportunity to review and comment on a document that could serve as the basis for a new church. It also stated it would release an additional four parts of the book and portions of another part as soon as the council has finished work on them.
Not surprisingly, some people are critical of the book; we respect their opinions and of course believe they are entitled to them.
However, it is unfortunate when misunderstandings or misrepresentations of it and the WCA appear in the media, particularly when they come from a putatively neutral source like the United Methodist News Service (UMNS). In a recent article UMNS leaves the impression the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” was created by fundamentalists fixated on the issue of homosexuality and marriage.
The article’s opening sentence immediately suggests the draft document is one large compendium of Bible “dos-and-don’ts” about “marriage and every other issue” (emphasis added). This is a crass and distorted view of the document. Marriage is addressed only three times, twice in very non-controversial ways (see pages 12 and 20). The third reference comes under “Our Social Witness to the World,” where in one sentence the book proposes the proper context for human sexuality: “We believe that human sexuality is a gift of God that is to be affirmed as it is exercised within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman” (page 27). In its present form the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” consist of approximately 24,000 words; 90 of them are about marriage.
In fact, the present iteration of the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” covers everything from doctrinal matters to a proposed church constitution to term limits for bishops. Clearly, the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, informs all these matters, but this is hardly novel for a proposed Christian church. To be sure, the book includes a principled statement on Scripture’s authority, but again, this is hardly lead worthy news. It’s akin to breathlessly writing, “A Christian church this past Sunday morning worshipped Christ for an hour.”
And since the UMNS article appears fixated on homosexuality and same-sex marriage it states: “The WCA formed in 2016, attracting United Methodists who hold to a traditionalist approach to Christian faith, including upholding the denomination’s bans on same-sex unions and ordination of openly gay clergy.”
This is a serious distortion of the impetus for the formation of the WCA. It would have been closer to the truth had UMNS wrote: “The WCA, formed in 2016, attracting United Methodists who are disappointed, frustrated and tired of bishops, clergy, and other denominational leaders for defying the church’s teachings, for their elitist posturing in relation to the will of the General Conference, for their mocking of the teachings of the church, and for their fixation on an issue the church has pronounced upon numerous times over the past 50 years.”
In short, the reason some United Methodists are drawn to the WCA is because it is an association that wants to get on with the primary mission of the church instead of remaining mired in a dispute that has crippled the denomination and now threatens its existence. The WCA is a forward-looking movement focused on fulfilling the great commission with Christian brothers and sisters. It is no longer interested in constantly fighting a rear-guard action with leaders bent on defying the will of the church.
The UMNS article also quotes a Duke Divinity School scholar who says, “The WCA draft [of the “Book of the Doctrines and Discipline”] is clearer about its objections to homosexuality than the current United Methodist Book of Discipline…The objection [in the WCA draft] is stated explicitly” (emphasis added). This claim is a doozy. Had the scholar or UMNS taken a moment to do a word search they would have quickly discovered the word “homosexuality” does not appear in the document, and that there is no “explicit” statement about the practice of it.
The WCA believes it is simply enough to state, clearly and positively, the proper context for the expression of God’s good gift of human sexuality (see above). It is confident its members and friends affirm this long-held Christian teaching, and therefore believes it does not need to obsess over the matter.
Finally, in an act of journalistic negligence, the UMNS failed to contact the WCA’s president, the Rev. Keith Boyette, the WCA Council’s chairman, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, or the council’s vice-chairwoman, the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, for their remarks on the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” Boyette, Greenway, and Moore were responsible for steering the draft through the association’s agreed upon process for its preparation and release. It would have been wise for UMNS to have interviewed them.
Again, the WCA is thankful for the many people who are carefully reading, reviewing, and commenting on the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline.” It invites their comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. And it encourages them to read with a critical eye UMNS’s recent claims about the draft.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.