Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
July 8th, 2014 by Joel Watts

Laity and voting in the #UMC General Conference. Stop it.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jeremy at Hacking Christianity as a post up about the perception of how public opinion moves the United Methodist Church. It is the catalyst of this post, but not the progenitor. Rather, I’ve pondered this for a bit now, wondering if it is not time to #rethink laity voting in the General Conference.

Laity have not always voted in the Methodist movement. Indeed, it wasn’t until the (re)union with the Methodist Protestant Church that it occurred across all branches of (white) Methodistism:

First, should laity be given a voice in the General Conference and the annual conference? The Methodist Protestants had granted the laity representation from the time they organized in 1830. The clergy in The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, The Evangelical Association, and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ were much slower in permitting the laity an official voice in their affairs. All finally granted lay people voting privileges in their General and annual conferences with the exception of The Methodist Episcopal Church, which did not grant this right in annual conference decisions before the 1939 union.

Indeed, the first huge split in American (white) Methodism occurred because the laity were denied a voting voice. Because, why not, right? If you could vote for President, why not vote for doctrine? You will note that today, the MPC still exists, but only in the Deep South. Further, it has as its mission the defense of the “infallible word of God.” There are no bishops and remain a purely congregational outing. In other words, congregational Methodism is all but dead.

Perhaps this is something that should cause us to examine some of the issues in our present United Methodist Church. If congregational Methodism doesn’t work…

Part of the thing that catalyzed this post is the phrase in Jeremy’s post, “doctrine created.” I have a real sense that this is what people actually think they are doing at General Conference, creating doctrine. The extremes believe that somehow they are shaping, reforming, or creating “Christian teaching” when they vote one way or another. As I have stated previously, this is nonsense. We hold not the power to do so because if we deviate too much from orthodoxy, then where will we end up? On the Left, we will end up in the PCUSA (Conservative Hell) and on the right, Hobby Lobby (i.e., Progressive Hell) or rather, as baptists.  I do believe we have the duty to gently guide the UMC in connexion with Wesley and Historic Methodism, which is vitally based on Classical Christianity.

Regardless of my stance on that, my stance on laity voting — and I speaketh as a member of the laity — is shifting. Maybe we should limit laity voting to only matters of business, such as finances or other rudimentary articles like boundary changes. I would refrain the laity from voting on matters of doctrine and in many ways, polity. Perhaps this is nothing more than a way to force episcopal responsibility and authority, something I am keen on. I do not believe in the rugged individualism underpinning the congregational style or worship or governance. Rather, I am believe in Apostolic Succession.

Since I first started writing this post (2 July), I have been introduced to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. I would find in myself full support for this, especially in their insistence upon

The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church. 

The historic episcopate depends upon the episcopal system, founding upon the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. I am prepared at this time — and honestly, I’ve said it before and will say it again — to state that if you are not part of the Apostolic Succession, then where did you get your Christianity?

Anyway, I wanted to throw this out there — since we are talking about redoing the structure of the UMC nowadays. Perhaps we limit the voting rights of the laity, depend more upon the ordained, and allow/demand the Bishops to become better at their duty “to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” 

Let the ordained lead, let the laity follow, let us all work.

don’t shoot me; i’m only trying to start discussions about how senses of power and entitlement lead us down dark paths

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

9 Responses to “Laity and voting in the #UMC General Conference. Stop it.”
  1. creedpogue says

    If you believe that the “Historic Episcopate” or “Apostolic Succession” are necessary to be a valid Christian denomination, then you are not a United Methodist. While John Wesley lived and died as an Anglican priest he was not ordained a bishop by the Church of England. As a simple layperson, I do not get too wound up with whether we are in a line with popes like these: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bad_Popes or how the Church of England was started. I believe very few laity would trust a clergy-only body to decide much of anything. Part of that is our American independence.

    • Creed – according to those who knew Wesley, he was ordained in the apostolic succession. BTW, this was very important to him. Why it isn’t to us Wesleyans, i don’t know.

      Again, as I said on Facebook – anti-Catholic bigotry.

      One of the worst things to happen to the UMC is the deep connection to the “American independence” experience. This individualism promoted by historical revisionists will take us down a rather unfortunate, but shallow, path.

  2. Philip Brooks says

    Joel, I’ve written a response to your blog. Even though I outline some disagreements I appreciate where you’re coming from. Hope we can have further conversations about this.

    http://memphispj.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/laity-and-doctrinal-practice-a-response-to-joel-watts/

    • I’ve responded to your blog, Philip.


      First, Augustine was wrong. Ignatius of Antioch and Cyprian is correct – but Augustine had a the ability to redefine doctrine as he saw fit without much thought to Tradition. This is why I prefer Cassian. Further, while Tertullian may in fact be the first to lay out in detail what AS is, he was only standing upon the shoulders and next to others such as Irenaeus, Justin, and the like in tracing their authority back to the Apostles, or AS.

      Second, Wesley believed in AS which is why he wouldn’t ordain…until something happened. Deuterocanonical Wesleyan History states that Wesley was ordained by an Eastern bishop, himself in the AS. This is not new, but dates from shortly after Wesley’s death. AS has undergone some transformation in UMC circles, but Wesley – if we go back to Wesley – saw it for what it was. I do not think Christianity can exist except for AS. John the Baptist predates Christ and was using something of a lesson for the Jews who thought themselves the only people of God. It harkens back to the Children of Israel when God declared that he would make himself another people. It is not pride nor boasting to state we must fall within AS, as I do not believe there is another faith once for all delivered.

      Now, to the rhetorical piece of my post. We only have a few doctrinal standards, and they are unchangeable. Thus, my post was largely a trick question aimed in a few directions. However, we can seemingly declare something Christian teaching/doctrine (such as “traditional marriage”) and the such. What part was not a trick question was aimed at restricting the voting upon such matters of which I do not believe we have a business to do so.

      Further, some of the benefits of this post are these: It exposed a deep distrust of laity and clergy, a distrust of education, and for some reason, a disease called congregationalism. If you look at the forums, you’ll see what I mean.

      Was I mean? Maybe, but in the end, I do not think clergy and laity always have the same “rights” (an unfortunate Americanism that has crept into our Church(es)). We do not allow laity, or even all ordained clergy, to bless the sacraments. Thus, we recognize and have always recognized a separation between clergy and laity.

      • Philip Brooks says

        A worthy adversary, huh? I’ll take the complement 🙂

        There’s parts of Augustine I like and parts I don’t. I shared some I did. Don’t ask me about irresistable grace, predestination, or his views on sex. I didn’t mean to suggest Tertullian was the first to argue for AS. I simply thought his quote captured the definition well. I know Ignatius and Clement also wrote on it. Not sure if anyone did before them.

        I’ve heard the story of Wesley and Bishop Erasmus. In fact I shared it with a friend recently. I didn’t think it was fair game since it’s deutero. Same reason I’ll never open a discussion on Collosians with “And Paul said…” Plus Wesley never refers to it and it doesn’t seem to have factored into his decision to ordain Coke.

        Perhaps I should offer my own beliefs on Apostolic Succession. Like most Methodists, I never any heard the term til I took New Testament in College. I believe Christ empowered his original disciples to be the church collectively and that they represent both all clergy and laity. Therefore I believe they are represented in both today. I trace the power to the Church as The Body of Christ. This seems in tune with our sacramental theologian (which is very Augustinian by the way) that insists that not only must the elements be blessed by an elder, but also be offered in the presence of the community of believers. No private masses.

        I can relate to your frustration at the distrust some laity show toward clergy and theologians. I experience some of that too having an MTS. But let me push back a little. I also experience some tension from some clergy for being an educated and informed layperson. The fact that I work for a church agency really blows their mind. They’re either waiting for me announce I’m going to become a pastor or just think I’m wasting my time. The funny thing is this kind of reaction has just further convinced me I’m where I need to be. A few months ago I started teaching Sunday School, opening teaching some of the things I learned in seminary. Crazy right? The response I’ve seen from the class has been very encouraging. They’ve really opened up and become bolder in wrestling with their faith. I believe these are tensions we can overcome without drastically changing our polity.

        On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed this. It’s not everyday I get to debate Wesley and Augustine with someone. Nice to rehash the old debates from seminary.

        • Regarding the ordination – can you imagine Wesley actually saying anything? He couldn’t under the laws of the time.

          For me, I believe the AS is what transfers authority to bless the sacraments and to govern. I am a bit more Catholic than, say, a Protestant is. 😉 AS also validates the doctrine of the Church and even our ministers. If we do not have it, then, we…

          I can relate to your experience, completely. And I agree with you that we do not have to drastically change anything. Just go and teach.

        • Philip, I thought you mind find this interesting, http://www.revneal.org/Writings/apostoli.htm

  3. Minor point, but the evangelical congregational church is another congregational Methodist denomination. They even have a seminary in east PA that’s popular with local umc folk

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