Monday, April 11, 2016

Our United Methodist Book of Discipline

     Big, sprawling organizations, like our United Methodist denomination, need a book, a constitution if you will, our ideals and way of doing what we do, all bound together.  Ours is The Book of Discipline.  We all know people who’ve mastered its contents, and can quote chapter and verse from memory.  Then others have a more casual, maybe ambivalent relationship to the book.  Portions of it are useful to prop up your agenda; other portions you find to be embarrassing, or just plain dull.  It is our book, and it is every bit as lovely and messy as our lives and churches.  We uphold it with some fear and trembling, and some pride too.
     Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one.  Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation.  Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
    A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language.  Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
     I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
     But Jesus established a different kind of community, that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation.  If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation.  Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
     Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order?  Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular.  Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better?  Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?
     St. Francis established rules for the life and ministry of the early friars.  One rule was you had to live in the room you were assigned, and you had to care for the leper you were assigned.  One friar complained bitterly that he had the worst room in the house, and he refused to feed or bathe the leper in his charge.  When this was reported, Francis decided he himself would move into the worst room, and care for this most difficult of the lepers.  Order was restored, and the mercy shown to the friar didn’t ruin him or the order, but brought him to a humble passion to improve.
     Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld?  If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance.  Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry.  But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace.  Or if that is crazy impractical, then maybe something equally as imaginative, and restorative.  Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
     Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking:  we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience.  Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent.  But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent.  They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who's been marginalized.  We don't suffer from an excess of courage in ministry - so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God's hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?

     Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t.  I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover.  It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world.  As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus.  But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
     And all of us, both those who confidently wave the Discipline, and those who cringe and wish it were very different:  let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture.  Who is the author of this book?  Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, we finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of those votes, becomes the Discipline.
     Something I’ve always loved about the way the Discipline comes to be, and something I’ve bragged about to inquirers, is that after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers.  We are the Body, with different members.  We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way.  God must look down on our General Conference proceedings and shudder, or chuckle, or weep.  Then God begins rooting for us to love, to remember there aren’t winners and losers in the Body of Christ, even if the “winners” do get their words into the Discipline.
     And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself?  The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation...  They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.”  This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced.  It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
     If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational.  Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments.  Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all – and if a marriage is any model of a covenant, then when there is any veering off, we don’t start with punishment, but with creative, and even sacrificial reconciliation.  Let’s not speak in code.  Let’s befriend the Discipline, and zealously pursue its deepest purpose of organized and passionate ministry, and redemption.  Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world.  The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.