Judicial Council Decisions: The Emperor Has No Clothes

The United Methodist Church cannot be re-formed. It’s over for us with our current structure.

The Judicial Council’s decision to revoke the involuntary retirement of Bishop Earl Bledsoe over issues of violation of procedural minutia found in the Book of Discipline (not over the question of his effectiveness, which was not being ruled upon) has forever made this clear. It is over.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the Judicial Council for the rulings of the last few months. Their work has thoroughly reversed decisions made by General and Jurisdictional Conferences.

However, I think that would be a mistake. They’ve done the United Methodist Church a huge favor. Because the members of the Council were faithful to the letter of the law, which is exactly what they are supposed to do, we now know for sure that this emperor has no clothes.

They have revealed an important truth and truth does very much set us free.

Many gifted, intelligent, godly people slogged through interminable meetings seeking to follow the rules and still lead us into substantive and necessary change. We easily see those as wasted hours in light of the aftermath of the Judicial Council decisions.

Again, I say, let us receive the favor here. There is simply no sense in trying to do that kind of thing anymore. It can’t work. Period.

We are going to have to engender our own revolution/reformation or die slowly of strangulation by methods that no longer support the heart of Methodism. No one in their right mind wants to die this way. But we are now at the crossroads and must choose: strangulation or revolution?

I wish we didn’t have to do this. Revolutions hurt, and leave scarred landscapes and burnt-out buildings. People die. Pain becomes our middle name. Sad tears accompany nearly every decision. Passionate arguments punctuate every discussion.

But the structure has cracked and the un-repairable foundation now sits exposed. John Wesley was an autocratic organizational genius who could do to the clergy under his command and the churches of his movement things that are now not just unworkable, but also unthinkable.

And our own efforts at tinkering with the denomination we inherited? Well, we’ve danced around it, modified it, adapted it and culturally-contexted it. Time to stop. It’s over.

What do we have left? We have the most powerful theology of grace that has ever infused the human race. We have words about God that tell us that God is ever before us, wooing the world into repentance, relationship and wholeness. We have an understanding about our redemption and forgiveness that forever sets us free. And we actually do believe that we can, in cooperation with the Spirit of God, be perfected in love.

That’s what we have.

All the rest of it, our pensions and health insurance concerns, our episcopacy and our itinerancy, our megachurches and our itsy-bitsy rural congregations, our connection, our conferences, our metrics and our vestments, are just window dressing.

We have grace.

The question we now ask: Can grace-infused theology hold us together in the revolution that is now necessary? Can we plant ourselves firmly on opposite sides of huge issues, pray, argue and fight our way through this, and see a healthy and actually united Methodist church born yet once more? Can we free ourselves from the death strangle of our current methods and still be Methodists?

If we can’t, or we won’t, then we need to die anyway. We deserve no better than to slowly lose oxygen as we wander forever lost through the dead-end maze known as the Book of Discipline. If we can and if we will, then we will unleash the Spirit of God yet once more.

It’s time.

16 thoughts on “Judicial Council Decisions: The Emperor Has No Clothes

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  6. I write as a Layperson–one very concerned about the prospects for the UMC as the diminishment continues year after year. I see a church denomination that is weighted down at the top with a structure that looks to me to be concerned with its own power and control—we receive these annual and four-year messages from this structure on how we we now launch yet another program to revitalize this system—then nothing happens. There are some who show real promise in leading this effort, but they are quickly squelched and shunted off to the side—ala– The Call to Action.
    The Local Church is and has been ignored. We seem to think that the change comes from above– Above being the Bishops and the councils and Boards. It is all about “Them”.
    Sad to say, but I tend to agree with the article. The last peson out the door, please turn off the lights!

    • Hal, your comments are right on. It’s been program after program, everything changes every four years but nothing changes except the decline AND the voices of the laity are heard even less. We really do need a grand “do-over.”

  7. I invite you to see my post-GC essay, “The Death Throes of the Blue Model Church,” in which I examine in some detail why we are being strangled organizationally.

    Of course, the main issue in all this is money. And increasingly, our congregations, consisting more and more of financially strapped persons, simply are not going to pay for a structure for which they see neither any personal nor local-church benefit. Increasingly, when the hierarchy eaxes poetic about the wonderfulness of the “the connectional system” what they really mean is, “why we want your money.”

    We are long past the day when Methodism as a “brand” was uniquely attractive. It is very naive to expect that the laity or pastors will somehow become more devoted to the Church’s connectional system and the work of general boards and agencies than they are now.

    Lay people and pastors more and more will not accept the bureaucratic inertia and plodding deliberatism of the Blue Model — and again, will not pay for it. The hierarchical structures of the church must rediscover what servant ministry means and devote themselves to helping local churches and pastors succeed rather than, in usual Blue Model style, issue edicts from Sinai’s peak that must be obeyed. Flexibility and responsiveness by church leaders and agencies to the needs of local churches will be key. From bishops down through Conference offices and superintendents, it must become an embedded value that their purpose is to empower, assist and support local churches. The line of support’s direction must run down, not up the chain of command, but this is, frankly, exactly opposite of what we have today.

    • Thanks for the link to your blog, Don. I just read your post and we are obviously in deep agreement about this. The question now: where can we go from here? Any internal hopes of restructuring are now gone. What can we do?

  8. Kristy,

    Thank you. This is a great and sobering reflection. I’m glad to see you pointing to some hope and good things in the Methodist tradition, even in the midst of realizing how terribly (almost fatally?) flawed our system appears.

    I tried to address the same in “The Stuck State of the UMC and Some Therapy” and in “Why the American UMC is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death, and Concerned Leaders’ Best Response.” I think we’re advocating much the same.

    If you’re interested, you can find those here: http://teddyray.com/2012/11/12/the-stuck-ness-of-the-umc-and-some-therapy/
    and here: http://teddyray.com/2012/05/02/why-the-american-umc-is-dying-a-somewhat-slow-death-and-concerned-leaders-best-response-pt-ii/

  9. Ok, I must admit I was confused about all of this until I remembered that the Bishop was removed and had agreed and then decided he didn’t agree to retire. So now another body of people ( and I emphasize the word people) now decide that the others who ruled were wrong and that they are going to fix that and they are the final word on it and what they say is the real law because the others didn’t read it or implement the law correctly. Finally and I post a quote from one of the group of people they say: “If we’re going to save this denomination it has to happen in the South Central Jurisdiction
    and we can’t afford an ineffective bishop,” Mr. House told the council.

    Ok, that statement did it for me. For the powers that are in charge, it’s not about telling the “Good New” it is about saving the UMC as a denomination. What they all seem to forget ,as you put it to me so well is: “It is not their job to save the world or the denomination. That job is already taken and we have been saved. Jesus did that for us by dying on the cross. Our job as you said is to offer to others what was so freely given to us, that being God’s saving grace. I didn’t see Jesus restricting this to any denomination, sex, race, or any other way of looking at a group or individual. He simply said love one another as I’ve loved you. Pretty simple and yet we’ve managed to put all kinds of conditions on it. It is indeed time for us to get back to the basics and put Jesus first and the rest will come to us.

  10. John Wesley founded Methodism.. We must remember that John Wesley never intended to found or never did found a church. To Wesley Methodism was a to bring his thoughts to The Church of England. By his thoughts ” the people who called themselves Methodists”were to remain members of and take their sacraments in The Church of England. When the American Revolution made that impossible, Wesley, against his principles, ordained Dr. Coke to provide the Methodists in America a church. Wesley was not happy with that church but had no other choice to provide American Methodists with sacraments. Maybe we have been on borrowed time since 1784.

  11. I believe the Discipline itself may have brought us to the moment of ‘amicable separation’ which was first raised at the 2004 General Conference, for entirely different reasons. There are those who have begun using structure as a replacement for theology, process passing for peace-making and guilt trips for grace. We are seeing the church being remade – people are voting with their feet.

    Sometimes we are not ready to accept the grace, redemption and acceptance we have been offered. Sometimes it is too radical of a shift to believe that the vast majority of people we may have once counted as ‘ag’in’ us’ have, in fact, accepted us. It is difficult to give up a self-concept; it is very difficult to accept a paradigm shift in which one is no longer a victim and, therefore, no longer in need of special concessions. As one who has been there, I know that it is hard – but real freedom only comes when I hand in: (1) the victim tag and (2) the expectation for you to give me some special breaks ‘because of who I am/what I have been through’

    White men and women of the North Texas Conference have now been put in the peculiar position of presumed racism if they have a disagreement over policy or position with a person of color, especially if that person happens to be a superior. Let’s not even kid ourselves and presume that this case goes anywhere if Bishop Bledsoe is not a member of a protected class. The immediate allegations of racism by Bishop Bledsoe followed by those of Dr. Masters, Sr., mean that those of us who accept our brothers and sisters of color _without reference to it_, can’t anymore. We are forever locked in a struggle to which there is no solution.

    It’s odd that I don’t find this lived out at the local church level, and my last two congregations – one small, historic, one large, regional – have had large multiethnic, multiracial components . Perhaps it is because we build relationship that focuses on respect instead of power grabs based on budget and control. We also presume good intentions.

    The connection has never been needed more for the things it does well – living out God’s plan to be in the world for the least, the lost and the lonely (that’s how I think we best share the saving grace of Jesus Christ…). I also believe it has never been less able to see past the tip of its Disciplined nose.

    I don’t fault the Judicial Council for the decision; they are being strict constructionists (idle thought – ironic, isn’t it…) It seems that we now just treat Bishops like civil servants, not like women and men who sought to be elected to the position based on the votes of the Jurisdictional Conference. Make no mistake – they raise funds to be elected, they travel to the various conferences within the jurisdictions to try to convince members of those delegations to vote for them and they have assistants who act as ‘campaign directors’. However, when the committee charged with overseeing the work of these Bishops and those same voters who elected them say they are no longer qualified to be the Annual Conference CEO, they now can fall back on cvil service-style ‘due process’ arguments instead of taking executive responsibility. Let’s quit calling them Bishops – make it HR Director and call it a day.

    Let me be clear – in my mind, this has nothing to do with building the Body of Christ and spreading the Good News. Connectional church structure has become an overhead nightmare everywhere, a bloated waste of millions of dollars annually and a ready exhibit in the argument against the church for those who oppose organized religion. It’s like trying to use a record player made for 78′s to connect with the iCloud for Sunday worship music – the only sound you can hear is feet walking out the door…

  12. Um…do other denominations not have grace? Surely you aren’t saying that grace makes us distinctive. The one distinctive feature of grace you name is perfecting grace, but I doubt that you personally would subscribe to it in terms that Wesley himself or the early Methodists would understand. Your article concerns me in that it conflates the current structure with the early Methodist structure, saying that we have done our best to stay loyal to the original order under Wesley (and maybe you would say Asbury, too). But that is not a very faithful reading of history. Rather, our current denomination has systematically dismantled every ecclesiological facet of early Methodism, and that is why we are seeing our demise. Until we can recreate the ecclesiology and the spirit of early Methodism, our ranks will continue to be full of people who try and claim as distinctive what is actually universal among all Christians. I appreciate your attitude towards the judicial council, but I disagree with the way forward that you have set out. If I am wrong, I pray that God might humble me. If you are right, I pray that your efforts in the denomination might be fruitful.

    • Some of us do believe and preach perfecting and sanctifying grace as preached by Wesley and the early Methodists…one of the tragedies of the current UMC is that it no longer understans, preaches or practices perfecting grace in most of its places…

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