In times of church conflict, the law falls silent

Call To Action v. Polity

In V for Vendetta, V outlines why the people elected to High Chancellor such a terrible person who robbed the future people of their personal liberties:

There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

But long before V, there was a simple phrase that encapsulated the same thing in fewer words:

Inter arma enim silent leges

This is a Latin phrase from Cicero meaning loosely “In times of war, the law falls silent.” While it was originally used by Cicero to justify what seemed like murder during a time of war, it has since grown to be an argument against suspending laws during times of war. The past 10 years have challenged this concept in various ways as America struggles to deal with balancing personal liberty with fighting terrorism. Oh, and it’s also a Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode.

Using that as a starting point, I’ve been able to put a finger on a concern in the United Methodist Call To Action report: it seeks to diminish church polity.

From page 18, in the context of raising up strong leadership, the report indicates that figuring out better ways of living together is secondary to putting better people in the pulpits and pews.

Courageous, collaborative leaders are much more important than layers of intricate legislation or revamped organizational structures.

From page 21, in the context of relating to varied missional contexts, the report indicates that breaking polity to reach new places may be of value.

Vitality will take multiple forms in light of varying circumstances. Since rulebound structures inhibit innovation, continuous renewal, and viability, a key responsibility of leaders is to suspend rules in order to test and assess the efficacy of new, worthy ideas.

In both of these cases, it seems that polity, or the connective glue of the United Methodist Church, is of secondary importance to both (a) results and (b) better clergy and lay leadership.

In my understanding of Methodist history, John Wesley was unable to directly manage the entire movement. So he created connective entities of class leaders, circuit riders, lay preachers, and others to report to him what was going on. These connective groups were the glue between the head (Wesley) and the hands/feet (local churches). When Wesley died, the executive of the church was not replaced…bishops would vaguely become the role Wesley held. At that point, the highest form of the church was the connective tissue: the collaborative groups and local leaders figuring out how to live together.

This doesn’t mean that the General Boards and Agencies we have today are the highest form of the church…rather the polity, the shared practices and beliefs, is very important and not just redundant church malaise. They are not sacrosanct, as Bishop Weaver writes in the introduction to the 2008 Discipline, but are malleable forms of communication and relationships that we revisit every four years to ensure they are facilitating ministry rather than inhibiting it.

Why is this relevant? In times of war, the law falls silent. In times of stress and fear, the law falls silent. The words of “immediacy” and “crisis” permeate the Call to Action report and clearly insinuate that in our time of crisis, we ought to disregard our polity and turn over the keys to some church executives and fruit-filled pastors to guide us out of this mess. That’s a good idea for sure. But I’m not sure it is a Methodist idea.

Your turn:

  • Do you see evidence in the CTA report that polity needs to be thrown out rather than revamped?
  • Do you see higher emphasis on executive power than collaborative power?
  • Should we fear processes and procedures that consolidate power rather than re-distribute it?


Previous posts on the Call to Action Report:

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  1. says

    I want to respectfully disagree with this one Jeremy. As someone who works within our current expression of United Methodist polity, I have seen what happens when the pendulum swings too far toward policies, procedures, rules and governance and too far away from the qualities and capabilities of the individual people that inhabit the organization. For me, the genius of Wesley was his ability to meld the character of a Methodist with the structure of Methodism. It is the alignment of both the people and the the polity. Although we have many excellent people in today’s UMC, I believe that our contemporary Disciplinary expression of our basic ecclesiology too often stifles their God-given gifts and passions, and that we need to seek better balance between people and polity. In my own experience, I have seen churches and denominational agencies reformed when they pay more attention to the qualities of their leadership. The Call to Action report is not a perfect document, but I do agree with the emphasis on freeing individual leaders to act apart from overly-rigid rules in order to bring our denominational ship back onto an even keel.

  2. says

    Your disagreement is both respectful and insightful, Curtis. I like what you say about a balance between people and polity. Doubtless the intent of the CTA is to bring a better balance.

    From my perspective, I am wary of efforts towards congregationalism in our connectional church. Movements away from shared structures or procedures and towards massing more power in individuals are disturbing trends in that area. Blatantly saying that our shared expectations are to be broken are even more disturbing, and coming from an official document at that!

    I’m happy with re-aligning people and polity into better practice, and it seems like we have both seen what happens when the pendulum swings too far in either direction. I just don’t want it to swing congregationalism in a way that we may never go back the other direction and end up as fragmented as our social witness will be during the next 10 years of navel-gazing.

    It’s fine to raise up leaders but not to do away with the structure that holds us together as United Methodists.

  3. says

    Jeremy, a powerful post–and you have pointed to the issue, for me–the whole CTA report reads to me like an indictment of connectionalism, without any theological justification. It is as if the UMC is a business and not a church!

    I do not deny we need tweaking–I have done some thinking about this–but my worry is that in moving away from the General Boards and similar structures, we are relying on local church pastors to not only pastor churches but also become the conference structure. I have enough on my plate, thank you very much! I don’t deny that mission, for instance, needs to be part of the life of the local church, but we’ve got to have dedicated folks whose job it is to encourage the local church and facilitate the process of getting more involved in mission.

    There is nothing wrong with specialization–this is why we have a diversity of placements. Moving away from the polity that holds us together means that we not only lose much of what makes us Methodist, but it adds difficult work to the already crowded pastoral plate.

  4. says

    When I read the report, I did not infer an injunction to diminish polity; rather, I thought the recommendations were geared toward addressing the places within polity and institutionalism that discourage innovation and connection. In a way, I thought the hope of the CTA is to strengthen connectionalism by taking a long, hard look at the layers upon layers of bureaucracy – unyielding bureaucracy – that can be found within the UMC. Perhaps I read with dimmed eyes; I’ll take another look.

  5. Creed Pogue says

    If we confuse an effort to rationalize a patchwork of general agencies that are duplicative and sometimes even at cross purposes to themselves and certainly to the larger interests of The UMC as well as the Kingdom, with a loss of voice by the rank and file laity then someone is really lost in the weeds.

    Many (if not in fact most) UMs feel that the general agencies too often get disconnected from the mission of the church.

    It is also evident from this post that the fact that the annual conferences are the basic unit of The United Methodist Church has been forgotten. Connectionalism isn’t sending money to general agencies which then spend it on their own agendas, but rather local churches working together through annual conferences.

    General Conference is NOT a disciple-making event.

    Finally, it is rather inconsistent to praise Rev. Lorenza Smith for breaking the law while expressing a concern when someone else says that we may have to break rules in order to accomplish mission. Or is that simply saying it’s okay when you agree with me and wrong when you don’t? We all fall victim to it, but comparing all of this to a totalitarian dictatorship seems really over the top.

  6. says

    An historical observation that may be important as well.

    Mr John Wesley’s connexion, early Methodism, was not a connection of Methodist churches at all, but of Methodist societies and their related structures and leaders (class meetings, society, bands, and conferences, to name but 4). So it was not “churches” that were tied to Mr Wesley. It was societies. Organizationally, functionally and missionally, the two were very different animals.

    I really don’t think one can easily draw direct lines all that easily between the Wesley’s connectionalism, and the current forms of connectionalism in the UMC, built around congregations rather than class meetings as basic local missional units.

    If we’re serious about forging a connectionalism Mr Wesley might recognize, it may be time to organize a lot of Methodist societies again– or something a bit more like them than any of our congregations– that we’ve already noted are far more like 18th C Church of England congregations– may be likely to be.


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