When Covenants Compete in the #UMC, Which Do You Choose?

talbertIn the UMC, all the rage the past few years has been the clergy covenant. It was the Secret Word of the Day (Ahhhh!) at Amy DeLong’s trial; it’s been the word to describe the actions of Methodist clergy who have taken a marriage pledge; and it’s our assertion that the spam-overrun FaithfulUMC website gives apologetics for breaking the financial covenant of apportionments. But now it has taken on a new form in the discussion about Bishop Melvin Talbert and his officiating of a same-gender wedding in Alabama as a violation of the Bishop’s covenant with other bishops.

In my reading on this topic, I was fascinated by the talk of “competing covenants” or what happens when two covenants come into competition. The United Methodist Church has a more checkered history with competing covenants than the average UM may be aware of, and a brief review may help enlighten the current conversation. It’s a long article, but stick around for the 5th example, as it is a doozy.

1. Competing Family and Church Covenants

In one of my former Annual Conferences, there’s a document that clergy can turn in that requests limited itineration–essentially saying that it would be detrimental for you to be moved outside of a geographic area. While the clergy are bound by the clergy covenant to itinerate, they are requesting special consideration. But look at the language:

It is sometimes necessary that the seriousness of other covenants we have made (spouse, family and others) of necessity must take priority over the commitment to itinerate.  If this is the case for you for the ensuing appointment year, please fill out the remainder of this form to advise the Bishop and Cabinet of the same. During the appointment year ____, my covenant in areas checked below needs to be considered above my covenant to itinerate:

So in short, this particular Bishop recognizes that covenants between families sometimes conflict with our covenant to be itinerant, and offers to try to navigate those conflicts.

2. Competing Covenantal Practices & Beliefs

Back last year, the Wisconsin Annual Conference published their joint resolution to the Amy DeLong trial whereby they were to examine the clergy covenant and recommend how to better uphold it. Here’s Hacking Christianity’s take on the resolution. Here’s our relevant summary:

Here’s my interpretation of their basic argument: The doctrine of the clergy covenant is secondary to the communal practice of the covenant. While we hear a lot about the clergy covenant and about how everyone should uphold it, the problem is that the clergy do not seem to really know what it means to live out a covenant beyond assent to commandments. The Wisconsin clergy are pushing back that “unless the practice of the covenant is made evident, then the consequences of violating the covenant are null and void.”

The Clergy Covenant is only as strong and accountable-worthy as the clergy’s practice of covenanting together. So what Wisconsin seems to want to do is press a reset button and get everyone into the practice of covenanting together. Only then would the Commandments have a full and unanimous expectation.

Thus to the Wisconsin clergy, the practice of the Covenant gives the commandments of a Covenant its authority. So unless a body is practicing their covenant (by attending sessions together, by tithing together, by praying together, etc), then the commandments of the Covenant are not applicable. Given that some church pastors often don’t participate in the practices of the Clergy orders, then why should their complaints about violations of the Covenant be heeded?

3. Competing Episcopal and Biblical Covenants

Writing yesterday in opposition to the Letter from the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops, Rev. Matthew Berryman of the Reconciling Ministries Network articulates a concern that the covenant of solidarity among the Bishops is in conflict with the covenant to the Gospel:

In formally urging Bishop Melvin Talbert not to perform the wedding of Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw, members of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, the Committee rests its authority on the existence of a “special covenant with all other bishops.”  While we can understand the benefit and necessity of such a covenant, we are suspicious when the covenant is not measured against its consistency with the Covenant of God’s love for the whole of creation expressed in Jesus Christ.  We are concerned that the covenant shared among the bishops does not allow room for critique and seems to require allegiance at the expense of the gospel for which it was created to support and embody.  As expressed in the letter, the bishops’ covenant is structured in such a way that censures dissenting parties and silences the voice of the prophet.  We cannot imagine how a covenant of this kind serves the church since the unity and peace it seeks to preserve is bereft of justice and therefore not true peace at all.

To Berryman, the covenant of solidarity and speaking as “one voice” is in conflict with the covenant to speak one’s conscience in union with the Holy Spirit. In short, the bishop-made “special covenant” is opposed to the covenant of God’s love expressed in the life of Jesus Christ.

4. Competing Ecclesial and Biblical Covenants

The couple at the center of this discussion issued a response to the Bishop’s letter that also takes head-on the issue of competing covenants. Here’s what Joe and Bobby wrote:

 The Discipline contains multiple covenants for clergy and bishops. The Discipline also contains unjust laws that force clergy to choose between covenants of the special relationship between each other and the covenant to be in ministry with and for all people, including gay people like us. Scripture contains stories of Jesus healing on the Sabbath because ministry with people is at the heart of the Gospel. Does the “special covenant” between bishops overrule our Wesleyan general rule to “do no harm?” Bishops have also been given the duty to serve as a “prophetic voice for justice in a suffering and conflicted world.” In your response to our wedding and Bishop Talbert, how are you and the Council of Bishops upholding your prophetic voice for justice? We believe that Scripture and the Book of Discipline, and the covenants they speak of, are best fulfilled and lived out when read as a whole, than through selected paragraphs.

To the couple, both laity in the United Methodist Church and legally married in another state, they see clearly that the collective covenant of the UMC to be in ministry with all people supercedes the individual covenants made by clergy to follow the rules.

5. Competing Baptismal and Church Covenants

The real surprise conflict in this lineup, however, comes from a very unlikely source. Every year in most conferences, churches sign an “Apportionment Covenant” that says they will tithe a certain amount to the meta-church structures (district, annual conference, world).  Some churches do not pay their full apportionment, either out of financial shortfalls or out of a sense of protest.

One such church withheld its apportionment in protest and in its rationale it pointed directly at competing covenants as its rationale. Back in 2004, Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth, who is the head of Lifewatch and the pastor of St. Peter’s UMC in Morehead City, NC, wrote a letter to a Bishop outlining why his church didn’t pay all their apportionments. Read the whole letter but the relevant sections are bolded below:

As “The Baptismal Covenant I” declares, “Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy [C]hurch.  We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.  All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 33)  So the baptismal covenant is the means by which we are not only graciously received into Christ’s Church but also generally instructed how to live faithfully in the Church and in the world

Constituted by the baptismal covenant, a congregation of The United Methodist Church is “subject to its Discipline.” (Par. 203)  A part of being subject to the church’sDiscipline is the payment of annual apportionments: “The apportionments for all apportioned general [c]hurch funds…shall not be subject to reduction…by the charge or local church.” (Par. 811.5)  Furthermore, the “[p]ayment in full of these apportionments [that is, the World Service Fund] by local churches…is the first benevolent responsibility of the [c]hurch.” (Par. 812)

Therefore, our investigation concluded that: all United Methodist laity and clergy are charged to be obedient to the baptismal covenant; and all United Methodist congregations are subject to The Book of Discipline, and this includes the full payment of annual apportionments.

Great, so this outlines what the church understood its individual Baptismal Covenants to mean, and what it means to be a congregation that is subject to the covenant of the Discipline. But here’s the most important paragraph:

But in the course of life in the Church, the following questions are bound to arise.  Is it possible that obedience to the baptismal covenant might, in a particular case, conflict with the congregation being subject to the Discipline?  For example, might United Methodist leaders and/or general boards engage in activities blatantly opposed to the denomination’s Discipline?  Under such circumstances, are not United Methodists, out of obedience to the baptismal covenant, required to resist such activities?  And as a last resort, after all other possible responses have been attempted to no avail, might a congregation, motivated by covenantal obedience, refuse to pay apportioned monies that would support continuing, undisciplined activities by denominational boards?  So, might it be truthful to claim that lay and clerical faithfulness to the baptismal covenant can, in the event of denominational disobedience, override a congregation being subject to the Discipline?

Clearly, the church understood the difficulty of competing covenants. They felt their baptismal covenant was an adherence to Christian teachings that they felt the denomination was violating. They saw their membership covenant of being “subject to the Discipline” as superseded by the baptismal covenant. In other words, when covenants collided, they had to choose which one they preferred to follow, and in this case, they chose the baptismal covenant and withheld their covenant of apportioned moneys. I’m not saying I agree with their rationale, just reporting on it.

But one more comment: oddly enough, I didn’t see any Good News press releases or IRD condemnation for this congregation’s articulation of competing covenants. How odd…oh, maybe because they are part of the Renew and Reform Coalition together. Consistency is so hard to keep consistent, isn’t it?

Conclusion: Covenants are Messy

Jesus taught that we should use our conscience to assess religious rules. When religious rules were placed ahead of people in his day, He said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” So in each of these five cases, we have one Covenant valued higher than the others:

  1. The covenant of family limits our covenant to itinerate
  2. The covenant of shared practices legitimizes the covenant of shared commandments
  3. The covenant of God’s love overrules the covenant of bishop’s solidarity
  4. The covenant of being in ministry with all people overrules the covenants that limit that ministry.
  5. The covenant of our baptism overrules the covenant to be fiscally accountable

In all these cases, the decisions are not made lightly. And for each one of us, we have also had to make choices with the competing covenants in our everyday lives. We have to sometimes step away from covenants that we have faithfully made in order to honor others. We sometimes choose to honor one Covenant at this time as more important than other Covenants which are more important at other times.

But the point is that in all these cases, the person is placed before the Covenant without negating the importance of the Covenant. When covenants conflict, one does not have to look far into the biblical record to see that Christ always chose the person over the policy, the people instead of the Sabbath. In each of these past situations, and in our current one celebrating the  marriage of two Christian men, who is the person that Christ is calling us to minister to? And is there a collective agreement that perhaps one fulfills a higher Covenant by breaking a lower one? Each situation–as varied as the ones lifted up above–can be lifted up as a case study of how to inform the next situation that comes our way…and perhaps the next time, we’ll get it right.

I guess that’s why there’s a Biblical Obedience movement in the UMC: because it turns out when you are faithful to the Bible–and your faithfulness is held accountable by others–deciding which covenant to uphold at which time becomes quite clear.

Thoughts? Thanks for reading.

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  1. says

    I do this little thought experiment from time to time. I wonder what would happen in RMN had been successful in 2012. Would pastors who refused to do gay weddings be brought up on charges and defrocked for such an offense? Given Talbert’s rhetoric, I don’t see how the UMC could do any less. If it sees those pastors as advocating evil, then they could not be allowed to remain. The covenant would be on the other foot at that point, I suppose.

    All our talk about covenants, it feels to me, is a way to avoid talking about the underlying issues.

    • says

      I think they could only be brought up on charges if clergy who refuse to do some straight weddings are as well. I may be wrong about the Discipline but in The Episcopal Church no cleric can be required to do any marriage at all, gay or straight, for any reason. Talbert’s rhetoric as you see and read it may be one thing, but the particular parallels you draw may not quite work.

      • says

        Good point. I do think we have language in our BOD that says performing such services is at the discretion of the pastor. Of course, we also have language about non-discrimination. If a pastor today refused as a matter of belief to do mixed race marriages, I doubt the cabinet would let him or her get away with that.

  2. says

    Great blog, Jeremy.
    My strong hunch is that folks will increasingly need to consider these ideas of competing covenants. As you say, we clearly acknowledge them already in some cases, and you cite some excellent examples.

    Very thought provoking. I hope many will read and meditate.

  3. Pubilius says

    Thank you Rev. Jeremy–
    An excellent point, the Renewal/Confessing movement doesn’t realize their own hypocrisy (whether following one area of the BoD (hateful language on LGBTQ people) and breaking another (treating and ministering to all equally) or on the issue of selective apportionments…) , at least these examples should show that issues and covenants are far more complicated issue and certainly not as easy as they say when they thump and throw the BoD at RMN and related groups. I wonder: Has a pastor ever been brought up on charges for NOT ministering to all people equality? Or for not giving entire apportionments when the congregation is able to do so?

  4. Gary Bebop says

    What is not addressed here is the consequence when powerful parties break covenant. That’s what is in play right now, even as Tom Lambrecht ably pointed out. You can’t “pick and choose” as though there are no consequences. We are flirting with those consequences, and some bishops realize if the ILLUSION of being committed regardless is smashed, there will no longer be a coherent (or financially stable) denomination.

    • says

      One of the arguments is that the Clergy Covenant ought not be broken. I’m showing how in five separate situations, Covenants can compete in the life of the church and the choice of what to do is not clear. Punishments and Consequences abound in any situation. But since we have navigated competing covenants before, there’s no reason to believe an incoherent denomination is inevitable.

  5. says

    If there was a time when a single action could bring about the end of United Methodism as we know it, this would be the time and this would be such an action.

    There’s a lot of “two wrongs trying to make a right” in these examples, eg. withholding apportionments, they don’t participate in the Order/why should I maintain covenant. Anything we can conclude from this?

    • Taylor Burton-Edwards says

      I suppose I don’t see this moment as necessarily the end of anything. I see it as a revelation of conflicting covenants and conflicting interpretations of them. The question becomes how we choose to engage the conflicts in play. We can choose to flee, to fight, or seek to find ways through together. That choice is not scripted. We can choose the path we wish. May we have the wisdom and maturity to choose the third way, bearing with one another in love.

      • says

        Taylor, would you suggest that is the best solution in the 1950s and 1960s regarding race relations? Should the church have allowed racist pastors and churches to continue in their racism? Bishop Talbert and others frame this as a parallel case. They argue that to support the church teaching is the moral equivalent of supporting whites only restrooms in the South (or maybe even worse things). What is the “third way” that you would have urged Martin Luther King Jr. to walk?

  6. Karen L. Munson says

    Martin Luther King Jr did walk the 3rd way, the way of non violence. Howard Thurman’s teaching and writing, which influenced him, are an excellent example of third way thinking and acting.

  7. guest says

    The intensity of this controversy in the church just serves to remind singles how little we matter – to any church. Only married people matter. Maybe if the church didn’t focus quite so much on only empowering married couples and ‘young families’, they would wake up and realize that 43% of American adults over age 18 are single. This whole controversy over gay marriage really stems from the church’s idolatry of marriage and married couples. Show me ONE women’s bible study that doesn’t focus on marriage and family themes, to the exclusion of the unmarried and childless? I’m having trouble finding any. It’s as if only married women with children exist — and all others are invisible nonentities in the church. Your idolatry of marriage is killing the church – it will split denominations over gay marriage, and will continue to shrink your memberships as you drive away your singles with deliberate neglect.

    • Diane Hawk says

      Oh guest, YES! As a celibate, single, heterosexual clergywoman I agree. I wish our church could openly CELEBRATE the celibacy of single people in our midst. It is a lifestyle that St. Paul and I both commend. Being single and celibate allows me to serve God with an undivided heart. I can itinerate more easily than married clergy. I can serve churches that do not pay large salaries. I can dare to be prophetic when God empowers me to be so.

      Yet, our church does not seem to honor this very much. I have been told by church SPR committees “We need a family man as our pastor.” I am sure that some people suspect I am a lesbian because I am a single feminist. The unmentionable suspicion has created an undercurrent of distrust with some church members and it has hurt my ministry.

      My priority in life is my commitment to Christ. It seems to me that the church should honor this priority more than it does. Instead of respect, I am suspected. Instead of honor, I am discounted as unimportant and not particularly valuable.

      Thank you for raising this issue, guest. Our church desperately needs to hold up the Pauline ideal of singleness as a great lifestyle for committed Christians.


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