As Society struggles with accountability and authority, so does The United Methodist Church.
Paper covers Rock, State overrules City
In the past month, a trio of states have had stories come out which have something in common:
- In North Carolina, in response to Charlotte’s passage of an anti-discrimination law against LGBT persons, a special session of the legislature nullified Charlotte’s law and rendered a statewide ban on any non-discrimination law supporting LGBT persons.
- In Alabama, in response to Birmingham’s passage of a higher minimum-wage law, the legislature nullified Birmingham’s law and rendered a statewide ban on raising the minimum wage. Oklahoma passed a similar law in 2014.
- In Oklahoma, in response to Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, the state’s lawsuit was denied review by the Supreme Court, meaning that Oklahoma and Nebraska cannot sue Colorado to stop their neighbor state from legalizing weed.
In all three of these, you have a conflict between local and regional authorities, in two forms:
- Vertical Accountability: In North Carolina and Alabama, something a city wanted for its citizens ended up being banned for all citizens in that state. A city passes a law, and the state trumps it or nullifies it.
- Horizontal Accountability: The third conflict between Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado was between states, which left the law intact. In fact, the efforts against Colorado’s laws have predominantly come from out-of-state efforts and socially-conservative law firms, which did not succeed.
What we see are the rough boundaries of authority and accountability: cities are accountable to the state, but the states are not always accountable to each another.
Limits of Authority and Accountability
The United Methodist Church also struggles with accountability, and conflicts are often about vertical or horizontal accountability.
The basic unit of United Methodism is the annual (regional) conference (¶32, Article II). Clergy hold their membership in, church property deeds list as owner, and bishops are appointed to serve Annual Conferences. ACs meet for yearly gatherings, but their structures including lay and clergy committees, the Cabinet, active ministries, judicial processes, and others.
Within an Annual Conference, there’s both vertical and horizontal accountability. If a clergyperson is charged with a complaint, it is their peers (the District Superintendents) who decide if it is valid to explore. If a clergyperson’s complaint goes to trial, it is their peers that serve on the jury. A Bishop has appointment power only over their assigned Annual Conference, and lay representatives from local churches only have the right to vote on fiscal changes and judicial representation at Annual Conference.
Adaptive Ministry with Accountability
There’s good news, however. In recent years, despite these intense regulations, Annual Conferences have adapted to address systemic injustice in accountability structures. As a key example, both the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the New York Annual Conference have now declared they accept openly LGBTQ candidates for ministry.
This example brings out how our diverse church is structured to handle these types of actions. Like Colorado not being accountable to neighboring states, the Discipline also limits what impact an Annual Conference decision has on other states:
- Because Annual Conferences are accountable to themselves, other Annual Conferences will not be affected by this action or have to follow suit.
- Because clergy hold credentials at the Annual Conference level, Bishops who do not want partnered LGBT clergy serving in their borders can reject their transfers from pro-LGBTQ conferences.
We see that Accountability is kept at the Annual Conference level, which is the United Methodist way. Thus, decisions like Baltimore-Washington and New York do not have a direct effect outside their boundaries, and diversity does not break the United Methodist connection.
The Power away from the People
All is not well on the horizon, however. While a victimless violation like this has limited scope, those with power in The UMC believe all aspects of lay and clergy life should be accountable to them. This is reflected in recent decisions by three clergypersons to write letters across Annual Conference lines to seek to nullify a lay woman’s church membership, and in the heavily traditionalist support of the CUP plan which seeks to remove local authority.
This flies in the face of our tradition. Wesleyan Accountability was originally between peers: members of a band or class knew each other and lived almost next door to each other. Methodist societies were planted in every town so neighbors could be together, and circuits of horseback preachers would cover these patchwork of churches. If accountability needed to take place, it was with ones’s neighbors…or, well, when John Wesley himself when he would come in and strike the unfaithful from the membership rolls.
Accountability has changed and become more institutionalized since then, but the key is this: accountability has clearly defined boundaries. Boundaries that now anti-gay reactions seek to violate in order to strike down LGBTQ persons from serving The United Methodist Church. And to do it, they are willing to violate the stretch Covenant to which they say they uphold to the point of unviability.
Beware Shiny Object Syndrome
Delegates to General Conference ought be wary of such calls to hyper-extend accountability because they are using a particular infraction in order to make it easier to eliminate minority voices.
One of the problems with American efforts to stigmatize and legislate against LGBT persons is that it is never just about them. When North Carolina legislated against transgender persons, they also eliminated the ability of cities to raise the minimum wage–which was not relevant to the discrimination law under discussion, but it achieved a contentious legislative goal in the shadow of the shiny one.
In the same way, current efforts in the UMC to “fix” accountability systems add in other abilities or open up Pandora’s box several times over. The CUP plan inserts non-Wesleyan actions like minimum sentences, forced arbitration, and removing the wall between clergy and lay accountability, all of which are tools those with power can use against clergy, laity, and bishops they disagree with on any issue.
Delegates to General Conference should look beyond the rhetoric to the legislation to make sure they are not also taken for a ride.
In Alabama and North Carolina, the states essentially said that a city does not have the authority to care for its citizens in ways that do not harm neighboring citizens. In the United Methodist Church, the Powers want to say that an annual conference does not have the authority to be adaptive and more effective in its context.
My hope is that delegates to General Conference are not as fooled as the people of Alabama and North Carolina, and that they retain the spirit, intent, and letter of Wesleyan accountability as a tool for ministry, and not as a weapon against the marginalized.