Scott Jones is the bishop of the Kansas area of the United Methodist Church. In At The Extreme Center, Bishop Jones recently wrote:
I have offered an interpretation of the shape of UM doctrine in my book United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. I argue there are three levels:
Constitutionally Protected Standards of Doctrine: Constitution, Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and Wesley’s Sermons.
Contemporary Statements of the General Conference: Part II of the BOD (Our Doctrinal History, Our Doctrinal Heritage, Our Theological Task), Part III Ministry of All Christians (including the Mission Statement), Part IV Social Principles, doctrinal parts of the BOD, Book of Resolutions.
Liturgy: The United Methodist Hymnal and United Methodist Book of Worship.
I argue that these three levels differ in authority with Standards of doctrine (the hardest to change) being most authoritative and liturgy being least authoritative.
* * *
I’d like to read Bishop Jones’ book (United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center) to see what he says about the proper function of doctrine, but he certainly is correct that United Methodist doctrine takes these three different forms. Doctrine, after all, simply means “teaching,” and each of them teaches in its own way. Taken together, the documents indicate that the church has quite a bit to say. Whether anyone is listening is another matter.
What interests me most is Jones’ hierarchy, from most authoritative to least authoritative:
- Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Notes and Sermons
- The Book of Discipline and the Book of Resolutions
- The Hymnal and the Book of Worship
If we United Methodists are an expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, there are at least two levels of “teaching” that for me have even greater precedence.
First, while some might argue that it is purely a matter of semantics, I think that it is important to note that the Biblical documents themselves are the most basic of the church’s teaching. The scriptures have kind of a dual identity: they are God’s word to the church and the world, but through their use and canonization, they are also the teaching of the church. When we gather for worship, we read the scriptures. The scriptures infuse the liturgy with the church’s most important doctrine. When we meet for sacred study, it is the scriptures that instruct us. When we pray, it is the scriptures that teach us how.
Second, I acknowledge the authority of the ecumenical creeds: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. For me, these ancient statements carry more weight than even the Articles of Religion or the writings of Wesley. With Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans, we baptize using the Apostles Creed. When it comes to using the the Nicene Creed in the Eucharist, you can add the Orthodox to that mix.
Both the scriptures and the ecumenical creeds are very closely tied to Christian worship. For more than nearly one and a half millennia, it was in worship that most Christians encountered the teaching of the Bible. And every Sunday, they recited the teaching of the creed.
As a practical matter, the liturgy – in whatever form it takes – has a greater doctrinal impact on United Methodists than the Book of Discipline or the Book of Resolutions ever will. United Methodists learn more theology from the songs they sing and the prayers they pray than they do from fat, dense books that few people buy and fewer people read (for good reason). Does some obscure line from the thousand-page Book of Resolutions have more doctrinal authority than the hymnbook and the order of worship United Methodists use every Sunday? Bishop Jones may be correct in saying that it does – at least in the legal sense – but that’s not how doctrine works in the real world. Lex orandi, lex credendi.