As an institution, the United Methodist Church is built on its Book of Discipline. Apart from the Catholic Church, the UMC is perhaps more dependent on its church law than any other Christian denomination. Our self-identity is rooted in the “connection” created by our Discipline. Like the United States government, we have legislative, executive and judicial structures within our polity. Our polity wields great power over our churches, our clergy and – to a lesser degree – our members. And just as in secular law, there is an extensive body of judicial decisions that define how the law is to be interpreted and applied.
Significantly, the law is largely written by clergy, administered by clergy and – when necessary – adjudicated by clergy. Understandably, and for good reasons, pastors are not necessarily skilled legislators or lawyers. Neither are the lay members who generously give of their time to play disciplinary roles. That creates quite a problem for an institution so dependent on its legal structures.
At our last general conference, we passed major legislative reforms later invalidated by the judicial council due to technical issues. Just today, a regional judicial body overturned the punishment imposed on an ordained elder found guilty of violating church law. His actual guilt was upheld; only the punishment was vacated, again due to technicalities.
Our dependence on law is often frustrating. By calling and training, we elders are pastors, ministers of word and sacrament – not lawyers or legislators. As the embodiment of Jesus’ grace in this age, the church itself is an ill fit for the world of legislation and case law. On an institutional level, greater freedom to operate within a commonly understood and accepted framework would obviate the need to legislate everything. On an individual level, it would be much better if we could depend on the honor and integrity of our clergy to keep the covenants they make. But every earthly institution has some version of law – rules that it lives by. Unless and until the UMC changes its Book of Discipline, it is the law and we all have to live with it.