“As members of Christ’s universal church, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? I will.”
“Reception into The United Methodist Church," Baptismal Covenant I, The United Methodist Hymnal, page 38
By Rowland S. Buck, Holston WCA Board Chair
I’ve seen this part of the Baptismal Covenant of The United Methodist Church referenced in several correspondences and on social media lately in the context of the current UM schism and the announcement of a new denomination launching May 1. The citation usually comes from pastors who say they will not leave the UMC, as opposed to those who are considering “leaving” the UMC over issues of biblical interpretation, especially where human sexuality is concerned.
The point they are making is that pastors, laity and churches who consider moving to the Global Methodist Church are “breaking” their vows and showing disloyalty to the church where it was pledged. I find it interesting for a number of reasons.
First, I find it rather hypocritical. Some who have accused the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church of being schismatic and divisive are the very ones who support a disobedience to The United Methodist General Conference. Since 1972, our top legislative body has kept the same stance on the issues of the practice of homosexuality, the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, and same-sex weddings. Somehow that ongoing disobedience is being “loyal.”
Second, I find it interesting how institutional loyalty is prized above loyalty to Jesus Christ and Scripture. In the liturgy of the Baptismal Covenant, notice that loyalty to The United Methodist Church is secondary and subservient to loyalty to Christ and His Church. The persons who wrote the liturgy knew what they were doing, refusing to equate one denomination with the universal Church of Jesus Christ.
What is more telling in these appeals to loyalty (solely aimed at keeping the denomination together) is the implication that loyalty is to be unconditional. No matter what the denomination does, our loyalty is required—even if it changes the doctrine once agreed upon, even if bishops defy the common will of the General Conference, and even if our Doctrinal Standards are reduced to historical markers.
And finally, I find raising the issue of loyalty to be a smokescreen for the real issue. The real issue is that many of us are avoiding tough conversations with each other and in the midst of our churches. Many pastors are keeping their congregations in the dark about the state of The United Methodist Church. They tell their congregations “Everything is fine,” “What you are hearing in the news is just about people trying to cause trouble,” and “None of that is going to change what we do here.” And then they cap it off by saying, “I’m going to be loyal to The United Methodist Church,” and it all sounds rather holy.
But things are not all right, and I don’t think this tack is holy. We are in the throes of death. We have been hemorrhaging members for 50 years. When I was in high school (40 years ago) there were nearly 1,200 churches in the Holston Conference; now there are fewer than 900.
In terms of doctrine—what we hold to be true so that it determines what we do—we are a mess. On paper, we look put together, but in practice, we are like the story in Judges: Everyone does what is right in their own eyes. There are vast theological differences between clergy and the people in the pews, differences masked by platitudes and diversionary tactics.
We have bishops who have been judged by our Judicial Council to be invalidly elected, yet there is no one willing to uphold church law. We have Annual Conferences ordaining clergy in direct defiance of the Book of Discipline. Some even are determined to no longer ask questions to discern whether candidates meet the Discipline’s requirements. And somehow all of this is supported by those who are “loyal to The United Methodist Church.”
Sometimes loyalty means being willing to confront each other and ask hard questions. Loyalty requires us to have tough conversations. Loyalty means being willing to recognize we have lost our way and begin to seek the Lord to help us find it again. Sometimes, to be loyal, we have to repent. Other times, the most loyal thing we can do is to realize we are a hindrance to others in following their conscience, and let them go.
What I do know is that none of us has shown perfect loyalty to Christ, to His Church, or to The United Methodist Church. I know I haven’t. I am relatively sure you haven’t. While two wrongs don’t make a right, neither does forcing each other to go on together for the sake of an institution that will ask one of us to compromise our conscience. The best we can do is to find a way forward, to recognize our differences, to show grace and kindness, to refuse to retaliate for any injustices done, real or perceived, to bless each other and not curse each other. This is loyalty of the highest degree to each other when we can no longer agree with each other on principle. I wonder if we can be that loyal.