Recently the Connectional Table of our denomination voted to recommend a series of changes to our Book of Discipline. Like all of the other proposals and petitions that will come to General Conference next year, the vote of the Connectional Table is only a recommendation and not a final decision.
The proposals from the Connectional Table deal with the issue of homosexuality and especially same-gender weddings. Currently our Book of Discipline prohibits our clergy from officiating at such a ceremony, and our Discipline also states that we consider the practice of homosexuality (not the orientation, but the behavior) to be "incompatible with Christian teaching." Given the increasing number of states in the U.S. which have made same-gender marriages legal, along with some countries elsewhere (mostly in Europe and most recently by popular referendum in Ireland), the Connectional Table recommended changing our prohibitions against our clergy performing same-gender weddings. Instead they propose leaving that decision up to the appointed pastor for each church, just as pastors already have the authority to decide whether or not to officiate the wedding for any couple. Likewise the Connectional Table proposal leaves the decision about which candidates to ordain to each Annual Conference, where that authority is already placed in our Book of Discipline.
Of course all of this is controversial because it would likely mean that some pastors would choose to officiate same-gender weddings in states of the U.S. or other countries where such a marriage is legal. In countries where such a marriage is not legal (like most countries in Africa), pastors would not be allowed to make that choice, and no pastor anywhere would be forced to officiate at such a wedding. The decision would be left in the hands of the pastor. The proposals from the Connectional Table are also controversial because it would likely mean that some Annual Conferences would choose to approve the ordination of a candidate who is homosexual, while many other Annual Conferences would not make that choice. The Connectional Table proposals have been roundly criticized by groups on the left (like Love Prevails) and groups on the right (like Good News), so one is left to wonder if their proposals have any chance of being approved at General Conference. Of course being criticized on the left and right could mean that the proposals from the Connectional Table are indeed a compromise or a "third way" as they described it in their deliberations.
If we take the whole issue of homosexuality out of the discussion, I am attracted to one aspect of the Connectional Table proposal: they place accountability at the local church and Annual Conference level where accountability really counts. Our current efforts to hold people accountable from the General Conference level have not worked. Even our efforts as the Council of Bishops to hold one another and the whole church accountable have not worked. In this 21st century era of "flat" organizations, I am not sure if "top down" accountability will ever work again. Rather, we often find that "horizontal" accountability between and among peers is more effective. Perhaps allowing local churches, pastors of those local churches, and local Annual Conferences to make these decisions is a more viable option. Will that make our UMC less "connectional"? Probably so, or maybe it would recognize that we already are less connectional that we were in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Already we are allowing for more and more "localism" in our decision-making. Our Book of Discipline allows for a great deal of flexibility in how local churches organize themselves. Likewise our Annual Conferences are allowed to organize themselves in order to meet their own special missional needs. The Judicial Council has ruled that the pastor of a local congregation has final say over which persons may join that congregation. On and on the list goes ... we are becoming more local in many ways. I know that all Bishops and Cabinets deal with this trend as we make appointments, too, with clergy adding more and more special circumstances as we consider how itinerant they really are (things like kids in school, spouse employment, needs of elderly parents and other geographic considerations). The days of every clergy simply saying "yes" when appointed are gone; nowadays the "consultation process" is written into our Discipline and it is even more complicated in practice. It isn't 1950 anymore in terms of our UMC connectional structure.
It is also true that many rules against practices which are contrary to the Book of Discipline are not enforced and perhaps are not enforceable. For example, rebaptism is clearly against our theology and our rules, but I can't think of the last time that anyone tried to enforce that rule. Rather, we trust the pastoral judgement of our clergy to work with individuals to determine what kind of "renewal" is needed to help their faith journey. Another example is the way we have stretched the role of Local Pastors who now can be appointed to Extension Ministries, can be given permission to serve the sacraments at things like an Emmaus Walk outside of their local parish, etc. We have stretched those definitions in order to allow ministry to happen. Another obvious example is our UM Hymnal – how many of our congregations actually use the official hymnal, compared to how many adapt and use a variety of other types of music and even liturgy? No one seems ready to demand that every pastor and every congregation must use our official hymnal, even though our rules say so. I could name other examples where our Methodist "rules" are flexed for the good of our mission and ministry as determined in the local situation. Probably the largest example which we tend to overlook is the freedom we allow our Central Conferences outside of the U.S. to adapt much of the Book of Discipline to meet their unique cultural and regional settings. We simply do not hold them accountable to same sets of rules that we try to use in the Annual Conferences in the U.S.
So how truly "connectional" are we today? If by "connectional" we mean "uniformity" then that era has passed (if it ever existed). If by "connectional" we mean united in our mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," then that kind of alliance and affinity has a real possibility of guiding our ministry and mission.
I have no idea whether or not the proposals from the Connectional Table will be received well by the 2016 General Conference. We seem to live in an era of polarization where no new ideas have much chance of being passed at General Conference. But it may be time to place accountability on many issues where is can count the most – even if that means continuing our trends toward localism.