A young friend recently asked me: “Does the trend by our bishops to dismiss complaints related to same-sex issues break our covenant under the Book of Discipline? Doesn't that doom our church?"
After nearly eight decades of "life experience" and more than half a century as a United Methodist ordained elder, I can say without equivocation, "The end of the UMC is not coming anytime soon." I have watched people at all levels of the church thumb their noses at parts of the Discipline since my first appointment in 1959. That year, for charge conference (annual congregational meeting) that year, the Discipline required that I find out where the deeds and other legal papers were. When I asked the trustee chairman about the documents, he became very angry and accused me of not trusting him. The DS did not back me on my effort to locate the documents. He was not a stickler for the Discipline.
When the process of consulting with congregations on pastoral appointments was first put into the Discipline in the 1960s, the only bishop that I know who followed it was ours in Wisconsin. Most bishops saw the whole idea of having a potential pastor meet with the pastor-parish relations committee of a church before appointment as undermining their authority. To this day, consultation with congregations on pastoral appointments is inconsistent at best; some conferences use it regularly and with integrity, while others don't. But it's still a requirement in the Discipline.
In another violation of the Discipline, many pastors completely ignore the Church's stance against re-baptizing adults who, baptized as infants, want to repeat the ritual to mark their spiritual renewal. If a pastor holds to a theology that only adult baptism has any meaning because of a believer's public profession, then he or she re-baptizes without a second thought. Yet no one has seen the church fall apart on account of re-baptizing, which violates the Discipline.
Finally, based on the cases I have worked on as an advocate for clergy in "fair process," I have seen bishops violate the Book of Discipline left and right in personnel matters. Pastors' rights have been trampled upon repeatedly by inept or intentionally cruel misuse of church law, yet no one – not even their own accountability body, the College of Bishops – allows bishops who transgress the United Methodist personnel processes to be brought up on charges for their violations of the Discipline.
These episodes illustrate my point: everyone – bishops, clergy and laity – violates the Discipline regularly. This has gone on since the Discipline was passed by the first General Conference in 1784. Yet the United Methodist Church lives on.
Having the UMC's long history of inconsistent enforcement of the Book of Discipline as its ruling covenant, I think that the furor over private sexual behavior of only certain people has hidden a lot of other violations of the Discipline. The threat to break up the church over violations of the "covenant" is being used as an emotional distraction covering efforts to take over the denomination and drive out diversity of all kinds. The same tactics were used in the Southern Baptist and Missouri Synod Lutheran denominations to gain control of properties and seminaries of those denominations, and thus control of the theology and authority of each denomination. Such a drive for control is characteristic of those who cannot tolerate dissent or differences. The reason they don't show their true colors in the middle of the fight is because if they did, their ambition and hunger for power would antagonize everyone.
Within our United Methodist Church, there are very good people with a wide variety of agreement and disagreement who are on each side of the homosexuality debate. We have been working side-by-side with them in hurricane relief, in jail ministries, and in mission projects. We all sit side-by-side at weddings, funerals, anniversary services and annual conferences. Only rarely do our differences over the church's official stances regarding the issues related to homosexuality enter into our conversations.
So will "breaking the covenant" by violating the Book of Discipline doom The United Methodist Church? Our covenant is only partly related to church law. I think that using the threat to split the church as a part of tactics to change church law has been with us since 1980 and we haven't split yet because we are too busy enjoying the other part of our covenant, our potlucks and trying to do good in the world in Jesus' name.