While the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church has been through a lot in the past couple of years, the conference took some major, positive steps in the right direction at its annual session this spring, including a strong word of rebuke of the sort that few United Methodists (outside of the renewal movement) have so far had the courage to make to renegade clergy.
As many readers are aware, the destructive actions of self-described “Christian agnostic” Frank Schaefer tore apart the congregation he had been entrusted with shepherding, and engulfed the conference in painful controversy. And the church region was further engulfed in controversy by the actions of the “Philadelphia 36” who performed a publicity-stunt same-sex union in open defiance of our denominational covenant.
This year, a sizable evangelical congregation in Quarryville, PA left the conference and the denomination altogether, out of exasperation with our bishops’ collective failures to enforce the United Methodist Church’s own biblical standards on marriage. Many see the conference’s Bishop Peggy Johnson as part of this problem, through her own failures to offer stronger public leadership in keeping her word to uphold our denomination’s covenantal standards, standards which she and the rest of our clergy chose at their ordinations to vow to uphold.
The congregation Bishop Johnson helped drive away was reportedly the fastest-growing United Methodist congregation in the Northeast.
Even knowing her relative liberalism, many evangelicals, including myself, had really tried for some time to give Bishop Johnson the benefit of the doubt. But then she released her joint statement on gay rights in which she selectively quoted from our denomination’s Social Principles, ignored traditionalist aspects of United Methodist social teaching she dislikes, and callously dismissed concerns about attacks on traditionalists’ freedom of conscience. If Bishop Johnson cannot bring herself to speak out against less liberal believers facing legal harassment, loss of livelihood, or even threatened jail time for our faith, it is not clear in what meaningful sense she really sees us as her brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, the clergy and lay members of the Eastern Pennsylvania annual conference have offered leadership where their bishop (and other bishops) has not.
The conference addressed several petitions that would have, in different ways, clearly opposed the UMC’s biblical stance that homosexual practice is inherently “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and our requirement for clergy to behave accordingly. All were rejected by majority vote.
Subsequently, the Rev. Joan Trout withdrew her petition to affirm the UMC’s biblical standards of sexual morality (including our commitment “in ministry for and with all persons”), since the conference had just made its stance sufficiently clear by rejecting all attempts to oppose these standards.
Evangelical friends of mine in the area are encouraged by the overall General Conference delegation they elected. As one of them told me “You can let folks know that there are more people in the Northeast Jurisdiction than they might think who are still committed to the historic faith!”
Most notably was the non-narrow adoption of a resolution entitled “Affirming our Covenant and Accountability” and submitted by the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection (EPEC).
All attempts to modify it failed, and it passed by a 60 percent majority.
With this strongly-worded resolution, the Eastern Pennsylvania conference publicly affirms its commitment to “abide by the rules of our common covenant as outlined in the Book of Discipline, and … [to] hold one another accountable to that covenant.” In a clear rebuke of the clergy-disobedience movement besieging our denomination, including the Philadelphia 36 within this very annual conference, this resolution reminds everyone that “clergy within the United Methodist church have voluntarily promised in ordination to uphold our church’s teachings and keep its disciplinary rules.” The resolution also helpfully “declares that there is no necessary contradiction between love and law; and that holding one another accountable to promises made” is “an act of love, however painful, to maintain both order and unity in the body.”
In conclusion, the resolution boldly calls on clergy of diverse views to honor our community covenant and work through its proper channels to promote any changes, while calling on those clergy who will not honor our covenant to leave the United Methodist Church as a better alternative to destructively damaging our ministry from within.
The full text of that resolution follows below:
RESOLUTION TO 2015 ANNUAL CONFERENCE SESSION
Resolution Relating to Affirming our Covenant and Accountability
Presented by the Eastern Pennsylvania Evangelical Connection (EPEC)
WHEREAS, The United Methodist Church is a global denomination in which churches, clergy and laypeople are bound together by a common covenant of doctrine and discipline; and
WHEREAS, the United Methodist Book of Discipline represents and outlines both the privileges and the obligations of that common covenant, and legitimately governs our life together as an annual conference, to which we are accountable; and
WHEREAS, we have a process that allows changes to be made to that covenant, which we call “holy conferencing,” a representative and democratic process that is public, and always open to revisiting questions previously decided; and
WHEREAS, clergy within the United Methodist church have voluntarily promised in ordination to uphold our church’s teachings and keep its disciplinary rules;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the EPA Conference will abide by the rules of our common covenant as outlined in the Book of Discipline, and will hold one another accountable to that covenant;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the EPA Conference declares that there is no necessary contradiction between love and law; and that holding one another accountable to promises made is not a punitive act, but an act of love, however painful, to maintain both order and unity in the body;
BE IT FURTHER RESOVED, that the EPA Conference affirms those among us who seek to change the provisions of our covenant through legitimate channels of holy conferencing, rather than breaking that covenant;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the EPA Conference calls upon those clergy who feel that they can no longer abide by our common covenant to withdraw themselves from our connection, rather than continue to cause damage to our ministry through ongoing judicial proceedings.
Persons Responsible for Presenting Resolution:
Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo, Rev. Timothy Kriebel