— by Chris Ritter

NOTE:  Since I published this post the Judicial Council has ruled that GCFA was wrong in withholding the salaries of the two bishops mentioned in this post.  You can read about this decision here.

Those who know me also know my hope that General Conference 2016 will reach a fair and comprehensive settlement of our differences and achieve amicable unity in The United Methodist Church for years to come.   I have written a major proposal to that end that has received generous support from across the theological spectrum.  However, I am also a realist.  General Conference is famous for breaking the hearts of reformers.  We may need to lace our shoes for a longer, more difficult path.

My dog-eared and diet-coke-stained copy of our Book of Discipline witnesses to the deep-dive I have made into our organizational covenant over the past months. This process has yielded a profound appreciation for the challenges faced by anyone seeking to bring accountability to an organization thus constituted.

We truly are a jurisdictional church, as opposed to an organizationally unified one.  Bishops, our chief executive officers, while avowed to uphold the teachings of our general church are nevertheless elected and held accountable at the jurisdictional level.  When enough bishops in a jurisdiction take issue with a theological or social stance of our denomination, they can assume a position of open defiance.  Bishops, we have learned, sometimes appoint counsels for the church who share their personal views and keep complaints against clergy from coming to trial.  This creates a consequence-free environment for defiant clergy supervised by these bishops.

Moving the locus of episcopal accountability out of the jurisdictions would require constitutional changes which must be passed and ratified by a 2/3 margin.  While the culturally conservative majority of General Conference (comprised of the African vote, American Traditionalists, and some Evangelicals and Moderates) has the votes to retain our stance on issues like human sexuality, they perhaps do not yet have the votes to rewire our Constitution.  As I have written about elsewhere, it seems that the Progressives do not have the power to change our stances and the Traditionalists do not have the power to enforce them.    The general church is left with positions that are unenforceable (absent of good faith) due to the jurisdictional protections of our constitutional framework.   What is a simple majority to do in order to hold bishops accountable in such an environment?

I found one thing.

You may have noticed the UMNS story about two African bishops who are in trouble for financial irregularities in their area offices.  The General Council on Finance and Administration has brought these bishops to accountability by withholding the majority of their salaries until they come into compliance with GCFA policies.  This reveals an interesting facet of our connectional covenant:  Bishops are elected by their jurisdictions*, held accountable in their jurisdictions, but their salaries are paid by the general church.

If the general church can withhold a bishop’s salary for financial disobedience, surely it can do the same for other substantial matters of our Discipline.  This might start with an addition to ¶818 (The Episcopal Fund) which would put in place a new commission empowered to receive and review reports of bishops who have unchecked disobedience to our BOD  in their episcopal areas.  Substantiated reports could be met with a reduction or elimination of the $141,400 salary of that bishop until conditions are corrected.  Members of this commission would be elected at General Conference and uphold the interests of the general church.  This is similar to the way the federal government enforces traffic laws upon the states.  Those states not in compliance will continue to have their people taxed but will not receive a share of the federal highway funds.

A move to bring accountability to our bishops could be paired with mandatory minimum penalties for clergy performing same-sex weddings (perhaps a one-year unpaid suspension for the first offense and de-frocking for the second).   While not absolutely guaranteeing faithfulness to our covenant, these moves would eliminate the consequence-free environment that now exists in some conferences and jurisdictions.  More clergy would come to trial and face sufficient penalties to enforce higher levels of obedience.  Because the general church maintains a separate pension and benefit program for bishops, accountability could also reach to those retired bishops who willfully defy the teachings of our church.  Most importantly, these changes could happen with a simple majority and no constitutional amendments.

My preferred option continues to be a fair and comprehensive settlement of our differences by replacing our five geographic jurisdictions with two based on ideology.  Each new jurisdiction would be further empowered to adapt some of the BOD as best fits their missional setting.  This requires constitutional changes and the accompanying ratification process.  If there is not the will for a comprehensive solution at General Conference 2016, Traditionalists may come offering some tools for financial accountability and gear up for a longer fight for the heart of our denomination.

*Central conference bishops are elected and held accountable by their central conference, which is a structure very similar to our American jurisdictions.