by Bob Phillips

The law firm of Picky, Petty, and Small seems to have been retained by the legacy denomination for unfortunate purposes. Numerous bishops are specific and emphatic that retired UM clergy are not to be on the payroll of the local brothel or any Global Methodist Church since the consequences for either action are identical. To conduct any sacramental act, to fill a pulpit to preach the gospel, to do anything of a pastoral nature within the tent of the GMC is to place oneself outside the camp of the UMC. The malefactors will be stripped of conference membership, specific retirement benefits and (until a recent whiff of sane grace from the Judicial Council), stripped of their ordination. Retired clergy whose conscience aligns with the GMC darn well better not have their voice or body follow that alignment, lest the possibility of financial catastrophe slam their retirement benefits issued by individual conferences. Federal law happily protects Wespath vested benefits from zealots of purity. “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” is a saying with fine print: all except the usual suspects of the GMC.

Numerous bishops angered at retired clergy affinity for the GMC are threatening said clergy with complaints, charges, and punitive action. One bishop wrote a pastor that his credentials and membership were terminated effective the date his church disaffiliated and that if he didn’t produce his credentials he would be brought up on charges and…”Since you no longer hold membership or credentials in the United Methodist Church, you no longer have the right to due process.” Another bishop specifically ordered an honorably retired UM clergy to “discontinue the relationship immediately” or formally surrender their membership/credentials or ask in writing for written permission to serve (knowing such a request would be denied). Another conference posted bluntly: “Furthermore, we call into account all clergy members, active and retired, within and related to the X Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, whose convictions no longer align with The United Methodist Church, yet they continue to receive the benefits of The Connection while not living out the covenant, to either withdraw their membership from the X Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church or withdraw from the Ordained Ministerial Office (1360.1 or 360.2 2016 Book of Discipline). This duality is hindering the ongoing work of ministry within our X Annual Conference.”

One can imagine the field day that secular media would have with the mass prosecution of retirees, hobbling or wheeled into church courts, denounced and defrocked for the sin of sacrilege against the System. One could understand so treating clergy who sold fentanyl on the street. Preaching the gospel or offering Holy Communion or conducting weddings or funerals or home and hospital visitation in a Wesleyan sister church would not seem to reach the same level of offense…and yet.

The official reason is simple. The lack of a “Comity agreement” with the GMC places that Christian/Wesleyan denomination for some in the same category with the Moonlight Bunny Ranch and other illustrious establishments in Nevada. Official cooperation with the GMC or its people is treated as evil since no General Conference officially has ratified its existence as a Christian church. This reflects the consistent and absolute obedience to General Conference action by all the Council of Bishops, or perhaps painfully highlights the bitter fruit of the spirit of selective (dis)obedience by many bishops to General Conference that makes appeals to General Conference authority dubious at best and hypocritical at worst. In my conference retired clergy have honorably served as pastors of churches ranging from Mennonite to UCC, without ‘hissing and spewing in their direction from higher authority. Both are sample denominations with no comity agreement nor General Conference official recognition of their existence, just common-sense decisions to affirm UM retired clergy in those settings.

When I asked recently what denominations have agreements ratified by a General Conference that they exist, the short answer was “technically, none” beyond some historic Wesleyan connections such as the AME church and other cousins. Taking a cue from the Anglican bishops’ response to the early Methodists, the pall of illegitimacy has been cast over the GMC. Wesley may have said, “The world is my parish,” but that world excludes the GMC churches. Wesley wound up ordaining clergy and was not booted from the Church of England. One bishop has warned retired clergy that while it is ok to be in the room during GMC ordination services, one must not wear a robe or stole or make any physical contact with the ordinand, for the laying on of hands is a chargeable offense. Really. The biblical precedent in the bishops’ response is Pauline, i.e., the pre-conversion Saul “breathing threatenings and slaughters” against early Christians who dared defile local synagogues with their scurrilous presence. Thus, some are praying these bishops have their own ‘Road to Damascus’ encounter with grace and mellow out.

What to do? Retirees can bend conscience in situations where the financial threats to retired benefits imperil family well-being. Threats can be “effective” depending on the intent. One of my morally distant relatives founded the ‘Ndrangheta,’ the Calabrian version of the Mafia, in the US, and some of the feelings and wordings of episcopal threats have given me a strange sense of familia déjà vu, until I remember we are supposed to be a church. Some, trapped in difficult situations, will make that hard but honorable choice, not out of greed but care for loved ones who would be harmed by a tragically vindictive system.

A second response is to follow conscience, provided one resists a spirit of nasty resistance or revenge. If the world is our parish and a spiritual need exists in any setting (including a Wesleyan cousin such as the GMC), do as led by the Spirit but without public screaming or claims of martyrdom or focusing personal attack on bishops. Simply do right, as God gives you to see the right. If a bishop wishes to file charges and hold trials for 10 or 20 or 50 retired clergy, it is the system’s choice. Using a GMC platform to ‘spike the ball’ or continue verbal warfare is inconsistent with this path of Christian conscience if reason and grace prevail. For Christian peacemakers, bridges are for building, not burning.

Here is some perspective. At the Naval Academy is the saying among the midshipmen that “They can’t bag us all.” This refers to occasions when leadership adopts a dumb rule and threatens to punish any who disobey the dumb rule. That falls short when the entire brigade of midshipmen collectively breaks the dumb rule, helping leadership to see that the vision of kicking everyone out of the Academy defeats the purpose and dooms the dumb rule to the trash bin. I therefore hopefully doubt most bishops would risk mass show trials for the crime of…what? Daring to preach the gospel in an officially disapproved setting?

This brings us to B.T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church. He was a Methodist pastor in New York who objected to the practice of renting pews to get church income. All seats in God’s house should be free. He also was angered by the hypocrisy of the denomination regarding slavery. From the beginning Methodism did not condone the practice of slavery and considered the practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Thus, self-avowed practicing enslavers were not eligible for ordination, appointment, or consecration as bishop. Church teaching was followed in his conference but increasingly ignored in other conferences, where the practice was initially discouraged, then tolerated, then accepted and finally actively affirmed. He publicly criticized the denomination for such actions, and for drifting from an emphasis on holiness. He was charged, tried, and eventually stripped of ordination and status for “immoral and unchristian conduct,” i.e., telling inconvenient truths to episcopal power. He and others subsequently founded the Free Methodist Church, which today has over 1 million members, 90% outside the US. Consider that fact God’s last laugh on the allegations.

Seventeen years after his death, the Methodist church returned his ordination to his son, with an apology of how they had wronged him. His legacy is over a million Christians brought to the light of faith by a bond fire he built with conscience at clear personal cost. A win-win outcome arising from the current Methodist mitosis will bear fruit in settings unreached by the current system. “In due season we (all) shall reap, if we do not lose heart” or become bitter. Be in no doubt, the two choices are win-win or lose-lose. Perhaps Jesus said it best in guiding his followers in seasons of hostility and imposed constraint: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it but those who yield up their life for my sake and the gospel…will find it.” (John 12:25-6). Retirees who remain UM or who shift to GMC as conscience in Christ leads equally honor the Lord of the harvest. Someday, hopefully soon, the system will get it and embrace anew a vision in which the world really is our parish, UMC and GMC included.

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)

See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.

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