To what are clergy vowing faithfulness?

How do you remain faithful to vows when your partner keeps changing?

Ever since I began down this road toward full-time ministry, I’ve wondered how I will navigate the fact that at one point I will be asked to take vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church, and yet that doctrine and discipline can change substantially over time. What is the vow really about? Is it a vow to a specific formulation of doctrine and discipline that was in place when you took the vow? Or is it a vow to remain faithful to a community even when that community changes?

These questions come up when United Methodists talk about sex, but that is not the only topic that raises such issues.

It emerged for me today while reading Bill Arnold’s proposal to revise portions of “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline. Arnold has submitted this proposal for consideration by the Faith and Order Committee at General Conference in 2016. I find his proposal an improvement on our current language and would support it — if I had either a vote or say in any of this (such if the life of a local pastor.)

But as I am reading this proposal, I am also working on the final draft of my commissioning paperwork due in November. One of those questions asks for my interpretation of our theological task as United Methodists. One of the reviewers of my draft documents wrote recently that as long as my answer matches what the Book of Discipline says, I’m good.

So what happens if General Conference changes the text in meaningful ways in May? Or what does this mean for people who were ordained under the pre-1988 text, which I’ve never read but have heard a great deal about. (For those interested, a helpful brief commentary on changes changes in UMC doctrine can be found here, see especially page 2.)

I don’t have any answers to these questions. They are questions I have wondered about since I began writing this blog. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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You can’t make this stuff up

It was one of those articles I had to check to see if it was on a satire web site.

An ordained United Church of Canada minister who believes in neither God nor Bible said Wednesday she is prepared to fight an unprecedented attempt to boot her from the pulpit for her beliefs.

Unprecedented? Is there a history of the United Church of Canada applauding its atheist pastors? No. It turns out the church had never investigated a minister for fitness to be a minister. Never. How is that possible?

Here is some of what stirred the hierarchy into action:

“I don’t believe in…the god called God,” Vosper said. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.

What’s important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity’s beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.

“Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?” she said.

“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

Vosper made her views clear as far back as a Sunday sermon in 2001 but her congregation stood behind her until a decision to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 prompted about 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.

Things came to a head this year after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things — a reference to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

So the story ends with the United Church of Canada convening a process to examine whether this pastor has broken her ordination vows, which include expressing belief in God shockingly enough. But the pastor is appealing the process because, and I quote from the story here: “it puts any minister at risk of being judged and found wanting.”

So she is appealing an investigation of her fitness to be a minister because it may discover that she is not fit to be a minister. The church leaders admit that is a bit worrisome to them as well.

You should read the story yourself. It is not long and gets comical near the end.

I had a few thoughts while reading that — or maybe three.

First, John Wesley must be horrifying for people in this church to contemplate.

Second, thank you, Jesus, that we in the United Methodist Church are not here yet. We aren’t, are we?

Third, maybe instead of all this commissioning paperwork and evaluation I’m doing this year, I should just head up to Toronto.

Why not to go into ministry

Talbot Davis nails it.