By Steve Wolfgang
Footnote: Richard John Neuhaus, ed. Theological Education and Moral Formation (Grand Rapids, ME William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), pp. 226-227.
Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative journal First Things, also edits the Encounter Series of volumes published by Eerdmans, of which this is volume 15. Readers of this journal might also be interested in other volumes in the series, particularly volume 2 (Unsecular America) and volume 5 (The Bible, Politics, and Democracy).
Typically, each volume reports a conference in which four to six featured speakers delivered prepared addresses, following which those speakers and perhaps a dozen others join in a panel discussion of the issues raised in the prepared speeches.
This particular volume reports a conference at Duke University and offers some rare insight into the state of the denominational mentality in America, and I offer excerpts from three different sections of the round-table discussion for your amazement.
Professor William Willimon, speaking of the crisis of authority in the United Methodist church today:
“Right now the clergy suffer from a crippling inability to discipline one another, even in some of the grossest breaches of moral conduct. I’m thinking particularly of the United Methodist examples, but I could think of others. In my own annual conference there are cases of wife abuse, income tax evasion, and worse. This happens yearly. The United Methodist system is predicated on the assumption that clergy will discipline their own, and the laity wait for us to do that. For example, there was a district superintendent, a Duke graduate, who didn’t pay income tax for twelve years. He was indicted and convicted. When this came before the annual conference, people took the floor and talked about the one who was without sin throwing the first stone. I asked, ‘Does anybody have a rock?’ When I left the meeting, my dominant impression was this: Here’s your typical United Methodist ethical mush at work. Later I came to a much more devastating conclusion: We don’t even respect ourselves enough to say to this guy, ‘We don’t want you to be a part of us.’ We United Methodist ministers should think so much of our God-given vocation that there will be some colleagues to whom we must say, ‘You can be a wonderful Christian. But you can’t be a United Methodist pastor anymore. You forfeited that possibility. We can’t use you.’ It’s sad that six hundred people sat in that room at the annual conference and none of us said, ‘We treasure so much the yoke under which we serve that we cannot use you.
Willimon continued his point by noting that demoralized clergy lead to paralyzed churches: “As a United Methodist, I’m part of a denomination that over the last decade has lost six hundred members a week. All of the main-liners, or old-liners, are in the same situation. How much more dissatisfaction do we need? This summer I went to the jurisdictional conference. A bishop got up and said, ‘The good news is that our rate of decline is one of the lowest in the United Methodist Church today. The good news is that we have lost only 120 members a week since we last met.’ Despite this ‘good news,’ he expressed regret and said we needed to work on evangelism. Then, when we had finished with that, we proceeded to elect a group of people as bishops, not one of whom, in my humble estimation, knows what to do about the losses.”
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 14, p. 427
July 16, 1992