Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

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May 16, 2012 - Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I think a crash course in Robb’s rules of order and general parliamentary procedure would be helpful too. The voting technology also seemed to need a lot of kinks worked out.

    Comment by Dennis J | May 17, 2012 | Reply

  2. This is an excellent question, though not a new one, and it is rarely asked. In the Protestant/Reform tradition, each individual believer has the right – and the obligation – to read and interpret Scripture for him/herself. One would think that the process of interpretation would naturally lead to theological reflection – on Scripture and on one’s own particular tradition. One would think that an adult Bible class studying the Gospel of Mark would bother to read it – it’s not all that long. But people don’t do these things. They are good, faithful church members – and they feel strongly about their right to hold opinions on anything. Churches have sown into the wind – they do not teach. Simply holding Sunday school classes does not guarantee that members of the faith will grow in understanding. If clergy and laity are disappointed in a process that determines truth through a process of voting (where is there Scriptural support for that?) they have only themselves to blame for not working hard – or taking the political risks – to educate their sisters and brothers in Christ. That will never happen through a top-down system of organizational comfort. It must begin at home, and in one’s own church. It may be possible to have useful conversation about belief and behavior, but I doubt it.

    Comment by Richard Harrison | May 18, 2012 | Reply


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