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Bishop Plans to Allow Defiance of United Methodist Church Standards

By Walter Fenton

December 7, 2021

Bishop Laurie Haller, resident bishop of the Iowa Episcopal Area and interim bishop to the Dakotas Conference and the Dakotas-Minnesota Area

The Iowa Wesleyan Covenant Association Regional Chapter has responded to a statement from Bishop Laurie Haller and her cabinet that would allow Iowa Annual Conference clergy to preside at same sex weddings and churches to host them.

In a broad document entitled “Leading Now and Into the Future – Our Vision,” Haller and her cabinet said, “To put it clearly, pastors will be able to choose which weddings they officiate, as long as it is two consenting adults who have been counseled. Likewise, church leadership, in consultation with their pastors, will be able to determine their own policy regarding weddings.”

“Bishop Haller and the cabinet do not have the authority to supersede the UM Church’s teachings with their own opinions,” said the Iowa WCA Regional Chapter response. “Such an approach is an invitation to confusion, chaos, and anarchy. Therefore, we respectfully call on Bishop Haller and the cabinet to rescind ‘Leading Now.’”

Released on November 23, the bishop and cabinet said their “vision will become effective January 1, 2022” despite the fact that United Methodist General Conferences have reaffirmed the church’s teachings that clergy are not to preside at same sex weddings and local churches are not to host them.

“We are all disappointed the UM Church has not been able to convene a General Conference and so adopt the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” said the Iowa WCA Regional Chapter. “However, disappointment does not entitle Bishop Haller and the Cabinet to make-up their own rules in the interim.”

United Methodists with various opinions have chafed at the church’s inability to resolve its conflict and so allow them to adopt their favored policies or to form a new church. Since the 2019 General Conference, a gathering that many regarded as a public relations fiasco for the denomination, some local UM churches have moved to obscure their connection with the denomination by modifying their names and removing the cross and flame logo from their signs and buildings. A small percentage have taken the dramatic step of disaffiliating from the church.

“I think there’s some misunderstanding about the terms of the Protocol,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, WCA President. “Some clergy and lay people, and now evidently a bishop and her entire cabinet, have convinced themselves that some of the church’s standards are already no longer applicable to them or those they supervise. That kind of thinking could undermine the denomination before General Conference delegates have a chance to deliberate and vote on the Protocol. If Bishop Haller and her cabinet permit this policy countenancing defiance of the Discipline to go into effect, I think they risk returning the UM Church to the level of conflict witnessed at the 2019 General Conference.”

Boyette was just one of the teams members who negotiated the terms of the Protocol agreement. The team included leading bishops from around the world and representatives from all advocacy groups representing centrists, progressives, and theological conservatives. World renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg helped the diverse group of United Methodists reach an agreement for an orderly and amicable separation of the church. Feinberg and other lawyers assisting him volunteered their time and resources free of charge as the mediation team hammered out the Protocol agreement.

“If a bishop and her cabinet are not going to abide by parts of the Discipline prior to the approval of the Protocol, then some local churches are likely to decide they are free to do the same,” said Boyette. “It seems quite possible, at least in the Iowa Annual Conference, that congregations will cease paying apportionments or even decide the trust clause is no longer applicable to them. I think it would be very awkward for a bishop and cabinet to permit some to defy the Discipline in some areas, but then attempt to enforce other parts of it. From my reading of Haller and her cabinet’s vision statement, it seems likely that at least some theologically conservative local churches in Iowa will decide they can no longer support or be part of an annual conference where a bishop and her cabinet have arbitrarily decided they will not abide by or enforce the Discipline.”

Iowa WCA leaders have said they hope the bishop and her cabinet will not implement the portion of the vision statement that permits clergy and local churches to violate long held UM Church standards. For now, they said they are focused on observing Advent and looking forward to the celebration of Christmas in their congregations. They will meet early next year to consider how they will respond should Haller and her cabinet persist in countenancing a pick-and-choose approach to the UM church’s covenants.

The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.

East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.

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