(RNS) — The United Methodist Church’s recent difficulties, even as enormous as they are, hardly make them unique among religious organizations. But their difficulties are the ones I know best, having been ordained a UMC minister just a year after its formation and having spent the past five decades serving in and studying the denomination, now the United States’ second-largest Protestant body.
Wesleyan theology connects promises of divine grace with practices of faith. If the link between human practice and holy promise breaks, that connection snaps. Critics now claim that the connection between United Methodism’s doctrine and its disciplines is broken. For a church that publishes its constitution, doctrinal standards, theological positions, social principles, ecclesial policies and regulatory laws in a single volume known as the Book of Discipline, these allegations are a gut punch.
One recent episode showed the critics may be right. When the four-day trial of United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño ended Sept. 22 with acquittal by the unanimous votes of 13 trial court members, it culminated an 18-month-long ordeal that had further divided a denomination already divided by matters regarding same-sex marriage and ordaining LGTBQ persons.
More than that, the trial was the last word in a long saga of suspicion and distrust. It left many wondering whether grace had been practiced and whether the trial should have happened.
The Book of Discipline calls a trial “an expedient of last resort.” Processes in its pages define a complaint against a lay or clergy member of the church and describe methods for dealing with complaints in gracious ways designed to protect the confidentiality of complainants and respondents alike, while assuring fair process for all parties.
But this trial showed that church processes cannot assure that grace is practiced.
This “expedient of last resort” had never been used in any complaint against an American bishop since Methodists began having bishops in 1784. It so happens that Bishop Carcaño, who was elected to the episcopacy in 2004, is also the first Latina to be a bishop of The United Methodist Church and the first bishop to be suspended from active service while facing complaints.
The authors and contents of the complainants were revealed to Bishop Carcaño, but the larger church and the general public were kept in the dark to protect the confidentiality of the complainant. But her suspension had already deprived Bishop Carcaño of confidentiality. It identified her as an alleged perpetrator of inappropriate conduct and as a person whose continued active service posed a threat to herself, others or the church.
Even as the trial began on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, only the respondent bishop, the complainants and a small number of persons in United Methodism’s Western Jurisdiction on specific committees knew what the complaints alleged. Everyone else relied on suspicions, rumors, innuendos and speculations circulating on social media and elsewhere.
For 16 months of Bishop Carcaño’s suspensions, until my health forced me to step aside, I was “counsel for the respondent.” I accompanied the bishop to meetings with church officials, worked alongside her in efforts to achieve what the Book of Discipline calls a “just resolution” of the matter and assisted her in her appeal to the Judicial Council, United Methodism’s constitutionally supreme appellate panel.
For that entire time and longer, the Bishop was compelled to keep quiet. Lacking information on the complaints, some said silence signaled guilt. United Methodists — even other bishops — said, “I have no idea what the complaints are, but they must be serious for her to be suspended.”
For a year and a half, the bishop also awaited her counsel’s right to ask critical questions of her accusers. When the trial court revealed its decisions on the four “charges” based on the three “complaints,” it was the first time any entity outside the Western Jurisdiction delivered any ruling on the matter.
The trial court’s unanimous decision ended her suspension, returned her to active service and reunited her with the international Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church.
But the trial court’s unanimous decision demonstrated that the trial should never have happened. To have none of the 13 trial court members find “clear and convincing” evidence that church laws were violated is a clear sign that the procedures in the Book of Discipline should have settled the matter long before things ever reached the trial stage. But they never did.
Bishop Carcaño is now in the office to which she was elected, consecrated and assigned. But she has been harmed by losing a year and a half to a process that proved itself incapable of resolving complaints graciously and has been harmed by rumors that arose when disciplinary processes created a vacuum of information that others filled.
The church, meanwhile, has been harmed by being deprived of her prophetic voice while she was silenced on topics from global migration to universal education to spiritual discipleship.
Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, left to his ecclesiastical heirs three “general rules.” The first is “Do No Harm.” What has happened in the past year and a half is that Mr. Wesley’s United Methodist descendants did great harm because flaws in their Book of Discipline led to fractured connections between the doctrine of grace and the disciplines of the church.
While the bishop’s trial ended with an acquittal, the church was on trial, too. It did not fare very well.
(The Rev. William B. Lawrence is a retired minister in The United Methodist Church and professor emeritus of American Church History at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)