Commentary: Liberian divorce rule and connectionalism

Not since its founding in 1968 has The United Methodist Church formally condemned divorce. How is it then that a United Methodist conference in Africa has upheld a rule banning divorced clergy from running for bishop? What does this mean for the worldwide nature of The United Methodist Church and its sense of connectionalism?

“Discipline” in United Methodism refers both to the denomination’s book of law as well as the way in which we hold one another accountable in the life of faith. The rule barring divorced clergy from running for bishop in the Liberia Annual Conference reflects both of these approaches to discipline.

Every four years, General Conference legislates changes to the denomination’s book of law. The result is what the United Methodist Constitution refers to as the “General Discipline,” which United Methodists in the United States know as the Book of Discipline. However, this is not the only version of Methodist law currently in force in the worldwide United Methodist Church.

Central conferences (those located outside of the United States) and annual conferences within them may adapt the General Discipline to their missional contexts, provided such changes violate neither the constitution nor General Rules and “that the spirit of connectional relationship is kept between the local and the general church” (General Discipline 2012, 31.5 and 543.7). Thus, The United Methodist Church has many different currently valid books of law within one worldwide connection.

While it is not uniformity in law that defines the connectional relationship, some parts of church law, altered, violate the spirit of this relationship. Does the Liberian “divorce legislation” violate “the spirit of connectional relationship” as it seeks to hold clergy accountable in the life of faith?

We expect clergy to be moral exemplars. Both in the United States and in Liberia, United Methodists have a long history of regulating the moral lives of clergy through church law and expecting clergy to model the highest ideals of the moral life expected of every United Methodist Christian.

In the Liberia Conference, the rule prohibiting divorced clergy from running for bishop has been in place for decades. According to the Rev. Paye Cooper Mondolo, a superintendent in Liberia, this rule is designed to “bring moral credibility to the episcopal office” and is “for the good of the church.” Thus, the Liberia Conference codified a specific standard of holy living for those seeking nomination for bishop.

Divorce in American Methodist church law

American United Methodists do not have to delve too far into their own history to recognize one of the three D’s – debt, drugs and divorce – that would disqualify a person from ordination. Until the mid-20th century, each predecessor denomination of The United Methodist Church included some version of the statement, “No divorce, except for adultery, shall be regarded by the Church as lawful,” in church law. Following this statement was a rule that “no Minister shall solemnize marriage in any case where there is a divorced wife or husband living.”

Since clergy were to model the moral standards expected of all church members, being divorced or marrying a divorced person disqualified a person from ordained ministry. As recently as the General Discipline 1968, The United Methodist Church declared, “The Church does not sanction or condone divorce except on the ground of adultery.”

Since the introduction of no-fault divorce laws in the United States, Methodist prohibitions against divorce have disappeared from the General Discipline. General Conference no longer considers divorce an automatic disqualifier to ordination.

But the Liberia Conference rule shows that attitudes toward divorce can vary in different cultural contexts within United Methodism. Liberia is in the West Africa Central Conference, one of three United Methodist central conferences in Africa. The social teachings in a recent Book of Discipline adapted for use in another central conference, the Africa Central Conference, offer a helpful contrast to the General Discipline on divorce.

For nearly two decades, the Africa Central Conference used an adaptation of the General Discipline 1988. In this adaptation, the primary document of social teachings is not the Social Principles but rather the Special Advices, an elaboration of the General Rules that would have been familiar to American Methodists of the 1920s.

The Africa Central Conference Special Advices explicitly note marriage as a permanent relationship, both a divine and a human institution. The standards relating to remarriage of divorced persons in the Special Advices are similar to those of U.S. Methodism several generations earlier. People who are divorced can only be received into church membership if they repent and may marry only if the divorce was due to childlessness or to adultery or other forms of cruelty. In a statement surely drawn from the Social Principles, the Africa Central Conference also recognizes the right of divorced persons to remarry.

Significantly, the African Special Advices differ from the General Conference teachings by continuing to treat divorce as a sin and by retaining the church’s role in moral discernment of remarriage after divorce.

Connectionalism and a Global Discipline

General Conference’s effort to define a Global Discipline reflects a need to codify at least the essential parts of “the spirit of connectional relationship” that holds The United Methodist Church together. Is being divorced a constitutionally protected “status,” a word that the Judicial Council observes has not been defined by General Conference (see Decision 702)? Furthermore, does General Conference’s inclusion of the Social Principles as part of the Global Discipline negate other expressions of social teachings, such as the Special Advices in the Africa Central Conference?

Rules pertaining to conference membership, ordination and superintendency are not currently included in the Global Discipline. A draft proposal of the General Discipline going before General Conference 2016 includes sufficient latitude to allow Liberia to continue its divorce legislation. The new paragraph (to replace General Discipline 2012, ¶ 405) would read: “Election and Consecration of Bishops— Each jurisdictional or central conference in cooperation with the Committee on Episcopacy may fix a procedure for the election of their bishops according to their own context. Central conferences may fix the tenure and term of office.”

Being in relationship consists of more than adherence to the same rules of polity. The divorce legislation in Liberia comes to the attention of United Methodists in the United States because it is a codification of a shared cultural attitude, at least among clergy in Liberia. Had the Liberia conference delegates merely voted according to conscience against a divorced individual running for bishop (rather than aligning their vote to uphold a rule against all divorced candidates for the episcopacy), it is unlikely that the news coverage would have traveled across the United Methodist connection.

Both “the spirit of connectional relationship” and actual relationships between United Methodists in diverse nations and cultures must go beyond adherence to shared laws. As United Methodists live out a range of attitudes toward divorce and other social issues, General Conference must decide how much local variance to allow in this worldwide polity: Does the Liberian divorce legislation legitimately express that adaptable diversity or does it violate the United Methodist Constitution? Regardless, “the spirit of connectional relationship” is one of many issues with which this church will have to grapple as it learns how to live into its aspirations to be worldwide. The real test of connectionalism consists in the interpersonal relationships United Methodists build among themselves in service to the world.

Darryl W. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. Stephens based this article on his forthcoming book, "Methodist Morals: Social Principles, Marriage, and Sexual Sin in the Public Church" (University of Tennessee Press, May 2016).

News media contact: Vicki Brown, or 615-742-5469.

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