The bishops of the United Methodist Church have sent out a letter to the denomination in which they pledge to uphold the Book of Discipline. One would think that such a letter would be unnecessary, but the recent challenge to the prohibition on clergy presiding at same sex weddings or union ceremonies required a response. The bishops write:

In a time when the world seems to be torn apart with division, inequality, injustice, hatred and violence, as Christians we bear responsibility to give witness to “a more excellent way” (1Corinthians 12:31). The church is not exempt from struggles. We are not the first to experience upheaval in culture and church and we are not the first to have serious and deep disagreements about issues of great importance.

One of the deep disagreements and divisions within the church is over the practice of homosexuality, recently heightened by a group of clergy who have declared that they will perform holy unions in opposition to the Book of Discipline. This has caused different experiences of deep pain throughout the church. As the bishops of the church, we commit ourselves to be in prayer for the whole church and for the brokenness our communities experience. Furthermore, we “implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (par. 161F). We will continue to offer grace upon grace to all in the name of Christ.

At times like these we call upon each other to remember and renew our covenant with God and with one another as United Methodist Christians. As bishops chosen, consecrated and assigned by the Church, we declare once again our commitment to be faithful to this covenant we have made. As the Council of Bishops we will uphold the Book of Discipline as established by General Conference.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t indicate whether the bishops will actually warn clergy not to take part in prohibited ceremonies, whether those clergy who do will face any sanction, or whether the bishops will do anything in particular to try to stem the revolt against the denomination’s standards that is growing among its liberal ministers.

It’s also the case that some bishops have more of a problem than others. For instance, the Board of Ordained Ministry in the Northern Illinois Conference has signed on to this Discipline defying movement. Does Bishop Hee-Soo Jung have any plans to deal with this? How about in the New York Conference: does Bishop Jeremiah Park plan to address the over 150 clergy who have declared their disdain for the rest the church? Back in June, when 70 clergy in the Minnesota Conference said they would do union ceremonies, Bishop Sally Dyck said that while making statements supporting gay marriage was OK, conducting them was a chargeable offense. Will any currently serving clergy dare to challenge her?

The United Methodist News Service quoted Bishop Dyck as indicating that the letter means that the Discipline will be enforced, though given the ridiculous slap on the wrist that the Rev. Amy DeLong got back in June, I’m not sure what the word “enforced” might mean:

Under church law, performing such ceremonies is a chargeable offense. A church jury, called a trial court, can choose a range of penalties if there is a conviction including defrocking, suspension or a lesser penalty.

“To uphold the Discipline means that we will pursue the complaint process.” Dyck said. “The desired outcome of the complaint process is always a just resolution, and only as a last resort would there be a church trial as the (Book of Discipline) clearly states.”

This sounds good, but it strikes me as obfuscatory doubletalk. As with DeLong, there’s no question about whether a minister breaks the rules or not if he or she performs a same sex union ceremony. The only question is how the church will respond. If the response is endless talk, or even a trial that imposes something like DeLong’s 20-day “suspension,” the result will be that in short order, the Discipline will be a dead letter. Hopefully Bishop Dyck, as well as the other purple shirts who are faced with this kind of internal rebellion, will take more serious action if they are confronted by the next Amy DeLong than did the Wisconsin Conference.