It was a lesson in Methodist polity that I still remember in surprising detail. It took place in November 1963. On a late Saturday afternoon, I was seated in the parsonage of a pastor whose worship service I planned to attend the following Sunday morning. I and two other companions wanted to meet the pastor with the hope that he would be reassured we were fellow Methodists—two clergy, one layman—who would conduct ourselves as we always did in worship, reverently and respectfully.
The pastor’s congregation, sadly, like a number of Methodist congregations at the time, had voted that no black people would be welcomed or admitted to public worship.
The pastor was courteous as he stated what he believed to be the merits of segregation and the right of each state to determine how it would order its life, even if that meant subjecting some Americans to second-class citizenship. Of course, we also discussed the incompatibility of racial segregation with Christianity and the positions of the Methodist Church.
I was still a young pastor, having just been ordained an Elder, and had in my hand a copy of the 1960 Discipline of the Methodist Church. I turned to Chapter IV, The Methodist Social Creed, and read from Paragraph 2020.10.E, Freedom From Discrimination: “We stand for the equal rights of racial, cultural, and religious groups and insist that the social, economic, and spiritual principles set forth in this creed apply to all alike. The right to choose a home, enter a school, secure employment, vote or join a church should not be limited by a person’s race, culture, or religion.”
The pastor listened without interruption as I also read a sentence or two from Paragraph 2026, The Methodist Church and Race.
When I finished, he quietly but emphatically said, “None of that is the law of the Church.” He stated that neither the Social Creed nor Resolutions are the law of the Methodist Church and he did not have to follow either. I was nearly speechless to hear a Methodist minister so openly reject principles that I believed were unquestionably in keeping with the Christian gospel.
I recovered, and said, “You mean if it were the law of the church, you would follow it?”
Then came my polity lesson.
He responded, “Of course, I’m a Methodist!”
Our conversation ended “amicably,” but with profound differences remaining between us. He promised that if my companions, who were white, and I attempted to enter the church on Sunday, we would be arrested. In turn, we promised that we would be arriving for worship with his congregation. Both promises were kept, and we were arrested and jailed for three days until our fines could be paid: $1,000 to each of us for trespassing and $1,000 for disturbing “divine worship,” or a total of $6,000 for all three of us.
Interesting charges, since we were never able to enter the church!
The conversation with a pastor who would be willing (however reluctantly) to change a way of life, traditions and long-held views because the Methodist Church through its polity commanded that he go another way, was compelling to me. I began to see the power and potential of using polity for good, and silently vowed to employ it to encourage what I considered a true expression of the gospel, consistent with the message and ministry of Jesus.
Our United Methodist polity has been much under discussion and debate in the last several months, as a result of General Conference actions and Judicial Council decisions. To be sure, as from the early days of the church, Christians often differ as to what is in fact consistent with Christ’s teachings in the Gospels.
But United Methodism has a self-correcting polity. Every four years we open the Book of Discipline and seek to express in it what we believe is the best and clearest expression of Christ in contemporary society.
Sometimes we get it right. And sometimes, many believe, we get it wrong. I pray that as United Methodism continues to engage in the quest to find a “better way,” we remember that what “connects our Connection” is our polity, through the Book of Discipline.
One might say: Those who follow Jesus are called Christians, those who follow Wesley are called Wesleyans, and those who follow the Discipline are called Methodists.
Retired Bishop White is the UMC’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.