The reason for all the heated debate is an underlying problem of discipline we have with a number of our local preachers with regard to their non-attendance at meetings. In an attempt to combat this problem, we agreed as a body that any local preacher who is absent from a Local Preachers' QM, and does not submit a wriiten apology in advance (excepting for emergencies), will not be planned for services during the forthcoming quarter.
"Fair enough", you might reply - except when some Societies enforce the discipline, and others don't.
However, in the midst of all the debate, a proposal was put forward whereby preachers with genuine reasons could apply for dispensation from attending Local Preachers' QM's, provided that they answer the four questions relating to their spirituality and moral conduct, upholding of Methodist doctrine, competence to do the work, and adherence to the Church's discipline, at the local Society.
However, our Laws and Discipline provide that "all preachers shall be examined, and are required to answer the questions, at the Circuit Local Preachers' Meeting every quarter". And the problem is that there does not appear to be any provision for dispensation.
But then again, as one of our ministers pointed out, nor is provision made to grant dispensation to ministers from attending the annual Synod. However, it has become accepted practice for the District Bishop to exercise grace in granting dispensation (e.g. where a supernumerary / retired minister has reached advanced age, or where a minister has health or other problems preventing attendance).
The proviso to this dispensation being granted is that the minister concerned answers the prescribed questions contained in Laws and Discipline, in the affirmative. In this manner, to use Church terminology, "all righteousness is then fulfilled".
I must confess that I am one who tends to harp on discipline. After all, how can we as Local Preachers be people to whom congregations look up to as an example, if we cannot even keep our own rules and disciplines. But there surely must be room for grace as well?
For instance, there is one particular Local Preacher in our Circuit who is a shining example of what a Local Preacher should be. His life and conduct is an exemplary display of what it means to be "in Christ". He keeps his preaching appointments diligently and faithfully. When not conducting services, he is faithful in attending worship. He is active in the local Church, and supports it financially.
His problem? He works on Saturdays, and therefore is not in a position to attend meetings. Should he be penalised because his employment results in him not being able to adhere to Laws and Discipline to the letter?
I believe that we should follow the example of our Bishop, and attempt to find a balance that will both maintain discipline yet also show grace towards otherwise diligent and competent preachers who cannot comply 100% with Laws and Discipline because they are unable to attend meetings. As long as the prescribed questions are answered each quarter in an appropriate forum (such as a Local Preachers' or Leaders' Meeting at Society level), surely the spirit (if not the absolute letter) of Laws and Discipline shall have been complied with?
Perhaps we need to submit a resolution through our district Synods to get Laws and Discipline changed to officially allow us to exercise grace in this manner?