The United Methodist gay wedding crisis

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Richard Taylor and William Gatewood who got married by 50 UMC pastors this past weekend (UMNS: Mike DuBose)

Thomas Frank, the guy who wrote our textbook on United Methodist polity, has made a plea for UMC bishops not to put pastors on trial who conduct same-sex marriages (like the 50 who did so last weekend). I had been trying to lay low on this issue for a while. My position has been to honor what the Discipline says for me to do while being obediently prophetic regarding God’s truth as I have encountered it. I was actually going to write a post stating that if pastors engage in civil disobedience, then the consequences are part of the witness. However, I realized as I read Frank’s plea that the paradigm I was applying to our gay wedding crisis is to presume that United Methodism is appropriately analogous to our broken secular democracy: a two party majoritarian system with lobbyists, caucuses, and hyperventilating pundits.

If the principles of majoritarian democracy are what is most sacrosanct about United Methodist polity, then for 50 Methodist pastors to stand together and bless a same-sex marriage after the General Conference decision of 2012 is basically analogous to the Tea Party’s government shutdown. If the side that loses a vote disregards the outcome and sabotages the governing process, then there is no longer a basis for having a democracy together. As long as we’re accepting uncritically the principles of majoritarian democracy, I can understand why even United Methodist “moderates” are incredulously scandalized over the rebellion of their fellow pastors over gay marriage.

But the legitimate question Frank raises is whether an organization of pastors ought to behave like a secular democracy. He writes:

The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage. It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of “prosecution,” “defense team,” “conviction,” “judge,” and “jury” to our church as if we were all players in “Law and Order.” We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment.

If you’ve accepted that the United Methodist Church is supposed to behave like a secular majoritarian democracy, then there’s nothing offensive about “legislation” or “prosecution” being the most important aspects of our polity. But I would contend that if our connection really is nothing more than a legislative body in which two parties, Good News and the Reconciling Movement, duke it out for political power, then we deserve to schism, independent of whether pastors get away with defying the Book of Discipline or not.

If we are a pastoral body and not merely a political entity, then the question of whether someone should be defrocked over marrying gay people is not so cut and dry. If I were involved in such a decision, I would be interested in whether the pastor’s decision to violate the Discipline was a matter of personal activism or a pastoral commitment to the community being served by the congregation. Was this act imposed on the pastor’s congregation in a way that wrecked community and destroyed discipleship or was it the result of a prayerful discernment journey that the community took together?

I would want to hear what the pastor believes about what the Bible says in Leviticus 18, Romans 1, etc. Does he/she believe that the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy and says essentially screw the Bible? Or has s/he taken the Bible’s authority seriously through years of wrestling with a mind prayerfully open to God’s teaching before coming to an interpretation of scripture that doesn’t condemn homosexuality?

When the church defrocks pastors because of things like embezzlement or adultery, the pastor’s deed involves a serious betrayal of the community that can ruin the spiritual lives of congregation members for years to come. Such pastors are enough of a threat to the discipleship of congregation members that the tragic loss of their gifts for ministry is not a mitigating circumstance to be factored into whether or not to remove their ministry credentials.

But is the same true about pastors who break the rules because of their commitment to the discipleship of gay people within their congregations? Is there any other rule in the Discipline about religious ceremonies you’re not allowed to perform at your discretion in your own respective charge? We could hold an interfaith service with Satanists. We could sponsor a Klan rally inside our sanctuary. We could pray God’s blessing over the drones before they fly off to blow up Pakistani civilians. All without any specific chargeable offenses under our denominational polity.

In any case, regardless of what you believe about how cut and dry the prosecution of rebel pastors should be, it seems pretty clear that the real failure of our connectionalism (if we are in fact more than a majoritarian secular democracy) has already happened when we started behave like political voting blocs and there’s no attempt to learn from each other or say anything for the benefit of anyone outside of our own echo chambers.

So when Frank says, “Our church is desperately in need of open conversation on these pastoral issues. We are retreating into our various camps and avoiding the hard work of engaging each other’s views,” I say amen! What would happen if the Reconciling Network and Good News teamed up on a mission trip together and get to know each other as human beings? The burden that those involved in this battle are not accepting is to think and act pastorally towards one another. For a pastor, it’s not a victory when your side wins a bitterly contentious vote; it’s a victory when the people who disagree with you know that you love them personally and genuinely.

What would happen if the way we discerned questions like this as a body was not to strategize and put together slates of electoral candidates like a bunch of secular political operatives, but to actually pray and fast together throughout our connection, to meet actual gay Christians and get to know them well enough to see if and how their holiness has been compromised by their sexual orientation?

What if we were having conversations in non-decision-making contexts about a holistic framework for thinking about sexuality in which the Biblical perspective were examined and brought into serious and thoughtful engagement with critiques and challenges from modern psychology, feminism, queer studies, etc? I want to hear someone take on the challenge of explaining why it’s okay for United Methodists to bracket Paul’s patriarchal complementary views of gender as “culturally contextual” when it comes to female ordination but not when it comes to same-gender intimacy.

What the United Methodist Church has essentially told the world through our polity is that the vote we hold every four years about gay people is the one thing that really matters to us. All the prayers and potato drops and so forth are so much posturing, because ultimately United Methodist pastors’ “faithfulness to the covenant” is measured by a single marker, whether or not they refuse to marry the gay couples who worship in their congregations.

It doesn’t matter whether we preach Southern Baptist sermons or play exclusively Calvinist praise songs. We can tell our congregations not to pay their apportionments. We can do a Bible study on why every single point in the Social Principles is utterly wrong. We can rip all the Charles Wesley hymns out of our hymnals. We can burn John Wesley in effigy. We can talk smack about bishops from the pulpit. We can denigrate the general agencies of our church every day on Facebook. Because the only way we can be “unfaithful” to our covenant as United Methodist elders is to marry the gays.

If our covenant is really no more than a commitment to honoring the principles of majoritarian democracy with regard to a single vote that happens every four years, then we don’t have enough of a covenant to call it a schism when we break up, which honestly might be the best idea. At the very least, the two sides of the resulting split would have to find something different to build a covenant around.

35 thoughts on “The United Methodist gay wedding crisis

  1. In their zeal to promote the acceptance of full inclusion of GLBTQ persons more than a few injustices have been done in the name of progress.Do you recall Edward Johnson?

  2. This blog treats this issue as if it is just an issue of the Reconciling Network and the Good News movement. It is not. In recent years the international delegation has weighed in on the issue in increasing numbers and it is my understanding they have clearly come down on the side of those of of the Good News movement.

    It is my belief that the increasing support of the international delegation is at least in part responsible for the recent escalation of the Reconciling Movement’s efforts. It is basically saying “We can’t win with a vote so let’s try something more subversive.”

    I am one of the moderates you speak of in the blog. For me, this is far more basic than the issue of homosexuality. When all of us were ordained we made a promise before God that we would uphold the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church. When we break that promise, what good is any promise we make to the people we serve. I don’t have a problem with delegates voting their beliefs at General Conference. I have no problem with those who support the Reconciling Movement electing delegates who support that agenda. I also have no problem for those on the other side of this or any other issue. I have a huge problem with breaking promises we have made.

    You also ask the question : Is there any other rule in the Discipline about religious ceremonies you’re not allowed to perform at your discretion in your own respective charge?” The answer to that question, I believe is “Yes.” I cannot do, as John Wesley did, and ordain pastors of my own accord.

    For me, we have a Book of Discipline and we either use and that means enforce it or we do not. If I choose to violate the Discipline, I do so knowing the consequences that should and will follow.

  3. I was thinking the same thing regarding the UMC and its use of secular democratic processes. Love the idea of a RN/Good News mission trip!

  4. I knew you would not be able stay away from this one Morgan so, I thought I’d mosey on over for a look see. I was right.
    I agree and see some of what you see in respect to the division in the gov.( USA) and the church.
    The UMC is set up as a mini Gov and it is in the confines of the org. they must function constitution and all.

    You must remember the UMC has been discussing this topic for 40 years. There are tons of old posts, articles, news pieces on the UMC, what they did, committees formed, watchdog group, studies completed and information that confirm that.
    I find your comment on adultery amusing in that you see that as injury to community and are perfectly willing to defrock someone for that offence. Where do we find adultery is a sin? Who says so? Why do you have the right to condemn one sexual activity over another?

    The truth is the church does hold that right and as a willing member of any group or organization (by choice not compulsion) you accept the fact they do have the right to set rules and we should honor those rules or find another group, org. or church that better fits our liking.

    If you really want to get a big picture of why these things are so important from a secucular stand try studying the laws of marriage history and you will see how fiddling with marriage has a major impact in the culture where the laws were passed.

  5. Morgan,

    Isn’t the Reformed position that determining God’s will means studying Scripture with the aid of the Holy Spirit? Godly men may disagree, but, wouldn’t they seek, if not unanimity, at least a consensus, and all agree to abide by that? Isn’t mutual submission at the heart of your covenant? Even when you’re sure they’re wrong, and it’s not just your pride? It is the lack of willingness to listen that breaks covenant, whether that’s a stubborn majority or a willful individual. A little humility might go a long way toward reconciliation.

    Keep up the good work.🙂

    Kind regards,
    LS

    • “It is the lack of willingness to listen that breaks covenant, whether that’s a stubborn majority or a willful individual.” There’s some real truth in that. Thanks.

  6. “I want to hear someone take on the challenge of explaining why it’s okay for United Methodists to bracket Paul’s patriarchal complementary views of gender as “culturally contextual” when it comes to female ordination but not when it comes to same-gender intimacy.” ~

    Me too!!! Another bone of contention for me is that United Methodists allow persons who are divorced to be ordained, yet will not even allow pastors to marry gay couples, let alone ordain folks who are gay! I have no problem with our denomination ordaining pastors who have been divorced. My point is the words of Jesus, as well as other scriptural references, are in opposition to divorce, yet Jesus himself never said anything about homosexuality except perhaps to say that some folks were born as Eunuchs. Seems unbalanced to me.

    • The first thing you need to do is read some theology that is not anti Paul.
      That theme is from the feminist page and is not fair, unbias or accurate.
      The next thing you need to do is a study on Eunuchs. Who they where, what they were, what function they preformed and how they got to be Eunuch’s in the first place.

      I’ll give you a clue on St. Paul’s liberating of the female. The wife in particular.
      In days of old it was the male who owned the female for the most part.
      The male or husband was not the property of the wife.
      In Corinthians the husband and wife are told they are no longer their own The wife is now elevated to have the same authority over the husbands body as the husband has over the wife’s body.
      That is landmark. That is a big big deal.

      Try reading a little of Catherine Kroeger or Mary J. Evans to gain a balance out what you have already read.

    • Deborah …..Here is another ground breaking monumental moment for the female.

      Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus feet and heard His word But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
       And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.  But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

      A woman learning at the feet of a Rabbi!
      Unheard of!

      Mary is learning.
      Martha is getting nervous.
      Jesus says Martha is “worried. Martha is “troubled“.
      Why would she be troubled?
      Because she knows it is not a woman’s place to do such thing, that’s why.
      Martha knows women do not sit at the feet of the Rabbi.

      The door is now open for women to learn from those in authority and who hold the proper credentials.
      Things would change.
      Women would be incorporated in the Christian Church.
      They would do things in the Christian Church never before allowed in the synagogue and the Apostle Paul would be at the forefront of the effort.

      Love the church!

  7. I believe when we sacrificed our shared doctrine for the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the 60s we lost the theology that connected us so we migrated to a shared polity. This shared polity/apportionments are really the only things that have kept us “connectional”. Think about it. Our congregations look vastly different, operate different, are affiliated with different affinity groups, different caucuses, use different curriculum, preach/teach different theologies.
    We sustained our unity through our conferences and polity. Now we are saying conferences don’t matter.
    So what sustains the connection now? No shared doctrine/catechism, no shared polity

    • I wouldn’t date it in the 60’s though. From what I recall of the history of American Methodism in seminary, it was Methodists who were getting into the higher criticism and other “liberal” stuff in the late 19th century at Boston University. The Wesleyan movement has never been a confessional movement. We don’t have a Westminster catechism.

  8. You make some good points. It’s difficult to watch people go to trial; it’s also difficult to see people disobey. And I do think for some on the extreme of both sides, they want a “W” while those in the middle weep because taking sides means there is a loser and they don’t want to be divided.

    Must we write everything we disagree about in the BOD? Or do we include these things as they come up and become problems? I don’t know. I’m guessing in ’72 it was seen as something that needed formal addressing. Will allowing Satanists use our facilities make it to the BOD? I don’t know.

    For the last couple of weeks (and years) I’ve been reading comments about Talbert and this topic. I’ve seen many comments relating homosexuality to civil rights.

    We can not change a person’s mind when we have not assessed the correct argument. I’m in the south and most people I talk with are ok with civil rights (civil unions, benefits, etc) for homosexuals. Most agree that homosexuals are “born that way” and it’s genetic. There have also been studies that show alcoholism is genetic among other things. This is where the discussion should start, at least with people I’ve talked with and according to my assessment. If we’re born with it (whatever our it may be), does it make our behavior okay? Is it ok for a person with the gene for alcoholism to drink alcohol? It may seem flimsy to compare the two (or other genetics), but this is where some people are. We can ignore it and keep calling people names or we can address what they think the issue is about and similar to. We can’t think we know where their issue lies and attack that.

    Whatever the answer, it will always go back to what the Bible says. I guess that’s really where the answer should be sought and that depends on interpretation (which most likely is viewed through our lenses). Because I know I have a lens, I’m not convinced my interpretation is correct. But, that doesn’t mean I find yours (general) correct either. I guess this should be where the body comes in.

    • You sound like somebody who could have a real conversation about this topic. Thank you for your self-reflection and openness.

      • Thank you for posting the study.
        There are no conclusive conclusions to in the study.
        The study is limited in scope. The words may, could, seem to suggest a correlation are found in the study.
        No conclusions are formed.
        What that tells us is this study needs more study.
        More research is necessary to conform the hypothesis.

        • Have you read research before or taken statistics? There are very few studies that can give unequivocal answers, but strong correlations can teach us a lot. If you are always looking for absolute answers, you’re going to have a very limited worldview.

          • I have a little back round in research and testing.
            The correlations sometimes point to something.
            Sometimes they don’t.
            It depends on how the study was conducted. Was there any bias in the testing? How many subjects were tested. What were the controls? etc.etc.etc.
            Lot’s of stuff makes the news and people think some new break through has been found.
            Usually that is not the case.

            Remember The Kinsey Controversy? Kinsey shaped the thinking of many people UNTIL someone began questioning the study.
            http://www.psychegames.com/kinsey-controversy.htm

  9. Of course a vote doesn’t mean complete agreement. But in order to be United you must have be in certain agreements. If a church goes against the “United Agreements” then that church is no longer united with that group.

    It’s very similar to our political system and to be honest I don’t see a better way. Of course you want to address each situation with the most data possible. But it will end in a vote once again.

  10. One of the reasons that many young and not so young Christians are leaving denominations is this very issue. No, not gay marriage, but the idea that every four years a group of people get together and vote on right and wrong. I don’t believe you can find right and wrong so easily. For years Methodists did not ordain women per vote, and now they do. What does that say. Are you right now and were you wrong before? As I said you cannot find right and wrong as easily and majority rule certainly has little if anything to do with it.

  11. Morgan,
    A couple of thoughts, some I have stated earlier elsewhere.

    First, what will we do when we find out that a person’s sexuality is genetic and not a choice? What will we say to all those individuals whom we have “kicked out” of the church because we have said that they voluntarily chose their lifestyle?

    As others have said, the discussion on sexuality mirrors the discussion on civil rights some fifty years ago. We as a denomination held to a view that a person’s race could determine their place in the church and we went to great lengths to insure that everything was in the right order.

    Ultimately, it is going to come down to our decision to see a rule in the Discipline as just or unjust; and if it is unjust, to act accordingly.
    How many times did Jesus act against a stated rule or law because it was unjust?

    I don’t think this is a theological discussion (or at least I hope it is not). Clearly it is a political decision as three groups (the two edges and the middle) seek to find some common ground that has some meaning to it.

    I am not sure what the answer is. If the United Methodist Church becomes no longer united, I am not sure what I will do. Right now, I might start a home church and see what happens.

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