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.