An update: our Annual Conference narrowly voted against the two petitions I discuss below. This was heavily influenced by speeches about “the UMC my grandparents grew up in” and pleas for us to work it out rather than giving people a way out. In my humble opinion, these arguments were naive to our current realities, found safety in the status quo (see my final paragraph below), and lead us toward a scorched-earth litigation battle. David Watson, the co-sponsor of this proposal, offers some helpful retrospective insights in his post, “So where are we now?“
Debates about human sexuality threaten to break apart the UMC. Though these debates are nothing new, they’ve taken on a new urgency.
At the heart of these debates is this line in our bylaws:
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as [ministry] candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
United Methodist delegates have upheld that position for forty years, and everything indicates they will continue to uphold it.
But a large minority disagrees. They’ve grown more vocal and more active in their disagreement. “Why don’t they just leave the UMC?” some may ask. One major reason (though by no means the only one) is because the church doesn’t get to take its property with it, and the pastor may fear losing his/her pension. A retired Bishop, Will Willimon, explains it this way, “I’m thinking a major division is not going to happen, mostly for financial [and] property reasons. Any group exiting would face having to leave behind lots of resources.”
Leaders have suggested various solutions to help the UMC get beyond its impasse. The most discussed of these is a “local option,” which would allow each local UMC church to amend that line in the bylaws (quoted above). With a supermajority vote, a church could rewrite that line however they choose. This would also allow each Conference to set their own standards for ordaining clergy.
For all the attention that “local option” has received, it creates as many problems as it solves. It instantly has each congregation voting on whether to alter the statement on homosexuality, and if so, how. Our congregations are far from uniform in their beliefs on this issue. We would likely see a number of 60-40 votes, the kind of votes that can tear a church apart. And even after the dust settles on these votes, we’ll have established a bifurcated denomination. Appoint “conservative” pastors only to the churches that preserved the standard line. Appoint “progressive” pastors only to those that amended it.
The Best Option Out There
(note: this option is now represented by the Covenantal Unity Plan. See its 6 proposals here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
My conference will be voting this Thursday on two petitions (attached as PDF) that represent the best option I’ve seen. These were both submitted by Bill Arnold. I interviewed Dr. Arnold and reviewed his book on the same subject last year.
Dr. Arnold’s petitions graciously acknowledge the problem with our current situation: (1) We have irreconcilable differences within the denomination. The kind of differences that can’t and shouldn’t be fixed by creating a bifurcated system of “pro-” and “anti-” churches. (2) We have pastors and congregations whose consciences will not allow them to abide by the UMC’s standards. But (3) those pastors and congregations stay, in large part, because of the resources––property and pensions––they would have to leave behind.
Arnold’s petitions allow clergy to keep their pension benefits if they withdraw from the denomination. They also allow a local church to disaffiliate from the UMC and retain full rights to its property, with the votes of 2/3 of its members.
This is not a perfect plan. For one thing, it doesn’t address all the reasons that we haven’t already had an amicable separation, or the desire of many for us to stay together. Perhaps I’ve become too pessimistic, but I don’t believe any plan can address all of the issues, nor do I see a healthy way forward together.
Also, this plan could still lead to a number of 60-40 votes. Those would be devastating votes—especially when the majority of a congregation has voted to disaffiliate from the UMC but then must stay because they didn’t achieve a 2/3 majority. I fear the day we begin taking these kinds of votes. I suspect they’ll infuse into local churches the same turmoil and hostility we’ve seen at a denominational level. Sadly, I see no way we can avoid those votes forever.
What the plan does provide is consistency and clarity for those within the UMC and a gracious way out for those with irreconcilable differences. Unlike the “local option,” it doesn’t create a bifurcated denomination. Unlike so many other battles, this plan avoids a scorched earth, winner-takes-all litigation approach.
There is no perfect plan. Each will come with a number of downfalls and dangers. But it has become clear that the UMC can’t continue on the same path—with a clear majority setting the rules while a large minority despises or flouts them. We need a path that will honor both of these groups. The most viable path I’ve seen is in these petitions.
We run the risk of doing what the UMC so often does: we see the problems that a new plan presents and find it easier to do nothing. This is my greatest fear––that for all the talk about new plans and solutions in the UMC, we’ll identify the problems with each new option and opt to maintain our current course—with growing dysfunction and dissatisfaction. It’s time to recognize a path that provides more hope than status quo. I hope Kentucky will lead the way later this week by passing these petitions. Stay tuned.
15 thoughts on “The Best Proposed Solution to the UMC’s Stalemate”
Congregational votes can be debilitating. That is the problem with A&W plan and Adam Hamilton local option as currently envisioned. While the Connectional Table plan is not my personal preference, as a lay leader I do appreciate the fact that no decisive church votes are needed.
As an Episcopalian I am actually quite interested in the UMC debate. 🙂
The so-called “local option” has been a miserable failure for TEC. In many ways, it succumbs to the liberal capitalistic logic of “tolerance” which does little but circumvent the debate completely. Instead of alleviating tension, it ultimately helps build it. After all, the logic could be (and, in reality, has been) continued indefinitely. For example, one might suppose one is alleviating the tension on this issue by allowing individual, Anglican regions to decide for themselves (which seems hardly ecumenical in any search for ‘truth’), but in actual practice (at least in the Episcopal Church) such localization of the issue only leads to further localizations – to letting each individual diocese/bishop to decide for themselves what to do, and this has led to each bishop allowing each individual parish/priest to decide for themselves what to do, and this has led (and I am not even joking here) to each priest allowing each individual layperson to decide for themselves. This is not a slippery slope argument. This is historically what has happened. The end result is that the church provides absolutely no resources in helping its parishioners navigate these issues for it succumbs to the modern, liberal, democratic, capitalistic logic which “localizes” (i.e., individualizes) the ethical/moral issue instead of critically and theologically engaging with it. In other words, it alleviates the tension on this issue by letting every person to decide for themselves which is simply NO solution whatsoever. Ultimately, what happens is that each layperson chooses a position (for-or-against gay relations) and then chooses the appropriate local parish which purposefully markets to them. The Episcopal parish I attend, for instance, proudly markets its “Believe Out Loud,” pro-gay status, complete with strategically placed rainbow ‘relics’ and advertisements throughout the church building (though thankfully, not in the nave or sanctuary). Is this not a mere pandering and marketing ploy to attract to those potential parishioners who have already (and individually!) decided for themselves the answer to this question beforehand? This is surely a backward (and capitalist) way of handling moral/ethical disagreement.
Further, though the “local option” might seem neutral or democratic at first glance, it ultimately fails on both accounts. This is because it cannot mean anything less than that the UMC “as a whole” is ‘okay’ with gay relations. In other words, in postponing the question of the rightness or wrongness of the issue at hand by letting smaller Methodist political ‘units’ (dioceses, parishes, or parishioners) decide for themselves, it ultimately transposes the question in such a way which already presupposes that such relations are okay overall. Hence, for the “local option” to even have viability, the current UMC bylaw of prohibition must be abolished beforehand. In other words, in order to localize the debate, one has to presuppose the Methodist Church as a whole is no longer against it. BUT, and this is the important point, IS THIS NOT THE VERY QUESTION BEING ASKED/DEBATED in the first place? The local option, to repeat again, under the guise of neutrality, already entails the a priori abolishment of the bylaw in question. And yet, it is the existing bylaw which is the question at hand (i.e., the rightness or wrongness of gay relations). Thus, to repeat my point ad nauseam, the “local option” transposes the question being debated but does so in a way which sneaks an answer into its very postponement and localized solution. This merely circumvents critical discussion and debate on the issue while also circumventing the UMC democratic process (for the original question is no longer being voted on because the answer is already assumed in the new proposal).
That being said, Bill Arnold’s solution fares no better. It similarly short-circuits the entire dialogue process in a rather violent manner while simultaneously embodying a rather explicit conservative power-grab of the UMC. What I mean is this: The question being asked is again transposed in a new key, this time by Arnold, and, as with the “local option” above, it no longer even includes the original question being asked: Are gay-relations sinful or not? Rather, the answer to this question is already and inherently presupposed by Arnold’s very transposition of it (i.e., he circumvents the debate entirely). His solution to the question merely assumes such relations are sinful, and then, perhaps even more egregiously, he proposes a solution in which the “liberals” no longer have a voice (or vote) in the UMC. They are simply encouraged to leave, thus, solidifying the victory of the conservative contingent in the democratic process (which is merely the circumvention of the democratic process as such) while, more importantly, circumventing the real question being asked and debated.
In short, both solutions (the “local option” and Arnold’s proposal) refuse to interact with THE QUESTION being asked. I cannot help but wonder, given the prevalence of this issue throughout all ecclesial communities (and this reaches into conservative evangelical as well as Roman Catholic traditions) and society in general, are we not doing a disservice to our parishioners and larger communities when we refuse to critically and theologically engage with these issues? I cannot help but see all these proposed, political solutions as merely refusals to interact with the question the church is currently asking: Are gay-relations sinful or not?
Thanks for this thoughtful response. I agree with your analysis. Some of the things you say are the things I would have gotten into if I wasn’t concerned about space.
To your observation about Dr. Arnold’s petition, I would say it does presuppose an answer to the debate.
The answer it presupposes: the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. (Or to answer your question more directly: gay-relations are sinful. Though I know some won’t accept these two sentences as identical, I think they can be taken as equal for nearly all of the relevant situations in the UMC.) Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals should not be certified as [ministry] candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
I would say, though, that this presupposition isn’t because of a refusal to interact with the question. The UMC has interacted with this question ad nauseum. My question would be, are we ever allowed to stop debating and answer the question? Or will that always be called short-circuiting the debate?
To me, Arnold’s petition assumes what I think to be true — We have critically and theologically engaged the question. And as a denomination, for 40 years, we have affirmed the same position. We have a large group who disagrees and refuses to abide this position. We can allow them to flout it (thereby following the “local option” in principle), force them to leave with nothing and with lengthy, scorched-earth litigation battles, or allow an option to leave graciously. The third of these options seems best to me, and what Arnold’s petitions allow.
Good, solid points as always. In many ways, I am in complete sympathy with Arnold’s position here. The UMC has already made a canonical judgment on this issue which is the very reason for the existence of the bylaw to begin with. As such, though any given UMC parishioner or minister may lament it, the official teaching (canon law) of the UMC is quite explicit: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The problem, however, is that canon law does, and should, change. One might be surprised, for instance, to find a canon law forbidding ordination to anyone younger than 30 years of age (Canon XI of the Council of Neocaesarea, AD 315) though this was later changed to 25 years of age in the early middle ages. There was also the prohibition of dancing at weddings (Canon LIII of the Synod of Laodiciea, AD 350-ish), a prohibition of vegetarianism (i.e., anyone who refuses to eat meat) and a prohibition of practicing alcoholic abstinence, both on grounds that such practices were gnostic and denied the material goodness of creation (though I can’t remember, off the top of my head, where these latter two canons are located), but the list could continue indefinitely, especially since most ancient canon law dealt with penance for certain actions which no church (to my knowledge) would impose on the penitent today (i.e., two years of penance for those who remarry after their first spouse dies).
Moreover, nearly every current bylaw/canon law in place forbidding gay relations are relatively recent canonical additions in most churches. I think you mentioned the current UMC one was included about 40 years ago (circa 1970s?). I think it is perfectly acceptable to challenge such bylaws (though not to transgress them!) . . . and to constantly challenge them. In some sense, the teaching office of the church is to actually catechize and teach her members, not only what she believes, but also why she believes it. That there are so many within the UMC who are challenging this bylaw indicates, at least to me, that many within the church remain unconvinced of the current UMC position and the theology undergirding it. Once again, changes in canon law constantly happen. These are always under negotiation and provisional, and this includes moral/ethical issues. Theology itself always changes . . . if only in order to remain the same.
So to answer your question. In some sense, we are never allowed to stop debating an issue until everyone is on the same page, until even pagans are converted to our side. This doesn’t mean the church can’t make judgments and bylaws concerning these issues (which the UMC has certainly done in this case), but it must do so recognizing that such judgments are provisional, must be constantly interacted with, and must be, ultimately, subject to change (cf., the church’s canon laws listed above which all changed, among others). There is no such thing as an absolute or universal bylaw or canon law.
I think it is also important to point out that the issue of gay-relations is not a creedal matter. I don’t say this because I think it does not matter; I actually think the exact opposite. Rather, I mention it because one should be very careful when fracturing the Body of Christ because of an intellectual disagreement concerning a bylaw. I can’t help but think this is ultimately Arnold’s position. It is important to note that his solution is not merely one which reemphasizes the current bylaw in place, nor does it merely encourage those who transgress such bylaws to go elsewhere. Rather, he is actually implying that even those who do not transgress the bylaw (i.e., celibate gays and heterosexuals who support gay-relations) but who still intellectually disagree with it, should go elsewhere. The underlying issue for Arnold, to be clear, is not one of transgression, but one of disagreement. He is making it a creedal issue, an issue of belief, an issue of The Faith (“We believe in God, the Father . . .”). Is it worth refusing to break-bread with someone who merely intellectually disagrees with a particular bylaw in the church? Who, I might argue, doesn’t disagree at one point or another with their church’s current bylaws or canon laws? This is the only way they ever get changed. I know you’ve written elsewhere regarding clergy salaries and such. Are these canonical debates worth having, or should the UMC merely encourage you to go be your own church for simply intellectually disagreeing with its current bylaws in place?
Lastly, I might encourage a forth option (in addition to the three you listed). Part of the problem in the UMC, at least from what I’m inferring, is a total collapse of ecclesial discipline. It seems many are transgressing the current bylaw and little is being done to discipline such behavior. This is an inherent problem within Protestantism with its more congregational governance, but it is a problem elsewhere also. I could note a couple glaring instances in TEC too. This might be what’s motivating Bill Arnold’s proposal more than anything, but it is certainly not what his proposal is seeking to address. Regardless, my forth option would be this: The bylaw be upheld until it (possibly) be overturned by means of proper UMC canonical process. In the meantime, debate is a good thing . . . even if it lasts hundreds of years. Once again, circumventing this process by outright transgressing the bylaw is certainly wrong and should be punishable via a related canon law. If one does not exist, perhaps one should be proposed. This is another issue altogether and might highlight other, larger problems within the UMC. The current proposals on the table (“localizing” and Arnold’s), however, both seem to encourage largely the same thing – a circumvention of legitimate canonical process and authentic, critical debate.
As a disclaimer: I say all of this as a theological minority in the Episcopal Church who often stands on the other side of the fence. 🙂
These are all good points. It may help for me to give some more information and context. I was focusing on one aspect of this discussion and generally assuming familiarity with the UMC’s context, which might confuse this for anyone who hasn’t seen a lot of it…
You’re correct that many people are transgressing the bylaws to little consequence. Some conferences have even passed statements of support for anyone who transgresses the bylaws. They have frequently cited their own consciences as the basis for their actions, comparing their actions to civil disobedience.
Dr. Arnold has actually submitted six petitions in total. I chose to address only two here. The other four address our complaint, punishment, and just resolution processes. So I think Dr. Arnold is also doing what you suggest toward the end––trying to bolster what we’ve learned is a weak system of accountability.
I read the petitions differently than you re: disagreement. These don’t force anyone out the door, or even suggest that they should leave, due to intellectual disagreement. They give permission for a local church to leave “based on the local church’s declaration that it is in irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience with the provisions (i.e. requirements) of The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline on the practice of homosexuality and the blessing of homosexual unions.” This isn’t about intellectual disagreement, but an irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience. It intends to provide an honorable way out for people who say they cannot in good conscience remain in the UMC without transgressing our bylaws. If someone disagrees with the provisions but will abide by them, I would say these petitions don’t apply to them. (That would be more similar to my disagreements with how we handle clergy compensation, as mentioned above. I disagree, but I’m willing to abide. It’s not an irreconcilable conflict.)
On debate – I agree with you. I chose my words poorly to suggest that we should end the debate. What I should have said, and I think you’ll agree, is that we should be permitted to maintain and enforce the current position while the debate continues. Many have suggested that if we’re so divided on the issue, we should just replace the current statement with a simple acknowledgment that we have no consensus. This, of course, functions the same as a “local option.” On this, and many other things, we should continue healthy, prayerful dialogue and debate. But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon any position (and thus permit all positions) in the meantime.
Exactly. I think we’re largely quibbling over details . . . most of which can be attributed to my ignorance of the UMC governmental process and larger context surrounding this issue.
On a side (but not unrelated) note, I wanted to reiterate that I have zero respect or tolerance for any priest/bishop who intentionally and deliberately breaks Canon Law. This is basically an individual priest/bishop who believes their opinion on a particular matter trumps the discernment of the Body of Christ and is not subject to any critical inquiry or critique. This is not only modern arrogance and individualism in full force, it actually undermines the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Further, it is hard not to see this as an intentional, willful sin in that one purposefully breaks one’s oath of obedience to the bishop and larger church. Historically, those who did this without repenting and penance were subject to the removal of their priestly duties, eventual defrocking if their obstinacy continued, and possible excommunication. Once again, such discipline was not given because of the severity of the individual act itself (which could often be a very small transgression), but because of the larger (and very disconcerting) theological and ecclesiological implications involved. All this to say, I think our disagreement regarding “debate” was not necessarily because you chose your words poorly but because we were speaking about two different things. I, like you, do not think that the UMC’s official position on this issue is up for grabs or debatable. It is quite explicit and should be upheld and obeyed. You, like me, think the issues themselves are still worth debating . . . within the context that the current bylaw be respected and enforced in the meantime. Once again, I think we were speaking about two separate ideas which we both hold.
As you noted in your last paragraph, the proposal that there is no UMC consensus on this issue is the localization option. I might add that the very fact that there is a bylaw regarding this issue already means that there is consensus. Consensus doesn’t mean everyone individually is on board with something. Heck, we don’t even use that word in secular politics in this way. It merely means that the canonical process (usually democratic-ish process bar the RC Church) within the Church has been followed and a consensus and resolution has been reached in the form of Canon Law or a bylaw. There is actually a canonical process through which a new consensus can be reached and an emendation of current bylaws enacted. The more liberal Methodists, from what I understand, have certainly tried this approach without success. Once again, trying to change UMC consensus on this is not bad. Debate is good. Pretending that there is no existing consensus (or bylaw) on this issue is downright deceitful, and acting as if there is no consensus is (as I noted above) even worse.
Lastly, I think you highlight where our disagreement lies, which is in our read of Dr. Arnold’s proposal. I agree that the statement by itself does not “force” or explicitly “encourage” anyone to leave as you correctly note. In fact, on the surface level, I am also in agreement when you write: “They give permission for a local church to leave ‘based on the local church’s declaration that it is in irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience with the provisions (i.e. requirements) of The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline on the practice of homosexuality and the blessing of homosexual unions.'” This is a very objective read of the proposal.
The problem, however, is that such persons and churches already have permission to leave the UMC whenever they so desire. If this is “all” his proposals are saying, then they are merely repeating what is already the case. This is why I suspect something else is going on and why it is hard for me to read Dr. Arnold’s proposal so neutrally (just as I cannot read the “localizing option” on the surface level either). Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but it seems by proposing to give potential schismatics monetary funds when leaving (e.g., by letting them keep their pensions and church buildings), he is attempting to make it easier for them to do so. Is this not, at some level, encouragement to leave? Underneath this, I can’t help but sense a belief that the UMC would be a better place without such persons. If he felt otherwise, wouldn’t he be doing everything he could to discourage such schism, not encouraging it or trying to make it easier?
It might also be worth saying that the handing over of buildings and pensions to schismatics is historically unprecedented. Not even TEC has done this with conservative schismatics and pull-outs (and I maintain that they shouldn’t). St. Augustine even used secular means to prohibit Donatists from worshiping in their former (“Catholic”) places of worship, and he did this for the Donatists’ own sake, not out of retribution or ecclesial greed. Once again, I can’t read Dr. Arnold’s proposal neutrally; it appears to be one in which the church would actively be sponsoring/encouraging schism.
But after writing all of this, and given the complexity of issues involved, perhaps this is the best “practical” solution. As an idealist, it pains me to even write that (haha).
Your feeling was represented in a speech against the petitions yesterday. Someone called this “greasing the skids” for a schism. It holds the door open for people.
I agree with you––anyone whose conscience is in irreconcilable conflict with the UMC’s positions is already welcome to leave. This seems like a no-brainer if you consider covenant infidelity off-limits. And to be sure, some people have taken that option. We have many others, though, who have made it clear that their ability to affirm homosexual unions is a higher matter of conscience than fidelity to covenant. They seem to take a pragmatic approach to that right now––the consequence for leaving (loss of property) is greater than the consequence for staying and disobeying (slap on the wrist).
If the UMC stance on this issue isn’t changed at the next General Conference, and if proposals like Dr. Arnold’s aren’t supported, I foresee two options…
1) Accountability standards will be toughened. People who continue to break this part of the covenant will be subject to serious consequences.
2) Accountability standards will remain as they are. People who continue to break this part of the covenant will be subject to almost no consequence.
As we’ve discussed above, option 2 is, for all intents and purposes, the local option.
If option 1 is our direction, I expect some conscientious objectors to leave, but I expect many to fight. Because we allow no option for them to take property with them, the fight will be a major court battle.
I don’t love the idea of a denomination handing over property to dissenters, and I recognize its lack of precedent in history. But Dr. Arnold’s proposal seems like our best option for settling matters quickly on the way to court, making a judgment among the Lord’s people rather than one brother taking another to court.
To advocate for tougher accountability standards with no easy escape clause for dissenters is either to gear up for a court battle or to ignore the reality of our situation.
I don’t really expect any of the plans to pass. There may be some toughening up in regards to accountability . . . and there may not. GC 2016 will probably be more of the same: fighting over homosexuality, ugliness, propaganda, and reports that the UMC in NA is shrinking very fast.
And honestly, I don’t know if that’s the worst thing that could happen. The open violations of the BOD by both clergy and bishops stirred up a lot of anger. But what’s going to happen when people who were charged the first time with disobedience and let go with a slap on the wrist are charged again? That’s when the real crisis is going to come. There’s no way that a slap on the wrist is going to suffice. It’s almost a guarantee that something like that is going to happen. What’s going to be the fallout of all that?
Things are going to change, no matter what happens at GC 2016. Churches are about to start closing at a increasingly regular rate. Everybody in the UMC knows that we have a ton of small churches filled with aging and elderly people. Contributions to the general church are going to go down (and there’s not a whole lot of sympathy towards the boards and agencies right now) and people are going to lose their jobs.
Right now, we are experiencing the collective results of all the bad decisions from the past: from the decision to move away from Methodist class requirements to Sunday School type meetings (instead of sharing our lives and faith together, we turned to boring classes in which one person teaches material that they did not produce and do not have passion about to a bunch of bored people) all the way up to present times of allowing becoming a “mainline” church and defining ourselves by what we are not (we’re not Southern Baptists) rather than what we are (our minds are so open that our brains fall out; our doors are so open that no one comes in).
God is not going to shield us from all these bad decisions. We are currently reaping what we have sown and we are going to continue to reap what we’ve sown. As a student pastor working in two small country churches, I find myself just trying to salvage what’s left and restore what I can. But it’s hard – I’m working against years of bad decisions.
Thankfully, there are a lot of good people in the UMC that have been sowing good seeds: Asbury, Dunham, Kalas, Witherington, Aldersgate Renewal ministries, and a whole host of others who may never be known but nevertheless has sown good seeds. I don’t what is going to happen in the future with the UMC – whether it splits up and disintegrates, keeps together and finds renewal, or something that no one expected (which is probable). But I do know that change is coming. I think it’s best for all of us who long for a true Wesleyan revival to just focus on sowing good seed.
As much as I would love to see Option 1 happen (at least until the existing bylaw is modified or amended), Option 2 seems to be the historical precedent (at least looking at mainline churches and how they’ve dealt with this issue). But I think you’re absolutely right about having to gear up for court battles if Option 1 is enacted. On TEC side-of-things, I can aver it can get pretty ugly, morally ambiguous on both sides, and downright expensive (read: waste of money). Sometimes I wonder, however, if the reality of the situation is that this is bound to happen regardless of which option the UMC takes. TEC took Option 2, and they’re still in this predicament. Maybe there simply isn’t a good way out, and this may be the strongest endorsement for Bill Arnold’s proposal. That said, perhaps Arnold’s solution may be a slippery slope too. If it passes in the future, the UMC will be left having to navigate under which conditions persons/churches can leave the UMC while keeping their pensions and/or church property and under which conditions they cannot. This seems to revert to Protestant congregationalism as there will always be someone who feels some particular issue is more important than unity itself . . . eventually ending in the UMC acquiescing and allowing them to leave with their pension and property – complete decentralization, de-hierarchalizationism, and congregationalism. Then again, I confess that I have an overly negative imagination.
Also, as a side note, I think it says a lot about someone by which issues they deem “breaking unity” over and which ones they do not. The blessing (or non-blessing) of gay marriages might seem more important than a unified Body of Christ, but those who stick in the UMC because of their pensions and church property are surely in error. They take their monetary comfort as more valuable than their ethical principles (i.e, for/against gay marriage) which are, in turn, more important than the Body of Christ. Hmmmm . . . a hierarchy of 1) one’s personal financial security, 2) one’s personal ethical principles, and then 3) Church unity and the rest of the Body of Christ. Something may be askew here; I’m not sure. 🙂
Wow, Caleb. When you lay out that hierarchy that clearly, it’s pretty devastating.
Hi Teddy – always good to read what you are thinking. It was even more fun to meet you a few months ago. Perhaps our paths will cross again. I am curious about your take on something. One of the things I notice as I speak with various United Methodist congregations around the country in a variety of work I do, I notice that large swaths of the Discipline are not kept. For example, two of the three largest United Methodist Churches in Indiana practice re-baptism and celebrate it on their websites. This is considered “unauthorized conduct” under paragraph 341 of the Discipline. As I move around the country this seems to be a fairly common practice. In my entirely anecdotal experience it would seem that those who have a problem with people violating item number 6 of that paragraph have no problem with themselves violating item number 7. Where is the integrity in this? There are many other places throughout the Discipline that we can find people in open disagreement – by practice or word, yet I’m not aware of other trials on other disciplinary violations. In the thirty years I have served congregations I have attempted to keep the Discipline. There are times when I have not. And that is true of the overwhelming majority of my colleagues. This feels to me more like a witchhunt than it feels like an honest attempt to bring people into compliance with our agreed upon Discipline. That does not mean we will not divide. We may very well. But I would think that baptism is a lot bigger fish to fry, theologically, than the blessing or not of two people who love each other.
Thanks a lot for this comment and question. I really appreciate your approach to so many of the discussions in our church. You seem to regularly have a voice of reason, attempting to bring two sides together, moderation…
I fully agree with you here. This is a matter of integrity, and blessing same-sex weddings shouldn’t be singled out. The point you raise about re-baptism is especially significant. Churches that re-baptize flout our theology and the expectations of our pastors. I agree with you that it’s a bigger fish to fry.
I actually have wanted for a while to write an article titled “The UMC has a Covenant Problem.” I expect people would read the headline and assume this to be about our human sexuality debates. Instead, I’d only plan to reference that toward the end, and as one of many problems, not THE problem. So long as we treat this as our only standing covenant, we can rightfully ask those without sin to cast the first stone.
I wish we could instead take covenant seriously all the way around. In some places, we’ve used the word too quickly, and without meaning it. (My Annual Conference has instituted pastors’ “covenant groups” that are expected to meet monthly in covenant. At my group’s last meeting, only one person showed up. Even the leader forgot and wasn’t present! Whatever this group is, it’s not a “covenant” group. We also use “covenant” to refer to apportionments. Yet far less than half of the churches in my conference pay their full “mission covenant.”)
When Mt. Bethel UMC withheld their apportionment payments because of their displeasure with pastors not being disciplined for breaking covenant (re: same-sex unions), I argued that they had no leg to stand on. You can see in the comments section that “conservatives” were none too happy with that suggestion, and I think assumed that I was supporting the “progressive” cause on this: http://goodnewsmag.org/2015/01/mt-bethel-um-church-withholds-apportionments/ (You can also see my follow-up comment several months later, attempting to explain my problem with what was happening here.)
In all, faithfulness to the covenant we’ve made seems more important than any particular issue here. I think that’s the value you’re claiming, too, and if so, we’re in agreement. Now many of us have certainly been unfaithful to our clergy covenant by accident or negligence. That doesn’t pardon us so easily, but it’s also not the same as a willful flouting of our covenant. I’d say those re-baptisms you describe clearly fit that. If someone is so set on re-baptism, they need to be in ministry in a church where that’s accepted. For them to break faith with their church on an issue that is so clearly part of their clergy covenant is a huge problem. And as you suggest, it gives them no leg to stand on when it comes to other “covenant” issues.
The further point that comes from this is why we’ve all focused on BoD enforcement on one issue and not the other. That does make it feel like a witch hunt. I don’t disagree with you. I probably need to repent of my own focus on the one with little to no attention to the other. I’ve let the major talking points in our UMC world become my major talking points.
Thanks again for this comment. I’d be interested to hear any of your further thoughts.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply Teddy. I think of this out of my own context as a pastor. As a pastor to 3 congregations over 30 years (though the first one was for only one year), I remember learning pretty quickly (though not knowing what to do about it) the complexity of human beings and human community. I also think of this not only as a pastor, but as a part of Christendom and as a part of Christendom in this day and age. For example, I think our biggest problem is not that people don’t keep the rules (which is pretty hard to do in any human community, though I’m glad we try) – but I think the biggest problem in North American main-line Christendom (where I have obviously set up shop) is that we don’t notice and celebrate the incredible discipleship and faithfulness of the people in our congregations. I think of this while serving as a pastor in an inner-city parish where people’s problems are much more out in the open than in other places. I think we have a much bigger problem with acting like the arena of God’s activity is in the Church rather than in the world (and the Church as part of the world). I can’t remember if I said this when we met in Louisville, but I asked several members 12 or 13 years ago to speak at worship service about their holy vocational calling. One of these persons is a dentist, and had run and been elected to serve on his local school board (for the public school district). When he rose to speak he said: “I’ve never before thought of my work and service as my calling, my ministry.” And the only thing I could think was: “shame on us.” We (at Broadway) had, I felt, done a bad job of naming the ways in which we see people living out their faith in their lives, workplaces, homes and relationships – because we have so often focused on the programs of the church. I love going by someone’s home and visiting with them and saying: “When I see you doing this thing in your work [I name something specific I’ve seen in their work as a teacher, a government worker, a business person] I recognize the sanctification of God in Christ at work within you.” “Someone told me about the way in which you offered hospitality in your home to a stranger, and I thought of what is written in Hebrews and I wonder if you would mind telling me about what you saw in that holy moment?” “I saw the way you handled the difficult decision you have been struggling with, with your son about whether to go to college or not – and I thought this was an excellent example of God’s prevenient grace, and this is how…” This is, overwhelmingly, my work, my calling, my ministry. I could spend all my time paying attention to the breaking of the rules that is happening (and is, of course, also always happening in the local church – cuz it’s human beings who are there). I believe that what is needed right now in Christendom in North America is a rediscovery of the power of the Holy Spirit that is already at work in and among our people. When we have meetings at Broadway (and they aren’t very common) – we know that we could spend most of our time in “business” or we could spend most of it – in praying for one another, in celebrating what we see happening among the people of Broadway and the peoples our lives bring us into contact with that are examples of God’s power at work in Indianapolis (and beyond), and talking about what it means to be a congregation that is so aware of God’s abundance. That doesn’t mean we don’t avoid problems. We can’t avoid problems. It’s one of the gifts of the inner city. Things are right in our face. If there is someone struggling with addiction, it isn’t hidden behind a big fenced in yard. If there is someone who is carrying a grief or what a friend of mine calls “terrible misery” – we see it. If someone is being physically abused we notice it and bring people together to confront the abuser and take the next steps to healing and safety. We do that in a circle with others who’ve been through the same thing – and we do that in the sanctuary before the altar. Some of my favorite times as pastor happen there. I say all of this to say, I can’t imagine how in the world it is worth the time to be fighting over who is and who isn’t keeping the Discipline in regards to item 6 – or the ordination of people who are gay and lesbian. Just on a practical level – as a pastor it seems a waste of human resources. And from what I understand from conferences around the country – we have a lot more problems with conferences being sued NOT because clergy are or aren’t gay, but because mainly straight men who are clergy – people like me – have been predators, particularly towards women in our congregations (or in some instances among our clergy). It appears to me, and I could be wrong, that those who want to argue about keeping the clergy covenant on this issue – do not apply it consistently across the whole Discipline and the lesson I take from that is, for the most part, this is not at all about accountability, but only about sexuality. It doesn’t, then, appear to me to be a serious conversation about keeping the covenant. We seem (the Church that is) nearly as sex obsessed as the culture is (and that, as I imagine it is for you too) is often an issue that comes up in one form or another when talking with people in our parish (issues related to sex and sexuality that affect marriages, familial relationships, etc…). The fights about sexuality and keeping those particular parts of the Discipline seem a little bit, on a practical level, like arguments in the Trustees over the color of the carpet, while the electrical system is shorting out frequently near highly flammable insulation – but we can’t ever get to that conversation because the color of carpet isn’t right. I’m sure these are terribly reductionist ways to look at this problem…but as a pastor, in my daily work and calling this is what it feels like to me. Finally, I would just say again, if the people who are wanting to fight about keeping the Discipline around the sexuality issues they aren’t going to convince me that it isn’t about sex, but about keeping the covenant and biblical authority, if that’s the only thing they talk about holding people accountable for. I guess I didn’t address your question as clearly as I can about deliberately flouting the rules, except to say that there is a whole lot of that going on, across wide swaths of our Discipline. I’m pretty sure there is a whole lot more re-baptism going on than there are gay marriages. I preached in Philadelphia back in March at one of the first Reconciling Congregations – and they were very clear in talking with me that they don’t do gay weddings there. If they don’t – there is probably a lot less of it going on that most people imagine. It seems to me we are straining at gnats while swallowing camels.
But let me also say this: I was pastor in South Bend, Indiana for 11 1/2 years. That’s a pretty Catholic city and area – by both religious practice and culture and history. One of my friends is a woman who serves as a Catholic priest to a community/a parish that gathers for worship every Sunday evening. She clearly is outside of the order of the Catholic Church. She and every one of the worshippers in that parish knows that. They do it anyway. When I asked her why – she gave me an answer that I’ve thought a lot about. She said, “this is how things will change and how they have always changed. People do what they are called to do even outside of the church’s order and then it eventually becomes the norm and everyone wonders what all the fuss was about.” I was struck by her deep love of the theology and liturgy of the Catholic Church and her desire to find a place within it – even while (clearly) flouting the rules. That conversation was over 20 years ago – but I often think about it when these conversations come around. I don’t know what this deliberately flouting of the rules around blessing gay weddings or ordaining gay women and men will do to us. But I do believe that if we only focus on that one thing – we will not notice either the deep problems around us – or more sadly for me – the amazing abundant life and faithfulness that fills our pews and streets.
I really do love the Discipline – the rich language and history. The theology that allows us to know the freedom, grace and power of God at work in the world and in our lives sings to me. The ethical guidance that challenges me to think about the way we live out our faith in the world. The rules about how to order our lives, gives me guidance and hope to recognize sisters and brothers in surprising places. Thanks for listening Teddy.
I’m sorry for my long-delayed response to your comment.
I appreciate the pastoral heart you display throughout this comment. I wish for more of that in the rest of our pastors, myself included. Whatever else we’re discussing/debating, I don’t want us to have less of that.
There’s a certain Church & culture perspective that comes along with all of this. I’ve found Tim Keller’s distinctions most helpful for me. He asks about our primary view of the culture (as redeemable and good, or as fundamentally flawed and fallen) and our primary view of the church in relation (how involved in changing/shaping the culture should we be?) You can see that depicted here: http://www.reslifenc.org/blog/files/2013-08-31.-center-church-graph.png
What you talk about sounds like it comes from a primary standpoint that celebrates goodness in the world and makes that a place of the church’s involvement. That’s the “Common Good / Relevance” approach in the chart linked above. I’ll admit that I’ve recognized my greatest influences have come from those on the exact opposite end of that chart — the “Church as Counter-culture” crowd. This includes people like Hauerwas who say that the “first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” That is, they make the church’s holiness of primary importance.
While I’ve wanted in the past to choose a position, I’ve wondered if it’s best (and possible) to hold onto all of these positions. That may be a long way of coming back to what you’re saying and to say that I want to agree with you and affirm all the things you list as important––noticing and celebrating what God is doing in the lives of people in our community and congregations. And yet I don’t want to do that by minimizing the importance of the church’s holiness.
I agree with your frustration about the amount of energy that has gone into a single issue for the UMC. I wish our time at General Conference and our times in discussion about our denomination could be focused on so many other things instead. I wish our GC worship could be untainted by constant suspicion of political agendas. I wish we weren’t spending most of our time in parliamentary procedure in what appears to be a rather rigid party-line structure. I agree with you in all those frustrations. It’s only in the conclusions that I think we differ. By the sound of it, your preferred solution is that those opposing a change to our Book of Discipline stand down. I couldn’t advocate or support that solution.
This is where the Church as counter-culture view comes in. This isn’t just a matter of rules or obsession with sex. I’d frame that differently as a matter of fidelity and holiness. You named that others are openly flouting our covenant on other issues, with no punishment. To me, that’s a serious issue. I’ve not been aware of it, and I don’t understand why those pastors aren’t being brought up on charges. This isn’t because I want to be focused on nothing but “rules,” but because our most important rules––those reflected positively in many places and negatively in our “chargeable offenses”––represent deep theological values and reflection. I’d love for everyone to keep to those “rules,” but when they don’t, our turning a blind eye invalidates our stated values. We as the church have always had boundaries / rules / expectations. You’ve probably seen the news articles about pastors of other denominations who are open atheists, and yet continue serving as pastors. I even saw one case where the atheist pastor was outraged that anyone would try to remove her. She was helping people to be more loving, caring, good people. That’s great, but it’s secular humanism, not Christianity. I wonder if some of our live and let live appeals––as nice as they sound––lead us to compromise with our culture’s values in some places where we should be upholding a different set of values.
On this particular topic, I understand your pleas, but for many who believe this shouldn’t be an issue to “stand down” on, this is much more significant than the color of the carpet. There are absolutely many issues that are live and let live issues. I admit, though, that I’m still unpersuaded this should be one. The exegetical gymnastics are difficult for me. The consistent 2,000 year teaching of the church makes me worry that those gymnastics are less about getting at truth and more about an attempt to satiate my own desires (I don’t really care to be thought a bigot, and I have married gay friends that I don’t want to believe are in sin). I’m glad there have been faithful Christians in the past who didn’t cave when the currents of culture changed. I’m still convinced enough by the “traditional” position on this that I couldn’t in good faith tell others it’s fine for them to “follow the Spirit’s lead and their own interpretation on LGBT issues” (as another UMC pastor previously requested).
On whether this is obsession with sex or not… I don’t know? Maybe it is. But if so, I suppose I’d say that the Bible seems rather obsessed with it, too. The prohibitions against sexual impurity are some of the strongest in Scripture. Some of those have to do with idolatry. Many don’t. More generally, I’d want to say it’s an obsession with holiness, and a concern that we not begin to call sacred anything that may be actually immoral. I know there’s plenty of disagreement about whether homosexual practice should be called immoral. Many will take offense to that. For those who are convinced by Scripture that it is immorality, though, sacralizing it is a grievous offense. Many will also ask why we’re not so obsessed with holiness in other issues. I’d pray that we are. If in any areas of our collective or individual lives, we’re living immorally, that should be cause for alarm and repentance. And in our clergy, cause for removal (immorality is a chargeable offense). This isn’t about focusing on one particular “potential” sin for me, at least, but about saying that if we believe something is sin, we must flee from it. I don’t want to do that at the expense of evangelism, recognizing and celebrating God’s work in the lives of our communities and congregations, or any other good we could be doing. But I also don’t want to treat it as of second-order importance. Somehow, I wish we could treat them both as first-order priorities. But maybe that asks too much.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hope this response in some way advances the conversation, even if you don’t find it agreeable.