It’s All Over But The Whining (UPDATED)
I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Over 20 years ago, I said the whole matter of the status of sexual minorities in the United Methodist Church would be solved in a single act of solidarity: all gay, lesbian, and bisexual clergy standing up at an Annual Conference session, outing themselves simultaneously, and daring the hierarchy to toss them out. Practicality would trump church law and the prejudice. There would be shouting, of course, and demands for action, but at the end of the day, such an action would effectively end discrimination in the United Methodist Church.
Something similar has happened in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. A group of clergy gathered to give public support for a same-sex couple married legally in their state. According to the story in the Religion News Service, like many other recent cases of clergy disobedience in regards sexual minorities, this one was handled administratively, in keeping with the Council of Bishops desire for No More Trials.
A complaint was filed against 36 United Methodist pastors who officiated at a Nov. 9, 2013 wedding for two men at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. On Friday (Oct. 3), Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson announced that the complaint had been resolved.
The resolution calls for the officiating clergy to acknowledge that they violated rules of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which includes the denomination’s constitution. In return, the complaint will be withdrawn.
Bishop Johnson goes on to insist she won’t be so lenient next time:
“Though I may sympathize with the pastoral concerns of the respondents, it is unacceptable to disregard and disobey the Book of Discipline,” Johnson said. “I pledge that, in future cases where clergy within my jurisdiction officiate or host a same-gender ceremony, any complaints that I receive will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences, in accordance with the Discipline and in consultation with the Board of Ordained ministry and the clergy session of the annual conference.”
Except, alas, such a threat sounds empty now that, yet again, an Administrative solution to the matter has been reached. No clergy is going to feel threatened by Bishop Johnson’s promise to be authoritative next time. The precedent has been set: Clergy admit they’ve violated the Book of Discipline and that’s that. Furthermore, this isn’t the only Administrative solution to this kind of problem. Before his passing the late Bishop Martin McLee handled a couple very high profile cases of such violations in just such a matter in the New York Conference. Indeed, the Judicial Council’s decision to rehear Frank Schaeffer’s case is more an aberration than the current trend.
While some folks continue to demand we close the floor of GC2016 because . . . well because reasons, I guess, the matter of United Methodist clergy officiating at perfectly legal wedding ceremonies has been resolved. Let folks continue to insist and argue like it’s the Democratic National Convention in 1964, where the white delegation from Mississippi walked out because the Rules Committee allowed the African-American delegation from Mississippi to be the official delegation. Let them continue to police our rhetoric and tut-tut how we argue. Let the folks at Good News demand trials. Let the IRD demand not only the expulsion of all those clergy, but their Bishop as well. These are all old games, and we are sure to see more of the same, hear more of the same, and read more of the same. The fact of the matter, however, is in a single act of solidarity, this group of clergy from Eastern Pennsylvania have demonstrated all it takes to overcome injustice – solidarity. Bishop Johnson’s threat to get all tough next time has to ring hollow. It’s too late. Clergy officiate at a wedding, sign a piece of paper that says, “Yes, I’ve violated the Book of Discipline.” That’s it.
Of course, that doesn’t do much for the on-going discrimination within the church. All the same, the arguments in favor of the status quo are more and more difficult to support given the practical reality the church no longer punishes clergy who officiate at weddings between persons who happen to be the same gender. Just as there are clergy currently serving our churches who aren’t happy about women clergy, or African-American clergy, or Asian clergy, there will always be those with prejudice against sexual minorities. But there will always be sexual minorities in their pews, people who need loving-care, who need counseling, and, yes, people who want to be married in their church by the person who has served them as pastor. The demand of the Gospel, to be the slave of all, to be that Love that is of God because of God’s creating love for us must always trump whatever vagaries of human foible and sin with which we have to deal in the present moment.
The precedent has been sent. While Frank Schaeffer’s appearance before the Judicial Council will no doubt be very high profile, it is, I believe, an aberration. The trend is Administrative slaps on the the wrist as Bishops come to terms with the demands from clergy to serve faithfully, demands from the laity in the pew that their clergy not be be forced to discriminate against the demands of the Gospel and their own consciences. Whatever action is or is not taken at GC2016, as same-sex marriage becomes legal in more and more jurisdictions, the practicalities of Gospel ministry will trump the demands of the old guard. The fight is over. Ministry in the name of Jesus Christ has won. More people need to recognize this, celebrate it, and get out there and be about the work of the church for all God’s people.
UPDATE: It seems the United Methodist Church is sliding behind the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to matters of sexual ethics in our contemporary setting:
A two-week meeting of bishops on family issues arrived at its halfway point Monday with a document summarizing the closed-door debate so far. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the preliminary document was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance, rather than condemnation, with the aim of guiding Catholics toward the ideal of a lasting marriage.
The bishops said gays had “gifts and qualities” to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”
For a 2,000-year-old institution that believes gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” even posing the question is significant.
“This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic church speaks of gay people,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “The Synod is clearly listening to the complex, real-life experiences of Catholics around the world, and seeking to address them with mercy, as Jesus did.”
So, about that whole closing-General-Conference-plus-gays-are-evil thing. . .