The Semantics Of Justice
According to The Book of Discipline , the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves, neither bishops or district superintendents have the authority to excommunicate lay persons from the church, nor to remove individuals from candidacy for ministry.
In choosing to become ordained in The Universal Life Church (ULC), Ms. Mikita elected to change denominations. This action automatically withdrew her membership in The United Methodist Church and as a certified candidate for ministry. – Statement from Michigan Area Press Office, United Methodist Insight, September 10, 2015
[T]he fact is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.
Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. And yes, I know that this is not simply a progressive tactic. I have seen evangelical, conservative, and self-described centrists do this, too. I lament what our discourse has become. I don’t know what the future of our church is, but I pray that whatever it is, we can find better ways of talking to one another. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, September 5, 2015
I took a few classes on law as an undergraduate. While not at all making me knowledgeable about the law, it offered a window in to the practice of law. Law is a profession concerned with the meaning of words. Do the words of a particular statute apply to a particular set of facts? How do they apply? It isn’t an accident that a lot of law schools recommend the study of English as a prerequisite to law school, along with a course or two in logic. It all boils down to how we use words, and whether or not a particular set of described facts is a subset of a particular set of described prohibited acts. Like that song from My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words . . .!”
Defenders of the expulsion of Ginny Mikita from membership in the United Methodist Church, including the Press Office of the Michigan Area Episcopal Office, insist the word “excommunication” is hyperbole, used erroneously, and does not at all describe what actually happened in this case. Others, including me, insist the word properly describes the actions taken to punish Ms. Mikita. So the question is simple: Who’s right?
Let’s consider the word itself. “Excommunication” literally means “no longer in communion”. The practice of excommunication was used to expel persons from the central means of grace, the Eucharistic table at Mass. As a social practice, it also meant those still in communion could have no private or public intercourse with such persons. Rooted in the ancient doctrine of extra ecclesia nunc salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation”, excommuncation not only left individuals social pariahs. Unless such persons renounced the specific heresy or practice for which they were originally were tossed out of the Church, sought absolution and acted upon whatever penance was meted out, excommunication meant damnation. One’s soul was forfeit along with one’s social position.
In the modern and contemporary age, the practice has largely been dispensed with. Protestants of most stripes no longer practice it, save for the Amish and their practice of shunning. There is no formal process for the practice set out in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. There is, however, a description of formal action to be taken in the case of an individual who is a member of the UMC and also a member of another denomination. The statement from the Michigan Area Press Office quotes it:
If a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter “Withdrawn” after her person’s name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference.
Now, the pastor of the church where Ms. Mikita is a member left a comment in which he stated that he has not, in fact, entered “Withdrawn” by her name on the membership rolls. For official bodies of the Michigan Area to inform Ms. Mikita that she was no longer a member of her local UMC is factually inaccurate. Their insistence, however – echoed by David Watson of United Theological Seminary – that she is indeed no longer a member by dint of her own actions ignores the statement of the BoD regarding the process to be undertaken in such an instance. Disregarding proper procedure, summarily declaring Ms. Mikita’s membership forfeit without having done due diligence in regards to the clear process outlined in the Discipline is best described as “arbitrary and capricious”. It also amounts, for all intents and purposes, to excommunication. That the Conference outlines steps she can take to return to membership as well as become a candidate for the ordained diaconate is neither here nor there; the Church has always offered steps to return to full communication to those cast out.
Is it hyperbole or factually inaccurate to describe as excommunication the actions taken against Ms. Mikita? While I believe this is a matter best left to Church lawyers, in my opinion it is not. Others might well disagree, and as I say the final arbiter should be our Judicial Council. All the same, it’s important to be clear that the choice of this word is not arbitrary, nor is it a rhetorical tactic used to shame anyone. It is also quite relevant that one of the persons who instigated action against Ms. Mikita has publicly endorsed the practice of excommunication. It may not be definitive, but it does show that using the word is hardly something taken from nowhere.
This is an ongoing matter. For the sake of clarity it is important to be definitive about how we describe the events in question. Are emotions involved? Of course, but also irrelevant. That this was an instance of excommunication is clear from the facts of the matter. The choice of whether or not to use the word is not a rhetorical decision to shame supporters of Ms. Mikita’s expulsion. It is only used to call an action by its name. If they feel shame, that isn’t anyone’s fault but their own.