In an effort to shine some light on a couple dark spaces, I’m going to say out loud what others have shared privately. I am also going to tell a very unflattering story about myself. Finally, I am going to answer a question someone has asked me several times.
Let’s start with the question: “How would adults act?” Because I often lament the lack of adults in the United Methodist Church, I think it is important to talk about what adult actions might or would or should look like. In order to do that, I’m going to tell a story about me not acting like an adult, and learning the hard way that tattling on others is far more wrong than any action someone feels compelled to tattle about.
I was in Seminary. It was evening. There was a night class getting out and I could hear through my open window a lot of animated talking. Interesting but not unheard of. Nothing animates people like sitting in a large classroom setting and hearing things that challenge your faith. A couple people walked by my room – I sometimes liked to leave my door open – and I saw two people in a hushed discussion. They looked upset. Curious (mistake number one; it wasn’t my business), I went out and asked them what was going on. I was told that discussions in the class were heated; afterward, one of the students was heard to complain about “c***s in the pulpit” and “uppity n****** teaching classes”. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how shocked I was (mistake number two; don’t be shocked by others’ words or actions).
I was filled with righteous anger. Someone should do something about this! If not me, then who? If not now, when? (you guessed it, mistake number three; never ever ever envision oneself as some kind of righteous hero because you’re just being an ass) The next day, having given the matter no thought and less prayer, I went to the Dean of Community Life. I told her what I had heard. I insisted “something had to be done” as if that was within my particular range of responsibilities. She made a reasonable request. She wanted me to convince the person who had told me, who had heard it first hand, to come forward. Filled with the righteousness of a quest for justice, I went and did just that: I went to the person who had told me, trying to convince this person to do what I’d done. I failed utterly. And for good reasons.
The person who relayed those statements to me made it clear that he might well have misheard what was said; he might ha heard that person relaying with disapproval something someone else had said. For all this person knew, those statements relayed to me might well reflect that person’s views but it wasn’t up to us to make a spectacle out of it. At the time I was sorely disappointed. I had to go to the Dean and tell her I had failed; at the time I still felt that “something” should be done. I was heartbroken, not least because this chance I had to be some kind of hero by exposing bigotry among the student body had been dashed by what I felt were “technicalities”.
I am much older now. I am, I hope, a bit wiser. I am ashamed of how I acted. Indeed, I’ve never related this story before in full to anyone precisely because . . . yes I look like a jerk. Being upset and angry that another student said such things about others, specifically faculty members, is fine. Believing it was my bounden duty to “do something about it”, however, were childish delusions. Those delusions, because they were childish, led me to do something I regret: I tattled.
Do I think someone willing to express such extreme views has a place in the pulpit on any church? Of course not. The nice things is, the hoops and stunts, committee meetings and papers, the sermons and lesson plans that candidates for ordained ministry need to complete are many, various, and spread across years. Everything from psychological evaluations to background checks are done. Going in front of a District Committee on Ordained Ministry, say or the Board of Ordained Ministry is never easy. A person who surrenders to the urge to speak in such a way about people doesn’t have an excess of self-control. The proper venue for acting on information that a person has said thus-and-such about others clearly isn’t a Seminary; and what that action might or might not be isn’t up to someone far more concerned with displaying his righteous anger than with getting at the real facts of the matter. I had no business doing what I did. That I can feel shame for doing so is a sign that, at the very least, I’ve learned one lesson in life.
It has been whispered in secret, in hushed conversations, but rarely been made explicit that when Drew McIntyre, Stephen Rankin, and Evan Rohrs-Dodge wrote their letter to the Bishop and District Superintendent of Western Michigan regarding the actions Ginny Mikita took, it was nothing more than tattling. It isn’t that they found Ms. Mikita’s actions wrong or in violation of the Book of Discipline that bothers people; I think most folks, including Ginny, understand that actions have consequences, consequences she was willing to face had proper procedure been followed and the proper actors been offered the opportunity to do so. As Ginny’s role in this was not a secret or hidden, those responsible for dealing with her as they saw fit – the pastor of her local church; her District Committee on Ordained Ministry – certainly had the information available to take whatever actions they deemed appropriate. Rather than allow such actions to unfold as they are set out in the Discipline, these men decided to act, not trusting the processes set out in the very book they claim to defend. They became both judge and jury, determining what her actions were and what the appropriate response from church authorities ought to be, due process and due diligence be damned.
What Ginny Mikita did, was it right, was it wrong? I haven’t a clue. I haven’t a clue because I’m not competent to make that determination. Furthermore, that isn’t my job. Were I truly outraged at a lay member receiving an online ordination in order to perform a wedding ceremony, I would contact that person personally and ask (a) why that person did it; and (b) does this person realize that in so acting this person has risked losing membership in the United Methodist Church. Let me type part of that again: I would contact that person. I wouldn’t tattle on them. I wouldn’t decide I knew better than others what ought to be done. I wouldn’t look at news reports and believe I knew all that needed to be known to make a determination that someone was wrong and “something needed to be done”. That’s the answer to the question about how adults would act. An adult would have gotten in touch with Ginny and say something like, “I saw this news report and I’m troubled. Could we have a conversation so that we both understand the full circumstances and implications?” If that request was denied, the matter should be dropped.
The harm done to the institutions of the UMC that flow from this letter are difficult for those outside to imagine. Imagine being a DS and fearing someone will write them a letter demanding action based upon what amounts to rumor, gossip, and hearsay. Imagine being a lay person who purchased an online “ordination” to help out a family or friend. Imagine knowing that out there are people who scrutinize every news story, every little blog post and might well find something wrong with it. While the actions taken against Ms. Mikita may or may not have been wrong, the thing that got this whole ball rolling, that letter, is morally repulsive, antithetical to any serious ethical consideration. That there are many in our denomination who think what they did was justified breaks my heart; to have such a skewed moral compass as to think that acting on rumor and the words of tattle-tales who weren’t even present for the events they report is acceptable . . . what are we becoming?
This is why tattling is just so wrong. This is a lesson some of us have had to learn the hard way. It is far worse than anything the tattlers believe has been done. We have so much to do to clean up this mess. Not the least have people start acting like adults.
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.
It’s interesting. I started this blog a year and a half ago for several reasons, but one of them was to try and remain focused on a particular passion of mine – music and the Christian life, including our corporate worship. I knew this wasn’t going to be a hugely popular topic, but that was part of the point.
Except, alas, “focus” for me has always been what film folks call “soft”. Particularly when something important happens in my beloved UMC, I’m all over it. The past couple days have demonstrated that the best way to boost traffic is to be a controversialist. I have been averaging something like 30 or 40 visits a day. Monday I had over 300. Yesterday I had over 600. If all I wanted was attention, I would have done this a long time ago!
Two of the previous three posts were written in a combination of anger, disgust, and sorrow. I am still angry and disgusted and sad. I am also, however, aware that remaining in those places is hardly constructive. Right now we in the United Methodist Church need to think constructively, lovingly about how we move forward. And when I use the first person plural I am as always very deliberate. All of us, regardless of church politics or theological label, need to move forward. Biology tells us that self-movement is one of the indicators of life; if we don’t move forward we’re dead.
So I’m not going to be all angry and accusatory today. While there are people who need to address their role in the events in Western Michigan, one thing I oppose is any punitive or church-legal action taken. Part of our problem right now as a denomination is too many are too quick to resort to such actions. For example, one of those who wrote the initial letter to Western Michigan is part of a private group on FB of which I’m a part. I attempted to draw him in to a conversation with the group, but some misinterpreted my intention as wishing to expel him from the group. As the whole point of all this is the unjust removal of an individual from church membership, the last thing on my mind was kicking him out. Yes, I believe his actions wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear from him. We are attached as part of the same communion of saints due to our membership in the United Methodist Church, and we may well disagree on all sorts of matters. That does not mean I wish no fellowship with him. It just makes our fellowship . . . interesting, which is always the case in large groups.
Part of our problem is a refusal to engage with one another. We all seem so willing to toss out charges and counter-charges, yet no one says, “How about we get together and chat about this?” We use labels as shorthand for actual thought and engagement when all too often those labels are either borrowed from secular politics or misused. We refuse to talk with those we either consider beneath our notice or unwilling to listen. At some point, however, we are going to have to talk to one another unless the only words we exchange are goodbyes.
Since we all know the arguments, isn’t it long past time to stop arguing? Since we all are convinced we’re right can’t we at least hear in detail how each other is wrong? Instead of resorting to church trials to punish those with whom we disagree, can’t we just hash things out the way we’re supposed to, in holy conferencing?
We are United in United Methodism by the Holy Spirit. In that same Spirit, we can find the strength to gather and find that balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul. I do believe the time for anger has passed. We are now in desperate need of penitent dialogue. I invite any and all with whom I’ve expressed disagreement or engaged in controversy to come. The table is set before us by our God. Let us share together and remember our differences are transitory and contingent; what unites us is eternal.
Here’s hoping my numbers stay high because people really want to move forward together, and aren’t just attracted to someone venting their spleen.
It has come to my attention that some of the people in our United Methodist family have gone on the internet and purchased ordination certificates from a number of websites. Lay people as well as local pastors with limited sacramental privileges are getting these certificates. Some have performed weddings and consecrated communion using the authority of these ordaining bodies. Some have seen it as a way to qualify for tax exemptions. The process is very simple and it requires no seminary training, interviews or screening. Literally anyone can become ordained and hold ministerial credentials using this method and some sites do not even charge for this service.
This is not in any way condoned by the United Methodist Church, the Philadelphia Area, the bishop or the cabinets.(emphasis added) – UM Bishop Peggy Johnson, Philadelphia Area, “Ordinations Online?”, Bishop’s Blog, Oct. 10, 2013
Getting an online ordination separates you from the UMC. Not oppression or injustice. Just is. Blog post from 2013 before a dust up this year in Michigan.(emphasis added) – Rev. John Meunier, “Bishop’s Blog: Ordinations Online?”, Sep 5, 2015
When you unite with another denomination, you are by that very action forfeiting your official membership within the UMC . . .
To read the response that came out from RMN, you would think that Ms. Mikita was excommunicated from the UMC. In fact, the response uses that very term more than once. . . .
This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in the complaint against Ms. Mikita. But the fact of the matter 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. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, Sep. 4, 2015
I am the local pastor of the woman whose case hit you so hard (and rightfully so!). I have *not* written “withdrawn” on her membership record and I *have had* very close communication with her throughout all that has transpired. Not all relevant voices have been heard; this story is still in progress. – Rev. Robert Eckert, blog comment
Four years of Seminary. Several more in local church ministry. Papers and interviews with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. More papers and interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry. Continuing Education. To become an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church was expensive, intellectually and emotionally taxing, providing ups and downs and more hoops through which to jump than the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Watching and supporting Lisa go through this gave me so much admiration not only for those who made it through (and I know many who didn’t); it gave me a great deal of respect for our denomination, that it took the special vocation of ordination that seriously.
Yet we live in a place and time when both church membership and ordination just aren’t all that valuable. Indeed, ordination has become a commodity, obtainable online with a credit card. As a wedding disc jockey, I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve worked at which a family member or friend purchased one of these ordination certificates in order to perform the ceremony. I must admit when I first learned about it all, I was a little taken aback. Then it occurred to me that in our capitalist society everything has a price, and the worth of all things comes down to what others are willing to pay for it. We in the United Methodist Church may well hold ordination in high esteem. That doesn’t mean everyone else does.
The matter of Ginny Mikita receiving an online “ordination” from The Universal Life Church has become the focal point of much of the discussion surrounding what John Meunier understatedly describes as “a dust up”. Supporters of Ms. Mikita’s excommunication insist action was taken, from writing a letter to the actual expulsion, because she obtained an online ordination in violation of our Book of Disipline. They point to a blog post by Bishop Peggy Johnson (because we all know how authoritative blog posts are, especially from United Methodist Bishops) in which she writes that such “ordinations” are “not condoned” by our denomination.
Except, of course, we don’t really know that. Just how relevant to church membership is it if a person, having been asked by a friend to perform a wedding, buys one of these pieces of paper, does the wedding, and continues attending worship and participating in the ministries of the local church? Has membership been forfeit? Did Ms. Mikita’s actions mean she expelled herself from her church?
That, it seems, would be an interesting question of church law. What I find fascinating in all this is that these online ordinations and their use has been around for a long time; before that were mail-order ordinations for people to do much the same thing. I haven’t seen any big stories of the United Methodist Church polling their members to see who has done this. I can’t imagine, what with all the Sturm und Drang about church membership decline, the summary expulsion of all those who have done so. Indeed, I would like to know if anyone, anywhere, can find a few actual stories from the past five years or so in which a member of a local UM Church was so treated.
What those writing in support of Ms. Mikitia’s excommunication forget is that even if the matter of her online ordination were front and center the Book of Discipline calls for specific actions to be taken by specific people. None of them include either her Bishop or District Superintendent. For Meunier to say no injustice was done is to ignore the way the Discipline violated in this case. For Watson to say that Ms. Mikita expelled herself ignores the fact that she continued as an active member of her local congregation. Is this matter of online ordinations such a threat to the integrity of United Methodist congregations that the processes set out in the Book of Discipline can be set aside in order to uphold another part of the same BoD?
That Ms. Mikita took the action she did to officiate at a same-sex wedding of a former West Michigan Conference clergy member looms more and more as the real reason she was excommunicated. Some folks want anyone who defies our denomination’s stance on sexual minorities and same-sex marriage punished. Driven out. If it takes mass trials, some Bishops are willing to go that far. To sit around and pretend this is about the threat of extraordinary ordinations, a practice that’s existed for decades in different forms, s to play games. The obfuscation and dishonesty is appalling. When one of those participating in such nonsense insists that “honesty” is one of the key intellectual virtues he tries to instill in his students, I just shake my head. If we’re going to talk about online ordinations, let’s do some surveys of local churches. All those who have them get kicked out. Period.
Otherwise, can we talk about what’s really going on?
While Ginny knowingly placed her future ordination at risk in this act of Biblical Obedience, Ginny could not have imagined that her membership in The UMC would be threatened as well. However, on August 27, Ginny’s District Superintendent, Rev. Bill Haggard, informed her that her candidacy for ordination and her membership in The UMC were revoked weeks ago as a result of a letter penned by three United Methodist clergy in other states demanding that such disciplinary action be taken against her. The stated-rationale for such action insists that Ginny was excommunicated when she acquired an online designation necessary for the legal pronouncement of marriage. – “Clergy Candidate Removed From Ordination Process And Membership In The United Methodist Church”, September 4, 2015
One final thing that troubles me is that the structure of the United Methodist Church states that we are accountable to our local and regional bodies. Instead of trusting that a pastor who is seen as errant would be held accountable, these clergymen interfered across annual conference and jurisdictional lines. It should be noted that clergy trials of late have all been initiated by localcomplaints, certainly not by ones far-removed from context. While such an action is allowed in United Methodism, not all that is legal is good.
My hope is that other individuals who seek to take it upon themselves to accuse others in the United Methodist Church instead allow the local or regional response by their clergy peers to go forward. Our accountability is to the annual conference, and to trust that process. It’s a shame that there’s a group of Methodists trolling online articles for people to bring charges against. May we all be better. – Rev. Jeremy Smith, “2/3 Of The Via Media Methodists Wrote A Letter To Remove A Laity From Local Church Membership,” Hacking Christianity, September 4, 2015
I think congratulations are in order! To the three gentlemen who comprise Via Media Methodists, you managed to make names for yourselves! To the District Superintendent and Bishop in Western Michigan, many thanks for demonstrating such zeal in upholding our Book of Discipline!
In seeking to uphold the letter of our law, they have only instilled contempt for it. In acting out of a dedication to our connectional system, they have stripped the word of any substantive meaning. In seeking to reinforce the integrity of the United Methodist Church, they have left us a laughing stock. In a denomination that claims, at the heart of our worship – the communion table – that all are welcome at God’s table – they have demonstrated the reality that some people just aren’t welcome at all. And of course, in seeking to make names for themselves as Important People in the United Methodist Church, they have threatened not only the District Superintendent in Michigan, but as my wife – a DS in Northern Illinois – made clear, any Superintendent now may find him- or herself facing pressure to act in similar ways. You demonstrate the emptiness both of your so-called “middle way” as well as the viciousness at the heart of the attack both upon sexual minorities in our denomination as well as those who support them.
I am quite sure you folks – at least the folks at Via Media – are proud of yourselves. You Accomplished Something. As I say: Congratulations! And I know Rev. Drew McIntyre doesn’t quite get the irony that he’s the author of a blog entitled “Uniting Grace”.