Reading the Methodist news the past few weeks, another form of that argument comes to mind: “Why do we violate the covenant to show that violating the covenant is wrong?”
The Covenant and the Money
In response to over 1,000 United Methodist ministers pledging that they would offer same-sex marriages or holy unions to all people, which is in defiance of church law, those who oppose this action have started the website FaithfulUMC.com. The website collects signatories to a letter to the bishops asking them to speak clearly on the repercussions for the clergy who have signed this pledge. There’s a clergy letter and a laity letter to sign.
While that’s an appropriate expression of their opinion, the clergy letter includes a troubling section regarding apportionments (church tithes to the meta-church agencies, structure, and missions). It states:
“Many of us struggle every year to defend to our members why we should pay apportionments that support boards such as the General Board of Church and Society that regularly lobbies and writes legislation to change the church’s position regarding the practice of homosexuality. If we ever come to the point that we are having to explain why the church is not holding those who break the Discipline accountable in a real way, we may no longer be able to convince our members of the wisdom of contributing to the general ministries of a church that seems bent on its own destruction.”
Why is this significant? Apportionments are part of the covenant of the local church to the greater church.
Payment in full of these apportionments by local churches is the first benevolent responsibility of the church ¶247.14, ¶812
The apportionments for all apportioned general Church funds, as approved by the General Conference, shall not be subject to reduction either by the annual conference or by the charge or local church ¶811.4
In other words, if the clergy covenant is seen as breakable, then by the transactive law of mathematics, the church covenant to give connectional dollars must be breakable too.
History: This is not a new idea
It is important to note that this is not a new thing. It is a regular tactic of those opposed to sexuality initiatives in the UMC to withhold or threaten to withhold Apportionments. T.L. Steinwert (citation: TLS) includes some of the following historical events in her 2009 dissertation on the history of the LGBT debate in the United Methodist Church (available at BU Digital Commons):
- In 1969, the United Methodist student magazine motive published an article on LGBT issues. Local churches withheld their apportionments in protest (or threatened to withhold) and eventually motive magazine was removed from the GBHEM and made into an independent entity. It lasted two more issues and then folded (TLS)
- In 1979, five Nashville-area churches withheld their apportionments in protest of the GBOD’s “Sexuality Forums” which included videos on LGBT issues. The forums were then dissolved at the 1980 General Conference. The protesting churches’ statement included the quote (TLS):
We feel we can no longer stand by in the name of Christian stewardship and support these agencies now lobbying against basic Christian morality.
- In 1990, Bethany UMC in Eastern PA conference withheld its apportionments in protest of a abortion-related issue, donating that money instead to a pregnancy crisis center for one or two years.
- In 1998, First UMC in Marietta, Georgia, withheld its apportionments to the general church agencies (ie. General Administration, World Service Fund, MEF, etc) in response to the Jimmy Creech trial and its own “special task force” in its church that researched and cataloged all the doctrinal breaches of the meta-church leadership (I would LOVE to get ahold of that “75 page document”) (TLS).
- They resumed their apportionments that same year after further review of the finances of the General Agencies and the news report includes a comment that “UMAction had their facts incorrect.” Now THAT’s a news flash! Ha!
- In 2004, St. Peters UMC in the North Carolina conference sent a letter to their new bishop threatening to withhold apportionments due to sexuality disagreements. In this blogger’s opinion, this is the most theological and well thought-out of the statements (see appendix 1). They included the following rationale:
Is it possible that obedience to the baptismal covenant might, in a particular case, conflict with the congregation being subject to the Discipline? For example, might United Methodist leaders and/or general boards engage in activities blatantly opposed to the denomination’s Discipline? Under such circumstances, are not United Methodists, out of obedience to the baptismal covenant, required to resist such activities? And as a last resort, after all other possible responses have been attempted to no avail, might a congregation, motivated by covenantal obedience, refuse to pay apportioned monies that would support continuing, undisciplined activities by denominational boards?
Historically, in response to sexuality initiatives in the UMC, particular churches or groups of churches withhold or threaten to withhold apportionments based on their outrage at what their moneys seem to support.
How is FaithfulUMC Different?
By talking about withholding apportionments, FaithfulUMC fits in with the tradition above of the churches who protest a particular development in sexuality initiatives by withholding funds. However, by its form, it is more aligned with the mass-protest movements who would pen a letter and have thousands of signatories to it. For example, in 1987 the Houston Declaration was penned in response to LGBT ordination concerns (TLS). It was initiated by 40ish pastors and eventually got over 60,000 signatories. There are a few other letters like this…but here’s the key…none of them talk about withholding apportionments.
In short, it’s a hybrid of the two movements: it’s a letter seeking signatories but it’s also talking about withholding apportionments. Each person that signs it affirms that paying apportionments becomes less likely if the Bishops do not act. It’s this point that brings me to my current problems with the FaithfulUMC website and each section below includes questions for signers of the website’s petition.
Problem #1 – This is Not Divestment
In a conversation with a clergy colleague about this website, it was compared with the tactic of divestment, or the withdrawing of money from businesses or funds whose actions you disagree with. For example, in 2005 New England Annual Conference called for divestment from particular companies who were profiting from the Israel/Palestine conflict (it didn’t pass at 2008 GC). They included the following rationale:
WHEREAS the United Methodist Church should not profit from the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land or the destruction of Palestinian homes, orchards, and lives, and WHEREAS we are committed to ensuring that our denomination’s money is used in a manner consistent with our beliefs, with international law, and with Christ’s teaching
The language sounds the same as the FaithfulUMC rationale above: removing money from a group that doesn’t match with your beliefs. But the difficulty with comparing divestment strategies with FaithfulUMC’s call is precisely onefold:
- Divestment is voluntary, apportionments are not.
We are obligated by the Discipline to support the work of the meta-church structures whether or not we agree with them. It’s the same as a church tithe: you give to the church a regular amount trusting they will use it to God’s glory. Otherwise, it becomes an Offering.
There’s a ton of Methodist ways to express disapproval with other Methodists. We can express our disagreement through direct conversations, speaking out against their actions, electing people to positions of power to influence their policy, writing petitions to General Conference, and being elected to serve those meta-church agencies. But withholding of apportionments is not one of them.
So if you signed the document rationalizing “hey this is like divestment,” think again and consider what better Methodist avenues of change one might pursue.
Problem #2 – Which Civil Disobedience is Okay?
I must point out a fascinating correlation in this FaithfulUMC’s signatories.
FaithfulUMC, at its root, calls for punishment for those who are practicing civil disobedience in the church. However, there is a good number of signatories who also signed the Manhattan Declaration, which…wait for it…calls for civil disobedience to secular laws that restrict religious liberty. I’m serious! Here’s a quote from the Manhattan Declaration document:
We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.
Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God Himself.
Most of the Board Members of the Confessing Movement, which supported the Manhattan Declaration in their April/June 2011 issue, signed both documents. Individual clergy like Rev. Paul Stallsworth of LifeWatch signed both documents. I’m certain there are many more that have signed both so don’t think I’m singling them out. The problem is that the Manhattan Declaration purports 490,000 signers but only 1% of them are available online so it’s hard to find more parallels.
Why is that fascinating? FaithfulUMC is written in protest of those who practice a form of civil disobedience, namely ecclesial disobedience. One of the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration, Princeton Law professor Robert George, stated “When the limits of conscience are reached and you cannot comply, it’s better to suffer a wrong than to do it.”
So with this information, I wonder why some of the signatories of the FaithfulUMC.com website support civil disobedience to the covenant of law but not ecclesial disobedience to the clergy covenant.
So if you signed both the FaithfulUMC and the Manhattan Declaration, exactly what role does civil disobedience play for you? How are the understandings of civil disobedience different in the two statements?
Problem #3 – The Temptation of ‘Buyout Power’?
Dr. Tom Oden (one of the intellecutal forces behind the Confessing Movement) signed the document (#1328). I’m honestly surprised. For example, Dr. Oden signed the Manhattan Declaration, as we discussed above. Interesting. But also in Oden’s 2006 book Turning Around the Mainline, he criticizes the Episcopal Church in this way:
Their wealth tempts them to presume they still have legitimate control and buyout power over the organizational apparatus of the entire Anglican Communion. (page 86)
In the same way, the signers of this document all affirm that their church’s inclination to pay their apportionments would be stifled, perhaps even abandoned. The five FaithfulUMC originators’ churches gave a combined $3 million in 2010 Apportionments…two of them give over $900k a year. Because they give more money, does that give them more say in this discussion? Does it give them more influence? Regardless of does…should it?
So if you signed the document, ask yourself about this quote. And wonder with me if this is the same temptation of wealth that Oden himself criticized…
In summary, the FaithfulUMC clergy letter is a letter expressing concern over the actions of other clergy. If that’s all it was, that would be fine and well within the tradition of protest. But it doesn’t stop there. It warns the Bishops that if they don’t significantly punish those who pledge to perform same-sex unions, the largest churches in the UMC will likely withhold their Discipline-mandated apportionments in protest.
So the unanswered question is this: How does violating the Discipline show that violating the Discipline is wrong?
While an expression of ecclesial warning such as FaithfulUMC is a good way to express and gather support for their position, I find the following problems with it:
- It implies that faithfulness is narrowed to one issue, ie. those who want punishment to these dissenting clergy. If you do not sign, then you are probably not faithful, right? Isn’t that the sentiment?
- It uses a reckless tactic of “withholding money” from the church by conflating ecclesial disobedience of the clergy with the financial covenant of individual United Methodist parishes. Make no mistake: the originators all serve very large churches within the UMC. But I call it reckless because there’s a lot of collateral damage when you withhold money from other ministries that lose funding along with your intended target.
- This document breaks with previous documents like it in that it talks about withholding of apportionments. None of the previous big-name documents like the 1987 Houston Declaration, 1997 More Excellent Way, 1999 response to the Sacramento 68, or the 2002 Renaissance Affirmation insinuated a violation of the Discipline in this way.
- Some of its signatories seem to support civil disobedience on their pet issues while denouncing ecclesial disobedience on others issues. Clarity is needed on how they split these hairs.
I write this blog post not in support of the 1,000 covenant-challenging clergy AND not in condemnation of the many more people that sign this letter to the Bishops (heck, the Houston Declaration got 60,000 signatures..BEFORE social networks). I write this blog post to give a historical context to the role and function of these type of letters (which is to threaten loss of membership and money to the general church and put pressure on the Bishops and the delegates to General Conference) and ask questions of the people who have signed or are considering signing. That’s my primary purpose.
But I do wonder.
I wonder if the signatories realize that they are calling to fight fire with fire by breaking their financial covenants and that paragraph is a major break from the past mass-protest efforts not a continuation of them. It may be only one of nine full paragraphs but it’s an important one…and if you don’t agree with all of a statement then you shouldn’t sign it.
I wonder if withholding apportionments is a reckless tactic. Using military imagery, this is the difference between using a rifle or a shotgun. A rifle takes out its target alone. A shotgun blast will hit its target but has collateral damage. If these churches withhold their apportionments, its collateral damage will hurt missions overseas, saving people’s lives through mercy ministries in America, blunt the UMC’s rigor right at the time it is reorganizing, and lower finances for outreach to youth and children…to say the least. Is taking money from all those ministries really worth it?
Finally, I wonder if this is a similar case that Oden denounced as a small group being tempted by the power of the dollar in their coffers. That’s meant as a difficult question, not an accusation. I would be tempted as well if I found just cause to withhold a lot of money given to the dispersing control of others and instead keep control for the people I know in my church. But I’m uncomfortable with it as that’s a step towards congregationalism that our connectional system ought to oppose.
In conclusion, there’s a ton of Methodist ways to express disapproval. We can express our disagreement through conversations, through prayer, through speaking out against official UMC actions, electing people to positions of power to influence policy, writing petitions to General Conference, being elected to serve those meta-church agencies, refusing a bishops’ re-appointment, writing petitions and getting signatories…hey, we are a Methodist church and there’s a method to do almost anything, including express dissent. But withholding of apportionments is not a Methodist way of doing things. So why does FaithfulUMC allude to it and give apologetics for it?
- If you are a signer, please feel free to respond to the above questions/musings. Obviously I’m not accusing you of anything (I’m critiquing the movement not the signatories) but I do want to know more about your support of this document. Conversation is great!
- If your pastor or lay member is a signer, feel free to forward the article to them and start a conversation with them about how they feel about withholding apportionments.
- If you are reading this and have a pulse, share it with others on Twitter or Facebook to get this cautionary information into the hands of others who are interested in this topic.
Post your comment below!
Appendix 1: While St. Peter’s above included the most theological and Discipline-based rationale of the ones I read, connecting the clergy covenant to upholding the baptismal covenant seems to be a valid point that can be used by both sides of this debate. Indeed, some of those 1,000 clergy doubtlessly appeal to the baptismal covenant they officiate with their members as the basis for serving them in holy matrimony without regard to their orientation. These appeals to the baptismal covenant by both sides of this debate are very interesting to note. Will be a future blog post…
Appendix 2: One final note of a website ethics persuasion: the FaithfulUMC website uses only ONE image on its website: petition.png. It’s owned by Joe Sandoval, found here in its google search and the original is here at smugmug. I contacted Joe and he said he did NOT license FaithfulUMC to use his image and they do not give him photo credit. Shake my head at web designers who do not respect copyright, as this website goes beyond the law to try to uphold.(Image Credit: Screenshot of FaithfulUMC.com [dated 9-17-2011], used under Fair Use)