Creeping Congregationalism in the Hamilton/Slaughter Proposal? [2of3]

We recently discussed the release of the Hamilton/Slaughter letter as a welcome turn against the tide of schismatic statements coming from the Schismatic 80. Today (Part 2), we look at its merits. And last in the series (Part 3) is why traditionalists and progressives should pay attention to it.

The proposal has some great framing language that we discussed previously and it has two major policy recommendations for the United Methodist Church:

  1. To allow local churches to determine whether or not they will allow same-gender unions and marriage ceremonies.
  2. To allow annual (regional) conferences to determine whether or not they will ordain openly LGBT clergy candidates.

The primary talking point I’ve seen against these policy proposals is this: Is the Proposal more congregational and less connectional?

This is an question that I take very seriously, as Hacking Christianity errs on the side of Connectionalism most of the time and lifts it up when it is violated by those who would hold it ransom.

However, we argue that the proposal doesn’t make us more or less congregational or connectional at all: it affirms the reality and gives freedom for the reality to continue without repercussions.

Here’s three reasons why the Hamilton/Slaughter Proposal appeals to this connectional apologist.

Local Marriage Option would be more connectional, not less

Many people have pointed to allowing local churches to determine whether or not they will allow same-gender weddings as a move towards congregationalism. The fact is that this level of congregationalism already exists. The local pastor has sole authority–no accountability whatsoever–to deny weddings to anyone. They can be too young, black, interracial, hippies, Republicans, ugly, or whatever reason. The pastor decides, regardless of what the local board, connectional church, or any Resolution states. While there are likely appointment repercussions for open inhostility to a people group, absolutely nothing forces a pastor to perform a wedding or allow a wedding in their church.

So what this Proposal does is make the inverse true: that pastors now can deny and affirm any marriage to anyone. That’s it. As written, if a local church determines it wants same-gender unions to be considered by the pastor, they can affirm it. If they don’t, then the pastor doesn’t get to consider same-gender unions. Also as written, the pastors of churches that affirm LGBT inclusion are not allowed to do same-gender unions at non-affirming churches. Like any congregational decision, what happens at one church doesn’t affect connected churches.

The funny thing is that allowing local churches to decide what type of weddings they do actually is more connectional than congregational. It moves the locus of decision-making of eligibility for marriage away from a single entity (the pastor) and moves it towards a larger entity (the congregation). While pastors would retain the yes/no part of the actual marriage of the couple, the local church could determine whether same-gender unions would be acceptable for the pastor to discern.

Regional Ordination Option Reflects Reality

Secondly, the Proposal calls for annual conferences to determine whether or not LGBT open status would be an impediment to ordination. The biggest criticisms I’ve seen is that it would lead to fragmentation. From David Watson:

It’s not at all clear that this proposal will actually preserve our unity. Dividing up between annual conferences and congregations that accept gay and lesbian marriage and ordination and those that do not seems to be a step toward division, rather than away from it.

Such comments forget our history. Ever wonder why we have jurisdictions? We have jurisdictions to make sure Northern Bishops wouldn’t serve Southern conferences, and vice versa. We already view unity as a collection of diversities with big walls between them, and our polity reflects that in both conference boundaries and how jurisdictions are the last rung of holding their membership accountable–not the General church.

Further, as Sky McCracken reflected back in 2006, we already select Bishops to serve a specific geographic area and yet we consider them to “represent the whole church.” While Sky would push to elect Bishops at the General Conference level, my response (which leans heavily on ecclesiology) is that when the Bishops gather-=-in their Council of Bishops–they represent the whole church, their unity in diversity. Having some gay-friendly and gay-free bishops would not change the unity in diversity ecclesiology.

Again, this names the current reality: openly LGBT persons are ordained in some annual conferences, and rejected without a hearing in others. Charges are pursued in some conferences and dismissed in others. We do not have a standard understanding, so why not make our polity reflect the reality?

These Local/Regional Options are not slippery slopes

Finally, we should address the biggest complaint about this topic: would then we have to let localities determine if they will allow a female pastor or infant baptisms?

Short answer: No. Two responses to get these ones out of the way:

  1. Infant Baptism is still an issue…a friend of mine followed a pastor who had denied baptism to 12 children in his parish (this was 2010). However, retaining Infant Baptism is in our Articles of Religion which are nigh-impossible to change. Article XVII “Of Baptism” states that “the Baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.” So there’s no possible way to remove that from the local church. Please stop repeating this impossible comparison.
  2. Allowing a female pastor is still an issue after almost 60 years of women’s full ordination in the Methodist Church. There are churches that reject female clergy and when they are sent there by the Bishop as an example, it gets really painful. I’ve followed female clergy and seen church members return after leaving the church during the female pastors’ term. And yet during all these years, the connectional commitment to women’s ordination has not changed and the polity has not changed. So a polity change like this is not likely to do so either. Ironically, in the schismatic 80, losing women’s ordination would be more likely and with recent historical precedent.

But to extend the question, David Watson helpfully muses:

Does this type of action set a precedent with regard to other controversial matters? Are we going to take a similar position on, say, euthanasia or abortion? If so, on what basis should we say that the denomination as a whole should have any moral teaching at all?

This is a valid point, but one that I see taking root because many of those questions are not dealt with by the whole of the local church. No abortions would take place on church property and hopefully no euthanasia efforts either. But to the greater point: no other question has become the level of civil rights and freedoms discourse (on the level of gender and racial equality) than the LGBT question. By the time the next question reaches this status of ecclesial rights, we will have made the same progress (or rollercoaster of progress) that we’ve made on these ecclesial questions.

Conclusions – Oh, and there’s a Part 3

You’ll be happy to know that upon writing the second part of what was originally a two-part series, it got too long and I had to add another post. That will come soon. But in the meantime:

  1. What do you think of the above responses to the initial reactions to the Hamilton/Slaughter Proposal?

Thanks for your thoughts!

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  1. says

    One thing I would say about the local church wedding issue is that the pastor should always retain discretion over whether or not to marry a couple, period. Whether it’s because they disagree with same-sex marriage or because they did some premarital counseling and determined that the couple wanting to get married were a disaster waiting to happen.

  2. Laura says

    Many things come to mind when considering how this current concept might play out. I’ll stick to one at a time. I’m a member of the Texas Conference and that is the setting I know best. I also have a lot of interaction throughout the SCJ so I have each of those conferences in mind as I consider this. I agree that we are already less connectional than I wish we were. Walking into the different UM churches in Texas can feel like stepping onto different theological planets. (I wish I were exaggerating.) The reality is, there are many more inclusive clergy than there are congregations to which they can be appointed. That means this proposed change would be quite small. At first, it will provide only a few and scattered congregations in which same sex weddings would be allowed. This is and will continue to be a problem. As scary and risky as it is, we need our inclusive clergy to provide opportunities for study, education, and dialogue.

  3. Keith Jenkins says

    When will we ever figure out that unity does not require uniformity? In fact, it is the antithesis of uniformity, which is death to both the human spirit and the free movement of God’s Spirit. Unity as practiced by United Methodists has always been a big, messy, chunky aggregate held together primarily by the will to stay together. When and where that will weakens, the chunkiness becomes more apparent. Take that will away entirely and the aggregate breaks apart. What we currently face is a small but powerful minority that has been stymied in its goal of imposing dead uniformity upon the UMC. So now, because it cannot have its way, because it cannot remake all UM’s in its own image, it is calling for the shattering of the unity, because it would rather be broken than allow difference.

  4. Kathryn Johnson says

    While I find the discussion of connectionalism interesting, for me, the heart of the issue (and a show stopper) is that “A Way Forward” calls for us to accept the Disciplinary language that says “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian Teaching” as the default norm. Even while this position would allow people/churches/annual conferences latitude to act in ways that reflect another understanding, the foundational statement in the Discipline would be something a large percentage of us believe to be untrue. It also says that this “way forward” will allow us to “agree to disagree.” I can accept neither of these with integrity. What I believe to be true (and what I believe truly represents a compromise and a way forward) is to acknowledge and say that “people of good faith disagree on whether homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This gives us a base of respect and dignity on which to build and move forward. It let’s me speak my truth and you speak your truth, confident that if we remain open to one another and to the Spirit we will eventually come to see clearly. To say that we “agree to disagree” says that we are willing to stay where we are. I can’t stop saying that I know the harm and violence caused by the exclusion and condemnation of lgbt persons from the church. But I can say that I will listen to others who believe, in good faith, that families are somehow harmed if formed by same-gender partners. I came to this position back at the 2000 General Conference when many of us were arrested. It felt then, and feels now, like a major compromise. I want all of the language which I believe is harmful to be taken out of the Discipline. But I am willing to acknowledge the faithful Christians in the church who believe differently. I believe that jointly accepting such a position would truly move us forward.

  5. Kevin Young says

    Practically speaking, congregational discretion means that same-sex weddings will be officiated only in churches in which same-sex marriage is affirmed by both the pastor and the congregation. A non-affirming pastor appointed to an affirming congregation can still assert Discipline-supported pastoral authority and refuse to officiate same-sex weddings. A non-affirming congregation with an affirming pastor can still assert Discipline-supported bans, nullifying pastoral authority for officiating same-sex weddings. The Hamilton-Slaughter proposal would increase the number of churches allowing same-sex weddings only by that modest number of appointments where inclusive pastors and inclusive congregations can be matched. I, for one, am willing to accept this modest advance as a first step forward.


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