Faceless accountability is not the way to “save” the UMC clergy covenant–indeed, it may do more damage to it than anything involving gay people.
The United Methodist Church is big on accountability. Drawn from our founder John Wesley’s obsessiveness with circles of accountability and circuits of connection, Methodists are connected in intimate ways. We have a whole Book of Discipline that outlines the proper polity and practices of the people called Methodists, and what to do when those processes are not followed. When local church laity do not follow practices, the local church holds them accountable. When a pastor does not follow the practices, the annual conference holds them accountable. And so on.
Recently, however, there’s been an uptick in rhetoric calling for a new type of accountability. Faceless accountability is accountability to people whose faces are unknown to you, or who are not within your appropriate, defined circle of accountability. Anytime our Methodist-defined concentric spheres of accountability are undermined or outright overruled by outside parties, we allow faceless accountability to take place.
As we get closer to General Conference in May 2016, there are concerted efforts for this type of accountability to replace our established system of accountability in The United Methodist Church. Whenever violations of LGBT exclusive policies take place and and it doesn’t end in defrocking, then the call for “more” accountability is made, even when the Discipline was followed to the letter. The argument is that because a disconnected party or a wider circle didn’t have a say, that must be why the resolution ended up not being the highest punishment possible.
The following is an examination of this troubling phenomenon in one exemplary case study, and one scary proposal for General Conference in May 2016. In short, faceless accountability is not the way to “save” the UMC clergy covenant–indeed, it may do more damage to it than anything involving gay people.
Case Study: Ginny Mikita
Last year, we considered the case of Ginny Mikita, a United Methodist laywoman who was on the ordination track in West Michigan. What brought her to national scrutiny was her presiding over the wedding of Benjamin Hutchison, a gay clergyman who was forced out of ministry a few days before his wedding. She was able to preside as a laywoman by receiving marriage credentials through the Universal Life Church, an online credentialing service.
What happened next stretched the bounds of accountability by any reasonable definition. A trio of clergy from outside West Michigan region (the region charged with accountability for their regions’ clergy and laity) wrote a demand letter (PDF) that not only was Mikita to be removed from the ordination process, but reasoned that she had already removed herself from church membership as well. The resulting uproar by the online disclosure of that letter (see our coverage here) led to many warring narratives as to what had actually happened and should happen–and whether the ULC is even a church.
Now, six months later, a thorough review of the facts and followups by UM Insight yielded clarity on the process, showing how after the demand letter and a subsequent error by Mikita’s District Superintendent, Mikita has remained in the ordination process. What happened is that the actual people charged with evaluating Mikita’s ordination and membership status followed The United Methodist Church’s prescribed processes, and came to a different conclusion than the disaffiliated letter-writers.
After an initial violation of process by the district superintendent, the Discipline was followed, the people charged with accountability were included and participated, and the result is that Ginny Mikita is still a candidate for ministry, despite the outcry by people outside the circle of accountability.
What would cause three clergy from outside Mikita’s sphere of accountability to write a demand letter? Simply put: a lack of trust that the West Michigan leadership would “uphold the Covenant” in the way the trio thought was right without their input.
One of the most important reports about The United Methodist Church in recent memory came before the 2012 General Conference. The APEX report concluded was that there is a lack of trust in the United Methodist Church:
Trust was often mentioned as a leadership issue–particularly in the context of power and authority…often mentioned as the observation that leaders themselves frequently do not demonstrate trust behaviors.
General distrust is a significant cultural issue for the Church. Distrust is both a symptom and a causal factor in frustrating the Church’s ability to function more effectively.
A lack of trust, combined with a perceived need to “defend the faith,” leads to efforts to escalate accountability beyond its defined boundaries to give power to those ever more distant than the current practices.
And unfortunately, there’s one popular proposal for General Conference that supports these escalations--and indeed, takes them further than anyone may suspect.
A CUP of Faceless Accountability
Faceless accountability is part and parcel of a major proposal before General Conference in May, and could very well become part of our polity unless more reasonable heads prevail.
The Covenantal Unity Plan (CUP Plan) has three elements that add faceless accountability to The United Methodist Church:
- The CUP plan adds binding arbitration to our judicial processes by forcing any just resolutions to include the complainant. That means the complainant, and they can be literally anyone who is United Methodist, can force a complaint to go to trial because any just resolution would require their consent. This level of forcible “take it or trial” is currently unheard of in The UMC–and gives far too much power to a person who may have never laid eyes upon the accused.
- Secondly, the CUP plan violates peer accountability by giving the power to handle complaints about bishops to the Interjurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy. Practically, this means laity or non-Bishop clergy (as chairs of ICE) would be in charge of handling complaints against Bishops–a sharp violation of our practice of peer accountability in the UMC (clergy are accountable to other regional clergy, bishops are accountable to other bishops, etc).
- Finally, the CUP plan calls for mandatory minimum sentences for clergy accused of LGBT-related offenses, such as being actively gay or officiating a same-gender wedding. This removes the ability of a trial court or just resolution process from considering the full range of options–and removing options is one way that faceless accountability influences a process. Not even the Holy Spirit can overcome a Book of Discipline minimum sentence–are we sure that’s what we want?
Little wonder the supporters of the clergy trio support the CUP plan–it fits their narrative that accountability must be achieved by any means necessary. But do we want in our church?
When the powers are scared of losing control, the morbid systems arise.
The Unity sought by faceless accountability makes a mockery of true Wesleyan accountability and weakens our connectional system. The call for “we need more accountability” should be heard but our standard of face-to-face accountability should not be thrown out in the process. The CUP proposal should be voted down at General Conference 2016, as well as any other proposals that make accountability more faceless and less graceful.
Be sure to share this with your delegation.