Earlier this year, it was released that Bishop Melvin Talbert, who officiated a same-gender union, would not face trial or punishment for his action, per an agreement with all parties involved.
The blogosphere erupted (1)(2)(3)(4)(5,6,7). In almost every post, the situation was used to justify reforms of the judicial process of how clergy complaints are handled (see also Dean Watson’s point #4). The theme: If we plug these loopholes, then no one will be able to squeeze through them again and “get away with it.”
However, reforming the complaint and judicial process–while helpful for those cases that need a clear, accountable process–will not solve the basic problem of what to do about LGBT persons in the church. A brief glance at our history shows that judicial reform has not succeeded in solving the pressing issues of the UMC–they have only exacerbated them.
Up and Down…
There have been at least a half-dozen reforms in the past 40 years, each instigated by a single case, as researched by T.L.Steinwert in her dissertation (2009). Some examples:
- In 1979, the Judicial Council held that there was no expulsionary language in the Book of Discipline and upheld the appointment of Rev. Paul Abels in New York. (JC 462). And in 1982, the JC again said that there was no expulsionary language in upholding the appointment of Rev. Julian Rush in Colorado. That polity question was closed at the 1984 General Conference with the addition of expulsionary language (chargable offenses).
- In 1993, the Judicial Council held that “self avowed, practicing homosexual” must be defined either by General Conference or by the annual conferences and upheld the appointment of Rev. Jeanne Knepper in Oregon (JC 702). That polity question was closed at the 1996 General Conference where “self-avowed, practicing” was loosely defined.
- In 1997, Rev. Jimmy Creech’s trial for officiating a same-gender union was dismissed because it was held that the social principles did not hold the force of church law. The southern Bishops appealed to the Judicial Council, which stated that the social principles DID hold the force of church law (JC 833), nonwithstanding its location in the Discipline and disregarding that 5 petitions to effect this very decision did not pass at General Conference 1996. That polity question was closed by the Judicial Council in 1998. Creech was then defrocked under that decision of law after a second holy union in 1999.
- In 2002, Cambridge Welcoming Ministries began as an outreach to the LGBT population of the Boston area. Though the global United Methodist Church had a prohibition on allocating resources for any program that promoted LGBT inclusion, annual conferences had no such prohibition and the church grew. That polity question was closed at the 2004 General Conference which extended the ban on allocating funds to annual conferences. CWM would close 10 years later in 2014.
- In 2004, Rev. Karen Dammann was found “not guilty” in her church trial. Since the trial had a hinge-point on the word “although” in “although the practice of homosexuality…”, and the JC was not allowed to review it (JC 985), legislation came forward to remove it at GC a few months later. That polity question was closed at the 2004 General Conference, which removed the language question and added additional stronger language in the ordination considerations.
- In 2012, reforms of the judicial process as a result of the acquittal of Rev. Amy DeLong passed in committee but did not receive a vote on the floor due to protests.
As you can see, the roller-coaster of violation, acquittal, closing of polity door that led to acquittal, and the next violation has not solved our problem of what to do with LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church.
…and back again, for what?
Rev. Christopher Fisher, while serving as the church counsel (ie. prosecution) in the Rev. Frank Schaefer trial, said the purpose of punishments for LGBT inclusive actions is to keep anyone else from doing these violations. Quote:
The purpose of a penalty is to rebuke offending persons and to deter other ministers from committing the same offense…to begin to heal the division that’s in the church from wounding the common order, or at least stop the deepening of the divisions…The penalty should teach other pastors so that we fear to violate the covenant ourselves.
History does not agree with Fisher’s interpretation. Tightening the polity–and the thumbscrews–on LGBT inclusion has not worked to dissuade full inclusion. Gerrymandering the UMC so that the different regions of Methodism do not interact hasn’t worked to compartmentalize full inclusion. The repetition of the church trial-closed loophole rollercoaster is not sustainable. Schism is not the answer as both groups would continue to have LGBT children and members.
And yet it is clear from the plethora of blogs on the subject that many conservative traditionalists want to keep us on the roller-coaster. They want to keep plugging the holes, intimidating clergy, and keep the polity of United Methodism crippling to outreach in secular areas of the country–and then punishing those segments when they are not growing.
I want to get off this ride.
Getting off the ride
There is a way off this ride.
As Gil Caldwell points out, the UMC has successfully gotten off this roller-coaster before and moved the church forward in mission and ministry together.
Once there were Methodists who believed that the following represented Biblical Obedience:
Prohibitions against the ordination of women
The owning of slaves and the practice of slavery
Prohibitions against divorce
Prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol
The practice of the segregation of blacks in church and society
Prohibitions against interracial marriage
The United Methodist Church ordains women
Slavery is no longer justified by church or society
Divorce is viewed by The UMC for clergy and lay people as being at times valid
Although The UMC values abstinence from the consumption of alcohol, it allows for discernment and decision-making for those who do consume alcohol.
Racial segregation is no longer viewed as being Biblical or Constitution based and valid
Interracial marriage “is now compatible with Christian teaching.”
History has thus shown two things:
- Efforts to exclude a people group from the life of the church have failed.
- Efforts to include a people group in the life of the church have succeeded–and indeed, they seem like no-brainers today.
Thus, the only way off this roller-coaster ride is to create full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the United Methodist Church. Only then will we cease the cycle of violence and move toward healing a denomination that has the potential to transform the world once again.
I want the church of today to be the church of yesterday. Come 2016, I want the church that excludes LGBT persons to be written into our history as an unfortunate chapter that United Methodists overcame.
And I want to get off this roller coaster and instead run free through the mission fields calling all who hear to discipleship under Jesus Christ as known through the United Methodist Church.