A Single Word
What does a single word mean? In Scripture, it can be debated eighteen different ways. In United Methodist polity, it seems it can be debated so many more.
It was discovered that the Traditional Plan, in several places, lacked the word “practicing” when it referred to gays and lesbians eligibility for clergy membership. In the Discipline as it is now written and affirmed by the Judicial Council, it would seem that even celibate (“non-practicing”) gays and lesbians would be barred from ministry across the board.
In response, the Confessing Movement cried crocodile tears over the lack of the word “practicing” in the Traditional Plan. Their statement is fascinating in that it blames the lack of inclusion on “delay tactics by opponents” and not their own culpability as it was their own executive director that helped shepherd it out of the Commission on A Way Forward process, though it was ultimately written by a secret group of bishops. As well, the statement encourages Bishops to not uphold the Discipline, which I thought they were always against?
The shake-your-head responses aside, then we get to the core contention:
To be tempted or attracted is not a sin, but to embrace that temptation and act upon it, leads us into behavior that violates God’s will for us.
Huh. Is that what Confessing Movement understands “practicing” to mean? Behavior between two members of the same gender? What does that behavior look like?
It turns out The UMC has a very unjust but nuanced definition of “practicing.” And the shifts of that definition over time should trouble anyone who cares about minority groups as we go down the wrong path in The United Methodist Church
“Practicing” as an Act
The case law on defining the word “practicing” goes back to its inclusion in the 1992 Book of Discipline. The Rev. Dr. T.L. Steinwert included some history in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the history of the homosexuality debate in the UMC. Quote:
“In 1993, the Judicial Council reaffirmed in Decision 702 that the responsibility to define the phrase [“self-avowed practicing homosexuals”] fell to the General Conference and/or the various annual conferences.
So each annual conference was allowed to define the term, much like the definitions of divorce and remarriage doctrine in the past. The Judicial Council then later affirmed its previous decision when annual conferences stepped out of line to define “practicing” beyond the Judicial Council’s interpretation. Steinwert:
The Judicial Council nullified two definitions by annual conferences of “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” In Decision 722, the Judicial Council ruled that the West Virginia Annual Conference’s inclusion of allegations of same-sex sexual acts of a third party “witness” was illegal. Likewise, in Decision 725, the Council ruled that the inclusion of intended future same-sex sexual acts in the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” was illegal. (Page 102-103)
From its inception in the early 1990s, “practicing” was meant as a limitation on those who would witch-hunt against LGBTQ persons serving as clergy. By defining “practicing” as an act and not a status, the Judicial Council and General Conference eventually landed on this definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as:
The term “self-avowed practicing homosexual” refers to a person making a public declaration that contains a personal and objective element. This is understood to mean a clergy person who openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session (public declaration) that he or she is a homosexual (personal element), and engaged in sexual acts with a person of the same gender (objective element).
The whole definition is SO ICKY and unjust, but it’s at least clearly defined, with additions and subtractions as the definition is tested in prosecutions against LGBTQ clergy since 1993.
The Turn from Act to Status
But then we get to the 2017 Judicial Council Decision 1341 where, in the case of the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto, they defined “practicing” as a status and not an act:
“We…find that a married clergy person’s status in a committed same-sex relationship is sufficient to create the rebuttable presumption that the couple is engaged in physical sex, thus providing the objective element of “engagement in sexual acts with a person of the same gender” of a public declaration. The presumption can be defeated by proffering rebuttal evidence to the trier of fact in an administrative or judicial process. For this reason, taken together, being legally married and living in a same-sex relationship is a public declaration containing both personal and objective elements and, therefore, constitutes self-avowal under ¶ 304.3.
And now in 2019, Decision 1378, the Judicial Council affirmed the Traditional Plan’s inclusion of the following in that paragraph (in bold):
“Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual; _or is living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual_
So what happened between the two groupings of Judicial Council rulings was the inclusion of same-gender couples to be married by the state. Previously, clergypersons who wanted romantic non-sexual same-gender relationships could have them without prosecution. But now because they can be married and feel called to that covenantal relationship, a marriage certificate is all it takes to prosecute them.
What the Judicial Council legislated from the bench in 2017 became settled church law in 2019. And by doing so, it changed the word “practicing” from an act to a status. Even by the Confessing Movements definition, this is a departure from UM polity and renewal group positions. It is no longer the sexual acts of same-gender affection that are sinful, but the status of being in a relationship.
In the 11th Hour, saved by Committee?
Back to the controversy of today. It turns out the concerns over the lack of “practicing” have been overblown. A General Conference-created Committee in charge of compiling the Book of Discipline after each General Conference decided to include the word “practicing” where it had been left out, bringing those sections in line with the rest of the Discipline. Quote:
In its review of all approved legislation, on Wednesday, February 27, 2019, in St. Louis, the committee found four petitions that used differing language from The Book of Discipline wording “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” …In its correlation work during the editorial process, the committee brought all the petitions into harmony within the Traditional Plan, using the language “self-avowed practicing.”…On Thursday, May 2, 2019, in the course of its editorial review of the entire “Addendum to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016,” the committee reaffirmed its correlation work of February 27, 2019.
So as far as the Discipline goes, there will be no implemented changes against celibate gay and lesbian clergy. The institution saved itself once again.
A Portent of the Future
The only good news is that I’ve received several panicked messages by non-partnered LGBTQ clergy who feared the removal of “practicing” would mean they would get a pink slip on January 1, 2020 (the date these changes become active). The UMPH action removes that fear and allows them to continue to serve in the status they have chosen.
But the bad news is that we got a peek behind the curtain of what the future of LGBTQ experience is in The UMC. Both the General Conference and the Judicial Council had no problem removing the word “practicing” from the Discipline. Their supporters themselves voted to end “perfection” of the Traditional Plan when it was up for Legislative Committee rather than fix its deletion. So the will of the UMC’s Legislative and Judicial bodies is that it is acceptable to remove celibate gay and lesbian clergy from ministry.
While the renewal groups protest this wasn’t their intention, I think of this as market research to see what the temperature of The UMC is. It’s the same thing that the Trump administration did when it put Latin and South American kids in cages: see who objects. It’s the same thing the renewal group did by putting so many illegal things in the Traditional Plan in the first place: see what makes it through (like mandatory minimum punishments? REALLY?), and what the specific tweaks would be needed for illegal pieces.
The future of The United Methodist Church is a lockdown not only on gay and lesbian clergy’s bodies but also on their minds and affections, and on those who want to be in ministry with them. The Judicial Council has radicalized a lot on this topic since the careful proceedings of the 1990s to legislate from the bench and to affirm a denial of celibate clergy. Those who claim “compassionate conservatism” in The UMC will soon find very little compassion in a church obsessed with scapegoats for their sin-sick souls and will start to see those obsessions fixated on other formerly-protected groups as well. In fact, for women, it’s already begun and transgender “statuses” will be next in 2020.
There’s no “redeeming” this direction. It’s the wrong way for The UMC. The only solution is to cease the opposition to LGBTQ clergypersons altogether and allow them to be judged on their merits, gifts, graces, and calls—just like everyone else.
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(Updated after publication to clarify the CCER is part of General Conference actions, not from UM Publishing House)