I have refrained from writing much during the Lenten season as my thoughts and activities were directed elsewhere, but I am back now. Recently the Judicial Council made rulings on several things passed by the called General Conference. Most of the rulings were expected, a couple surprised me, and one upset me.
The best news is that there is an exit plan of sorts for those who can not live by the standards of faith set by the UMC. I believe that this is vitally important. We have spent enough time hurting each other that it is long overdue that we find a way to separate from each other so that we can all get on with the work of Christ.
Also in what I believe is good news, we have a footnote added that better defines the clunky term “self avowed practicing homosexual”. The foot notes reads “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. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984, 1020, 1341.” This term has an understood meaning when it was written, but was in desperate need of clarification given the situation in the United Methodist Church.
Bishops have been officially forbidden from consecrating Bishops, or commissioning those on the Deacon or Elder tract, who are what is known in the United Methodist Church as “self avowed practicing homosexuals”. While it is sad that such an action had to be taken, it is good that it was. I doubt that it can be enforced, but that is a whole different problem. In a similar manner, the responsible boards and agencies have been forbidden from approving or recommending self avowed practicing homosexuals for candidacy.
There have been some reforms to the deeply abused complaint process, including how just resolutions are reached. A Bishop may not dismiss a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or fact. The church now has the ability to appeal decisions of church trials. You would think that was how i always should have been, but I digress. The just resolution process now has to make every effort to include the person filing the complaint in the process to address their concerns and every attempt should be made to have them agree to the just resolution. The resolution must also state all identified harms and how they will be addressed.
The really bad news is that the minimum punishments for those performing same sex marriages was approved and calls for a 1 year suspension, with out pay, for the first offense, and a termination of clergy status for the second offense. This is troubling to me for several reasons that I intend o discuss with the rest of this post.
I recognize the chaos and damage that has been caused by those who have refused to live in accordance with the vows they took at ordination. I fully recognize that the way we have been handling things does not work in the current climate. It seems to me that we have moved from using discipline in the hopes of restoration to the church with punitive punishment for the violation of rules. I am not categorically against that in theory, but in practice, this isolates on breaking of the chargeable offenses and elevates it above the others. To put this in perspective, a United Methodist Pastor could deny the Trinity, deny the necessity of the cross for the atonement, teach ancient heresies such as Modalism, Adoptionism, and Arainism, to name but a few, and have nothing happen, or at worst get told to not do it again, but if you marry two dudes, you are out for a year? To me that seems as if the priorities are messed up. Our first goal simply must be to get Jesus correct, or else we are doing it wrong. That does not mean that there are not other things of importance, far from it, but if we are allowing pastors to teach Jesus incorrectly, and we are going down the long and slippery road of mandatory minimums, shouldn’t the harshest penalty be for getting Jesus wrong?
As Christians, especially as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we have a long standing concern for justice. That justice is of course God’s justice with is always tempered with mercy. Near as I can tell, God’s just is first restorative, and then eventually punitive. If we, as a denomination, are to the point that justice can no longer restore us to proper community, then so be it, let it be punitive, but it must be applied evenly and equally, or it is not in any way the justice of God, but rather seems to me to be more the vengeance of men. Vengeance is described as “punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.” Isn’t that exactly what this is? Isn’t this punishment for the wrongs that will be done? It seems so. Beyond that, said punishment is only reserved for those performing same sex marriages, and that is wrong, and fundamentally unjust unless we are willing to take the difficult steps to bring all of our pastors into alignment and stop the refusal of baptizing infants, adultery in our married clergy, disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church, dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church, child abuse, sexual abuse, the possession or use of pornography, harassment, and any of the other chargeable offenses that I forgot. How can we say that these things have not done damage to the faithful witness of the church? How can we say that any of these things can result in restoration to the community, but marrying two of the same gender can not? By the way, we better start taking the same hard line on the laity as well. We can be charged with such things as well. If we are to go the route of minimum penalties and crafting a hierarchy of sins against the United Methodist church, we can not pick and choose and call ourselves just, we must go all in or nothing, or it is a fundamentally unjust rule.
This is a time for blunt and honest soul searching. I am talking to traditionalists like me here. What is our desire? Of course we want those who have made vows to uphold them. I think that we can all agree upon that. That is not what I am talking about. Is our desire to purge the denomination of those who perform same sex marriages? If that is the case, then so be it, this will do so if a way to enforce it can be found. I am not saying that is categorically the wrong decision to be clear, I am saying we need to be honest about what we are trying to do. Some will undoubtedly say that this is meant to be a deterrent, but to think that it would work as such is insulting to our brothers and sisters who believe that they are acting in accordance with God’s will. I hope and pray that we would not stop doing the work of God in the face of a deterrent. Is the purpose here to restore community? If so, this is the wrong way I fear. Is the purpose to enforce the doctrines and disciplines of the church, harshly at some points, choosing one specific offense and elevating it above others? If so, I think we are on the right track.
At the end of this is the often quoted, and just as often misunderstood, Micah 6:6-8. “With what shall I present myself before the LORD, and how shall I worship the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my rebellion, the fruit of my bowels for the sin of my soul? He has declared unto thee, O man, what is good and what the LORD requires of thee: only to do right judgment, and to love mercy, and to humble thyself to walk with thy God.” (Jubilee Bible) Some pretty well known Methodists have commented upon this section of scripture, but I will only quote one. “He – God hath already told you in his word, with what you ought to come before him. To do justly – To render to every one their due, superiors, equals, inferiors, to be equal to all, and oppress none, in body, goods or name; in all your dealings with men carry a chancery in your own beasts, and do according to equity. To love mercy – To be kind, merciful and compassionate to all, not using severity towards any. Walk humbly with thy God – Keep up a constant fellowship with God, by humble, holy faith.” IS this really doing justly? Are we really, in our dealings with men, doing according to the values of being fair and impartial? Are we demonstrating any form of mercy? I think that we need to do some soul searching and decide if we are really following the words of the prophet with this specific action. It doesn’t seem to me as if we are. I can not support this, because I can not, in good conscience, take it before God.