Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Majoring in the Minors

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

I John 4:16-21

As soon as we hear the words, “Church Trial,” we know we are in a strange place. It echoes of the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. In a time when our culture is increasingly secular, this is one more piece of evidence that the church is irrelevant at best and toxic at worst.

As United Methodists, we tend to think of ourselves as fairly modern folk. We are practical and pragmatic and down to earth. We’re not strong on doctrine, but we are big on tolerance. The John Wesley theme verse is “God is love.” We believe in grace over judgment. We build hospitals and universities. Our slogan is “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” We like to think that we are inclusive.

So the very idea of a church trial sounds wrong to us.

But here we are. The Rev. Frank Schaefer was convicted this week of officiating at the wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts in 2007. We are in the news all over the place. And that’s not a good thing.

I won’t go into the odd structure of church polity and unlikely coalitions that has led us to this sad spot, but this is where we are and we need to find a way out.

Few of us were surprised when the jury of thirteen clergy from Eastern Pennsylvania found Rev. Schaefer guilty of violating the Discipline by officiating at the wedding. But most of us were shocked by the penalty. He will be suspended for thirty days. That in itself is not a big deal. But this is how Bishop Peggy Johnson states what happens after the suspension:

“If at the end of 30 days, Rev. Schaefer has determined that he cannot uphold the Church’s Discipline in its entirety, he must surrender his credentials.”

If it were not so serious, it would really be quite amusing. If you have read even part of the Book of Discipline, then you already know that there is no one who “uphold(s) the Church’s Discipline it its entirety.” There is a lot in there. The Discipline supports gun control, unions and collective bargaining, a woman’s right to an abortion, and the United Nations. It is against war, gambling, torture, and the death penalty. Beyond the big and controversial issues, there are hundreds of rules about how we do our business. Most of us can find something in there that we do not want to “uphold.”

But of course they don’t care whether he supports the Discipline in its entirety. They only care about one thing. Will he promise not to celebrate another same sex wedding?

The great Methodist preacher of the mid-twentieth century Henry Hitt Crane used to call this “majoring in the minors.”

Do we really believe excluding gay people is the big issue of our time? Is this where Christian faith rises or falls?

I often get smiles and snickers when I explain the United Methodist position on gambling. And it is hard to see the connection between the social harm of gambling addictions and a church raffle. But at least we don’t conduct any church trials over raffles.

I used to think that maybe in the not too distant future we would look back on all of this foolishness and have a good laugh. But that’s not going to happen. When we look back we will be in tears. We will weep for the lives we have damaged, the people we have hurt, and the incalculable damage we have done to our Christian witness.


  1. Amen to your statement..My wife and I have been Methodists for nearly 70 years, here in New Jersey..It's especially sad that it apparently has split Pastor Schaeffer's congregation. Why did the conservatives wait 6 years to create such a disturbance...Blessings from Allyson Woj....Grandparents

  2. I am not a member of your church, but I thank you, sir.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Bill. I sent you a message via Facebook. -- Sue Smith