Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Trials and Temptations
On January 15, the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Scott Jones began his address to the clergy of the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church by asking them to focus on two questions:
“How do we live in the tension of upholding our covenant to follow and uphold the discipline of the United Methodist Church while disagreeing with some positions of the Discipline?” and “How do we respond with grace and love, both corporately and personally, when a colleague decides she/he can no longer live within that covenant?”
The answers, it turns out, are simpler than the questions. First, we need to follow the Discipline. And second, if we cannot uphold the Discipline then we need to leave. This is what he calls "Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace." Apparently, we can only maintain our “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” by continuing to discriminate against our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
When the bishop talks about upholding the Discipline, he doesn’t really mean the whole Discipline. He means the part of the Discipline that discriminates against LGBTQ persons. And when he talks about covenant, he doesn’t really mean the whole of the clergy covenant. He means the part of the covenant that relates to upholding the Discipline.
The Discipline has always been a flawed document. In spite of John Wesley’s crusade against slavery, the Discipline condoned slavery until 1844. It condoned segregation and even created a segregated system of jurisdictions until 1968. The Discipline did not include women in ordained ministry until the middle of the twentieth century. The Discipline is revised every four years. Most of the time those revisions are improvements. But the Discipline is not a sacred document. As in the initial case of slavery, the Discipline has sometimes simply codified the prejudices of the fallible human beings who wrote it.
In our present situation we have two basic problems with the Discipline. The first is that it discriminates against LGBTQ persons. It says that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” it bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals from the ordained ministry,” and it prohibits clergy for officiating at same gender weddings or unions. The second problem compounds the first by making it a “chargeable offense” for clergy to bless same gender unions or preside at same gender weddings.
The Discipline endorses the teaching of evolution and finds in it no threat to our theology. But it provides no penalty for those who disagree. If a pastor wants to preach in favor of creationism, or tries to get creationism introduced into the local school curriculum, or becomes a candidate for the school committee on a creationist platform, there is no penalty. If presiding at same-sex weddings were not a chargeable offense, we would be having a very different discussion.
Similarly, the practice of homosexuality is a chargeable offense for clergy. Theoretically an unmarried heterosexual clergy person could be removed from the ordained ministry for having sex with his or her partner before they were married, but to the best of my knowledge, that has never happened.
In my favorite section of the bishop’s address, he writes:
Someone asked me “Bishop, what if 100 of us do same-gender unions?” My answer is this: “Then there will be 100 suspensions from ministry during the supervisory response followed by 100 trials.” . . . . But you should know that holding a trial is a major drain on our leadership and resources. In addition to the distraction from other priorities and the conflict they cause within the conference, trials are expensive. I am told that some conferences spend $100,000 on just one trial, and that the defendant may be spending up to $50,000 of personal money. Yet, not to hold a trial when a chargeable offense occurs and a just resolution cannot be achieved is to violate our United Methodist identity.
First, it’s just plain crazy to think that it would be worth $10 million to bring those clergy to trial. But the money is only a small part of the total cost. He talks about the “distraction from other priorities,” but still misses the larger point. Trials are a public relations disaster. They make us look stupid and medieval.
And look at that last sentence again.
“Not to hold a trial” would “violate our United Methodist identity.” Seriously. That’s our identity? Not grace? Or love? Or practical Christianity? What an inspirational message the bishop offered to the clergy of the Great Plains Conference: Our sacred covenant is with the Discipline and our identity is preserved by clergy trials to uphold that Discipline.
Some people think that “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” is too simplistic, but it’s way better than “Trials ‘R’ Us.”