“Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” -Proverbs 24:17 (NIV)
I had a feeling this might be coming. Last Friday night I listened in to Frank Schaefer on what was basically a conference call with the Reconciling Ministries Network community of my conference (WNCCUMC) during a worship service that they hosted. When he said that he felt good about his chances of being reinstated – the church’s representation seemed unprepared, he noted – the congregation erupted in applause. Today that applause is surely redoubled, as Frank’s defrocking has been reversed on appeal.
But to be clear, this is not a clear victory for anyone, which may the best possible outcome. The court did not say the church was wrong to punish Frank. It said the mix-and-match penalties – a suspension and defrocking contingent on his unwillingness to promise future compliance – was inappropriate. The appellate court upheld the suspension, but reversed the defrocking (thus, refrocking?). So while some might say “he got away with it!” and others will cry “justice has been done!” neither is exactly correct.
The progressives are clearly taking this as a victory, though, which is understandable. I wonder what kind of victory it really is, however? It is certainly a vicarious victory, not unlike the relief that many felt when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his initial criminal trial. Millions who were actually unaffected took it, nonetheless, as a victory for “us.” As Chris Rock later said, sarcastically, “Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize, and nothing!” Thus many are taking this as a victory for LGBT “inclusion” advocates, even though the decision actually is not a rebuttal of the UMC’s official position.
It could also be a pyrrhic victory. A pyrrhic victory is one in which the victory gained is overshadowed by the costs inflicted. Think of Lee near the end of the Civil War; he was beating Grant with superior generalship, but Grant could afford the losses he was incurring and Lee could not – despite winning many engagements. The symbolic victory that Schaefer’s refrocking is for the progressives pales in comparison to the problem of yet another occurrence that will up the temperature in our wider denominational divides, when we already have conservatives looking for excuses to bolt. And before you say Schaeffer’s victory is more than symbolic, bear in mind that he’s become a minor celebrity since the trial, busy with the lecture circuit and entertaining offers from schismatic bishops like Carcano. Whether one agrees with today’s outcome or not, from all appearances Frank was not suffering in exile.
So whether you think today was a great victory or a great defeat, do not be too quick to celebrate or mourn. Neither “side” won here, though the outcome may be to take us ever closer to the precipice that most of us do not want to reach. As Proverbs 24 reminds us, do not gloat, whether you wish to to transform the church or break away.
And for those of us left somewhere in the middle – neither celebrating or grieving, but concerned for the future – take heart. God is still with all of us: left, right, and the wide middle. There seems to be more energy directed now to staying together rather than rending our communion. The tail need not always wag the dog. God may yet surprise us. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
I’ll close these reflections with some lines from S.J. Stone, which describe vividly the strife in our church and the hope that we yet hold. Easter people know that the night of weeping does not last. May the God in whom there is true justice, peace, mercy, and holiness hear this prayer:
Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up: “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
Update: Just a few hours after this blog was published, it was announced that the refrocked Schaefer has been appointed to the Cal-Pac Conference to a serve in a student ministry appointment. Especially interesting is Bishop Carcano’s distinctly un-prophetic praise of Disciplinary procedure in her letter.