#UMC Victories, Vicarious and Pyrrhic

sparta siege
The Siege of Sparta by Pyrrhus, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

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.


7 thoughts on “#UMC Victories, Vicarious and Pyrrhic”

  1. When the Judicial Council overrules Scott Campbell for a second time (he was the Chair of the Appeals Committee for the Stroud verdict), it won’t even be a Pyrrhic victory.

  2. What is most troubling for me here isn’t the decision to reinstate Schaeffer, per se, but the precedent that has been set. What the decision basically set as a precedent that you have to choose between a light or a heavy sentence; so if you think a breach was severe, you would HAVE to levy a heavy sentence of ‘defrocking.’ There is no way to allow repentance to enter in the equation and allow grace for even severe failures be a possibility and thus remedy any other severe disciple.

    What will be the end result? Court trials with a progressive perspective will be light (they probably would be anyways), but trials in a more conservative context are basically forced to deal with severe transgressions with severe punishment with no alternative option in their minds. If you can not allow for a milder punishment with an opportunity for repentance in place of defrocking, then decisions will basically be forced to pick two very different options with no middle ground that consider the way a person responds. Even though I think it should not be performed at all, I don’t inherently think every clergy who performs a same-sex ceremony should automatically be defrocked, but nor do I think they should get a slap on the wrist without being forced to consider the consequences of their violation of our covenant.

    Regardless of where you stand on the issue of sexuality itself, this is a bad precedent… really bad. To define what the PA decision as a punishment based upon future actions rather than as indicative of repentance suggests we have really lose a sense of both accountability AND grace.

  3. I’m confused. The Schaefer verdict has zero impact on United Methodism as a whole. It’s entire impact will be on the trial court who, in the process of demanding he follow the letter of the Discipline, forgot to do that themselves.

    I’d rather have an accountability system that loses a few cases over the years in order that everyone might have due process. Why is that a loss or a pyrrhic victory when it betters everyone who might be accused (rightfully or wrongfully) down the line?

    1. Because the minor victory of Schaefer being reinstated on a technicality pales in comparison to what it does: give conservatives another excuse to say the general church is not enforcing or taking seriously the BOD (which I don’t agree with, but I’m talking appearances more than reality).

      1. With the echo-chambers people live in, we can’t control the appearance. But in reality, our history shows that this is a pattern. It was violations of process that cleared Amy DeLong, Karen Damann, and several others previously (including Jimmy Creech’s first trial). What you call a pyrrhic victory leads to more just and reasonable trials for all of us.

        Logically, if the schismatics are going to leave anyway (provided they ever name themselves), why not make a better trial system for the REAL crimes that come down the pike?

  4. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. People are starving, dying, and suffering while we play our fiddles. Wish to God we could actually be concerned with issues that didn’t continue to make human sexuality our god.

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