Who is at fault for #UMC trials?

highway patrol
NC Highway Patrol car, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ownership: A Personal Account

As a leader, one of my habits is to attempt, as far as possible, to claim maximum responsibility for everything that happens in my life.  It is not fun, but it is, I believe, a path to sanity.  The alternative – to refuse agency in my life  and calling – is infinitely more unpleasant and dis-empowering.

When I was in high school, I played soccer for one fun but inglorious season.  I was the classic benchwarmer; I only played because I had some close friends on the team, and since I was at a very small school they let me on the team despite my lack of speed, athleticism, and knowledge of or interest in soccer.  In one of my rare appearances on the pitch, I was shoved hard from behind by another player, so much so that I somersaulted.  I was furious.  At my next opportunity, I threw up a very hard elbow and sent my opponent to the ground.  The ref promptly brought out a yellow card.

My friend and team captain came over and began to explain to the ref that I was new to the sport and didn’t really understand what I was doing.  He was about to talk me out of getting the yellow card! But I was livid, and I wanted the other player to know that I thought he deserved it. So I walked over to the ref and exclaimed, “I knew exactly what I was doing!” The yellow stood.  For better or for worse, maximum responsibility has been my calling card – of whatever color – ever since.

This memory crept up as the news came out a few days ago: the ugly specter is back in the UMC.   Complaints have been filed once more, this time against 36 Eastern Pennsylvania clergy who conducted a same-gender ceremony last year.  This is, of course, the same conference that recently de-and-refrocked Frank Schaefer.

The Scandal of Accountability

No one likes church trials.   More then that, no one likes to see clergy who breach the covenant have to face discipline in any form. Those of us who serve in churches where previous pastors have faced disciplinary procedures know the toll it takes on our congregations.  It is always unfortunate, and yet, the coherence of any community demands that some boundaries must be set and maintained.  Even the most secular professional organizations have strictures on what is and is not acceptable for its members; how much more should this be the case for the church, where our work is not some product or service, but the proclamation of the Kingdom?

Many denounce trials as, more or less, “unchristian.”  These days, the bulk of such calls come from progressive Methodists who tire of worrying about trials for those who run afoul of the Book of Discipline in terms of gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies and (however ill-defined) “practice.”  I do not recall most of these folks claiming trials, similar hearings, and other agents of “institutional force” were depraved, pseudo-Christian institutions when a Virginia pastor was put on leave for refusing membership to a gay man.  Nor did Bishop Carcano argue with the decision of our judicial establishment when Frank Schaefer was recently refrocked.  It seems we all dislike disciplinary procedures when they don’t go our way, but can’t praise them enough when they vindicate our position.  But I digress.

The distaste with trials is exacerbated because of the polarized nature of the church (reflecting the wider culture), our inability to discuss hard questions with prayerful charity and theological rigor, and the more general scandal that any exercise of church authority causes in the post-Enlightenment West.

Rev. Hannah Bonner’s critique over at UMC Lead (a blog which seems to be pretty clearly picking sides now) is illustrative:

“It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems that the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us. The reality that trials are conducive to further division and damaging to our witness – and not cowardice – is the reason why many of our Bishops are seeking to find different paths forward through this struggle.”

Of course a trial is “not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light.”  No one wants them.  But trials are present as a final step when just resolution (or “reconciliation”) fails.  The BOD is quite clear that this is not the preferred outcome.  And yet those who have a distaste for trials seem to think only the church or “the system” is at fault for them: if only we didn’t resort to trials, our witness would not suffer so and we could come to a real “Christian” solution.

Credit Where Credit is Due: A Parable

But are trials only the fault of our (admittedly defective) system?  Pastors, at least, know the stakes.  As clergy who have taken vows which state we have studied and approve of church law, we know what we are welcoming if we flaunt it.  I’m not saying it’s right.  I’m not saying it’s pretty.  But at some point, pastors who knowingly play loose with the covenant should receive a share of the ire for putting the church through the cost and controversy of more trials.

To put it another way: imagine you are driving your car, and you just happen to have a CB radio tuned to the police band.  You get on the horn and announce to all the police in the area that you are about the speed on the highway.  You then get on the road and proceed to do 105 in a 70.  Not surprisingly, you are pulled over.  Because of the egregious nature of the speed violation, you are given a ticket with little discussion.  You will face court costs, an increase in your insurance rate, and possibly a suspension of your license.  All kinds of government resources will be used in holding you accountable: police time, magistrate salaries, a judge’s attention.  What a miscarriage of justice!  Wasted resources abound! You harmed no one. You were just speeding.

Would anyone blame the speed limit laws or the cop in this case?  No.  You announced to the world, and especially to law enforcement, what you were going to do.  Whether or not speed limit laws make sense is beside the point.  Their job is to enforce those limits, and you told them you were coming.  The onus, at least in part, is on you.

A crude analogy, perhaps, but is it that different from those who flagrantly disregard the Discipline and then balk at accountability?  I respect prophetic witness, but true prophetic witness means being willing to face the consequences.

Conclusion: On Owning Choices

Poster encouraging support for the EPA 36. A thought: pitting "Biblical" vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.
Poster encouraging support for the Philadelphia 36. A thought: pitting “Biblical” vs. covenant obedience is a false dichotomy. We are always called to obey Christ through his Body, not choose one or the other.

I don’t disagree that trials are damaging to our communion and our witness.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the only thing that may erode the glue holding together our denomination faster than church trials is the avoidance of trials and any semblance of meaningful accountability.

Furthermore, I am convinced it is not the role of bishops to seek “different paths forward” through these struggles.  Such direction is given by the General Conference and codified in the Book of Discipline. The bishops are called, as the executive branch, to order the life of the church in part by enforcing policy made by the General Conference and supporting our doctrine and order as agents of church unity.

We may not like what the “current path” holds, and indeed, I hate that so much energy and resources must go into trials, especially for  the reasons before us.  (I would not be so remorseful if we had trials for more crucial matters, like doctrine.  Oh, if only we would put rebaptizers and unitarians on trial!)

But the only thing worse than the trials may well be not having trials.  Part of the Christian life, as lay and clergy, involves making and keeping promises to one another.  We clergy have all agreed to live by a certain Discipline, and when we fail to do so – whether by momentary lapse of judgment or conscious, intended effort – there must be a response that recognizes that failure. A gracious response and oriented towards restoration, of course, but a response nonetheless.

And yes, church trials bring up some of the worst parts of Christian history, those things with which the New Atheists love to fill up their screeds: inquisitions and witch hunts.  But not every church trial is an inquisition, no more than seeing blue lights always indicates something like the Rodney King incident is going to occur.

We will find trials unpleasant. We should. They are always sad.  And I sympathize with fears that more trials will threaten to rend our communion past what it can bear.

But the only thing that might be a more serious threat, that might endanger our life together even more, is the refusal to hold pastors accountable when they choose to flagrantly violate the covenant and show no willingness to stop doing so.  We all know this is a delicate time.  Our church is imperfect, including its accountability structures.  But I can’t help but think that those pastors who flaunt the Discipline – regardless of the nobility of their cause – like the Eastern Pennsylvania 36 , are also at fault.

Part of maturing is owning our choices and the consequences that they bring.  Don’t tell the police you’re going to break the law, and then complain when you get pulled over.

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4 thoughts on “Who is at fault for #UMC trials?”

  1. I’m not disagreeing with your logic so much as taking it to its natural conclusion that you raised yourself. Why are trials only about homosexuality (for and against) when my conference would be devastated if we started trying pastors who rebaptized. The latter is a grievous offense against our doctrine, rather than our social principles and I have seen no such trial. Someone has to press charges and it appears that one ‘side’ is out-charging the other.

  2. Let me suggest you’ve missed a key point. Biblical Obedience (or ecclesial disobedience if you insist) requires wilingness to face accountability and accept consequences. It does not require wishing for them nor pretending the punishment is just when rule is unjust.

    Martin Luther King and Mel Talbert understood the risk of jail during the civil rights fight. However it does not mean that authorities were moral nor practically correct for putting King and Talbert in jail. We swear to oppose evil and we must do so where and as we find it. (I grant and amicably tolerate that we Methidists have principled disagreements over BoD in this case being biblically holy vs unbiblically discriminatory, and we brothers and sisters can work through it). Judge the Philly 36 – if you feel you should – for their actions in the wedding. Likewise judge the bishops (and church counsel and presiding judge and jury) – if you feel you should – for their actions. But if they see the justice in avoiding trials, that is not avoiding accountability. That is taking responsibility for their part. Don’t you see, in hindsight, that jailing King & Talbert was wrong? Had those same officials instead declined to put King & Talbert in jail, I’d say their witness would have been courageous. And it would not have lessened King’s and Talbert’s moral integrity. Somewhat lost to history but still important were the police, prosecutors, judge and juries increasingly unwilling to enforce Jim Crow before the law changed. It’s all part of changing bad laws.

    We should not expect our bishops et al to automatons to others reading of the responsibility. They must be responsible themselves and for some (and increasingly more) that means making practical judgements (trials hurt the church) and increasingly moral judgements (that it’s immoral to enforce a discriminatory rule). This is part of how rules change.

  3. Excommunication is a better option in my opinion. In fact, it may be more Wesleyan than the trial option. Young John Wesley did not hesitate to refuse communion to obvious sinners, and he required members of societies to have TICKETS in order to receive communion.

    I suspect we Americans introduced the idea of trials and “due process” as an accountability system rather than the more simple and effective idea of excommunication. Where did “open communion” start anyway–some kind of marketing campaign, perhaps?

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