Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy

obedience memeA recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:

“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. ‪#‎BiblicalObedience‬

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate.  In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong.  Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:

“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”

In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right.  It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).

For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years.  United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**

But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling.  Notice how individualistic the logic is:

“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”

A couple of things stick out here:

Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.

  • The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.”  But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences.  We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.”  Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
  • There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere.  Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.)  The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial.  If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
  • Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.”  Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards.  But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years.  To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).

One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,

“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.
Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers.  Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now.  The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.

So there you have it.  Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)

To conclude, a word about the title.  “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is.  I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant.  But we must find that way together.  It’s not up to me or you.  It’s up to the whole body.  Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.

*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.

**Edited after correction by Dave Nuckols.

10 thoughts on “Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy”

  1. Oh, Drew. You know I love you, man, but I don’t think you’re being fair to your colleague Pam Hawkins who’s had to wrestle with conflicting vows and covenants which you take too lightly. I don’t mean you dismiss your clergy vows, as I get that obedience is a big deal for you. But there are indeed conflicts that many of your colleagues do see and my sense is in each case they’ve weighed quite carefully the competing claims on thier obedience. You can disagree with their choice but should not trivialize their sincerity and decision making process.

    As a lay person, I can’t fully understand how you and your clergy colleagues manage all your commitments. But as member of a conference board of ordained ministry, I will say that I feel strongly that a clergy call is indeed a matter between the human and our God. Yes, taking on a clergy covenant is a serious matter, but I feel it is wrong to criticize Rev. Hawkins for still feeling there are personal matters between her and God. So that’s all I’ll say about the clergy side of it.

    I will say that as a lay person who supports the RMN campaign of Biblical Obedience, I personally hold to my Baptismal vow where I said “I do” to this vow “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

    Lastly there are factual errors that you should correct with respect to our history. It is not true that “United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings for over 40 years.” The” incompatibilty clause” was passed in 1972 but it did not immediately affect eligibility for ordination nor powers that pastors have to decide whose marriages to bless or not. In 1980, proposals to ban homosexual ordination failed at General Conference, but then in 1984 the ordination ban passed. BoD language saying “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” did not pass until 1996.

    Of course your point that some who’ve been ordained after that time still do perform same sex marriages. I get your objection. But it is not a trivial and unconsequential matter for them.

    I say this with all due respect and friendship.

    1. Every “call” isn’t into the United Methodist convenient relationship. As a member of the BOM, we help folks discern this frequently. No it’s not easy, but grace makes obedience possible.

    2. Dave, thanks for the pushback and correction. I may make a correction and credit you. Nevertheless, the church’s position on same-gender sexuality has remained unchanged, which presumably means marriages (which have only become legal in most states very recently) were also “against Christian teaching.” My guess is that the conservatives might say the rule about marriages was not introduced until it was necessary, but you probably know the history of those clauses better than I.

      I respect those who stand up for their beliefs. I don’t, to the same degree, respect those who stand up for their beliefs and then are befuddled when consequences (however minor) come.

  2. Dave,

    I’ve heard that argument made several times – “I personally hold to my Baptismal vow where I said ‘I do’ to this vow ‘Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?'” – as the rationale for participating in the “Biblical Obedience” movement. What is unclear to me, however, is how the church setting certain standards for ordination or having parameters for marriage is tantamount to “evil, injustice, and oppression.” If ordination and a church matrimonial service are rights, then I can see a potential argument. But the church has understood these as gifts, not rights.

    Also, the implication (when using that baptismal/membership vow as you do here) is that those of us who support upholding the church’s current discernment as elucidated in the BoD are also guilty of evil, injustice, and oppression. Do you really want to make that argument?

    1. Evan – the post just below was my first response to you. I realize I didn’t address the gift vs rights point. I’m not wanting Governent to impose on Church. Not say all should nor all should not officiate. Nor am I looking for Church to impose one or the other coercively on all pastors. So the answer is gift not right. And the gift is from God (whether call to ministry or questions of marriage). And BoD is wrong to withhold Gods good gifts.

  3. I’m not arguing to label or condemn individuals sincerely holding beliefs long taught by church tradition.

    But, in the ways we exclude gay folks, our tradition is wrong and oppressive now just as it was oppressive when it excluded women from ordination and when it segregated black members into upper balconies of church buildings or in a black-only overlay jurisdiction. In saying that, I’m not going back in time to label my own ancestors evil. They too were captive to tradition. So I do not make that charge against by brothers today. But our institution is perpetuating an injustice and that calls for obedience to a higher power.

    BTW, I do believe that those of us affirming same sex marriage now should show grace to those who do not agree. Most of us adults born before 1970 (1980 even) who are now affirming can look back in their personal history to find regretible comments and beliefs regarding gay folk. I know that is true for me. We who need grace must also show it.

  4. I think we are so interconnected not to one another through Covenant but through social contract that it is becoming increasingly difficult to discern between the holy and the secular. As Bevere pointed out, there are standards of the state community, and there are standards of the Covenant community. These cannot be reconciled nor can either be appeased.

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