Category Archives: Book of Discipline

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.

“Just Resolution,” Or Just Bullshit?

just resolution meme

In the United Methodist Church, we have a bullshit problem.  It’s been piling up of late.  Observe this trend:

  • In March of 2014, Bishop Martin McLee (RIP) of the New York Annual Conference set a precedent in announcing a Just Resolution of the complaint against UM Elder and former seminary dean, Thomas Ogletree.  This Just Resolution resulted in a day of holy conversation with representatives from across the theological spectrum.
  • In October, 2014, Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania announced a Just Resolution against 36 clergy who had participated in a same-gender wedding.  The result: the clergy had to acknowledge a violation of the Discipline, but Bishop Johnson also “pledged” that future violations of a similar nature would “will be handled swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences, which may include a trial, involuntary leave of absence without pay, or other significant consequences.”
  • A month later, in November 2014, Bishop Deborah Kiesey announced that a Just Resolution had beed reached against two Michigan clergy who had conducted same-sex marriages.  No comment on the complaint procedure was given by Bishop Kiesey, nor by the complainants, who remained anonymous. (The plaintiffs, in recognition of their victory, attended a public celebration shortly after the announcement.)
  • In January 2015, the Western Jurisdiction announced a Just Resolution had been reached in the complaint against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who had participated in a same-gender wedding ceremony against the request of both the resident Bishop in Alabama and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops.  The result of this Just Resolution was a one-page document which said nothing either interesting or significant.
  • Just last week, Bishop Trimble of the Iowa Conference announced a Just Resolution in the complaint against Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner.  The result was a relatively long and comprehensive document whose only real action item is a letter which Dr. Sonner is required to write that amounts to, “I’m sorry some people feel that way.”

Notice the trajectory developed in a very short period of time: from a resolution that called for a public event (something significant & costly at least happened), to a resolution which promised future consequences in exchange for avoiding them at present, and lastly to “Just Resolutions” that quite literally result in nothing happening.  (Other than the progressive wing of the church taking them for what they clearly are, despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary: unambiguous victories.)

To be sure, these Just Resolutions had much blood, sweat, and tears poured into them. Some of them even put up quite beautiful smoke screens: quotes from the Book of Discipline, soul-searching, hand-wringing, and apparently sincere language of “accountability” and “unity” abound throughout .  But as Henry Frankfurt says in his classic essay On Bullshit“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.” (23)

Someone has to say it:

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story, a vain and foolish king is tricked into going around naked because no one will tell him the truth: the clothes he thinks he is wearing simply don’t exist.  At the end of the fable, an innocent child, who has no need of the monarch’s favor, is blunt enough to say the obvious.

Emperors-New-ClothesIn that same spirit, let me suggest something many of us know instinctively, but which we’ve just been too polite to say: these Just Resolutions are neither just nor resolutions.  They are bureaucratic punts which are, at best, designed to avoid the monetary and PR costs of church trials   (To be fair, Bill Arnold saw this clearly at the outset, and said so in the NYAC panel.)  This may have been the intention at the beginning,  and it’s an understandable one.  At present, however, we are avoiding any tangible form of accountability and yet celebrating resolutions that are anything but; this means the resulting illusion of due process and a unified church under the Discipline is nothing short of bullshit in a precise, even academic, sense.  “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth – this indifference,” says the Princeton philosopher Frankfurt, “to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” (33-34)

I won’t argue that the Just Resolutions named above do not follow the letter of the law.  What I would suggest instead is that touting these as if they resolve anything, or as if they maintain the integrity of the church, is to engage in pure fantasy.  Again, Frankfurt notes, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” (47)

Bullshit vs. Lying

on bullshitTo be clear: I’m not saying we’re being lied to. I’m saying, with Frankfurt, we’re
being treated like we are idiots.  The Emperor has no clothes, but is prancing about declaring, “Resolution! Resolution!” when the things which are purported to hold us together are only further tearing the fabric of our fellowship.  The Discipline is followed, but it’s all smoke and mirrors because the church is no better for it:  “The bullshitter is faking things.  But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” (48)

Unfortunately, bullshit is actually worse than lying.

Worse Than Lies

In the case of the above complaints, a lie would be better than all of this mounting bullshit.  Tell me there’s been significant (but private) consequences.  Tell me due to personal illness, the complaint has been put on hold indefinitely.  Tell me it was lost in the mail.  All of these would show more respect for the truth than the bullshit resolutions that are currently in vogue. Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter

“…does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (61)

Legal Fiction or Covenant Integrity?

The Just Resolutions are, increasingly, little more than institutional bullshit.  They substitute a concern for truth and adherence to reality for a mirage of accountability wrapped up in enough legalese to make a Church of Scientology lawyer weep.  This is not about the good of the church, it’s about maintaining an illusion of integrity while doing nothing.

“For the bullshitter, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false.  His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.  He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (56)

Finally, this trend represents what Rabbi Edwin Friedman called a “quick fix mentality.”  One of the characteristics of a “chronically anxious family” is this focus on a fast remedy rather than comprehensive change.  Friedman describes this mentality as, “a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.” (Failure of Nerve, p. 54) Read in the most charitable way possible, the present ubiquity of Just Resolutions has its origin in an aversion to acute pain (via trials) that manifests as a choice for a short-term faux peace instead of either a modicum of order or what Robert Quinn would call “deep change.”

A Personal Postscript: Cards on the Table

If you’ve hung in this far, there’s a good chance you think I’m a jerk.
That’s fine. You are, of course, free to think that.  But I’m actually not opposed to change in the church.  In distinction to many of my evangelical and conservative colleagues, I do not believe that the human sexuality debate represents a first-order doctrinal concern, which for me would be a non-negotiable.  I believe this is about people of good will bullshit-meter1with different hermeneutics who all love Jesus and want what’s best for the church.  Moreover, I believe it’s mostly about hospitality: the UMC needs the presence and witness of LGBTQ persons, and we need to figure out a way to welcome our neighbors better.  Moreover, we need to recognize serious burdens that our current polity places on ministry in some areas of the Connection.  (Those pushing for change should also recognize the resulting difficulties that this could bring for their colleagues and neighbors.)

I don’t have an easy answer for you.  I could live in a church that answers this challenge by recognizing the inherent complexities and granting some flexibility, perhaps by region or some other distinction in our structure.  But currently our Discipline is clear about what we as clergy are and are not permitted to do, like it or not.   In the meantime, it’s deeply problematic for our Bishops and other leaders to seek out and celebrate “Resolutions” which do an end-run around real accountability and instead amount to a de facto change in church teaching and polity, powers which lie with the General Conference alone.

And by “deeply problematic,” I mean it’s pure and simple bullshit.

no bs