by Chris Ritter

The Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church has endorsed a conceptual  plan that retains our denominational language about homosexual practice but removes penalties for clergy who violate them.  They view this as a ground-breaking “third way” that allows greater liberty for Progressives, ends clergy trials, and protects Traditionalists by avoiding alterations to our general discipline that might cause distress to conservative congregations or our growing Central Conferences.  These new clergy liberties, however, would only be granted by eliminating protections currently granted to UM laity.

An end to clergy trials over same sex wedding ceremonies is attractive as these have become divisive media spectacles that generate bad publicity.  The Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions are, for the most part, effectively ignoring church teachings on human sexuality in those areas where bishops are willing to shield clergy from accountability.  A denomination-wide change in the list of chargeable offenses, however, makes our standards unenforceable everywhere (including the Central Conferences).  This empowers individual clergy to develop their own approaches to homosexuality.

The Book of Discipline, in ¶2533, forbids local church trustees from interfering with the pastor in conducting religious ceremonies.  Under the Connectional Table conceptual plan, a pastor may conduct a wedding ceremony for two men or two women at the church’s altar whether the folks that built the church and pay the bills are in favor of that or not.   Changing the list of chargeable offenses simply expands the power of clergy and eliminates the established courses of redress for laity.  The ability to charge a pastor with violating the teachings of the church is an important (and almost the only) protection our system grants to laity.   A congregation should not have to fight on the local level an issue already decided by the denomination.

I have been vocal in my criticism of Adam Hamilton’s “Local Option.”  For its notable faults, the plan at least acknowledges that gay weddings should not be held in those churches that do not want them (even it fails to spell out how the will of the local church would be enforced.)  Clergy could go outside the church building and officiate whatever ceremonies they deem appropriate.  The congregation would become complicit in his/her actions by virtue of the clergy’s office in the church.  Unlike the Hamilton plan, the Connectional Table has yet to indicate that they will seek to include measures protecting churches that agree with the denominational positions on human sexuality.  In a system where most of our clergy are more liberal than the congregations they serve, this is a serious omission.

A “live and let live” approach is difficult in a connectional church.  Our standard of Open Itineracy means that a bishop may appoint any clergy in good standing to any church.  The Local Option speculates that practicing homosexual pastors would only be appointed to churches who have voted their approval to receive such pastors.  Multiple judicial council rulings, however, have struck down on constitutional grounds any legislation infringing upon the appointive power of bishops.  If chargeable offenses are removed regarding homosexuality, lay people have no grounds on which to refuse a practicing homosexual pastor if one is appointed to them.  If there has been no chargeable offense, the pastor is in good standing and may be coming to a UM church near you.

Some have made the argument that since “immorality” will be retained in the list of clergy offenses that trials could still be held for homosexual practice/weddings in those areas where these are considered to be immoral.  This grossly underestimates the difficulty we have in holding accountable any clergy under our system.  Pastors are guaranteed a trial by their peers and allowed by our constitution’s Restrictive Rules generous appeal to the jurisdictional and general levels of our church.  The reason why our language is so specific is because past rulings have forced it to be that way.  After two homosexual pastors were allowed to stay in office when our Judicial Council said there was no specific language to expel them, “homosexual practice” was added as a chargeable offense at GC1984.  When, in 1993, a pastor was allowed to continue because Judicial Council said General Conference had not adequately defined what a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is, GC1996 provided the detailed definition necessary.  In 1997 the case against Jimmy Creech was dismissed because it was argued the prohibition in the Social Principles did not have the force of law.  Judicial Council later affirmed that it did.  GC2000 added officiating at same-sex weddings to the list of chargeable offenses to underscore the point.  Creech was later defrocked for a second, 1999 gay wedding.  In 2004, lesbian pastor Karen Damman was found “not guilty” because of the word “although” in the BOD.  The language was changed by GC2004.  There is abundance of evidence that we cannot hold clergy accountable to local standards not specifically defined by the Book of Discipline.

The Connectional Table approach is not great for clergy, either.  Each pastor will be under greater pressure to defend their personal decision to not officiate at same-sex weddings.  This is a source of great potential conflict when someone from the church, or their family member, would like a ceremony at the church’s altar.  Gone is, “Sorry, but our covenant does not allow me to do that, but I would like to be your pastor.”  We are left with, “I could, but I choose not to.”  Practicing homosexual candidates for ministry, likewise, will not appreciate ambiguous signals about whether they might be acceptable.   Annual conferences might vacillate back and forth on this issue in places where opinions are closely divided. Years of education and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt are at stake for each candidate.

In a response to the first version of this post, Ole Birch clarified that the Connectional Table will meet to further develop their plan in May.  These are smart people who love and know the United Methodist Church.  Hopefully they will be able to find a way to address the rights of laity if clergy are granted greater latitude.  For all the reasons stated above, I do not feel this is possible.

Alignment should be sought between bishop, appointed clergy, and the congregations they serve.  This is the only environment in which the power vested in clergy for servant leadership will not become potentially coercive against the values of the local congregation.  In the U.S., the organizational unit of our denomination possibly providing such alignment (without altering the whole) is the jurisdiction.

My proposal is that jurisdictions be reinvented to provide progressives with the freedoms they seek without requiring the entire denomination to compromise.  Annual conferences could join a progressive jurisdiction empowered to adapt the standards of the general church.  The jurisdiction would have its own court to interpret its rules.  Allowance is made for clergy and congregations who cannot in good conscience follow the direction of their annual conference.  They can stay in the UMC and be placed in the other conference that services their location.  This seems like a much better way forward than a denomination-wide experiment like that proposed by the Connectional Table.

Laity will always have one vote left to them.  They are free to vote with their feet.  A “third way” for the Connectional Table will undoubtedly mean the “highway” for many of the faithful.   I hope General Conference 2016 will not force loyal United Methodists laity to choose between their understanding of scripture and their denomination.