by Chris Ritter
I want to thank Adam Hamilton for publically restating his position on same sex marriage as it relates to the future of the United Methodist Church. As the pastor of the largest congregation in United Methodism and a respected voice of thoughtful moderation on many social and theological issues, he has earned the listening ear of the denomination. It is obvious that Hamilton’s year-long public silence since posting A Way Forward for a United Methodism? is no indication that he has ceased to work on the most divisive issues currently facing the UMC. He loves our church and is committed to shaping a fruitful future.
There is much to appreciate in Hamilton’s most recent post. As the author of The Jurisdictional Solution for Amicable Unity in the UMC, I agree with Adam that schism is neither a workable nor desirable outcome. We also agree that two intractable positions are at work and rooted in divergent ways of reading and interpreting scripture. I support his assertion that “to completely reverse the denomination’s position… would mean a significant loss of membership and vitality in many local churches and across the denomination.” I also concur with his statement that any workable solution “must allow room for differences of opinion.”
Hamilton’s plan would keep our official denominational positions on homosexuality in place while granting clergy the liberty to perform same-sex weddings. These weddings could be held at the altar of our churches if each local church votes to allow this. Each annual conference would decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals. Our significant points of agreement notwithstanding, I feel this would be the wrong approach for the UMC.
Because of the authority granted to clergy at ordination, it is doubtful that a simple local church wedding policy could prevent a pastor from conducting same-sex weddings at the altar of a church to whom she/he was duly appointed by the bishop. Violating a local church policy is not a chargeable offense for clergy in the UMC. Further, the Board of Trustees “shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services” (¶2533, BOD). We also need to understand that it would be impossible for a pastor to conduct same sex weddings even outside the church building without the congregation and denomination becoming complicit in his/her actions. The pastor is officiating the wedding as a representative of the denomination and the local church. The “local option” severely dis-empowers United Methodist laity who agree with our denominational position by subjecting them to the preference of their pastor. The Hamilton Plan is truly a “local pastor option”, not a “local church option”.
Hamilton’s plan also fails to touch upon the issue of open itineracy. If a practicing homosexual is a clergy in good standing, they are entitled to an appointment by the bishop and appoint-able, at least in principle, anywhere in the conference. At the very least some congregation is going to receive them as pastor and there is no way to require the bishop make sure that this pastor would be acceptable by the church. Efforts to legislatively limit the appointive power of bishops have been struck down multiple times by the Judicial Council based on the Restrictive Rules ensconced in our constitution. Pastors that agree with church teaching would like to serve knowing they will be followed by someone who likewise will uphold UM positions. It should also be noted that bishops and superintendents in same sex marriages would be allowable under the Hamilton Plan.
Adam’s blog last year invited criticism that he was importing congregationalist polity into our otherwise connectional structure. Many of my concerns about “the local option”, however, are centered on concerns of a pastoral nature. Pastoral relationships are at risk if it is known by a couple that a pastor could perform a ceremony but will not. Pastors would lose the option of saying, “I am not allowed to do that because of the covenant under which I live, but I would still love to be your pastor.” When a clergy says “no”, it would seem like personal rejection.
Each clergy in agreement with the official stance of the denomination would be required, under Adam’s plan, to individually defend their decision to abide by our UM theological understanding of marriage. Each local church, likewise, would be under pressure by the increasingly affirming culture. A Love Prevails type group (committed by their charter to “disclose, divest, and disrupt”) might decide to picket the largest church in each conference that does not allow gay weddings until the last hold-outs either cave in or leave. The jurisdictional plans I have authored allow two different ministry approaches to exist behind a covenantal “firewall” of sorts that prevents this type of coercion. Each clergy would be part of a larger covenant and held accountable to it.
I am sure Church of the Resurrection would model a wonderful example of a thoughtful, theologically rich, democratic, and thorough process for considering whether to allow same sex weddings at their altars. Most United Methodist Churches, however, are very small and driven by the personality of their members. Most are ill equipped to make this sort of decision without consideration of family ties, the power of the pastor, and who gives money to the church. Asking local churches to decide would create controversy in that level of our church where unity is most essential. Most local churches would not tackle the issue until a gay couple wanted to get married at the church. At that point, the objective decision about the nature of Christian marriage would be clouded by the request of a specific couple. Imagine the emotion of a couple coming to a church-wide meeting where a group of Christians is voting whether to allow their wedding in the church. This should give us pause. Close and contentious votes would also invite schism at the local church level. It will frustrate laity to learn that there are no negative repercussions for an appointed pastor violating their local church policy, no matter how carefully crafted and thoughtful it is.
Someone once described the American invasion of Iraq as “a quick war followed by the peace from hell” as fighting moved from a unified front to house to house and pockets of resistance. I am concerned that Adam’s plan would be a set of hastily enacted changes that would only serve to destructively take our denominational battles from General Conference to the local and annual conference levels. Battles over principles would become even more intensely personal there.
With regard to ordination, annual conferences would need to vote before allowing practicing homosexuals as candidates for ministry under Hamilton’s proposal. I see at least two complications here. If a conference can vote to allow openly gay pastors, they can vote to disallow this, too. There might be narrow permissive votes in moderate annual conferences that are later overturned once the controversial decisions are publicized. Conference mergers, more and more common in our environment of decline, might also affect these policies (or be affected by them). It is unjust for a candidate to be required to incur debt for seminary only to later be told they are disqualified. The other complication is that we might have an instance where the conference allows openly gay ordinands but the bishop cannot, because of her/his agreement with church teaching, perform the ordination without a violation of conscience. Imagine a candidate being certified by their DCOM, educated, approved by their board of ordained ministry, and not being ordained by a bishop because he/she cannot, as a UM general superintendent vowed to uphold the teachings of our church, in good conscience ordain the candidate.
Perhaps Hamilton’s biggest omission is failing to make even passing reference to how these changes might affect our growing central conferences internationally. His proposals would be in effect globally. Imagine the damage to the church in Liberia, for instance, if even a sole UM pastor married two men to each other in a public outdoor ceremony. The bishop could not legally remove this clergy. This pastor’s continuation in ministry would discredit the work of the larger church in that traditional culture. We must not damage our most fruitful mission field.
Adam does not attempt to critique other plans except to say that they are too complicated and require the BOD to be amended in several places. I assume he would put my Jurisdictional Solution in this category. Before we concede that Hamilton’s solution is simple, we need to see his proposed legislation. I anticipate at least four places where our Book of Discipline would need to be amended (¶¶ 341.6, 304.3, 2533, 2702) and and some of these changes touch upon the balance of power between clergy, local churches, and bishops and would be subject to Judicial Council rulings.
In the final analysis, the Hamilton proposal seems to be another way of saying that we once did not allow same-sex weddings and openly gay pastors, but now we will and on a denomination-wide basis. It is difficult to see how this is a position of compromise. Leaving standards in place but rendering them unenforceable simply further degrades our clergy covenant and, I think, our relevance on any topic.
Going back to our points of agreement, I concur with Adam that there should be a way to have divergent practice in the UMC under the umbrella of United Methodism. My proposed mechanism for achieving this is to create a jurisdiction for annual conferences and bishops to join and in which same sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is allowed. I have developed full legislation for two different versions of this approach. There would be alignment of vision between the bishop, conference, churches, and clergy. Those churches and clergy who cannot live with the direction of their annual conference would have another UM annual conference made available to them that would also serve their location. Everyone would live under an enforceable covenant and would remain United Methodist.
I am not sure it is reasonable to expect a simple solution to a complex problem, especially in a system as intricately intertwined as ours. General Conference has passed and ratified ambitious proposals in the past and we can do so again. I am encouraged that Judicial Council is willing to review prospective legislation prior to General Conference and offer feedback. Like most other things in the church, everything rises and falls on leadership. My hope is that bishops, delegates, and our Judicial Council can approach General Conference 2016 as a solution-seeking body aimed at finding a sensible way forward within the bounds of our polity.
I close this critique with a further word of gratitude for Adam Hamilton. His willingness to propose solutions and submit them for review is very necessary in the season of discernment in which we find ourselves. His latest post will no doubt help move the conversation forward. I welcome all constructive comments on this post, the Jurisdictional Solution, or the updated Hamilton Plan.