by Bob Phillips
Recently the Council of Bishops, the North Central Jurisdiction delegation to GC22, and numerous other official channels have been emphasizing that the Continuing United Methodist Church (CUMC) will be a broad tent church, in which progressives, centrists and traditionalists will be welcomed and all can thrive. While no one as yet has defined “centrist” in a way that makes sense to all parties, the focus remains on welcome and freedom for all. Those who are more comfortable with narrow ways and straight gates, where boundaries and exclusions are highlighted, are welcomed to leave gracefully, and be dismissed gracefully after paying pension claims, that typically will range from the tens of thousands to the low millions, depending on church size and budget. (The Protocol, unmentioned by the NCJ delegation statements, arranges for ongoing payments through a new Wesleyan expression that does not require such up-front money).
A recent incident in Newburgh, Indiana, is and will continue to provide a reality check. Progressives will learn if the church truly will welcome unconventional folks as clergy. One can understand a bishop not appointing to a traditional church a pastor who rejects the miracles and bodily resurrection of Christ, or not appointing a “Proud Boys” pastor to an “Antifa” congregation (using here extreme stereotypes of what I hope is not an accurate description of any pastor or church). Excluding persons from appointment because of sexuality would be institutional bigotry. The NCJ delegation, by over 80%, has declared war against all prejudice, as they understand the term, and are pledged to work for a fully inclusive church.
Here’s the rub. Traditional churches and clergy believe Christian marriage is the union of one man and one woman, period. A ‘mellow” traditionalist church or pastor could be defined as one willing to remain in a denomination that affirms expanded definitions of marriage and human sexuality, provided one is not attacked for traditional views or forced as a congregation to accept as pastor one who engages in practices the congregation deems sinful.
Here’s where the Newburgh situation becomes crucial for ‘reading the tea leaves’ on the future CUMC. A heterosexual pastor in his early 60’s performed in drag on an HBO special, stating it was a way to express empathy for a daughter who has announced she is “pansexual.” Drag queen persona clergy are not forbidden by the Book of Discipline. His status as clergy was highlighted as part of the program. Many (not all) members of the church expressed unhappy surprise (they had no advanced warning).
Secular and religious media have reported on the anger in the church, hinting one individual has rallied others against the pastor. An NBC report talked of a “negative, bullying, attacking email from a church person” as turning the tide. The piece, typical of media coverage, went on to say that “Ross Murray, senior director of education and training at the GLAAD Media Institute, said in a statement. ‘Pastor Craig is emulating the example of Jesus, who also spent time with those who were rejected by the pious. That his own church members bully him and the church hierarchy into removing him from his ministry is a disservice to the congregation, to the Evansville community, and to the ministry of the United Methodist Church.’” Media has emphasized the anger element, the decision to appoint the pastor elsewhere (while reporting the pastor as saying he was “bullied into leaving.”) A GoFundMe account for the pastor far exceeded its goal to make up the salary difference in the interim. He has been praised for his courage and integrity in media.
Where have the bishop and the DS been while the church was taking a public whipping? The head of GLAAD media relations has shared his theological opinion. No specific theological reason has been offered by media as speaking for the church’s concern. The DS has published a brief statement indicating a move was best for the pastor. The church has received no public defense from the bishop for its response to drag pastoral leadership. Silence from conference leadership implies agreement with the media spin. Will the Newburgh church be publicly shamed for its stand without the theological and prophetic words of the bishop and DS in her defense?
Does any legitimate biblical reason exist to reject a pastor with a public “unconventional” approach to sexuality? Can freedom of conscience for traditional Christians be protected and publicly defended by leadership, beyond conceding they have a right to ask for another pastor, while leaving the deeper issues of right and wrong for the secular media and Facebook to decide? An increasing percentage of students in official United Methodist seminaries identify as LGBTQIA+. Over 1/3 of the students at Iliff School of Theology so identify, according to their President in a statement affirming the service of exorcism performed in the seminary chapel by its drag queen students in the aftermath of the St. Louis General Conference in 2019. The CUMC is clear that all these students, if otherwise proved to be fully qualified, will be ordained and appointed to serve churches. Is it right to hold their calling and career hostage if too many churches are not open to their appointment as pastor?
The Indiana bishop and cabinet/staff have difficult choices. Listen to their public pronouncements on the Newburgh situation. How is the pastor treated? Is his behavior defended, critiqued, scolded, praised? Is he a hero, an inconvenience or what? As the church is publicly mugged in the media (Newsweek, USA Today, Washington Post), will conference leadership stand in silence, treat the church as an embarrassment, or offer clear and passionate theological defense? Will non-conference sources (secular media and interest groups of left…and right) define the terms? Most of all, will the congregation be further harmed, with an exodus of those from the left and the right who are tired of the fighting and wounded by being demonized?
A reality check is at hand. Stay tuned and prayerful for all of those affected.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)