Archives for March 2014

Playing the Race Card

In a recent letter from Reconciling Ministries Network, Executive Director Matt Berryman alleged that the complaints filed against Bishop Melvin Talbert were motivated by racism.  “The Council, comprised in large part by white straight male bishops from the U.S., made a decision as a whole to request the filing of a complaint against their black brother bishop.  Were active white bishops not willing to speak up on behalf of Bishop Talbert?”

First, Matt is factually in error.  The “straight white male bishops from the U.S.” make up only 28 percent of the active members of the Council of Bishops.  (I am counting only active bishops, as listed on the umc.org website, because it is hard to predict which retired bishops will participate in any given COB meeting.)  White male bishops are only 39 percent of the U.S. bishops!  There are 18 white male bishops and 17 male bishops of color in the U.S. alone.

Altogether, 32 of the 64 active bishops are white (U.S. or European, both male and female).  The charts below give a complete breakdown.

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Based on the membership of the Council of Bishops alone, the complaints against Talbert could not have been carried by straight white men alone.

Second, Berryman goes on to allege that Talbert is being subjected to “an unjust juridical procedure” — just like Jesus.  To compare any disciplinary procedure that Bishop Talbert might experience to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the sake of all people is simply outrageous.  Talbert has not been subject to any juridical procedure thus far, much less an unjust one.  (The complaint process begins with an informal “supervisory response” that is not part of any judicial proceeding.)  Matt claims that the reason that Jesus underwent “an unjust juridical procedure” was “for his identification with and liberating love for, the oppressed.”  Funny, I thought Jesus identified with and loved all people, and that all people are liberated from the power of sin and death through faith in Jesus and through his death and resurrection for us.

But Matt wants to make both Jesus’ death and Talbert’s accountability process about “institutional covenants and the preservation of rules meant to sustain power,” about “social injustices” and “the maintenance of oppression.”  This kind of Marxist analysis does not truly reflect orthodox Christian doctrine.  Jesus died first and foremost because of human sin expressed in a myriad of ways, not limited to abusive power or social injustice.

Third, the effort to hold Bishop Talbert accountable to his vows of membership, ordination, and consecration as a bishop is not about an attempt to maintain institutional power and oppression of GLBT people.  Rather, it is an attempt to say that vows and covenants matter.  Our promises matter to God and to other people.  And if we decide on our own to violate those vows and break those covenants, we must be held accountable, or the vows and covenants in question become meaningless.

The attempt to hold Talbert accountable is also part of the larger issue in our church as to whether the Bible is the divine revelation of God and “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”  Our doctrinal standards say that “whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Confession of Faith, Article IV – Discipline, p. 71).  Instead, some want to make the Bible a human testimony about God, making it perfectly legitimate for the church and even individual Christians to sit in judgment of Scripture, rejecting those parts of it they disagree with.

To take that “humanizing” approach to Scripture is to fundamentally alter the character of our Christian faith.  It would be a blatant contradiction of our doctrinal standards.  The church’s teaching about human sexuality is a “test case” for our understanding of Scripture in the church.  That is why we passionately defend the church’s biblical teachings on this matter.  Calling it an act of racism is simply a convenient way to sidetrack the discussion and make true dialog impossible.

The Role of Church Counsel

The news came on March 10 that Bishop Martin McLee had ratified a settlement of the complaint against the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree for performing a same-sex wedding.  The settlement admitted no wrongdoing on the part of Ogletree, nor was there any consequence for his intentional disobedience to the Book of Discipline.  The settlement avoided a trial.  Furthermore, the bishop announced his commitment to not have any more trials for New York clergy accused of officiating at same-sex weddings.

I believe that this event takes us to a new level in the breaking of our United Methodist covenant and the disregarding of our chosen way of discipleship (as enshrined in the Discipline).  I would refer readers to the statement by the complainants and the statement by Good News for my views on where we are.

In this blog, however, I would like to address the role of counsel for the church, the person entrusted with prosecuting the charges against a respondent.  I served as the counsel for the church in the trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong, who was accused of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual and of performing a same-sex union service.  I have also been on the church’s advisory team of the Rev. Frank Schaefer trial and worked with others who have filed complaints.

What struck me about both the Ogletree case and the case in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where two pastors agreed to one-day suspensions as punishment for presiding over same-sex weddings, is the confusion over the proper role of the church counsel.  In both cases, that confusion led, in my opinion, to faulty outcomes – settlements that did not uphold the Discipline and that were repudiated in both cases by the complainants in the case.

The role of church counsel is two-fold:

1)     To represent the church and its Discipline in holding persons accountable to their vows of membership and ordination

2)     To seek an outcome that will uphold the integrity of the Discipline as determined by the will of the General Conference, and where possible, bring about compliance with the Discipline and healing for any breach that has taken place

In my opinion, the church counsels in both the Pacific Northwest and in New York failed to fulfill either of these roles.

Both church counsels failed to adequately represent the church and its Discipline.  In both cases, the process lacked integrity from the start because the respective bishops appointed persons who did not support the church’s prohibition of same-sex marriage.  The counsel in New York, the Rev. Timothy Riss, was even on record as a signer of petitions to the annual conference opposing the church’s position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I am not saying that either church counsel showed a lack of integrity in the way they pursued the case.  But it is nearly impossible, in such a highly charged and polarized environment, for a church counsel to adequately pursue what is essentially an adversarial process when he/she does not believe in it.  One of the qualifications for a church counsel ought to be that the person supports the particular church law that he/she is entrusted with enforcing through the judicial process.  In this case, that qualification was ignored, even after protests from the complainants in the New York case.  The result was that in neither case were the pastors accused of violating their vows held accountable for their breach.  And the process appeared to lack integrity because of the bias of the church counsels against the Discipline.

Both church counsels failed to uphold the will of General Conference and bring about compliance with the Discipline.  In their settlements, both counsels justified the settlement terms by pointing to the fact that their annual conferences had passed resolutions indicating what the conference felt were appropriate penalties for those guilty of performing same-sex weddings and resolutions supporting those who perform same-sex weddings.  (The Judicial Council has ruled that no annual conference has the right under the Discipline to indicate what the penalty should be for a particular offense, but that has not stopped other annual conferences from passing such resolutions.)  In New York, the Rev. Riss went so far as to state that he was trying to represent both those who support and those who oppose the church’s prohibition of same-sex weddings.  That is a serious confusion of the role of the church counsel.

The General Conference delegates to the annual conference  dothe job of upholding and enforcing the Discipline.  In some situations, but not all, the Judicial Council can act as a backstop to rectify an annual conference’s error in not abiding by the Discipline.  However, in most cases the annual conference is trusted to do its job without outside intervention.  The church counsel, as an officer of the annual conference, has the primary responsibility for enforcing the Discipline in a judicial proceeding.  If the church counsel does not vigorously argue for such enforcement, no one else can.  It is similar to recent secular court cases, where state attorneys general have refused to defend a state law they did not agree with.  When that happens, no one else is legally in a position to defend the law.

The role of the church counsel is to represent the will of General Conference, not to be a mediator to bring about a settlement of the complaint.  The role of the church counsel is to argue for an appropriate (in his mind) penalty, not to anticipate what penalty a potential trial court (jury) might impose.   In both cases here, the church counsels said what they thought a trial court would do, and then unilaterally proposed that penalty as a part of the settlement.  That is not the appropriate role of a church counsel.  The body that represents the annual conference is the trial court (jury), which is selected to be representative of the diversity of the conference and determines on behalf of the conference what the verdict and penalty should be.  In these cases, the church counsel has usurped the role of the trial court.

The United Methodist connectional system is built on trust.  We trust that all parts of the connectional system will act in good faith to live by and uphold the Discipline as our agreed-upon way of discipleship and our way of living together.  In this way, the Discipline is like our house rules.  When annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and church counsels determine they will not live by the Discipline, but substitute their own judgment for the judgment of General Conference, our connectional system begins to break down.

Perhaps one annual conference cannot trust that another annual conference has properly determined that its ordained clergy have met all the requirements for ministry imposed by General Conference, so it cannot receive a clergy who wants to transfer into that annual conference membership without doing its own process of vetting the clergyperson.  Or a local church cannot trust that its annual conference clergy are living by the standards of theology and behavior required of clergy, so it has to do its own investigation of a potential pastor’s theology and conduct before receiving that pastor’s appointment to their local church.  Or a local church cannot trust that the annual conference or general council on finance is adequately ensuring that all church money is being spent according to the requirements of the Discipline and so may refuse to pay some of its apportionments until it can determine that the money is being properly spent.

These are just a few of the myriad consequences that begin to play out when the trust that holds our connection together is violated.  And when bishops and church counsels do not fulfill their proper roles in upholding the Discipline, we can no longer trust the system.  What we have now in our church is no longer the rule of “law” but the rule of “men.”  In other words, individuals are substituting their own opinions for the actions of General Conference.  The enactments of General Conference are becoming meaningless, because individuals and annual conferences are refusing to live by them.  In a situation like this, it becomes “every man for himself” and every local church looking out for its own interest, rather than considering itself part of a connectional body of Christ.  This course of action is dividing the church, in fact splintering it.  The sad fact of a structural separation would only recognize the “divorce” that had already taken place in the church’s internal relationships.

Mistrust and the Individualization of Religion

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 4.09.52 PMA recent Barna Research communication identified the erosion of public trust in institutions as an important trend for 2014.  This erosion of trust dates back at least to the 1970s and the Watergate and Vietnam War crises.  New research, however, shows that trust in the institutional church has sunk to new lows, particularly among Millennials.

Only 30 percent of Millennials say they believe that churches “have my best interests at heart.”  For older generations, including the Baby Boomers, the corresponding figure is 41 percent.

The drop in trust plays out in how people identify themselves.  Many no longer want to call themselves “Christian,” and substitute other identifiers like “Jesus follower.”  Others describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Famously, there has been significant recent growth in the “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation or label.  Some are inclined to describe our current time as “post-Christian,” “post-denominational,” “post-evangelical,” or even “post-religious.”

The way this plays out in the contemporary U.S. church scene is that people are opting out of church altogether.  According to Barna Research, “40% of unchurched adults say they do not attend [church] because they ‘find God elsewhere.’”  Thus, there is a high degree of skepticism that church can help a person “find God” or grow closer to God.

We ought to ask ourselves to what extent God is present in our worship services, study groups, and mission projects.  Is our worship service just a progression through a set routine of activities, or do people really meet God and experience the Holy Spirit there?  Are our study groups just (in the words of one frustrated parishioner) “shared ignorance,” or are they a means for uncovering and applying the revelation of God’s truth?  Are our mission projects simply a way to meet the physical needs of others (and make ourselves feel good in the process), or is Jesus Christ ministering to people’s spirits through us, even as we touch them in practical ways?

The mistrust of church also plays out in the dramatic rise of nondenominational churches across the country.  In the area where I live in Texas, there are more independent churches than there are denominationally affiliated congregations. Many are “baptist” (with a small “b”).  But the primary characteristic is that these churches are entities unto themselves with little or no connection to a larger body or denomination.  Many of the largest churches in the country are independent nondenominational congregations.

These unaffiliated churches appeal to those who have lost trust in the institutional church. They have the luxury of governing their own affairs without the “handicap” of a larger denominational structure to impose rules and requirements or take a “cut” of the offering.  There is no interference with the decision about who will serve on the pastoral staff of the church. Nobody owns the church building other than the congregation itself.  There is almost a fortress mentality here.  As for accountability, if the church does something its members disagree with, they are free to leave and find a different place to worship (and they often do).

In this climate, for The United Methodist Church to survive, it must provide two things: substance and integrity.  Those who attend our churches must have a good opportunity to meet and be touched by the living God.  The sermons and studies the church presents must be more than simply feel-good pabulum.  They must connect the attendee with the breadth and depth of orthodox Christian teaching from the past 2,000 years in a way that causes people to deepen their thinking and character in conformity to Christ.

And the church must be a model of integrity.  Where misconduct has happened (such as in the Catholic priest abuse scandal), there must be openness, transparency, repentance, and a correction of the system.  A church’s words and actions must match—saying we are friendly while ignoring visitors is a common disconnect.  It is simply unacceptable for bishops and pastors to promise to uphold the teachings of the church and then publicly call those teachings “immoral and unjust and no longer deserv[ing of] our loyalty and obedience,”  and then go out and disobey them publicly.  It fails the integrity test to “keep your answers short and sweet and lie by omission about your feelings on the Discipline”  in order to get ordained.

People no longer trust the church because they don’t meet Christ there and because they sense the lack of integrity.  If we fail to remedy these failings, not only will our churches not survive, we will be shown to be unfaithful to God.

What do you think?