Archives for January 2015

Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? Part 3

n-CRUMPLED-DOLLAR-BILL-large570As Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church’s decision to delay paying apportionments for 2015 continues to generate lively discussion, allow me to offer a few observations about some of the other arguments against withholding apportionments. Once again, I am not advocating the withholding of apportionments, and I have always encouraged the churches I served in pastoral ministry to fully pay apportionments, as they were able. Nevertheless, I find some of the arguments against withholding worth comment.

My first post dealt with the reason Mt. Bethel is withholding and engaged the idea that “this is not how United Methodist polity works.” My second post  commented on the idea that withholding apportionments is not loving. Let me deal with two more arguments and round this series out with a conclusion.

“Withholding apportionments will hurt good ministries.” When apportionments are withheld in bulk, it penalizes ministries that are worthy of support.

I have noted in my previous post why churches sometimes have to withhold bulk amounts because their annual conference mixes together multiple categories of apportionments, making it impossible for a local church to pick and choose which items they will support.

Some churches that have withheld apportionments in the past give at least some of that money directly to annual conference and general church ministries that might otherwise be hurt by their non-payment of apportionments.

Nevertheless, it is true that some good ministries will get hurt by (especially widespread) withholding of apportionments. At that point, it is important to understand that the withholding is not so much a financial or ministry decision, as it is a statement of conscience. It is a local church attempting to voice its concerns in the only way that is being heard and responded to. In Part I of this series I mentioned that other attempts to engage with the Council of Bishops, such as the “Integrity and Unity” statement, met with virtually no response. When a local church feels that it is not being heard, it may believe it has to do something drastic to gain the ear and response of those in the denominational structure.

Harm to good ministries can be minimized by 1. annual conference leaders being proactive in listening to and responding to the concerns of laity in local churches, 2. local churches channeling their giving directly to those ministries in lieu of apportionments, and 3. recognizing that withholding is not a long-term strategy, but normally lasts only a short time until someone responds to the concerns that are being raised. The failure to respond or a coercive attempt to force compliance with paying apportionments will, in the current climate, be counterproductive and harden opposition. It could force committed pastors and laity — and even whole congregations — to leave The United Methodist Church.

One blogger suggested that if a church cannot in good conscience pay apportionments, they should leave the denomination and surrender their keys to the building. I find that to be a short-sighted way of addressing a congregation’s concerns. However, if over a long period a congregation finds itself unable to conscientiously support the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church, I believe separation from the denomination is a realistic option. That actually happens with some regularity across the country, usually by small congregations that are able to leave with their buildings through a negotiated agreement with the annual conference or by congregations that do not have a building.

The preferred outcome, however, would be to address the congregation’s concerns first, in an attempt to see if the congregation can continue to be a vital part of United Methodism.

 “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Just because some parts of the church are doing wrong (by disobeying the Discipline on same-sex marriage and other matters), the answer is not for other parts of the church to also do wrong.

This argument does have some weight. However, one must ask if there is a moral equivalence between violating the commands of Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality versus a short-term violation of one of the requirements of our Discipline.

It is actually progressives who have set the precedent for doing “wrong” to attempt to correct another “wrong.” They believe the church has done wrong by denying marriage to same-sex persons and denying ordination to self-avowed practicing homosexuals. So they have responded by doing the wrong of violating the Discipline’s prohibition of both. They believe that by doing the wrong of violating the Discipline, they can correct the greater wrong (in their minds) of the church’s position on marriage and sexuality. Is that not what civil disobedience is, in the great tradition of protest and civil rights?

Some evangelicals have taken a page from that playbook and believe that by doing the wrong of violating the Discipline in withholding apportionments (usually only for a short time), they can correct the greater wrong of parts of the church violating Scripture and other parts of the Discipline in performing same-sex marriages without consequence. For people on both “sides,” this is a step of last resort.

In all of my posts, I have noted that the criticisms of withholding apportionments are equally pertinent to those who are violating the Discipline by performing same-sex marriages and ordaining and appointing self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. What is fair about requiring different people in the church to play by a different set of rules? If progressives are able to violate the Discipline with impunity, then why not evangelicals? Many of the critics adopt an “end justifies the means” approach to deciding which violations are acceptable. Violations that support changing the church’s position on marriage and sexuality are allowed, but violations that oppose such a change are not. Progressives should not be surprised when evangelicals adopt progressive strategies that appear to be working.

That leads me to the conclusion I want to emphasize: The United Methodist Church has reached an impasse in which, for many, the current status quo is unacceptable.

Progressives believe that it is unacceptable that they are not able to perform same-sex weddings and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy.  So they have decided to take matters into their own hands and violate the church’s teaching by doing both. They are in the process of trying to create a new reality in which the Discipline no longer governs the conscientious actions of progressives, and that they are allowed to do what they believe is right, no matter what the Discipline says.

Evangelicals and traditionalists believe that it is unacceptable that some of the church’s clergy and bishops are able to violate the specific teachings of Scripture and the democratically-passed provisions of our Discipline. Were the Discipline to be changed to allow for same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, many evangelicals and traditionalists would find themselves needing to withdraw from the denomination. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, the murky new reality that allows what evangelicals and traditionalists believe to be sinful practices to be endorsed by church leaders is causing them to rethink whether they can continue to support and participate in The United Methodist Church.

The withholding of apportionments is a last-ditch attempt by some to restore accountability and unity in the denomination based on Scripture and the majority opinion of the church. If that accountability and unity are not restored soon, many evangelicals and traditionalists will find it necessary to withdraw from United Methodism.

Neither “side” is willing to live with the current status quo. Evangelicals were willing to live with the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, as long as progressives respected and abided by the decisions of General Conference. Now that that is no longer the case, they cannot live with the disobedience.  Progressives could not live with the disagreement over marriage and sexuality, where they had to abide by the Discipline. That is what prompted them to begin their movement of disobedience. They will not be willing to give up doing same-sex marriages and are even beginning to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

So the church is at an impasse. Neither “side” can in good conscience give up their position. Rather than continue the resulting stand-off and harmful conflict, would it not be better to negotiate a way for the factions to separate? If such a separation is to take place, it should be done in an orderly, fair, and negotiated way. I believe that some sort of denomination-wide separation is at least a realistic possibility, either through amicable separation or through some form of a jurisdictional solution. But if such a denomination-wide way forward is not enacted, it may happen anyway as congregations and clergy depart from a denomination they can no longer in good conscience support.

Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? Part 2

As the discussion over Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church’s decision to delay paying apportionments for 2015 continues to roil, I want to offer a few observations about another of the arguments I have heard against the idea of withholding apportionments.  I am not advocating the withholding of apportionments, and I have always encouraged the churches I served in pastoral ministry to fully pay apportionments, as they were able.  Nevertheless, I find some of the arguments against withholding worth comment. My first post in this series dealt with the response that “this is not how United Methodist polity works.” Let me address another popular response.

“It’s not loving.”  Withholding apportionments — and in fact any opposition to the affirmation of same-sex intimacy — is not a loving and inclusive way to be. Since the church is called by God to love, we must change our stance and certainly not engage in withholding.

First, this is a faulty definition of love. Love does not mean unconditional approval or the acceptance of all behavior.  Jesus drew clear boundaries of what types of behavior and attitudes are acceptable in his disciples and in the Kingdom of God (e.g., Matthew 5:20, 29-30, 7:13-14, 19-23). Jesus even threw the money-changers and merchants out of the Temple!  Exercising disciplinary action toward someone or holding someone accountable is not a lack of love.

If same-sex intimacy is sin (as the Bible repeatedly claims and Christian tradition maintains), even to the seriousness of placing one’s eternal future in jeopardy (I Corinthians 6:9-11), then how is it an act of love to endorse that sin as acceptable behavior for Christians? Are we not bound by our love for our neighbor to warn against behavior that alienates us from God, just as we warn against greed or lying or adultery or any other sin? Such warnings and accountability were the very ethos of John Wesley’s classes and bands, which were not bashful about rebuking those ensnared in sinful behavior, encouraging repentance and amendment of their ways. John Wesley was notorious for evicting people from Methodist Societies because of unrepented sin.  He conceived of clear boundaries as an act of love (a stance that is affirmed by modern psychology, as well).

Second, this sentiment (“it’s not loving to withhold apportionments”) masks the inherently coercive nature of the way apportionments are currently viewed.  “Payment in full of these apportionments by local churches and annual conferences is the first benevolent responsibility of the Church” (Discipline, ¶ 812, cf. ¶ 247.14).  Apportionments are set according to the budget passed by General Conference, with the only input from local churches coming through elected delegates twice removed. (A local church elects a representative to the annual conference, and then the annual conference elects a representative to the General Conference.) This is a less representative form of government than even our U.S. Congress.

Local churches and laity often feel that they have no say in setting apportionments or determining where their money will go. This feeling of powerlessness is only exacerbated by the current atmosphere of a lack of trust for denominational leaders by church members (see the Apex Call to Action Report from 2010.) Apportionments have come to be regarded almost as a “tax” or “franchise fee” — albeit a tax that does a lot of good, along with the harm that some of it does.

It is not surprising that local church members would express their frustration in the only way they feel is open to them — namely, by withholding financial support from an institution that they distrust and that they feel powerless to change. Prior to 1968, local congregations had the option of accepting, increasing, or decreasing the amount of the apportionment they would pay each year. This gave local church members some sense that they had a say in where their money was going.  (At one time, apportionments were called “askings.”) The way apportionments are given to local churches in some annual conferences today, they are all lumped together into broad categories, and a church could not designate amounts for certain funds and not for others.

For instance, in some annual conferences, a local church could not withhold the apportionments that pay for bishops’ salaries, while still paying other conference expenses. In such a circumstance, the only choice churches feel they have is to pay all or nothing, since even if they pay a portion of the broad category, part of what they pay will go toward a fund they do not support.

So is it “loving” to coerce people into paying for ministries and policies that violate their consciences and their deeply held biblically-based beliefs?  Evangelicals have in the past introduced legislation at General Conference that would restore a measure of power to local churches by allowing them to increase or decrease the amount of apportionments that they accept. I believe that good causes and the mission of the church would receive more support if it was voluntary, rather than coerced.

Finally, there is the element of hypocrisy involved. Some who criticize the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality as “unloving” do not hesitate to attempt to impose their will on others via demonstrations, disrupting meetings, circumventing democratic processes, and one-sided “conversations.” Are these actions characterized by love?

In the blogosphere, evangelicals are held to a different standard from progressives. Whereas progressives are given a pass on their “unloving” behavior because the ultimate goal is “inclusive love,” evangelicals are castigated as unloving, simply for attempting to maintain with integrity the teachings of Scripture and The United Methodist Church.

Which scenario is more “unloving?”

1. Evangelicals and traditionalists say that the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality is consistent with 2,000 years of Christian teaching, agrees with the clear teaching of Scripture, and moreover leads to the greatest fulfillment for people created in the image of God, both in this life and in eternity. If one does not agree with this teaching, then one is free to join a denomination that propounds a different understanding. When the church proves incapable of upholding its own policies and teachings, some evangelicals and traditionalists determine they cannot in good conscience financially support that denomination.

Or 2. Progressives come into The United Methodist Church as members and are ordained as clergy saying that they agree with the doctrines and teachings of the church and promising to support and promote those teachings. However, on the issue of marriage and sexuality, they come to find they disagree.  Rather than finding a different church with which they can agree, they instead exert every effort to change the longstanding position of the church, despite the church repeatedly declining to change. More than that, they engage in protest tactics and civil disobedience when they do not get their way.  Their aim is to force every United Methodist to change his/her mind to agree with them or to leave the UM Church.

There seems to be a fundamental disconnect here in terms of what kinds of behavior are “loving.”

My next post will address more arguments that I have heard against withholding apportionments.

Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? Part 1

Mt. Bethel UM Church

Mt. Bethel UM Church

The recent news that Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, withheld $200,000 of apportionments at the end of 2014 and will delay making any apportionment payments in 2015 is prompting a lot of debate in the online community.  Clergy and laity are weighing in pro and con with a variety of arguments.  (By my informal observation, the laity seem more in favor of the decision than the clergy.)

Before getting into the specifics of the arguments, it is important to note why Mt. Bethel took this action.  The reason they give for their decision is the inadequate response of the Council of Bishops to the “Integrity and Unity” statement [link]drawn up by over 100 leading pastors and theologians and endorsed by over 8,500 United Methodists last summer.

Despite the fact that the statement was sent to each bishop individually and also conveyed to the Council at its November 2014 meeting, the Council failed to respond.  After all of these many months, not one bishop responded to the group and acknowledged receiving the statement.  (I have heard that a couple bishops met with some of the signers in their annual conferences.)

To laypersons who work outside of the confines of a denomination, this kind of leadership oversight is hard to comprehend.  Ignoring a statement from leading pastors, theologians, and laypersons is disrespectful to the signatories and increases the mistrust between those in the pews and those in episcopal leadership.

The church seemingly felt that the only way to express their voice in a way that could be heard was to withhold money from the church.  It reminds one of the story in 2 Samuel 14, where the only way that Absalom could get Joab to talk to him was to light Joab’s barley field on fire!

In the American culture, money talks — often loudly.  It shouldn’t be that way in the church, but it is.

For the record, I have always promoted the payment of apportionments in the churches that I served for 29 years of pastoral ministry.  The only occasions on which we did not pay 100 percent were when we were financially unable to do so.

Having the utmost respect for the integrity and conscience of those who do so, Good News has never endorsed or called for the withholding of apportionments. There have always been two distinct views among evangelicals as to whether that would be a good idea. In this case, evangelicals are raising some of the same concerns that have been raised by others, and there is an internal debate about whether withholding of apportionments would be justified.

At the same time, most evangelicals fully understand the frustration and disappointment that would lead churches (and there have been a number of them over the years) to withhold apportionments from the denomination either in whole or in part.

Without feeling the need to necessarily defend withholding, per se, let me address one of the arguments most frequently raised against withholding.

“This is not how our United Methodist polity works.”  United Methodists don’t use their giving beyond the local church to get their way.  Instead, we give to some causes we disagree with, so that we can support the totality of the church’s mission and ministry, most of which we agree with.

In response, let it be noted that our polity appears to be broken.  Whether it is reparable remains to be seen.

• When dozens of pastors willfully and publicly violate the Discipline and receive virtually no consequences, with some even being broadly hailed as heroes, our polity is broken.

• When a bishop of the church, who is supposed to teach and represent the church’s doctrine and practice, intentionally undermines another bishop by going into her area to violate the Discipline, despite that bishop’s and the Council of Bishop’s request not to do so, and receives no consequences for doing so, our polity is broken.

• When dozens of protesters invade the floor of General Conference or other church meetings and shut down “holy conferencing,” our polity is broken.

• When legislation is carefully crafted through hours of labor and group discernment, but then stalled from even receiving a vote by the plenary session of General Conference, our polity is broken.

• When an entire jurisdiction, supported by various annual conferences, votes to live and conduct ministry as if certain parts of the Discipline do not exist, our polity is broken.

It is little wonder that laity who see that our polity is broken may feel less bound to live by “the rules” of our polity, when they see so many other instances of others violating those rules without consequence.

What this brouhaha points out, secondly, is that polity is one of the few things holding our church together.  We have such an “anything goes” attitude toward doctrine and theology in the UM Church, that the only thing that keeps us united in one denomination is our polity.  And the expressions of our polity are primarily 1. apportionments, 2. pensions, 3. the trust clause, and 4. pastoral appointments by the bishop.

Although one-third of all local UM congregations do NOT pay their apportionments in full, as a good friend recently pointed out to me, the payment of apportionments has become an idol in our church.  One can engage in all kinds of aberrant theology or behavior, but the one thing guaranteed to get denominational leaders to come down on you is to intentionally not pay your apportionments 100 percent.

It is a shame that United Methodism today is defined, not by a common shared doctrine and ministry, but by the fact that the denomination owns the church buildings, the bishop controls who is appointed pastor, and every church is required to pay apportionments in full as a sign of its loyalty.

In light of our broken polity, it is not surprising that it will break down in other areas, as well.  Good News has consistently warned that failure to uphold the Discipline in certain areas would lead to a more general disorder within the church.

In my next post, I will address some other arguments I have heard against withholding apportionments.

Dissecting the Talbert Resolution, Part 3

6a00d834515f9b69e201310fc671c7970c-800wiThis post is part 3 of my analysis of the Talbert complaint resolution. You can read part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE. In this post, I am outlining what the implications of this agreement are for United Methodists and our denomination.

Implications

So where does the Talbert resolution leave us? I find nothing in the agreement that upholds or reinforces the church’s current position on marriage or on accountability to our covenant. Instead, this agreement represents a clear victory for those who are bound to overturn our church’s current position, if not by the legislative process, then by the process of continuing disobedience.

Bishop Talbert has experienced no negative consequences for not only advocating such, but actually violating his vows of ordination and consecration. There is no incentive in this agreement for Bishop Talbert or any other clergyperson to bring their actions into compliance with the Book of Discipline.

This agreement further weakens the accountability process for clergy. Bishops who process complaints against clergy who perform same-sex services will be working even more against the tide of opinion by leaders that there should be no more trials.

In combination with several recent Judicial Council decisions, this agreement makes plain the fact that it is no longer possible to hold bishops accountable to the Discipline. The process for handling complaints against bishops needs radical reform. We should stop having bishops be responsible for holding other bishops accountable, since we have seen that such a process does not work. We must also remove accountability from the jurisdictional or central conference level and grant it to the general church level. Proposals will come to the 2016 General Conference to institute a global committee on investigation, made up of laity and pastors from the worldwide church, to handle complaints against bishops and ensure they are accountable to the Discipline.

This agreement is a watershed moment in the life of the church because it publicly illustrates at the highest level that there is a segment of the church’s leadership who have resolved not to be bound by the requirements of our commonly arrived at standards of faith and practice. The lesson is that there is no way for the church to enforce the Discipline. There is now very little cost for disobedience, at least in some parts of the country. We cannot play by two sets of rules, one for progressives who wish to operate in a manner contrary to the sense of General Conference, and one for traditionalists who wish to honor the process of our polity as determined by General Conference. If progressives are allowed to violate the Discipline with impunity, then the same right should be given to traditionalists. Increasingly, traditionalists are also going to adopt that approach, particularly with respect to the payment of apportionments.

The resulting chaos and disdain for discipline that is growing in our church is simply the result of two churches trying to pretend they are one. The disregard for General Conference as the representative decision-making body of our church and the ineffectiveness of the leadership of many of our bishops (and the Council of Bishops) is killing our church.

There are essentially two ways for our church to become one again. First, the General Conference can make reforms to the system to ensure that all United Methodist clergy and bishops will maintain their actions within the parameters set by General Conference. This will undoubtedly cause some progressives who cannot do so to leave the UM Church. Second, if General Conference does not take action, evangelicals and traditionalists will no longer be able to support and participate in a denomination that intentionally allows its leaders to encourage or engage in what the Bible calls sinful behavior. Indeed, many evangelical laypersons and some clergy have already left the UM Church, and many more will follow. It is no longer a viable alternative for us to live together under two different sets of beliefs and their resulting rules.

Evangelicals were not under the illusion that Bishop Talbert would be defrocked over his performing a same-sex union in another bishop’s territory. But it was reasonable for us to expect some modicum of accountability, or at least an acknowledgement of violating the Discipline and a commitment not to do so again. Instead, this agreement gives us nothing. It demonstrates that “the emperor has no clothes;” the church has no power to enforce its standards. The supreme law of the church is no longer the Discipline or General Conference; it is individual conscience. Personal judgment is now the ultimate arbiter of our faith and practice. We are no longer a connectional church, nor even a congregational one, but an individualistic one. Every person is now clamoring to do “what is right in his/her own eyes.”

The outcome of this case has pounded another nail in the coffin of The United Methodist Church as a body unified in mission and ministry. The church is already divided.  All that is left is for us to acknowledge that reality.

Dissecting the Talbert Resolution, Part 2

This post is part 2 of my analysis of the Talbert complaint resolution. You can read part 1 HERE. I would like to analyze exactly what was agreed to and what the implications are for United Methodists and our denomination. (Quotes are from the text of the agreement, which is available HERE.)

 “All parties in this just resolution process agree to live according to the Book of Discipline.” While this statement should be encouraging, it is not. Talbert and others who have decided to perform same-sex unions argue that they are living by the Discipline in doing so. They argue that the Discipline’s mandates to be in ministry with all persons and to provide love and acceptance of all persons means that they are required to do same-sex services. They argue that the Discipline contradicts itself. I have countered in part 1 that welcome and pastoral care do not necessitate performing same-sex weddings. But the point here is that Bishop Talbert makes no commitment not to perform future same-sex services. And by his understanding, he could still do those services and conceive of himself as being in compliance with the Discipline. Accordingly, his pledge to “live according to the Book of Discipline” is a hollow one that yields no reassurance.

“Affirm the work … to define ‘living in covenant,’ community, and accountability.” Only in The United Methodist Church would we need two task forces to define these commonly understood concepts! Whenever a task force needs to “define” something, it probably means they will give it an Orwellian definition that distorts or even contradicts the commonly understood meaning of the concept. How can we “live in covenant” when the covenant is being ignored and broken? How can we have community when defiance eats away trust? How can we have accountability when there is no accountability for actions that contradict the church’s policies? The task forces will only be seeking a way to define these ideas to make possible the acceptance and affirmation of same-sex intimacy and still try to hold the church together.

“Encourage … sustained theological conversation …” When all else fails, keep talking. That seems to be the mantra of our church’s leaders. When action is needed, keep talking instead. When 40 years of “sustained theological conversation” have failed to bring agreement, keep talking anyway. Leaders are unwilling to face the reality that both sides of this debate understand the issues and the evidence and the feelings and stories involved. We are just unable to agree. Further conversation will not change that reality. The goal of progressives is to talk this issue to death and wear down the opposition of traditionalists. For progressives, homosexual equality and approval is a core mission. For traditionalists, it is a distraction from the core mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. So continuing the conversation will always be an advantage for progressives and a disadvantage for traditionalists.

“Request … bishops … through preaching, teaching, writing and theological conversation to continue to address our differences and to work for unity in diversity.” All this means is that bishops will lead the church to a place where the practice of homosexuality is accepted and affirmed. “Unity in diversity” means allowing same-sex weddings in the church and ordaining practicing homosexuals as pastors and bishops. Traditionalists may be allowed to continue their beliefs for a time in exchange for the privilege of remaining United Methodist. Eventually, however, even that modicum of tolerance will evaporate, and evangelicals will be expected to affirm homosexual behavior or leave the UM Church. Unfortunately, what this agreement does NOT mean is that some bishops will rise up to publicly defend the church’s biblically based and gracious teaching about human sexuality. We have been waiting for years to hear that defense, and continue to wait in vain.

“Request that the Council of Bishops consider options in addition to the complaint process to address our differences that reflect our Wesleyan heritage, and acknowledge that ways of resolving disagreements within a community of faith should be distinct from those of a civil judicial process.” This final agreement is in some ways the most damaging. This agreement gives added momentum to the move to bar complaints and trials in the cases of clergy who perform same-sex marriages or unions. This agreement fails to distinguish between resolving a disagreement and fostering accountability.

The process we have for resolving disagreements is General Conference. Only General Conference can speak for the whole church. For 40 years, General Conference has spoken clearly, decisively, and graciously on this matter. Some progressives who disagree with the conclusions of General Conference, however, have resolved to frustrate that process by shutting down General Conference and preventing votes to be taken on issues related to homosexuality or abortion. Many more progressives have decided to carry out ministry as if the provisions enacted by General Conference on homosexuality “do not exist.” They complain that a process is not in place to resolve our disagreements, when they have disregarded the very process that is in place to do so! It is surpassingly ironic that some progressives are now advocating a return to a “Wesleyan” means of resolving disagreements (holy conferencing, now known as “conversation”) which they have already rejected (holy conferencing at General Conference). If one doesn’t like the outcome of the game, simply keep changing the rules until one achieves the outcome desired.

The complaint and trial process are not for the purpose of resolving disagreements. They are for the purpose of holding members of the community accountable for conforming to communal decisions. (Thus, the very premise of this last agreement is negated.) By confusing categories, this last agreement seeks to capitalize on our natural and laudable distaste for confrontation and conflict in order to nullify all means of holding persons accountable. Without complaints and trials, there is no way to ensure compliance with United Methodist teachings and policies. It would be like having city ordinances without having a police force to enforce them. Many people would obey the ordinances they agreed with but ignore the rest. The result would be chaos and harm done to many of the city’s residents. It is impossible to have community without having some way to uphold community standards and policies, even among those who disagree with those standards and policies. The complaint and trial process at least attempts to be a fair process that is open and protects the rights of the accused and the accuser. The alternative would be a more arbitrary process where bishops and superintendents could enforce compliance by fiat, with no protections. And it is important to note that the right to a trial is enshrined in our church constitution and protected by the fourth restrictive rule. Like it or not, trials are part of our Methodist DNA.

This analysis will continue in my next post.

Dissecting the Talbert Resolution

Fourteen months after the event and nine months after complaints were filed, we finally received notice about the complaints against Bishop Melvin Talbert for performing a holy union service in North Alabama. I applaud the openness of all the parties in sharing publicly the resolution that was reached. Leaders need to be transparent in their leadership in order to inspire confidence from those who follow. Since Talbert’s action was so very public, it is only fitting that the resolution of the matter be public as well.

Dr. Bruce Robbins (left) with Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert at an event at the 2012 General Conference, UMNS.

Much will be written and spoken about this case, as I believe it will be a watershed event in the life of The United Methodist Church. In this three-part series, I would like to analyze exactly what was agreed to and what the implications are for United Methodists and our denomination. (Quotes are from the text of the agreement, which is available HERE.)

“We … are not of one mind on matters of human sexuality.” Actually, the church is not of one mind about anything. We could make this statement about any paragraph in the Social Principles. What is more important than the fact of disagreement is where the church comes down on an issue. And that the church’s position have sufficient consensus as to reflect a clear majority. Up until now, the church has had such a consensus.

“We have harmed one another … we further acknowledge and express regret over harm to gay and lesbian sisters and brothers, and all those involved, through the complaint process.” The language here is a bit unclear, but it seems to be saying that the complaint process itself caused harm. If that is what was meant, I reject the conclusion. My colleague, Rob Renfroe, has helpfully made the distinction between “hurt” and “harm.” When a doctor does surgery on a patient, it may hurt, but it does not (normally) cause harm. In fact, it is meant to heal. Sometimes, finding healing means going through pain. But if we are unwilling to experience the pain, we will never be healed.

The complaint process is meant to lead to “a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ” (Discipline, ¶363.1). If we agree that the complaint process is inherently harmful (as distinguished from hurt that leads to healing), then we are left without a way to resolve violations of the sacred trust of ordination and conference membership. The complaint process can be abused or misused in a way that is harmful and not redemptive. But to say that complaints inherently cause harm is an unfounded conclusion that weakens the connection and accountability of the church.

“We strongly reaffirm that all are welcome in the church and we express our pastoral concern and care for all people.” This is one statement that all can agree on. However, welcome and pastoral concern and care does not equal approval of all behaviors. I can minister pastorally to a man troubled by greed without approving of his grasping behavior. Indeed, I might need to point out to him his problem with greed as part of my pastoral care. My ministry to him might even be somewhat hurtful to him at times; he might be offended by some of my preaching against greed. Yet, to say that I must not confront his sin would be to deprive him of the very ministry that he might need the most.

Unfortunately, many LGBTQ persons and their advocates believe that welcome equals approval, and that if the church does not approve of same-sex intimacy, the church is not truly welcoming LGBTQ persons. However, such approval would, for many Christians, contradict the Bible’s teaching about the God-given parameters of sexual behavior. So this one statement of agreement masks a deep divide over how welcome, pastoral concern and care are validly expressed within the church. Agreement to this statement brings no resolution of the conflict.

“Bishop Talbert expresses regret for felt harm and unintended consequences …” This statement is equivalent to saying, “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I did.” It fails to acknowledge that Talbert’s action caused real harm to people, congregations, and ministries. We received reports from a number of churches who lost members in response to Talbert’s action. And the consequences might have been unintended, but they were surely not unforeseen. Anyone should have been able to predict that for a bishop to intentionally, willfully, and publicly violate the church’s law and policy would result in harm to congregations’ ministries. Bishop Wallace-Padgett and the executive committee of the Council of Bishops were particularly harmed when Talbert ignored their requests not to go ahead with the service. He publicly disrespected them, their office, and their authority, essentially thumbing his nose at those under whose authority he pledged to serve. Yet this real harm is unacknowledged, reduced only to a matter of “feelings.” There is no justice to be found here, and no apology for wrongdoing.

“Bishop Talbert holds steadfastly to the conviction that his actions were just and right.” This statement is the crux of why this “resolution” resolves nothing. Where there is no repentance, there can be no restoration of relationship. Talbert is quoted in the report on this agreement in UM News Service as saying, “I believe embracing biblical obedience offers the best way forward for maximizing [the church’s] potential for growth and full inclusion.” His term “biblical obedience” is code for continuing to do same-sex services and working for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Talbert’s arrogance is breathtaking. He sets his own conscience and judgment above the considered judgment of his episcopal colleagues, the General Conference, over forty years of United Methodist discernment, the wide consensus of today’s Christians worldwide, and 2,000 years of church teaching.

One could understand and even affirm if Talbert had said something like: “I understand what the teaching and requirements of The United Methodist Church are. I can no longer agree to or support them. Therefore, I am resigning my episcopal office and my membership in the UM Church.” Such a course would be one of integrity, honor, and honesty. Instead, Talbert is saying, “I can no longer agree to or support the teaching and requirements of my church, but I insist that you continue to recognize me as a bishop and leader in the church, pay for my travel to and participation in meetings, and continue to subsidize my health care and pension. Furthermore, I expect you to change the church’s teachings to bring them into agreement with my opinion.” It has often been noted that no secular company would retain an employee in senior leadership who publicly opposed and even disregarded the company’s policies. The failed leadership exemplified by Talbert’s lack of integrity is killing The United Methodist Church.

This analysis will continue in my next post.