By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
About a month ago, the New York Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) posted an open letter reiterating its intention to maintain a policy of accepting self-avowed practicing homosexuals as candidates for ministry. The letter was responding to the October Judicial Council decision to require Bishop Jane Middleton to rule on whether the BOOM had correctly followed the requirements of the Book of Discipline when it recommended candidates for ordained ministry who were self-avowed practicing homosexuals. The bishop still has to rule and the Judicial Council will review that ruling at its April 2017 meeting.
The BOOM letter is instructive because it appears to do two things:
- It appears to pledge that the New York Annual Conference will continue to act in defiance of the Discipline when it comes to ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
- It demonstrates that there are two different understandings of the teachings of the church and of the way our church is organized and governed.
In its response to the Judicial Council decision, the BOOM declared that “the Board of Ordained Ministry of the [New York Annual Conference] will continue to discern and celebrate the Spirit-given gifts and graces for ministry in all candidates who come before us, giving equal consideration and protection to our LGBTQI brothers and sisters. We celebrate with joy the value, dignity, and sacred worth of all LGBTQI people, affirm the God-given gifts that they bring to the church and support their call from God to use their gifts and graces to serve Christ, and all people’s [sic] especially those at the margins of our society.” These are essentially the same words that announced the original policy of the BOOM that has been challenged before the Judicial Council. In other words, the BOOM is reiterating its intention to operate under the challenged policy, regardless of the bishop’s upcoming ruling and the Judicial Council’s subsequent review.
An earlier public draft of the letter affirmed “BOOM will continue to push the boundaries of any limitations and restrictions put upon us.” That is precisely the problem that The United Methodist Church faces today: the determination of progressive ideologues to continue “pushing boundaries” and living in defiance of church law until they get their way. These actions are causing the schism within United Methodism and threatening our church with separation. It is progressives who are trying to nullify biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality, yet conservatives continually get unfairly blamed as those causing schism simply because we will not let progressives have their way.
What surfaces in the open letter at a deeper level is the awareness that we have two completely different understandings of what it means to be the church and to be in ministry. The BOOM believes it is the role of the church to “affirm and celebrate the full inclusion” of various groups of people (in this case, LGBTQI persons). With all due respect, this is to apply identity politics to the Church of Jesus Christ. We have become so focused on inclusion, that we have forgotten the main mission of the church, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Christ’s invitation is to all persons (in the old language, “whosoever will”). But not all persons are “affirmed” or “included”—only those who respond in faith. God’s love extends to all persons, but not everyone will respond positively to God’s love (read the book of Revelation). As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to love everyone, but we cannot “affirm” or “include” all behaviors, attractions, desires, and lifestyles.
The church’s role is to call all people to respond to God’s loving grace through Jesus Christ to die to self and live for Christ, to become a new person, to grow more and more like Jesus, reflecting the kind of life that Jesus lived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus called all persons to repentance and faith, and he welcomed all sinners (all of us), yet without endorsing their (our) sinful desires or behaviors.
The BOOM appears to endorse the idea that if a person has a strong desire or attraction, it must be good and godly. That is theologically backward, since we know that our desires and attractions have been corrupted by sin and cannot be trusted. In the words of our creed, “man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (Articles of Religion, Article VII). To delineate same-sex behavior as contrary to Christian teaching no more diminishes the value or humanity of LGBTQI people than delineating lying, theft, or greed as contrary to Christian teaching diminishes the value or humanity of people who engage in those behaviors. We are all supremely valuable—valuable enough for God to send his only Son to live and die and rise again for us! Every person, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is a valuable human being whose humanity has been broken by sin and is in need of the forgiveness and healing work of God. The BOOM letter distorts the theological teachings of the church about our human condition and the role of the church.
Not only does the BOOM letter betray a completely different theological understanding of the role and mission of the church, it also betrays a completely different understanding of our church’s polity and governance. The letter states, “This decision reveals a misguided understanding of the role of the Board of Ordained Ministry as an agency of the Annual Conference in The United Methodist Church. Though bound by specific responsibilities and guidelines, BOOM does not operate in a vacuum. We are amenable and accountable to the Clergy Session and to the Annual Conference.”
By referring to the Discipline’s requirements as “guidelines,” the BOOM declares its willingness to “push the boundaries” or go outside the “guidelines” as it deems advisable. Essentially, the BOOM has already, in its policy, enacted the “local option.” The Clergy Session and the Annual Conference can determine what qualifications are used to discern who should be ordained into the United Methodist ministry and which ones can safely be ignored. But that is not the way our church is set up.
The General Conference speaks for the whole church and is the only body authorized to do so. It has established requirements that must be met by anyone entering ordained ministry, whether in New York or Berlin or Manila or Lubumbashi. Every ordained United Methodist clergy person has met those qualifications. Except now the New York Annual Conference has decided that it wants to establish its own set of qualifications and standards.
Progressives have tried for many years to convince the General Conference to delete the requirement that all ordained clergy should exhibit “fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness,” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Since they have been unsuccessful in convincing the General Conference to delete these requirements, many progressives have decided to ignore them. That is what this ruling of law is about—the question of whether an annual conference BOOM can legally ignore requirements it disagrees with. The answer is and will be “no.”
Those who are unwilling to live within the boundaries established by our church are not forced to remain United Methodist. They are free to advocate for changing those boundaries, but they are not free to ignore or circumvent them. They promised their willingness to live by our polity and doctrine when they were ordained, but now they willingly break those vows. In doing so, they compromise not only their own integrity, but the integrity of the whole denomination. Apparently, our denominational “rules” are now subject to each person’s whim as to whether or not they will be followed (see Book of Discipline, ¶ 330.5d and ¶ 336).
I am confident that the Judicial Council will rule that boards of ordained ministry must ensure that all the candidates they recommend for ordination do meet the qualifications set forth in the Discipline. Given this recent letter from the New York BOOM, I am not at all confident that United Methodist leaders in various annual conferences will abide by that ruling or agree to live within our United Methodist covenant. If that is the case, the actions of those leaders will have worsened the schism in United Methodism.