By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference board of ordained ministry recently decided to recommend a woman married to another woman for commissioning as a deacon. BWAC communicator Erik Alsgaard and Good News’ Walter Fenton reported that the board recommended Tara “T.C.” Morrow for commissioning as a Provisional Deacon. If that recommendation is endorsed by the clergy session of the annual conference on June 1, she would be commissioned by Bishop Marcus Matthews.
Paragraph 304.3 of The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Morrow’s commissioning would be a clear violation of that provision.
This recommendation marks a failure of the vetting process for clergy candidates in Baltimore-Washington Conference from top to bottom. Morrow would have had to receive an annual recommendation from her local church charge conference, which clearly would have known she was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church. She would also have had to receive a recommendation from her district committee on ordained ministry, which should have known she was married to another woman. (The recommendation of another self-avowed practicing lesbian for ordained ministry in the Rio Texas Conference in 2013 gained a lot of notoriety in the church press.) And the recommendation of the conference board of ordained ministry requires a 75 percent majority vote in order to pass. That means at least three-fourths of the board approved recommending her for commissioning, despite knowing of her situation.
At every level, the vetting process failed. If Morrow had been living with a man without being married to him, there would have been no excuse for these three bodies to certify her candidacy or recommend her for commissioning. But because she is married to a woman, all three bodies failed to do their due diligence and/or deliberately decided to disregard the requirements of the church.
As Alsgaard reported, “’Two people of the same gender being married or living together is a basis for investigation,’ [board of ordained ministry chair Rev. Charles] Parker said, ‘not a basis for a decision,’ citing ruling 1263 of the Judicial Council – the church’s version of the United States Supreme Court. ‘Self-avowed’ is defined by the Book of Discipline (footnote 1 for ¶304.3) where a person has ‘openly acknowledged to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.’ ‘Practicing,’ Parker said, according to Judicial Council rulings 1027 and 980, is understood to mean ‘genital sex’ with a person of the same gender.”
“Parker, who serves as senior pastor at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington, D.C., said that the Board engaged in a process with and for Morrow that sought to rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’ and create a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations.” Ironically, according to the article, “In the case of Morrow, he said, ‘we all know that she is married. We can make assumptions, but we don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices whether they are hetero or homosexual.’”
While creating “a spirit of openness and honesty in the Board’s deliberations” is laudable, it is no substitute for fulfilling the responsibilities assigned to the board by the Book of Discipline. The board is required to ask candidates for provisional membership this question: “You have agreed as a candidate for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness of the gospel, and in consideration of their influence as ministers, to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life, and to this end agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God. What is your understanding of this agreement?” (Discipline, ¶ 324.9o)
Knowing that Morrow was living in a relationship not affirmed by the church should have provoked further questions from the board. But they “don’t tend to question candidates on their specific sexual practices.” That is simply irresponsible. And it is the “don’t ask” part of the “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In other words, the board, in seeking to “rid itself of the denomination’s ‘unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” model,’” actually persisted in it. The opposite of “don’t ask” is to ask—and the board failed to do so.
If a candidate came before the board with indications they had been in treatment for alcoholism or drug abuse, it would be incumbent upon the board to inquire further about the candidate’s treatment, recovery, and suitability for ordained ministry. The board had to examine dozens of pages of material submitted by the candidate, including a psychological exam, a physical exam, and a theological exam. Any or all of these might indicate further questions to be asked in order to clarify a candidate’s suitability. Yet in this one instance, knowing what it knew, the board failed to inquire.
The board of ordained ministry is assigned the responsibility on behalf of the church to examine in detail every candidate for ordained ministry in order to ensure that the persons are qualified and suitable to serve. This is a fiduciary responsibility they exercise on behalf of all of us. It is impossible for all the clergy members of an annual conference to get to know each of the candidates and make their own assessment of the candidates’ qualifications. We entrust the board with this responsibility. When the board fails in its responsibility, it erodes the trust that we all have in the church and its processes.
The blatant disregard of the requirements of the Discipline exhibited by the board is one reason that many evangelicals are frustrated at the church and angry with their more progressive colleagues. If church leaders cannot be trusted to follow our agreed-upon covenant, then there is little hope for a healthy future for the church.
That is why the Renewal and Reform Coalition is promoting legislation at the 2016 General Conference that would close loopholes and enhance accountability to our covenant. In the absence of voluntary compliance and trust, more forthright rules are required. One of the proposals is to broaden the definition of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include persons living in a same-sex union or marriage with a person of the same gender. By the public act of such a marriage service, the person is acknowledging that they are living as a homosexual person. Such determination should be automatic, not requiring a trial or other forms of verbal gymnastics to demonstrate an obvious reality.
The bottom line is that many progressives want to make it impossible for the church to maintain its scriptural teachings and requirements. But that would be a church without integrity. And a church without integrity can have no unity. It would be an unhealthy body that would collapse in upon itself.
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