A trend is developing in the way that some United Methodist bishops are handling complaints against pastors who perform same-sex weddings or unions. Instead of bringing accountability, the complaint process is being turned on its head and used to promote the very behavior that is the subject of the complaint!
This trend began with the Amy DeLong trial in 2011. As the penalty for performing a same-sex union, Rev. DeLong was “sentenced” to write a paper during a 20-day suspension on the meaning of covenant and to help lead discussions among Wisconsin Conference clergy on how to live together in covenant, given our disagreement over same-sex marriage.
This strategy was refined in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where two pastors charged with performing same-sex weddings were given a one-day suspension, and the bishop committed to holding clergy conversations on how clergy can live and work together in covenant, given our disagreement.
A high-profile example took place in the New York Annual Conference, where a retired seminary dean was charged with performing a same-sex wedding. The complaint was dropped with no penalty, and the dean was asked to help lead a clergy conference on living together in covenant with our disagreement.
Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a high-profile same-sex union service in Alabama, against the wishes of the resident bishop of the area, as well as against the wishes of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee. At the Council of Bishops meeting, it was reported that the Talbert complaint process “had been followed.” As of yet, there has been no public statement about the Talbert complaint process. Nevertheless, Bishop Talbert was asked to speak as part of a panel of bishops addressing the issue of how the church should resolve our disagreement over same-sex marriage.
Finally, just this week, two clergy persons in Michigan had their complaints resolved over charges that they performed same-sex weddings. There is no acknowledgement that what they did was wrong, nor is there any promise not to repeat the violation of our covenant. Instead, the offending pastors are invited to be part of a design team to plan a state-wide series of events “at which LGBTQ and other interested United Methodists can have a safe place to tell their stories.” The goal of the events is to “reduce our church’s harmful rhetoric and actions toward LGBTQ persons.”
I could give additional examples of such complaint “resolutions.”
In other words, those who have violated our covenant are invited to help instruct us on how to change our covenant (or at least the way we act under our covenant) to permit the very actions that they were charged with. Rather than consequences for disobedience, we have here the promotion of more disobedience. Only the hope here is that it won’t be disobedience anymore because the church will change its rules.
I don’t think every pastor who performs a same-sex wedding ought to lose his/her credentials. On the other hand, I do believe that there should be some consequence for intentionally and knowingly violating our clergy covenant. To have no consequence means that such violations are permitted and even encouraged. Part of the power of civil disobedience is the willingness to live with the consequences of breaking what one perceives to be an unjust law. But here, practitioners of “ecclesiastical disobedience” have figured out a way to disobey what they perceive to be an unjust church law and not experience any negative consequences at all. In fact, the consequences are to instead undermine the church law and the integrity of the covenant itself.
This situation reminds me of the neighborhood baseball games I played with my friends as a kid. There were times when one of the players violated a rule of the game, but wouldn’t accept the consequences of being ruled “out” in that inning. Because there was no impartial umpire to enforce the rules, the disagreement would sometimes degenerate into an argument. When we all couldn’t agree on the enforcement of the rules, the game would usually break up and the players would head home.
In The United Methodist Church, we now have a number of annual conferences (maybe a dozen?) where it is permitted to break the “rules of the game.” Despite what the Book of Discipline says, pastors are permitted to perform same-sex unions or marriages. Most are performed quietly, under the radar. When a complaint is filed, an agreement is reached that involves no apology or recognition of wrong-doing, simply a plan for guided discussions of covenant. This Orwellian approach hopes that by continuing the endless discussions and allowing violations to occur unpunished, the opposition to same-sex marriage will weaken and disappear.
Why do we need to pass the Hamilton/Slaughter “local option?” We already have local option in at least a dozen annual conferences, no matter what the Discipline says.
One can forgive evangelicals for becoming cynical at this point in believing that progressives are determined to get their way in the church by any means possible. It appears that in many places there are no longer any umpires interested in ensuring that the rules of the game are being followed. Certainly, the disagreement has degenerated into an argument. All that remains to be seen is whether the players break up the game and head for home.