A Saga in Legalism

Discipline passageBy Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

United Methodism was launched into a tizzy by the dustup that erupted last weekend over the supposed “excommunication” of Ginny Mikita. Mikita was a lay member of a congregation in Michigan who was a candidate for ordained ministry in the West Michigan Annual Conference. In July,  Mikita obtained an online ordination from the Universal Life Church in order to help perform the wedding of the Rev. Benjamin Hutchison to another man. Hutchison had been serving as pastor of a United Methodist congregation, but was forced to resign when a complaint was filed against him for being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” since serving in this capacity is prohibited by denominational policy.

The case took a surprising twist over the weekend, when it became public that three ordained elders had written to the West Michigan committee on ordained ministry to request that Mikita be discontinued from the process toward ordination. Possibly as a result of that letter, Mikita was discontinued and also removed from membership in her local church. Why? Because by receiving ordination from the Universal Life Church, Mikita had joined that denomination, thereby forfeiting her membership as a United Methodist. (The United Methodist Church does not allow dual membership.)

The Reconciling Ministries Network issued a statement deploring Mikita’s removal. Blogger Eric Folkerth weighed in with arguments that Mikita’s removal was illegitimate and uncalled for. I would like to respond to several points raised by opponents of Mikita’s removal.

1. Mikita was “excommunicated.”

“Excommunicated” means “depriving a person of the rights of church membership,” most notably the right to receive Holy Communion. Since The United Methodist Church has open communion, as far as I know, Mikita has not been denied the right to receive communion. Furthermore, Mikita’s membership in the UM Church was not removed by others; she herself removed her membership by transferring into the Universal Life Church.

Ironically, Mikita issued a statement that “membership, as we stress in The UMC, is not simply about signing up and calling one’s self a member. It has meaning. My membership in The UMC represented my sacred and holy commitment, made by public profession of faith during worship.” Yet Mikita evidently thought so little of church membership that she could fill out an online form with no commitment to the Universal Life Church in order to be not just a member, but an ordained clergyperson in that denomination. To her, that ordination was evidently just a matter of some paperwork, filling out forms. It would not jeopardize her “real” membership in the UM Church. One cannot have it both ways. Membership cannot have real meaning and commitment in one context, yet so little meaning and commitment in another.

2. Mikita’s pastor should have kept her on as a member, since the “local church pastor has sole discretion as to whether or [not] someone may join the church.”

Joining the church and leaving the church are two different things. Under the Judicial Council ruling, the pastor has discretion to “make the determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership” (Decision 1032). Presumably, the pastor could receive Mikita again as a member of the local church, should she renounce her membership in the Universal Life Church. But the pastor does not have the power to keep her on as a member of the local UM congregation while she is a member of another denomination.

Our Book of Discipline states, “if a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter ‘Withdrawn’ after the person’s name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference” (BOD, ¶ 241). The pastor had no choice, when confronted with the public information in the newspapers that Mikita had been ordained elsewhere, but to record her as withdrawn from membership.

In terms of Mikita’s candidacy for ordained ministry, the Book of Discipline states, “Certified candidates may be discontinued on their own request, upon severing their relationship with The United Methodist Church, or upon action to discontinue by the district committee on ordained ministry” (BOD, ¶ 314.1). Clearly, Mikita had severed her relationship with the UM Church by being ordained in the ULC. In order to be a candidate for ordained ministry, one of the qualifications is that they be a professing member in good standing for a minimum of one year (BOD, ¶ 310.1a). Again, Mikita was no longer in good standing as a professing member. She could be readmitted into candidacy, but she would have to start over, which would mean rejoining her local church and waiting for one year.

3. Mikita took this action to become ordained and perform the wedding of her friend, Benjamin Hutchison, “in order to ‘protect’ United Methodist clergy friends, from the allegation that they performed a same sex wedding.”

In one sense, one can respect Mikita’s desire to take the fall for breaking church law in order to prevent her clergy friends from experiencing consequences for doing so. However, there was certainly no shortage of UM clergy willing and eager to do the service. Over 30 UM clergy attended the service, and nine UM clergy shared in officiating the service, with two signing the license (the maximum number allowed on the form). Mikita intentionally jeopardized her possibility of being ordained, but did not end up protecting anyone, since others have now received complaints filed against them.

According to the Reconciling Ministries statement, Mikita felt compelled to participate “as an expression of her commitment to Rev. Hutchison, her longtime friend.” A UM News Service article reports that Mikita “knew that by officiating at a same-sex wedding, she was putting her clergy candidacy at risk but she said her love for her friend, the Rev. Hutchison, made it worth the risk.” In other words, she entered into this situation knowingly and willing to risk her standing in the church. She could have supported her friend merely by attending the wedding without jeopardizing her status. Only one signature was required on the marriage license, yet she chose to add hers. This was not simply an act of compassionate friendship, but a deliberate act of advocacy contrary to United Methodist doctrine and discipline.

4. Observing the letter of the law legalistically in this case was unfair to Mikita and did her an injustice.

I have some sympathy for the fact that Mikita was probably unaware of the potential consequences of her getting ordained online in order to preside at a same-sex wedding. However, ignorance of the law is no defense. This issue came up in 1993 when an ordained elder in North Texas became a lay member of the Roman Catholic Church. The Judicial Council ruled in Decision 696 that when the elder joined the Catholic Church, his membership (and clergy credentials) in The United Methodist Church were automatically terminated. The question of online ordinations was addressed as recently as 2013 by a blog post by Bishop Peggy A. Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania as “not in any way condoned by the United Methodist Church.”

The deeper issue here is the reason Mikita obtained online ordination, which was to violate the provisions of the Book of Discipline prohibiting same-sex unions or weddings. It does not seem just to allow a member of The United Methodist Church—a member seeking to become an ordained clergy—to resort to cheap legal tricks to circumvent the policies of the church. The church has no obligation to facilitate its members violating their covenant of membership.

Blogger Eric Folkerth states, “The final observation is that we are in a time of excessive legalism and law-following. Ginny felt forced into an online ordination, in an attempt to follow the UM rules regarding same sex marriage.” That is patently not true. Mikita obtained online ordination not in an attempt to follow UM rules, but to circumvent them.

Folkerth continues, “Our current polity is forcing people on all sides into gymnastic contortions. Not because they don’t respect our polity, but precisely because they do.” Again, that is not true. Progressives are looking for every possible legal loophole in order to disobey the stated position of The United Methodist Church that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” If everyone in the church were willing to abide by this position (until and unless it is changed by General Conference), there would be no need for legalism or “gymnastic contortions.”

It is time to name the intentional and public disregard for United Methodist policies for what it is: an attempt by the force of rebellion to pressure the General Conference into changing our moral teaching on sexuality and marriage. Those who cannot abide by United Methodist doctrine and discipline (as they promised) should have the integrity to withdraw from the church. Those who carry out such intentional disobedience have already caused schism in the church.

13 thoughts on “A Saga in Legalism

  1. According to the Michigan Area press release she did inform her pastor of her intent to pursue this on-line ordination. Does not her pastor then bear some responsibility for not informing her of the consequences? Or did her pastor encourage her?

    1. As a DCOM co-chair and BOM member I believe the pastor bears no responsibility. A candidate is responsible for her or his own candidacy process. If she had concerns of how this would affect her candidacy she should have contacted her district committee on ordained ministry. It is the DCOM’s responsibility to inform a candidate of the consequences should the candidate make such an inquiry.

      1. Perhaps you can explain the curious wording of the paragraph in question “if a pastor is informed that a member has without notice”
        Since she gave her pastor notice then is she in compliance with the discipline? If her pastor has not stricken her name from the rolls then she should be good to continue. Her pastor validates her membership not the DCOM.

        1. Thank you for your question, Kevin. It is a good one. My understanding would be that, whether she gave notice to her pastor or not, she is still not allowed to hold membership in two different denominations at the same time. The paragraph in question assumes that the member has not given notice and sets out the procedure for how the pastor can then remove them from membership without having to go through the 2-year charge conference process. If a member gives notice that they have joined another denomination, it is the pastor’s responsibility to then mark them as transferred out to another denomination. While it is the pastor who administers the membership records, the pastor cannot violate the requirements of the Discipline by keeping her on as a member while she has joined another denomination. Hope this helps!

          1. What you have given is an interpretation. Looks like it needs a judicial test for clarification. As to violating the BoD, that is being done all over the country without punitive consequences. Why should this situation be any different? Even if this person united with another denomination she can always sever that connection and come back and her pastor can re-enroll her as a member in good standing. That seems like it would be abiding by the BoD. We do not need to uphold the BoD anymore. We only have to abide by the BoD at least according to our bishops.

          2. Thanks for your discussion, Kevin. It’s true that a person uniting with another denomination can always sever that connection and come back. No problem there. The impact is has on candidacy, however, is to reset the clock in her process. She essentially has to start over.

            What does it mean to abide by the Discipline, as compared to upholding the Discipline? It seems like they are the same to me. When I pledge loyalty to the church as a member, it seems part of that loyalty is to do my best to follow the requirements of the church. That loyalty is heightened for those of us who are clergy or in the process of perhaps becoming clergy. How can we in good conscience ask our members to live by the Discipline if we ourselves are not willing to do so? And if we pick and choose which parts of the Discipline to live by, how can we complain when others do the same? And if the Discipline is no longer binding on any of us, what is the point of having a Discipline? What happens to the connection between United Methodists at that point, especially clergy?

  2. The actions here confirm that same-gender marriage is a symptom of the problem, not the problem. The problem is a growing lack of respect for the very concept of ordination and Scriptural Discipline and a disintegration of ethics and accountability . ‘Let’s not worry about what we have committed to uphold. Let’s just look for a loophole around the covenant, and then play the victim when the loophole doesn’t work. ” Where are the charges and actions against the other Elders that signed the license?

  3. Seems to me that the UM has long passed the threshold of the slippery slope. We’re about 1/4 way down and gaining speed by the day. Weak leadership has pushed us over the edge.

    When your culture becomes your god and the Word of God is an afterthought, a text to manipulate in order to support your own personal beliefs, the shark has officially been jumped.

    There is no climbing back up the slippery slope. It’s over. Move on.

  4. When I read the title of this post, Tom, I thought you were going in a completely different direction. Sorry to say that you completely missed this point. All lay persons should be concerned about this unprecedented and, perhaps even Orwellian, move by church bureaucrats.

    Set aside for a minute the fact this involved a gay marriage. That was not part of the bureaucrat’s decision. So concerns you have about homosexuality are beside the point. Likewise it is immaterial who it was that did the complaining about her situation.

    This matter was handled quite wrongly. This issue, if this is about leaving UMC for another body, should have been handled by her local pastor (but he disagrees with the action taken by the DS!). Alternatively, if one thinks this really is about ordination and/or same-sex marriage, then it could and should have been handled the Disctrict Committee on Ordination.

    The fact is these normal channels were not observed. Instead a church bureaucrat — seemingly the DS although those facts are not clear to me — ruled that what she did with ULC automatically disqualified and removed her from UMC membership. This was done retroactively and without asking her about the facts as she saw them (and there likely are some factual issues in dispute). Note that some bishops have been encouraging lay people to take this route, and her local pastor was informed too. But no one told her that the ULC path would jeopardize her lay membership. It is wrong to convey the impression that this is all settled law after JC 696 which dealt with a clergy person losing his membership in annual conference because he joined a real denomination (Catholic Church) which created a real conflict with his UMC vows. In Ms. Mikita’s case, the involvement she undertook with ULC did not violate any UMC baptism or membership vows. Now doubt she thought she was helping to fulfill those vows.

    I call this “Orwellian” not just for the lack of due process but also the tortued use of the English language and of facts. Clearly Ms. Mikita did not think her actions would jeopardize her lay membership. That was neither her intent nor her understanding. So to for the bureaucrats to claim no need for meetings or due process because “she did this to herself” is doublespeak.

    What is to stop a DS from ruling, with no less basis in church law, that lay members (let’s say church leaders) involved in withholding apportionments or getting re-baptised have somehow broken a rule. And perhaps, like this case, even for a rule they didn’t realize existed. Can the DS also disfellowship them? And, like this case, without even talking to the lay person and with zero due process?

    I was also troubled by the “retroactive nature” of this. Are we going to round up all the UMC lay folks who’ve become “ULC ordained?” And for sake of discussion, let’s count the cost only of those who did this in order to marry straight couples. There are hundreds if not thousands of them. Will we disfellowship them too? And how about the tithes which they’ve given and the church has accepted thinking they were “lay members.” Will retroactive disfellowship mean the chuch must payback all money?

    I am sad to see the day has come when bureaucrats from outside the local church can step in and disfellowship a lay member. I worry where else this leads.

    1. Dave, I understand your concerns about process. I share the desire that process be followed with integrity in all instances. You ask if lay members could be “disfellowshipped” for other reasons (like withholding apportionments or rebaptism). While those are obviously violations of rules (particularly the rebaptism), they are a different kind of violation and would require going through a complaint process. What Ms. Mikita did was not so much violate a rule as change her membership status by being ordained in the ULC. I agree that ordinarily the one to handle this would be the local pastor of her church. However, it seems the local pastor was unaware also that her action would disqualify her from membership. Again, a unique situation is that she was in the candidacy process, so I believe that was what precipitated the response. I agree that most local pastors would let this slide, and the DS probably would have, as well, except that she was in candidacy.

      I find your comment ironic that the ULC is not a “real” denomination, like the Catholic Church. So we have a lay member being ordained in an “unreal” church in order to circumvent UM policy. There is so much wrong with that at many levels. That calls into question the validity of any marriage performed by a clergy person in an “unreal” church. And how does this end run around UM policy display the “loyalty” that members vow to the UM Church? (I question your statement that “hundreds if not thousands” of laity are getting online ordinations in order to officiate at straight weddings.) Any kind of online ordination by United Methodists is reprehensible and ought to be spoken to. I can’t believe that local UM pastors are giving their blessing to laity to obtain such ordinations.

      I don’t foresee an Orwellian situation developing out of this. If it does, I would be the first to oppose it. What I see is a basic contradiction and even hypocrisy in terms of understanding what church membership entails.

      Thanks, Dave, for this discussion.

  5. Thanks for responding. UMCers have done the “online ordination” for decades typically for individual requests often in seemingly unique situations. Most historically for straight couples who were unchurched or mixed religious background and found a spiritual Kay person was the best fit. Done well I can imagine this being a gateway back to church for some couples. I’m guessing a number in the thousands based on at least 5 in my church of 500.

    Remember there didn’t use to be a requirement for officiants in all cases. No requirement for a religious officiant. In most or all states, a judge can do it. In many states certain elected offices can. In three states (not MI) a Notary Public can do it. Would you see a membership conflict for a lay Methodist who is a judge or a Noatary Public doing it? Would you see a conflict if a lay person became a Notary Public just to do one wedding? Would your reaction to such Methodist lay people state-certified be different in a case of gay vs straight marriage?

    I personally see the ULC route as legitimate albeit awkward way to become stare certified in a state that doesn’t allow for new Notary Publics to do it. ULC is quite a different scenario than Baptist or Catholic. They require no vows or obligations that would prevent you from being a fine UMC layperson. They have the philosophy that all should be able to officiate (as in prior centuries) and beyond that it means nothing more than what the person claims for himself. So folks I know say “It lets me officiate weddings and nothing more.”

    Finally I see this a fine service to the local UMC church to be able to bless covenanted same sex marriages that our regular pastors cannot.

    Peace, Brother Tom. If you are presently at the New Room Conference, I pray it will be a good experience for you, the other participants and the UMC. I was sorry I couldn’t get off work to be there.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Dave. I think there are two issues here that are getting mixed together.

      One issue is ordination. I think online ordination violates our theological understanding of what ordination means. If you read the book of Acts, Paul and his helpers ordained leaders of the new churches they founded. That was done based on personal experience with them and by the laying on of hands, with a prayer of blessing. As a Wesleyan, I would say that this ordination is a means of grace. God gives grace to the person being ordained through the laying on of hands. None of that happens with an online ordination. True ordination reflects the “vetting” and entrusting of leadership to the person being ordained. Again, that is not done with the ULC. So getting online ordination is inconsistent with what we believe about ordination. Those concerns don’t extend to a judge or justice of the peace or notary, who are enabled already by their office to officiate at weddings.

      The second issue is whether United Methodists should perform same-sex weddings. I believe loyalty to the church’s teachings (promised by every lay member) would preclude anyone, clergy or lay, from officiating at a same-sex wedding. To do so is to violate the teaching of the church, reinforced by specific prohibitions for clergy. When clergy and laity decide by themselves to violate church teaching on an issue as important and fundamental as marriage, it weakens the connection we have as United Methodists. I believe this is part of the underlying weakening of the UM body–that we have decided that UM teaching is optional and that each person ought to give full reign to their own conscience on any issue that comes along. We are back to “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” General Conference is the body we have designated and agree will speak for the whole church. To repudiate the General Conference’s actions is a very serious breach in the unity of the church. We are reaping the consequences of that breach having occurred in widespread fashion beginning in 2012.

      I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my views and exchange ideas with you, Dave.

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