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.