The news broke over the weekend that more than 30 United Methodist clergy from the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference plan to jointly preside over a same-sex union service in the next few weeks. They are doing so in support of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who is on trial November 18 for performing a same-sex wedding for his son in Massachusetts in 2007.
This plan represents a serious escalation in the move to disregard our United Methodist Discipline, established from decades of holy conferencing. We have a process for deciding what our church’s policy and standards of behavior will be. Those promoting the acceptance of same-sex marriage have decided that, since they could not convince the church to make changes in policy legislatively or through appeals to the Judicial Council (our “Supreme Court”), they would take matters into their own hands and disregard church policy altogether.
Such an approach is schismatic, believing that one’s dissenting knowledge and moral sensibilities are better equipped than the collective wisdom of the church to determine what the church’s moral teachings should be. Clergy and laity (and bishops!) want to continue to identify themselves as United Methodist, maintaining their position in the church, job security, and benefits, while at the same time acting contrary to the church’s teachings and policies. Integrity would demand that clergy in particular who can no longer in good conscience abide by the church’s policies should withdraw and unite with another denomination that is more in keeping with their conscience.
It is lamentable that an act of worship will once again be used as symbolic political theater in an effort to nullify the moral teaching of the church. Worship ought to be offered for God’s glory, not our own churchly political agendas.
Most troubling, the proposed joint service portrays a United Methodist Church that is hopelessly divided. When a substantial number of our church’s clergy are no longer willing to live within our church’s polity, there are no good outcomes. Either the church will capitulate to covenant-breaking and pressure tactics, rather than Scripture and holy conferencing, to determine its moral teaching, or the church will need to encourage the dissidents to go their own way outside the UM Church.
Either approach will result in a massive distraction of time and resources from our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. At this point, we have Bishop Talbert planning to break church law on Saturday, the Schaefer trial in November, and the 30+ Pennsylvania pastors planning to violate the Discipline in the next few weeks. In addition, four other UM pastors are under complaint for performing same-sex weddings, and four more have done public services or have publicly acknowledged doing them.
This seems like a recipe for schism. It appears that irreconcilable differences already exist in our church. The question is whether those differences will lead to formal separation. Evangelicals in the UM Church will not continue to support a church that is unable or unwilling to enforce its doctrinal and moral standards.
The United Methodist covenant is broken. It remains to be seen what the church can and will do to reconstitute that covenant.