This post is part 2 of my analysis of the Talbert complaint resolution. You can read part 1 HERE. I would like to analyze exactly what was agreed to and what the implications are for United Methodists and our denomination. (Quotes are from the text of the agreement, which is available HERE.)
“All parties in this just resolution process agree to live according to the Book of Discipline.” While this statement should be encouraging, it is not. Talbert and others who have decided to perform same-sex unions argue that they are living by the Discipline in doing so. They argue that the Discipline’s mandates to be in ministry with all persons and to provide love and acceptance of all persons means that they are required to do same-sex services. They argue that the Discipline contradicts itself. I have countered in part 1 that welcome and pastoral care do not necessitate performing same-sex weddings. But the point here is that Bishop Talbert makes no commitment not to perform future same-sex services. And by his understanding, he could still do those services and conceive of himself as being in compliance with the Discipline. Accordingly, his pledge to “live according to the Book of Discipline” is a hollow one that yields no reassurance.
“Affirm the work … to define ‘living in covenant,’ community, and accountability.” Only in The United Methodist Church would we need two task forces to define these commonly understood concepts! Whenever a task force needs to “define” something, it probably means they will give it an Orwellian definition that distorts or even contradicts the commonly understood meaning of the concept. How can we “live in covenant” when the covenant is being ignored and broken? How can we have community when defiance eats away trust? How can we have accountability when there is no accountability for actions that contradict the church’s policies? The task forces will only be seeking a way to define these ideas to make possible the acceptance and affirmation of same-sex intimacy and still try to hold the church together.
“Encourage … sustained theological conversation …” When all else fails, keep talking. That seems to be the mantra of our church’s leaders. When action is needed, keep talking instead. When 40 years of “sustained theological conversation” have failed to bring agreement, keep talking anyway. Leaders are unwilling to face the reality that both sides of this debate understand the issues and the evidence and the feelings and stories involved. We are just unable to agree. Further conversation will not change that reality. The goal of progressives is to talk this issue to death and wear down the opposition of traditionalists. For progressives, homosexual equality and approval is a core mission. For traditionalists, it is a distraction from the core mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. So continuing the conversation will always be an advantage for progressives and a disadvantage for traditionalists.
“Request … bishops … through preaching, teaching, writing and theological conversation to continue to address our differences and to work for unity in diversity.” All this means is that bishops will lead the church to a place where the practice of homosexuality is accepted and affirmed. “Unity in diversity” means allowing same-sex weddings in the church and ordaining practicing homosexuals as pastors and bishops. Traditionalists may be allowed to continue their beliefs for a time in exchange for the privilege of remaining United Methodist. Eventually, however, even that modicum of tolerance will evaporate, and evangelicals will be expected to affirm homosexual behavior or leave the UM Church. Unfortunately, what this agreement does NOT mean is that some bishops will rise up to publicly defend the church’s biblically based and gracious teaching about human sexuality. We have been waiting for years to hear that defense, and continue to wait in vain.
“Request that the Council of Bishops consider options in addition to the complaint process to address our differences that reflect our Wesleyan heritage, and acknowledge that ways of resolving disagreements within a community of faith should be distinct from those of a civil judicial process.” This final agreement is in some ways the most damaging. This agreement gives added momentum to the move to bar complaints and trials in the cases of clergy who perform same-sex marriages or unions. This agreement fails to distinguish between resolving a disagreement and fostering accountability.
The process we have for resolving disagreements is General Conference. Only General Conference can speak for the whole church. For 40 years, General Conference has spoken clearly, decisively, and graciously on this matter. Some progressives who disagree with the conclusions of General Conference, however, have resolved to frustrate that process by shutting down General Conference and preventing votes to be taken on issues related to homosexuality or abortion. Many more progressives have decided to carry out ministry as if the provisions enacted by General Conference on homosexuality “do not exist.” They complain that a process is not in place to resolve our disagreements, when they have disregarded the very process that is in place to do so! It is surpassingly ironic that some progressives are now advocating a return to a “Wesleyan” means of resolving disagreements (holy conferencing, now known as “conversation”) which they have already rejected (holy conferencing at General Conference). If one doesn’t like the outcome of the game, simply keep changing the rules until one achieves the outcome desired.
The complaint and trial process are not for the purpose of resolving disagreements. They are for the purpose of holding members of the community accountable for conforming to communal decisions. (Thus, the very premise of this last agreement is negated.) By confusing categories, this last agreement seeks to capitalize on our natural and laudable distaste for confrontation and conflict in order to nullify all means of holding persons accountable. Without complaints and trials, there is no way to ensure compliance with United Methodist teachings and policies. It would be like having city ordinances without having a police force to enforce them. Many people would obey the ordinances they agreed with but ignore the rest. The result would be chaos and harm done to many of the city’s residents. It is impossible to have community without having some way to uphold community standards and policies, even among those who disagree with those standards and policies. The complaint and trial process at least attempts to be a fair process that is open and protects the rights of the accused and the accuser. The alternative would be a more arbitrary process where bishops and superintendents could enforce compliance by fiat, with no protections. And it is important to note that the right to a trial is enshrined in our church constitution and protected by the fourth restrictive rule. Like it or not, trials are part of our Methodist DNA.
This analysis will continue in my next post.