When Is Accountability of No Account?

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.

Umpire-School-6-1This 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.

15 thoughts on “When Is Accountability of No Account?

  1. I totally disagree with any policy that is in violation of church doctrine. Pastors performing same sex marriages should be relieved of pastoral duties period. If pastors are not taken to task that proform these marriages I’m history as a Methodist .

  2. Our leaders are being deceived by the devil into thinking we can change God’s plan for marriage and not suffer any consequences. God has not changed His rules, they are still the same.

  3. I for one am ready to “break up the game and head for home.” I disagree strongly with one point made in the above article. It is my conviction that all clergy who perform a same sex marriage should be defrocked ASAP. I am tired of this fight which as been going on in our denomination since the Atlanta General Conference in 1972. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” and for me that means homosexuality is an abomination in His eyes, and no Church that is evangelical, Biblical, orthodox can continue to tolerate it. I want to be part of such a denomination, and I continue to become more and more ashamed of being a United Methodist, the denomination I served as an active clergy member for 41 years until my retirement from active ministry in 2012.

  4. As a LLP in the Marquette District and a member of the Detroit Annual Conference I am highly disappointed in Bishop Kiesey’s decision as just resolution in this matter. It appears that the Bureaucracy that is the episcopacy is more concerned with preserving itself and what ever membership numbers we have left than following the scriptures and providing some type of leadership that is in keeping with their covenant vows. Unfortunately a friend of mine is correct, once a bureaucracy is created it’s sole purpose is to protect and perpetuate itself at all costs.

    It is apparent that the boys and girls club that are known as bishops in the United States at least are more interested in perpetuating their own existence and positions at the expense of the truth found in scripture.

  5. There are two kinds of enforcement of church law in the UMC.
    One for the folks who usually follow the rules and one for those who choose to make headlines by breaking the rules. The only time I have ever seen a persons right to speak taken from them at annual conference was when that person was for maintaining our currant rules regarding gay marriage or gays being ordained as ministers , The church has brought this upon its self by allowing our seminaries to have instructors that do not teach the importance of following the teaching of Holy Scripture and the following of Church Law .
    It is time to stop playing games and let so-called pastors that want to allow same-sex marriage go and take their churches with them and then and only then will the UMC get back to doing what it should be doing and that is bringing the light of Jesus into a dark world!

  6. You and your editor do your selves any favors when you engage in such diatribes and generalizations. I am a progressive who does not agree withchurch sanctioned gay marriages. I do, however, believe in a much more open and loving umc than what you protray. This type editorialism is beneath you and your magazine.

  7. Some conferences and bishops have chosen to follow the rules of the inclusive love of Jesus rather than the rules of the Book of Discipline. I’m personally thankful that Michigan Bishop Kiesey chose to give precedence to the most important law.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Mike. My problem is when one bishop or one pastor takes unto themselves the authority to determine which of our communal covenantal “rules” we can obey and which not. If you choose to place yourself outside of our covenantal community by refusing to follow our rules, then you ought to acknowledge that by transferring to another denomination whose rules you can honor.

      1. Tom,
        I don’t believe the essence of United Methodism is “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” If it truly is the heart of our denomination, then it would make sense for me to find a church that fits what I believe.
        I believe that my loyalty and obedience should primarily be to God and His Son Jesus Christ, not to any church law. That is why I was compelled by the Holy Spirit to sign the marriage license for my daughter’s same gender wedding. I believed that God was calling me to choose the loving path instead of the path of law. I believe that God was calling me to follow the parts of the Discipline that tell pastors their ministry should be inclusive of all.
        I was willing to pay a price/penalty for breaking the church law, but the Bishop chose not to pursue that path.

    2. Mike,
      It is of most significance to note that the inclusive love of Jesus comes with prerequisites — namely responding to what Wesley called prevenient grace by responding to God’s calling through the experiencing of justifying grace resulting in repentance of sin, forgiveness of sin, salvation from sin, and assuming a new orientation in Christ as the way to sanctifying grace. Jesus clearly stated that those who do not meet these prerequisites will not earn his inclusive love, that being the inheritance of the kingdom of God. To continue the battle of getting the practice of homosexuality exempted as a sin by the UMC, or the exemption of any sin, is the anthetisis of the inclusive love of Jesus.

  8. I am in the West Michigan Conference and I am really frustrated with how the “Just Resolution” process was used in the case of Rev. Tupper. I don’t understand how his DS, which appears to be totally sympathetic to Rev. Tupper’s beliefs, can be the person (“victim”) that files the complaint and agrees to the “Just Resolution.” No surprise that there are no consequences in this case!

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