UM polity expert asks Council of Bishops to “stop the trials”

Thomas-Frank_sqWINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In an “Open Letter to the Council of Bishops (COB)” released today, Wake Forest University professor and United Methodist polity expert the Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Frank asked the council “…for the sake of the unity of the church, to stop the trials.” “We need to engage our differences through “Christian conversation” within our conferences and particularly within our orders of elders. Church trials are “an expedient of last resort” and are not the way forward,” Frank wrote.

Frank is noted expert in United Methodist history and polity, and the author of Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church, which is the standard textbook on United Methodist polity in many denominational seminaries. Frank is an elder in the Missouri Annual Conference, and the son of the late Bishop Eugene M. Frank.

Frank believes that the constitution of the United Methodist Book of Discipline empowers the bishops to act in opposition to the will of the General Conference in the face of peril to the denomination. He wrote:

Your servant leadership of the church does not and cannot mean that you are simply servile to the actions of General Conference. The 2012 session in Tampa failed to acknowledge our lack of consensus and refused a legislative path forward. The Council of Bishops now must act, and can do so under its constitutional powers. The episcopacy is established in our constitution as a constitutive body alongside the General Conference and the Judicial Council. When you as a Council see the unity of the church at risk, you have a constitutional duty to act.

Frank believes that it is within the power of the bishops to refrain from referring complaints to counsel for the church, and the subsequent church trials. “You have discretion as the chief pastors of the church over the manner, purpose, and conduct of any supervisory response and just resolution under ‘fair process.’”

Frank told The United Methodist Reporter that he is issuing this letter because the council is meeting this week and that he believes the church cannot afford to continue addressing this issue in a judicial process. Frank has been asked to consult in the upcoming trial of The Rev. Frank Schaefer in Pennsylvania, and he expressed concern about how that process is being handled. Those concerns led him to issue the Open Letter today. 

The Council of Bishops has been meeting all week in Lake Junaluska, N.C., and the issue of clergy and episcopal obedience in regards to the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage is assumed to be on the agenda of the bishops as they have met in executive session. The COB has been asked by at least one advocacy group to file a complaint against Bishop Melvin G. Talbert for his presiding at a same-sex celebration of union service in Alabama, and his ignoring requests from the area bishop and the COB Executive Committee to refrain from that action. Currently no time-line for when the bishops will respond to this request has been issued.

From his perspective, Frank believes that the judicial approach to dealing with this divisive issue is harmful to the mission and ministry of the Untied Methodist Church:

The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage. It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of “prosecution,” “defense team,” “conviction,” “judge,” and “jury” to our church as if we were all players in “Law and Order.” We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment. Trials are an exorbitant expense for a process that does no good for our church. Of course, any member of our church has the constitutional right to request a trial. But at this moment, I do not see other circumstances under which our church should be conducting them.

The Council of Bishops meeting will be meeting until Friday, November 15

The full text of Frank’s letter is included below.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE UNITED METHODIST COUNCIL OF BISHOPS

November 12, 2013

To our episcopal leaders:

I ask you, for the sake of the unity of the church, to stop the trials. We need to engage our differences through “Christian conversation” within our conferences and particularly within our orders of elders. Church trials are “an expedient of last resort” and are not the way forward.

The constitution of our church charges you as a Council with “general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church.” The church over which you preside is deeply divided and these “interests” are now at stake. While you are also charged as a Council with “carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference,” clearly our church lacks consensus on our pastoral duties with gay and lesbian church members. This is no time to continue with church trials that only exacerbate our differences. If we are to find unity in our diversity, we must do so in conference and in our orders.

Your servant leadership of the church does not and cannot mean that you are simply servile to the actions of General Conference. The 2012 session in Tampa failed to acknowledge our lack of consensus and refused a legislative path forward. The Council of Bishops now must act, and can do so under its constitutional powers. The episcopacy is established in our constitution as a constitutive body alongside the General Conference and the Judicial Council. When you as a Council see the unity of the church at risk, you have a constitutional duty to act.

I am not asking you to change the church’s statements on homosexuality. Clearly that is not within the powers of the Council. I am asking you to acknowledge that a large number of faithful United Methodist ministers in good standing cannot in conscience restrict their pastoral duties to accord with these statements.

Nothing in the Book of Discipline requires that you refer complaints to counsel for the church and subsequent trial. You have discretion as the chief pastors of the church over the manner, purpose, and conduct of any supervisory response and just resolution under “fair process.” You also have discretion to assemble the pastors under your appointment to address issues that divide us. A church trial court is only a miniature annual conference of thirteen peers in any case. The church is better served by bringing the whole conference and order into conversation.

Many pastors across our church view the performance of same-sex wedding ceremonies as a pastoral duty, particularly with longtime church members. Far from “flaunting” church law, as a recent press headline put it, they are being pastors to their members. At the moment we have the prospect of church trials for at least two different ordained elders who performed such ceremonies for their own beloved children. Really? We have come to the point of trying our pastors for acts, even within their own families, that exemplify the love and ministries of the church?

The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage. It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of “prosecution,” “defense team,” “conviction,” “judge,” and “jury” to our church as if we were all players in “Law and Order.” We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment. Trials are an exorbitant expense for a process that does no good for our church. Of course, any member of our church has the constitutional right to request a trial. But at this moment, I do not see other circumstances under which our church should be conducting them.

Our church is desperately in need of open conversation on these pastoral issues. We are retreating into our various camps and avoiding the hard work of engaging each other’s views. You as a Council and as individual bishops can set a new tone in which we can speak together openly and honestly, without fear of retribution. As Wesley’s Large Minutes began, “It is desired, that all things be considered as in the immediate presence of God; that every person speak freely whatever is in his heart.” This is the collective spirit in which the Holy Spirit is welcomed, and the conversation flourishes. Please lead us in that spirit.

Thank you for your consideration and for your faithful leadership of our church.

Thomas Edward Frank
University Professor
Wake Forest University

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is a Contributing Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay also serves as the Sr. Pastor of the City Road United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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44 Comments on "UM polity expert asks Council of Bishops to “stop the trials”"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

Guest
1 year 6 months ago

[…] Tom Frank, onetime professor at Candler, wrote an open letter to the bishops. In his letter his says that while the office of bishop is important, maybe the day has come when […]

Guest

[…] have huge financial and administrative costs for the Church and the pastors. Last November, he wrote an open letter to the Council of Bishops arguing that bishops have the power to forgo the judicial process. While […]

Guest
1 year 7 months ago

1. On either side, if the approach is. “There will be no unity…” then there will be no unity.
2. Overtime the votes at General Conference have gotten closer to acceptance.
3. Concerning the law i.e., the UM Discipline (of which only part of it is law), I remember a man a long time ago who questioned his religious authorities and disagreed with their interpretation of the law. He said, “If you love you have fulfilled the law and the prophets.” They had him killed for that.

Guest

[…] call for and end to church trials began with a letter written to the UM Council of Bishops during their meeting at Lake Junaluska this past November. In that letter, Frank said that he […]

Guest

[…] just happened to have an actual complaint wrapped up in the middle.  If the Council of Bishops has “discretion as the chief pastors of the church over the manner, purpose, and conduct of any superv… then they have missed a golden opportunity to exercise that discretion – especially given the […]

Guest
Richard LeDuc
1 year 9 months ago

You obviously missed the point of Dr. Frank's letter.

Guest
Tom
1 year 9 months ago

Hmm… so man-made laws get in the way of worship… and that means we should "reevaluate our religious practices?" Wow.

I am so glad that Jesus didn't correct all those Pharisees for their man-made rules that got in the way of true worship. Wait… He did, didn't He?

The church should be calling the world to repentance, because things of "the world" are usually held up in Scriptures as to be antithetical to the things of God. Please – when we start reevaluating the Scriptures, pretty soon we have no need of them. Let's just all do our own thing, or better yet, have the sinful gall to declare "The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing!"

As if God, unchanging, ever contradicts Himself.

Guest
1 year 9 months ago

Communication on the subject should never end, obviously. Then there will be trouble.

Guest
1 year 9 months ago

We cannot have the Elders and Bishops being held to account. That would set a bad precedent. If the BOD's real purpose is control of the laity while ensuring a continual flow of money from them to the conferences at least admit it and end the charade.

Guest
Gatra Reid Mallard
1 year 9 months ago

Thank you, thank you for this call to the Bishops! These "trials" are a mockery of what Christian love is all about and costing our church members and credibility EVERY day. Gatra Mallard

 
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