Opinions differ on a moratorium for church trials

churchtrial

It was an expensive media spectacle. A United Methodist pastor had presided at the marriage ceremony of his gay son and his partner, and several years later was brought before a jury of his peers to answer for his disobedience to the laws of the United Methodist Church. As the broader society wrestled with the legality of same-sex marriage, the teachings and the means of addressing conflict in the UMC were put on display, to the satisfaction of some and the horror of others.

The question of the value of public church trials has been under the microscope in recent weeks in the wake of Frank Schaefer’s trial, conviction, and defrocking; the decision by the Council of Bishops to ask two of their own to file formal charges against Bishop Melvin Talbert for his presiding at a celebration of marriage service for two gay men in Alabama; and the increasing number of United Methodist clergy who are ignoring the UM Book of Discipline’s  provisions forbidding UM clergy from participating in services celebrating the union of gay couples. There have been calls by church leaders and advocates for a moratorium on church trials related to gay marriage. And today, an advocacy group working to end “heterosexist policies and practices” in the UMC issued a statement expressing their opposition to such a moratorium, suggesting that  a moratorium would allow the church to ignore same-sex concerns rather than moving to repeal what they believe are “discriminatory laws.”

Love Prevails

The Rev. Amy Delong of Love Prevails expresses her feelings to Bishop Bruce Ough at the November meeting of the Connectional Table.
A UMNS photo by Kathleen S. Barry.

Today’s statement was released by Love Prevails, an independent direct action group of United Methodists arguing for changes in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The organization, who says their mission is to “disclose(t), divest, and disrupt” recently interrupted the Connectional Table meeting in Nashville this fall, forcing members of the Connectional Table to engage in conversation regarding GLBTQ issues. 

The statement says that Love Prevails “stands in clear opposition” to a strategy which includes moratoriums on church trials. In a series of bullet points, Love Prevails argues that church trials are needed and desirable because they force the church to publicly confront the laws which exclude full participation of GLBTQ persons, and helps to “reveal the true nature, and the absurdity, of the laws themselves.”

Rev. Dean Snyder

Rev. Dean Snyder

However, Dean Snyder, Senior Pastor of the Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C. and a an open advocate for GLBTQ issues, disagrees with the Love Prevails strategy. “I understand the perspective of Love Prevails and very much respect their deep dedication to full equality for LGBTQ people,” Snyder said. “I personally continue to believe that trials against LGBTQ clergy or those who celebrate same-gender marriages hurt the United Methodist Church and our local congregations,” he continued. “Trials place clergy trying to do responsible ministry to their people under great personal stress and suffering no matter the verdict. Trials are a cruel and unusual response to pastors trying to provide pastoral care to their members. Trials often do not lead to wise resolution of differences.”

COB-hs-Schol-2011

Bishop John Schol

Bishop John Schol of the New Jersey Episcopal Area agrees with Snyder. In a video statement made on the New Jersey Annual Conference website, Schol expressed his beliefs that church trials have ceased to be a helpful means of addressing the recent conflicts in the church. ” I love the United Methodist Church,” Schol said, “but I do not agree with how the church has been handling these matters. I do not believe that trials are helpful to our church or anybody at this time. I believe that we have taken a secular mechanism and made it part of the church . . . I would like to see trials within the United Methodist Church stopped.”

Bishop Peggy Johnson

Bishop Peggy Johnson

Bishop Peggy Johnson who presides over the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, the conference in which the Frank Schaefer trial was held, likewise believes church trials are not helpful. “They use time, resources, and energy that could be better used for the ministry of the church,” she wrote in a recent post on her blog. “I will continue to try in every way, as far as it depends on me, to not have church trials.”

In that same statement, however, Johnson acknowledges a belief held by some members of the Council of Bishops that there is an intentional strategy on the part of GLBTQ advocates to promote church trials for the reasons offered in the Love Prevails statement. “Much positive attention has been given to progressive position as a result of the trial and some would like to continue to see more trials for that reason.” she wrote. Johnson is not alone in her beliefs. While unwilling to speak on the record, at least three UM bishops have said that they believe there is an active strategy to use trials to force changes in the Book of Discipline.

Matt Berryman

Matt Berryman

Matt Berryman, Executive Director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, an independent UM advocacy group promoting those changes said that his group has had no active strategy to encourage or promote church trials, nor an official position on a church trial moratorium. “Frankly, how the church punishes those who break the rules in the Book of Discipline is not our issue,” Berryman said. “Our agenda is to promote our program of biblical obedience, calling United Methodists to recognize the unjust nature of current church law as we carry out Christ’s call to love God and to love our neighbor.”

The 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 believed that trials were “a disgrace” to the heritage of the church, and that they drew too much on the language of the secular criminal justice system. Frank said that trials introduce “…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.”

Dr. Thomas Frank A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Dr. Thomas Frank
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Frank said in an interview today that he recognized that all clergy have the right to request a trial, and he believed that any clergy who wants a trial should have one (a concern raised in the Love Prevails statement). However, he believes that even though it is a right, all steps should be taken to promote authentic and open conversation about the issues at hand and all effort given to finding a just and fair resolution that is acceptable to all the involved parties without resorting to judicial means.

“The fact is,” Frank said, ” we really have no idea about how to conduct trials in a fair and effective manner. The Book of Discipline doesn’t give a lot of direction on what trials should look like, so we are more often dependent on the perspectives of legal professionals who bring assumptions about how these things should be handled. Those perspectives rarely have any connection to what it means to be covenant community together.”

Good News, an independent UM related organization which promotes “traditional Wesleyan orthodoxy” (and has advocated for the retention of the current language in the Book of Discipline), recognizes the difficulties raised by Schol, Johnson, and Frank. “Church trials are painful, and most United Methodists would prefer we find ways to avoid them,” the organization said in a statement. “However, church trials are about community and accountability,” they continued.

“Church trials are a last resort effort to hold persons accountable to the promises they make upon taking the vows of church membership, ordination as a clergyperson, or consecration as a bishop.  Without church trials, there is no way ultimately to ensure compliance with our communally determined church policies and standards, a sure recipe for anarchy in the church,” Good News said.

GoodNews_sqGood News believes that they have a simple way of avoiding church trials: “In the case of clergy accused of performing same-sex marriages,” they wrote, “church trials could easily be avoided by a decision to abide by the will of duly elected delegates to General Conference who, time and time again, have stated that the United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and forbids our clergy from presiding at same-sex services.  It is only the refusal to abide by United Methodist discipline that makes church trials necessary.”

Foundry UMC pastor Snyder agrees that trials are necessary in some cases,  such as “…when someone has been seriously abused or injured by the conduct of a clergyperson.” However he believes that a different standard should be applied for what he would suggest are “victimless” infractions.

“To use trials to enforce obedience to one particular rule when there is really no victim does not make sense,” Snyder said, “especially when in this case other rules contradict it. Our leaders should not use trials to enforce obedience to victimless rules, such as conducting same-gender marriages, re-baptizing, serving boot-leg communion, failing to have the proper local church committees, failing to submit reports on time, or not paying 100 percent apportionments.”

Several more church trials are possible in the coming months as complaints have been filed against United Methodist clergy in various areas for conducting same-sex weddings. A complaint is likewise expected to be filed against Bishop Melvin Talbert, however whether that complaint will result in a trial is uncertain.

 

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. 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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27 Comments on "Opinions differ on a moratorium for church 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)
 
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James Ballard
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The reconciling movement followers at the last General Conference told me that it was their plan to overload the church with these trials. They are rebelling and forcing the trials and crying about it. They are doing exactly what they planned and our leaders are doing exactly what reconciling congregations want. Its just flagrant rebellion and anarchy. I am embarrassed for the Bishops in this article. No moral fortitude, no connectional fortitude. No integrity.

Elsie Gauley Vega
Guest
Theenemayhatesclarity, Here is news for you: many of us were followers of Jesus and members of Methodist church LONG BEFORE the anti-gay judgements were put into the BoD. We accept the fact that God loves diversity and DID NOT create everyone to be heterosexual. You will be helped in your understanding if you go to As United Methodists we should all pay more attention to Wesley’s Quadrilateral and be more scholarly in reading/interpreting scripture. Cultural attitudes have changed often over the centuries. Long ago Jewish tribes were intent on “increasing their numbers.” And people in love with someone of their… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

Wow, the Elsie, there’s just no connection with reality, historical facts, or Scripture in your post.

cabernet
Guest
One reason I worship at a United Methodist Church is that the UMC is officially in accord with what the New Testament teaches about the ethical nature of homosexual activity. For any mainline group to take the position on homosexual activity that St. Paul took, is a courageous act in my opinion, and I think it would be unfortunate if the liberals managed to bully the UMC into abandoning its scriptural stance of supporting real, one man and one woman, Christian marriage. It is worth repeating that the day in 2012 that the Bishops of the Episcopal Church capitulated to… Read more »
Craig McLaughlin
Guest

What is the point of all the holy conferencing we do – praying, discussing, debating, voting – if, at the end, we are going to ignore what is decided? At that point, of course, discussion and thus relationship, ends. Why bother discussing, debating, and voting if it means nothing? It’s very simple. To nullify the law of the church, to end the trials, to ignore the will of the General Conference, means the end of the denomination.

John Smith
Guest

Holy conferencing cannot be used as an excuse to violate Holy Scripture. If conferencing calls for such actions it is no longer holy, it cannot take precedence over scripture. Or do you think the holy conferencing or the Methodist church in the 18th and 19th Century which led to the cozying up to slavery in the south was correct? God doesn’t rule by majority vote.

Jim Knowles-Tuell
Guest

So here’s a little clarity for you. If I think women shouldn’t wear pants, my wife should divorce me, no matter how much she otherwise loves me, because she decides to wear pants. By your logic, she should. Just because we disagree strongly enough with one (or a few) rules of our church doesn’t mean we’ve lost our love for that church. People stay in marriages even when their spouse is imperfect by their own definitions of perfection. People stay in this church because we love it despite its imperfections.

CasttheFirstStone
Guest
Where exactly in the Gospels does Jesus weigh in on the issue of homsexuality? The positions contained in the BOD on this topic date back to around 1972, and were not inscribed on tablets handed to Moses by God. In my view, this is a political rather than theological issue (I note several posts using the terms “liberal” and “conserviative”). Those who violate the BOD are engaging in a form of civil disobedience and should be prepared to suffer the consequences (much as Rev. King did). That being said, I do not believe that while we are wrestling with this… Read more »
James Ballard
Guest

Hey Castthefirststone, to your question of where exactly did Jesus weigh in on homosexuality, he was part of the Trinity in the Old Testament revelation of the moral codes. We are Trinitarian. And if you take your argument that Jesus not saying anything about homosexuality does away with the moral code of the OT, then we are in the age of the Holy Spirit which does away with a anything Jesus says. Just saying…

Wes Andrews
Guest
Sorry, castthefirststone, it’s not possible to make a credible case that the Bible fails to have a coherent and clear definition of sexuality and marriage. Actually the pro-Gay marriage / ordination folk have been, and are, over politicizing the issues, NOT those that affirm the Biblical definition of marriage. This is a typical argument technique with these kinds of issues. Pretend the Bible is not clear and then accuse the “other side” of being political. But so many trained by our UM sponsored universities and seminaries have had skewed, and disingenuous teaching about the content/message of Scripture regarding these topics.… Read more »
JD Allen
Guest
No trials?! Hmmm if conservatives were violating the rules and ignoring the DISCIPLINE the liberals would be all for church trials. Without trials there is no enforcement. Without enforcement there is no discipline or order or covenant. “Every man does what is right in his own eyes.” This is a formula for chaos. If this keeps up, schism will take place. Either liberals will leave or conservatives will leave. What bond do I have with liberals who deny Scripture? None. Look at the ELCA- they’ve lost over a 1000 congregations after they went gay. Liberals, if they win, will preside… Read more »
John Smith
Guest
Two points jump out at me: 1) I’ve known many an elder that would love to see the practice of disciplining and holding elders accountable to go away. Watch their contortions when a church board dare question them. 2) LGBTQ claim the current language is divisive yet would not a change to their preferred stance divide the UMC as a whole as it drives away those in the 2/3rd’s world? It seems the LGBTQ forces are the bigoted and intolerant ones as they say those from outside North America and Northern Europe do not count as they either do not… Read more »
Elsie Gauley Vega
Guest

Two or three hundred years ago during Colonial Times, “Missionaries” taught in the 2/3 world.
Do you remember when Great Britain was jailing gay men, as recently as 1900’s? That famous playwright. “Western World” missionaries “taught” the anti-gay crap–totally unscholarly readings of the Bible. Learn to read scripture in its historical /cultural situation. God is Love. Jesus came to teach us to love and include all–even those people that ‘high society’ or ‘organized religion’ condemned or rejected. God is Love.

John Smith
Guest
Oscar Wilde asked to be arrested thinking it another way to titillate society. He did not think society was serious and discovered he wasn’t as essential as he thought he was. Not that he is relevant to today anyway. As for the whole God is love line there are so many holes in your failure to read in the historical/cultural context that I scarce know where to start. Let us leave it at if God is only love then you are truly impoverished. Wes’ attitude makes more sense in seeing the church as a human construct for the purposes of… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

Ultimately, Elsie, the church is just a pawn for an agenda that has nothing to do with love, or justice or God. It’s all a power play.

PaulBot1138
Guest

Ah, yes, when it becomes inexpedient to denounce people for supporting what your the Faith teaches is a sin, simply stop those denouncing people, that’s sure to fix things.
As if God will change His mind on His moral directives to us if we simply plug up our hears and ignore Him long enough.

Phil52001
Guest
Jay, Thanks for an informative article. It certainly shows the diversity of opinion present in the church. Unfortunately it also shows how secular our thinking tends to be. Church trials are always a last resort akin to Matthew 18:15-20 rather than an attempt at fact finding. The intention is to restore to Christian community those who have broken the rules of our agreed upon covenant. That is why every step in the disciplinary process is hoped to be the last necessary one. The forcing of trials is an abuse of the only process which we have. A major part of… Read more »
MethodistPie
Guest

I really appreciate Phil’s take. The trial system was initiated for good purpose. Using it as a forum for advancing a polity agenda is indeed “abuse.” The problem here is not with the “trials” per se, but rather with those who are manipulating the process to their own ends.

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