Commentary: A proposal for automatic penalties for clergy

by John Lomperis*

Is it time for the United Methodist Church to do away with church trials to adopt a more efficient system of automatic penalties for wayward clergy?

The United Methodist Church is being besieged by an apparently nationally orchestrated movement of a relatively tiny minority (far less than two percent of the whole) of radical United Methodist clergy performing pastorally harmful same-sex “sin blessing” ceremonies, in open defiance of the biblical church policies they vowed at their ordinations to uphold.

Liberal United Methodists from Amy DeLong to Adam Hamilton support various proposals to get our denomination, to one extent or another, to follow in other mainline denominations’ disastrous footsteps, while ultimately conceding that they will likely not have the votes at this next General Conference to liberalize church policies on marriage. And if they got their way in officially liberalizing our moral standards, this is guaranteed to split our denomination, as the record of other mainline denominations makes clear.

Other proposals would strengthen enforcement provisions for situations of clergy choosing to step outside of the covenant into which they chose to be ordained while largely leaving the basic structures of our denomination’s accountability system intact.

While it is no secret that I prefer the latter approach over the former, I ask if it is not time to take a major step further by radically replacing the UMC accountability system as we know it with a much more efficient system of automatic accountability.

Towards that end, I have submitted to the 2016 General Conference a relatively simple, two-part legislative proposal to establish automatic penalties for clergy who admit to performing same-sex unions. It does so by creating a separate accountability process for this single offense.

I carefully worded it to have zero impact on the rights of clergy who are involved in any other sort of wrongdoing, or who are falsely accused of anything. The reason it singles out the cases of clergy who are unambiguously guilty, by their own admission, of violating the prohibition against same-sex union ceremonies is because there is no other form of covenant-breaking that has been pushed by such a well-funded (but unrepresentative) disobedience movement, with the open goal of encouraging too overwhelming a number of violations for our tedious current accountability system to be able to handle.

We have seen numerous recent cases of folk ordained into United Methodist spiritual leadership demonstrating a remarkable lack of integrity by flippantly violating their vows to not perform same-sex union ceremonies, bizarrely bragging in the media about not being men or women of their word, and enjoying the protection of sympathetic bishops who arrange for largely consequence-free “just resolutions” (the church equivalents of out-of-court settlements).

Under the new automatic-penalty system, any clergyperson who openly admits to performing a same-sex union ceremony, which has long been prohibited in the Book of Disciplinecovenant they vowed to uphold, or who tries to play legalistic games by refusing to cooperate with the bishop’s basic attempts to determine the most relevant facts, would face swift, automatic, and major consequences.

If this is the first time the clergyperson has committed such an offense, s/he shall be suspended for at least one year, and potentially as many as three years, from key benefits of the covenant s/he has chosen to break (serving as a minister or in appointed leadership positions). At the end of their suspension, the wayward clergyperson shall be given a clear choice: either re-commit to the clergy covenant s/he chose to walk away from or else be defrocked from United Methodist clergy status.

Our denomination does not ordain anyone in the first place who will not first vow to God and the church to uphold our disciplinary covenant, among many other vows. This new system would not ask anything more of those who choose to leave this covenant and are seeking to be admitted back in.

This is no more unreasonable than asking an adulterous husband to recommit to his marriage vows of faithfulness before he can be fully reconciled with his wife.

Unlike several recent embarrassing cases, the result would be clear and readily understandable to all: the UMC rules do not clergy to perform allow same-sex union services, and so this United Methodist clergyperson was not allowed to continue performing same-sex union services.

The covenant-breaking clergyperson would no longer have any right to make their case in a church trial of their peers, would not have any possibility of dragging things out with further appeals, and would be categorically excluded from the Discipline’s frequently abused “just resolution” process.

The savings to the church’s time, finances, and emotional energies by having such efficient, just, and sensible accountability would be great. And we would ironically accomplish the stated goal of the homosexuality-affirming United Methodist activists who have recently rallied around the slogan, “stop the trials!”

After seeing the offending party so decisively removed from United Methodist ministry, other clergy currently promoting the disobedience movement would think twice before going down that same road.

This plan would offer by far the quickest, most decisive way for our denomination to move forward in mission beyond our present internal conflicts over sexuality.

Since this requires amending the section of the United Methodist Book of Discipline known as the Constitution, some have questioned if such a proposal could get the necessary two-thirds vote of General Conference and then two-thirds of the votes of every annual conference delegate around the world.

I readily admit that this would be a rather dramatic change and would be an uphill battle to pass. But the political odds may not be as steep as some have suggested.

Anyone who spends half a minute thinking about it understands that a large denomination like ours needs some sort of operating standards. No one seriously argues that clergy should be categorically free to violate these standards without any accountability (which would be the same as having no policies).

Rather strong super-majorities (well north of 60 percent) at recent General Conferences have repeatedly voted to maintain policies forbidding our clergy from performing same-sex unions. (For some reason, even significant numbers of delegates who vote to “soften the language” in our Social Principles calling homosexual practice inherently “incompatible with Christian teaching” also vote for the binding policies forbidding same-sex unions.) Furthermore, votes on other constitutional amendments in recent years suggest that annual conference voters are relatively more conservative than those at General Conference.

And unlike the U.S. Constitution, the UMC Constitution is routinely amended in several places at once.

You can read for yourself the entirety of the bold new plan below. I welcome your thoughts in the comments!

But as an elected General Conference delegate myself, this plan has my vote.

The first petition, #60802 (printed on pages 1078 and 1221 ofthe Advanced Daily Christian Advocate) is the constitutional amendment, with underlines reflecting language this petition proposes for addition, while non-underlined text is what is already in the Discipline:

Automatic Penalties – I

Amend Book of Discipline ¶ 20 as follows:

¶ 20.  Article IV.—The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal; neither shall it do away with the privileges of our members of right to trial before the church, or by a committee, and of an appeal.14  This shall not apply to cases of clergy who admit to their bishop, or to the bishop supervising a directly relevant complaint against them, of having conducted a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or performed a same-sex wedding ceremony.  In such cases, automatic penalties shall be imposed. 

Rationale:  Currently, a small minority of covenant-breaking clergy have been abusing our lengthy accountability system to use the threat of the costs of church trials to avoid serious accountability for this one offense.  This would allow for a more effective, efficient, and ultimately less painful process than trials. 

The second, implementing petition is #60803 (found on pages 1141 and 1223):

Automatic Penalties – II

 Amend Book of Discipline ¶ 363.1 by adding after ¶ 363.1a a new section, ¶ 363.1b, and re-lettering the following sections accordingly:

  1. b) Automatic Penalty for Acknowledged Same-Sex Unions—other provisions of the Book of Discipline notwithstanding, when the complaint is based upon allegation of the specific misconduct of a clergyperson having conducted a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or having performed a same-sex wedding ceremony (¶ 2702.1b) within the preceding six years, this separate process shall be followed:

(1) Upon receiving the formal complaint, the bishop or the bishop’s designee shall, within a timely manner, directly request the person against whom the complaint was made for a brief written statement simply confirming or denying if he or she did in fact conduct or perform the Disciplinarily prohibited ceremony in question.  In any meetings related to this process, both the person against whom the complaint and the person making the complaint may choose another person to accompany him or her with the right to voice.

(2) Throughout this process, the complaint shall be treated as an allegation or allegations until the person against whom the complaint was made delivers written confirmation of having conducted or performed the alleged prohibited ceremony or until 30 days have passed since he or she received the bishop’s request for confirmation or denial, and has chosen to give no answer.

(3) If the person against whom the complaint was made provides a written response to the bishop’s initial request other than confirming having committing the chargeable offense in question, then the ordinary supervisory response as outlined beginning in ¶363.1c below shall be followed as outlined below. 

(4)  If the clergyperson against whom the complaint was made either admits to have conducted or performed the Disciplinarily prohibited ceremony in question, or chooses not to deliver a response within 30 days of receiving the request for confirmation or denial of the offense, then he or she shall be considered guilty of having broken covenant with The United Methodist Church.

(5)  If the clergyperson’s file indicates that that he or she has previously been penalized according to this process, then the penalty the bishop imposes shall be termination of the conference membership and revocation of the credentials of conference membership, commissioning, ordination, or consecration of the clergyperson.  Otherwise, the bishop shall suspend the guilty party from all ministerial functions, and from any appointment to a local church, general agency, or cabinet-level position, without salary, for a period of no less than one year. 

(6)  The precise length of this suspension shall be at the bishop’s discretion, provided that it shall not be less than one full year and not more than three full years.  There shall be no right to appeal such a penalty.  A record of this penalty shall be placed in the clergyperson’s file. 

(7) 60 days before the conclusion of such a suspension, the bishop shall contact the suspended clergyperson, either directly or through a designee, to request a written statement promising to not conduct or perform any such ceremonies in the future as long as doing so remains a chargeable offense under our Church’s communal covenant as expressed in our Book of Discipline.  If the suspended clergyperson fails to make such a written promise, the bishop shall at the conclusion of the suspension period permanently terminate his or her clergy status. 

(8) All of the process as outlined above shall be carried out in a timely manner, with attention to communication to all parties in the process.  At the determination of the bishop, persons with qualifications and experience in assessment, intervention, or healing may be selected to assist in this process.  The bishop also may consult with the committee on pastor-parish relations for pastors, the district committee on superintendency for district superintendents, appropriate personnel committee or other persons who may be helpful. 

(9)  When this special process for the specific offense of conducting a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or performing a same-sex wedding ceremony is initiated, the bishop shall notify the chairperson of the Board of Ordained Ministry that a complaint has been filed, of the clergyperson named, of the general nature of the complaint, of each response of the person against whom the complaint was made to the requests noted above, and with a summary the bishop’s own subsequent actions in implementing this process. 

 Rationale:  This efficiently lessens our reliance on trials for covenant accountability. It prevents a single minister from holding an entire conference hostage with a needless, costly trial. There is only one chargeable offense for which there is such a disruptive minority movement to shatter the integrity of our connectional covenant.

 

John-Lomperis-webpic_new*John Lomperis is the United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, and has an M.Div from Harvard University.

This post was originally published at https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/01/28/a-modest-proposal-automatic-penalties-for-disobedience-movement-clergy/

 

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34 Comments on "Commentary: A proposal for automatic penalties for clergy"

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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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Scott
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If they admit to openly violating the Book of Discipline, just as in criminal court there is no need for a trial. At that point, guilt has been established by admission, and all that remains is sentencing.

Kevin
Guest

A natural reaction to the widespread disobedience and failure of our leadership to uphold the discipline. May as well try this. Not sure it can pass judicial review but it is better than spending time and money on trials.
I am all for it.

jimmie shelby
Guest

This writer wonders: will the umc EVER get past this dialogue? will the umc’s leaders EVER lead? will the umc EVER embrace Biblical Christianity–again? will the umc EVER realize that those who so desperately want change will continue to be louder and louder and louder? will the umc in this country EVER realize that the ultimate and most gracious and most sensible solution is for the umc to split?

In this readers mind: should John Wesley be looking over the Edge of Eternity, he is crying tears of great sadness…………………

Scott
Guest

I don’t think the UMC will ever embrace biblical, orthodox Christianity. It will take a severance of the denomination first in order for a Methodist denomination to again embrace biblical Christianity.

jimmie shelby
Guest

Willaim: This writer has begun to visit http://www.weselyan.org in order to read the devotions that are posted daily to that website, as well as other items that are listed. Can you point this writer to a “history” that shares the birth of the Wesleyan denomination. Is it a body of believers who broke away from the “old” Methodist Church or has it come into being since United Brethren joined it to be come the umc?

jimmie shelby
Guest

Thank you……

Paul W.
Guest
It’s an interesting proposal, but it’s addressing the wrong problem. The core issue is the apostasy within the UMC that we have tolerated for many decades. The problem is that our bureaucracy is stacked with progressives who view the Scriptures as being so flexible that they can be contorted or ignored to conform to any view currently in vogue. Very few within our bureaucracy have even a basic understanding of John Wesley’s theology, and far fewer actually agree with and adhere to it. When basic Christian orthodoxy is ignored and our Wesleyan distinctives are reduced to false marketing slogans, of… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
The problem is not just the past few decades, Paul. Conservatives have been tolerating this kind of apostasy for hundreds of years going all the way back to the 15th Century when heretics like Kepler and Gallileo were allowed to force acceptance of their unbiblical views about the earth being round and orbiting the sun in direct contradiction of Scripture! Ever since then conservatives have allowed one liberal heresy after another to slip by from the demise of biblically-sanctioned slavery and segregation to allowing women to vote and take leadership positions in the church. Outrageous! Thank goodness that conservatives are… Read more »
Paul W.
Guest

Do you truly not understand what is meant by Christian orthodoxy, or does it simply amuse you to present a mocking caricature?

Mike Thomas
Guest
I think one can be truly orthodox and still accept the reality that homosexuality is a biological function and not a moral or ethical choice. The same way people can be orthodox today and still accept that the earth is round and not the center of the universe. But conservative fundamentalists have turned Christian orthodoxy upside down by ignoring most of the things Jesus actually taught about feeding the hungry, healing the sick and caring for the poor and instead obsessing on things like abortion and homosexuality that Jesus never even mentioned. Conservative fundamentalists put Ayn Rand at the core… Read more »
Paul W.
Guest

Mike, doubling down with additional false caricatures is an interesting strategy. I find *nothing* accurate in what you’ve written here. Nothing. I suggest you engage in good faith with the arguments instead of making up stuff and repeating false claims you “heard somewhere”.

Mike Thomas
Guest

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the arguments that I am making, but I said nothing that is false or made up. They are my opinion certainly and you are welcome to counter them, but it appears that you are either incapable or uninterested in doing so. Either way it does not make for a fruitful discussion so we will end it here.

Paul W.
Guest

Just so we’re clear: In your own mind, your posts, consisting solely of mockery and false caricatures of both orthodoxy and theological conservatives, are actually arguments and opinions that I am either “unfamiliar with” or “incapable or uninterested in” responding to. Quite disingenuous indeed.

Mike Thomas
Guest

This is a joke, right?

Duane Anders
Guest

This is a terrible idea!

Bryan
Guest

If UMR does not all “language that demeans or demonizes others” than why on earth did UMR publish this nonsense?

Charles Graff
Guest

“Unambiguously Guilty”, now that is a novel concept! Sounds akin to “Get a Rope”!

Larry Buxton
Guest
I fully understand that people of different perspectives on this have the right to “call ’em as they see ’em.” But when I get no further than the second sentence and read of “radical” clergy promoting “sin blessings,” I immediately hear John’s name-calling and disparagement of those who disagree. I don’t quibble with his right to label the behavior as he sees it, but his language does nothing to promote an open consideration of the issue. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.” He may have good points, but I read no further. This is not helpful.… Read more »
Sherrie Lynn Robertson
Guest
Sherrie Lynn Robertson

Well, suppose you?r point is valid. I don’t, but let’s try it, for the sake of argument. If what you say is so, then why wasn’t Jesus himself married? Or, do you believe he was, as Mormons and other esoteric groups do?

Mike Thomas
Guest

I have a radical idea! How about instead of automatic penalties, we institute automatic grace! Tell me that would not be the more Christian thing to do.
Oh, I know. Who am I kidding? It’s not as if anyone really takes Jesus seriously with all that stuff about forgiveness and turning the other cheek. We as a church especially set the example for the rest of the world by ignoring those teachings and instead being extra hard-ass when it comes to enforcing our BoD because clearly that is the most important thing, right?

Paul W.
Guest

Really? You call for grace to be shown to your side (which I suspect just translates to “shut up and give me what I want” since the BoD wording is already quite gracious), However, I suggest you first take your own advice. Just look back through your many many posts (including this one) which openly mock and falsely disparage those you disagree with. You might be a dedicated activist for your side, but you don’t seem to be big on consistency..

Mike Thomas
Guest
My goodness, Paul W. I guess I really ticked you off. My posts above were admittedly mocking in tone, but you are the one who kicked things off by denouncing all who disagree with your conservative orthodoxy. You claimed that they are the problem with the church today, disparaged their knowledge and understanding of Wesleyan tradition and then suggested that they need to be cleansed through some sort of ideological genocide. What kind of response did you expect? And I don’t think anyone would call me a “dedicated activist” since I only became aware of this issue a few weeks… Read more »
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