Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Response to a Response

We are exactly one year away from General Conference. If you're reading this, you probably know the elephant in the room will be the UMC's position on all the issues surrounding human sexuality. Jeremy Smith gave a nice summary of eight options back in February. To that list we can now add the Connectional Table's proposal (legislation not yet released), which sounds similar to A Way Forward from Hamilton and Slaughter. It's also important to acknowledge that keeping the status quo is also a very possible outcome. A lot can change over the next 12 months, but at this point I'm hearing three possibilities mentioned most often:

1. No change in policy and possibly "mandatory sentences" for offenders. This seems to me the most likely outcome given our history of not accomplishing much.

2. Christopher Ritter's Jurisdictional Solution. There are two different versions of this. Several on the right have either publicly or privately endorsed it. You can read my critique here. Bottom line: I appreciate Christopher's commitment to keeping the denomination together. He and others have put a tremendous amount of work into this. But it feels very much like a separation before the divorce.

3. A Way Forward, recently restated by Adam Hamilton. The more I have thought about Adam's proposal the more similar I think it is to what the Connectional Table reportedly will be releasing and to my own proposed legislation, which the Great Plains Conference will be voting on.

Christopher Ritter has released a new critique of the third option. So I guess this is a critique of a critique. Below I've pulled quotes from his post that I want to specifically address.

"Because of the authority granted to clergy at ordination, it is doubtful that a simple local church wedding policy could prevent a pastor from conducting same-sex weddings at the altar of a church to whom she/he was duly appointed by the bishop."

A Way Forward would make same gender weddings a matter of local church approval. At a surface level, Chris is correct. But let's go a little deeper. A congregation may not approve of two people living together being married in the building. A pastor has the authority to choose to marry those people. A congregation may not approve of a couple with a child born out of wedlock being married. A pastor has the authority to choose whether to marry them. In fact, a pastor currently has the right to marry a couple who are admittedly and unrepentently involved in serial affairs whether the congregation approves or not. Chris says this plan "severely dis-empowers" the laity. This is incorrect. It gives the laity the same rights that they have as it relates to any other wedding, and it gives the pastor the same rights as it relates to any other wedding.

"Hamilton’s plan also fails to touch upon the issue of open itineracy.  If a practicing homosexual is a clergy in good standing, they are entitled to an appointment by the bishop and appoint-able, at least in principle, anywhere in the conference."

We don't have truly open itineracy now. If Adam Hamilton, a member of the Conference I'm in, were to resign today I am under no illusion that I could successfully be appointed to COR. In principle, I could be appointed there. In practice I can't. But that's OK because there are other people who can be. Having "practicing homosexual" clergy (or, more accurately, having lgbt clergy who are able to be open about their sexuality) and having clergy willing to perform same gender marriage will make appointments more difficult. But bishops already have to screen clergy for theological and other issues prior to appointment.

"Pastors that agree with church teaching would like to serve knowing they will be followed by someone who likewise will uphold UM positions."

There are more significant theological issues than this one that my predecessors or successors have disagreed with me about.

"Many of my concerns about “the local option”, however, are centered on concerns of a pastoral nature.  Pastoral relationships are at risk if it is known by a couple that a pastor could perform a ceremony but will not.  Pastors would lose the option of saying, “I am not allowed to do that because of the covenant under which I live, but I would still love to be your pastor.”  When a clergy says “no”, it would seem like personal rejection."

I appreciate this perspective. Interestingly, though, it is in part a pastoral concern that has moved me further to the left on this. I pastor a church where people have left (left the local church, left the denomination, and left Christianity) because I can't perform a wedding. I have to defend why I won't do a wedding right now or leave the denomination so that I can. Let me say it this way. I had an opportunity to perform a same gender wedding and felt compelled to follow the Book of Discipline and say no. If I had yes I probably would have suffered some consequence. But I know that I would have had a sanctuary filled with people, many of whom know only that the church says there is something wrong with them. I would have had an opportunity to be a pastor for an amazing number of people. I, and the church I serve, didn't get that opportunity.

"Imagine the emotion of a couple coming to a church-wide meeting where a group of Christians is voting whether to allow their wedding in the church."

We do this every 4 years at General Conference and it is the lived experience of our lgbt sisters and brothers every day.

"I am concerned that Adam’s plan would be a set of hastily enacted changes that would only serve to destructively take our denominational battles from General Conference to the local and annual conference levels."

Surprisingly, Chris' own proposal would have the same effect. Annual Conferences would have to vote on which Jurisdiction to join and local churches could vote to make a different choice, leaving their current Annual Conference.

"If a conference can vote to allow openly gay pastors, they can vote to disallow this, too.  There might be narrow permissive votes in moderate annual conferences that are later overturned once the controversial decisions are publicized."

True. There is a risk here. I would be willing to take the risk.

"Perhaps Hamilton’s biggest omission is failing to make even passing reference to how these changes might affect our growing central conferences internationally.  His proposals would be in effect globally."

Not true. Paragraph 543.7 gives Central Conferences tremendous leeway in adjusting the Book of Discipline "provided that no action shall be taken that is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of the United Methodist Church, and provided that the spirit of connectional relationship is kept between the local and the general church." For example, Liberia recently reaffirmed their commitment to not elect a divorced person as bishop. But the BoD is binding on those of us in the U.S. The reality is central conferences can vote at General Conference to bind the United States conferences to decisions that in many cases the central conferences don't have to follow themselves.

"Before we concede that Hamilton’s solution is simple, we need to see his proposed legislation."

I'm confident his legislation would be similar to mine, which you can see referenced above. It is simple, 6 paragraphs are amended. Adam's proposal may add one paragraph (2533) and remove one (613.9) to my list. Compare that to the Jurisdictional Solution (Three Constitutional Amendments and three other changes, including one full new paragraph). Constitutional Amendments simply won't pass.

Finally, I think there are a couple things that Christopher and I can agree on. As more people agree to these principles I think more progress can be made.

1. Faithfulness can be messy. We're all after a faithful response to where we are as a church. We disagree about what the most faithful response is, but that is what we're aiming for nevertheless. If the solution was clean and simple then we wouldn't have this level of disagreement now. That doesn't mean we should back away from trying to do the right thing, whatever that is.

2. We can disagree agreeably. Christopher has modeled well what dialogue should look like. He has put his ideas forward on a regular basis, invited conversation and critique and (occasionally) changed some of his content to have a better crafted plan. I appreciate that and I think he appreciates the same from Adam and others.

3. General Conference actually can do something constructive. If we're willing to work together and talk together then something positive can come out of our time together in Portland.