Monday, September 26, 2016

Self-avowed, Practicing Nonsense

No attempts at a clever introduction today. Just straight to the point. The United Methodist Church's notion of a "self-avowed, practicing homosexual" is nonsense. I use the word nonsense in its philosophical definition. The phrase that is in our Book of Discipline which many seek to enforce ultimately has no meaning. It is a phrase that cannot be adequately defined. Specifically, it is not possible to label one person a "practicing homosexual" and another person a "nonpracticing homosexual."

1) The current definition of the phrase

We actually have a definition of what "practicing" means. It comes from the Judicial Council fifteen years ago in Decision 920. In that decision "living in a a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman" was deemed sufficient evidence for a review, but only if that person "affirms that she is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender" would the person actually be "self avowed, practicing." In other words, the relationship itself is smoke but "genital sexual activity" is the fire.

Warning - the next section will necessarily be somewhat crass and explicit.

2) The definition applied

Case #1: Decision 920 referred to a real woman who had admitted to a relationship with another woman but had not spoken about their sexual activity. She was ultimately allowed to continue as a pastor because a covenanted relationship is not, by our definition, the same thing as "practicing" homosexuality.

Case #2: This is a hypothetical but possible situation designed to show the absurdity of our current definition. A heterosexual boy is repeatedly sexually abused by his brother. As an adult, the boy becomes a pastor but the sexual abuse continues even after sharing it with his District Superintendent. That clergyman is - please understand that what I am about to say is completely absurd - by our definition a self-avowed practicing homosexual. I know it sounds disgusting. It should. But it meets the criteria. He is self avowed - the clergyman shared the abuse with his District Superintendent. He is practicing - the definition of practicing only requires that the person "is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender."

Clearly in case #1 we are talking about somebody who is gay and in case #2 we are not. We know this already because we know what homosexuality is. But that's not what our definition says. This doesn't necessarily mean that our Book of Discipline is wrong; it does mean our definition is wrong. It does not say what we intend.

3) Another definition

One solution to the problem is to further refine the definition. We could add "consensual" to the genital contact. But, of course there are "consensual" abusive relationships. And adding that word does nothing about case #1. Clearly, what we really intend is to say something about the relationship itself - thus efforts from some like John Lomperis of the Institute for Religion and Democracy to deprive due process to those in such a relationship (I cannot locate the resolution at this moment and will edit with a link when I do locate it.) What would such a definition look like? Here's a stab at it - "Practicing homosexual - a person in a consensual, committed relationship with a person of the same gender." That could do it. It would certainly apply to Case #1 and not Case #2. But what about Case #3?

Case #3: Two women are in seminary together and become incredibly close. They fully live life together. Both identify as heterosexual. For the sake of committing themselves fully to their work as pastors they choose not to marry. Instead, they list each other as beneficiaries, they socialize with each other regularly, and whenever possible to save money they live in the same house. When their appointments are a greater distance apart they maintain a long distance relationship not unlike some married clergy couples. Two heterosexuals who fit our new definition of practicing homosexual.

Or Case #4: Two men who identify as homosexual are married in a civil ceremony. After being married for some time, one hears the call to ministry in the United Methodist Church. But he does not intend to leave his marriage. Not wanting to hold anything back, he openly acknowledges his marriage. He also shares that like an estimated 15-20% of marriages, he and his spouse are completely celibate. By our current definition this would not count but with the new definition I think it would qualify as practicing. But then so would Case #4a.

Case #4a: The same two men as in case #4 choose not to marry but are sexual active. The same person hears the call to ordained ministry and at the same time is convicted that being sexual active with another man is sinful. At the same time, after spending years as an unmarried couple, he remains committed to his longtime partner - in a celibate, unmarried, but committed relationship. This would also qualify as practicing, even though many evangelicals would affirm the man for choosing to remain celibate. Then there's the very awkward case #4b:

Case #4b: The same scenario as #4a except that the new pastor wants to push the boundaries some and so asks his District Superintendent "how far is too far?" Does kissing count as genital contact? You can imagine a whole series of additional questions to make the full point.

4) What It All Means

The point of this exercise in cases and definitions is to show that there is no definition of "self avowed practicing homosexual" that adequately allows ordination for some and not for others. Perhaps this is why we have been changing our language every four years since 1972. We will never find the right language. It doesn't exist. Because there is only one sufficient way to define a "practicing homosexual."

Practicing homosexual - a person who is currently [i.e. practicing] sexually attracted to people of the same sex[i.e. homosexual]

The fact is the only gay person that we want as a pastor is the gay person who doesn't act gay. Whatever that means...

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Oops. He Did it Again

John Lomperis of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) just wrote a piece on legislation passed in July by the South Central Jurisdiction of the UMC. The first several paragraphs are largely an accurate and fair representation of what happened. Then Lomperis inexplicably went on to attack me and an alternative resolution that I proposed along with Andrew Ponder Williams. Since Lomperis recently called me out for asserting that IRD and other right wing leaders intentionally distort the truth without my citing of specific examples of the practice, I am pleased that I've been given the perfect opportunity to demonstrate exactly how they do it.

Let's go line by line in his attack.

"I have never met the Rev. Livingston, but know of him primarily through his expressing his commitment to “unity in diversity” and “improving relationships” in such ways as defending a clergywoman recklessly breaking the covenant that serves as our basis of unity..."  When I was asked by Rev. Meyer to serve in the role of advocate as defined by the Book of Discipline I did so. She has that right, as guaranteed by our Constitution. As someone who seeks to uphold the Book of Discipline, I'm not sure why this would bother Lomperis.

"...(even to the point of snark-tweeting his own bishop)..." He may be right. I'm not on twitter enough to know what qualifies as snark-tweeting. But what I can tell you is that I have had many conversations with Bishop Jones and I'm confident that he would not be surprised at the content of any of my tweets or other social media. I follow the protocol of assuming anyone could see anything I put out there.

"...and for offering such pastoral love and grace as broadly accusing folk in the evangelical renewal movement of “constant lies and intentional deception.”  and this is where he really does it. Please follow the link he gives. Lomperis apparently intends to make this my own "bucket of deplorables" kind of comment by going back to this twitter conversation from three years ago. Please note that I am specifically making reference to Lomperis himself. In fact, in all my writing about the right wing of the UMC, my concern is not with the "rank and file," it's with the leadership of the renewal groups like IRD. I have many relationships and ongoing conversations with those who are theologically much more conservative than I am. In private conversations some of them have expressed the same frustration. In fact, my first experience with this was in 1999 when I serve on GBCS and first proposed a resolution to General Conference seeking a middle ground on homosexuality. Mark Tooley, who at that time held the position Lomperis holds today, promptly found the one line in everything I said that could be construed as controversial and published that comment alone. Here's what Tooley doesn't know: I was with him at the time - I only wanted space for others in the denomination who disagreed with us. As a seminary student I was even branded by some as "ultra-conservative." While that was never a label I would claim for myself, I don't think any of my seminary classmates would dispute that I was among the most conservative in our class. It was Tooley's casual relationship with the truth that started my movement towards the middle. Lomperis is simply continuing that tradition. It is a demonstration of the worst of church politics. It is wrong. And, to be clear, it has nothing to do with 99% of theological conservatives. It has to do with some of the mouthpieces for that view.

To Continue, "On his blog, Livingston explicitly described this second motion as “an alternative resolution” that he and others submitted in intentional response to Gilt’s, since “upholding the Book of Discipline has become code language for what those on the left see as prosecuting (persecuting?) LGBT pastors...” Lomperis says all of this as if it's not really true. Of course it was an alternative resolution, and of course "upholding the Book of Discipline" is code language. Look no further than...Lomperis for that. It is, in fact, the language of upholding the Book of Discipline that Lomperis appreciates about the resolution that passed. He says this multiple times in the very same post, just three paragraphs before taking me on. Lomperis criticizes me for saying precisely the same thing as him.

"...and according to Livingston, the simple fact that the first resolution’s author was from Texas, which has a “well known conservative bent,” is “[p]articularly” sufficient basis to judge the resolution as “seem[ing] divisive rather than uniting.”  This is a significant mischaracterization. What I said is that the first resolution came from the Texas Conference. If you're not familiar with UMC polity, that is one of five conferences in Texas. It is widely known that the Texas Conference delegation is almost entirely traditionalist. Saying that is no more controversial than Lomperis saying the Western Jurisdiction is liberal - which he does and I do not dispute. It is almost indisputable that multiple resolutions have come out of the Texas Conference that seem divisive. I can't speak to their intent, but I can speak to the perception.  And this is not a perception that Lomperis is unfamiliar with.

The final irony

Lomperis' post finishes by affirming the compromise resolution that we reached and which I celebrated as a victory for the centrists in the denomination. But he claims it was a win for the traditionalists. Here's what really happened. The author of the Texas petition, Rev. Kip Gilts, met with Andrew Ponders Williams (I was unavailable to meet with them due to a committee responsibility). They shared their concerns with each other. They came to a mutual agreement about a good path forward that alleviated our concerns without compromising the integrity of Rev. Gilts original petition. I spoke with Rev. Gilts later (but before the vote) and we both expressed gratitude that we could actually agree on a petition even though we have very different views on human sexuality. Andrew and I got what we wanted. Rev. Gilts got what he wanted. That's called a win-win. That actually is a kind of unity in diversity, that many of us on the left and right hope for. Lomperis can't make it otherwise no matter how he tries to re-frame the truth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Watch Out for the WCA Pt.3

As I start this final post on the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), I want to remind the reader that there should be no animosity towards a group like this simply because they are preparing for the possibility of schism in the United Methodist Church. That is a smart and reasonable thing to do. The problem with the WCA is the apparent theology including, as we've seen so far, a disregard for LGBT individuals and a poor treatment of the Bible. Today we're going to do a little conjecture about what a WCA church may look like. As a way of introducing that topic...

Where Are the Women!?!?

If you've seen the recent articles and videos advertising the WCA's upcoming gathering in Chicago you may have noticed the prominence of women  in the movement. Don't believe it. Instead, go back to the founding document. The original June 30 "Open Letter to the People of The United Methodist Church" has 55 signatories. Of those, only seven are women. Two of those women are married to men who also signed the document. You should know I have a bias in this area. I don't like quotas. Quotas too often result in somebody being labeled the "token ________" instead of being acknowledged as the right person for the right job. So even though the majority of United Methodists are women I could tolerate having fewer than 27 of the signers as women. As the signers are probably leaders in the denomination, a better reflection could be the demographics of General Conference (36% female). So it would be OK if only one third, 19 of the signers were women. Since most of the signers are clergy and only 27% of our clergy are women, maybe it would even be OK if 15 signers were women. But it wasn't 27, or 19, or even 15. It was 7. Less than 13%. This will become even more significant in a moment.

The Sky Is Falling!

One of the most prominent predictions that I hear for our church is that we will become like the Episcopal Church. The story goes like this: The Episcopal Church's acceptance of homosexuality progressed until finally the conservatives couldn't take it any more. The election of Gene Robinson as bishop (see Karen Oliveto) was the final straw. The Church could not take the strain any longer and broke apart. Since then, the liberal Episcopal Church has continued to slide into irrelevancy and reduced participation while the breakaway conservative churches have begun to prosper. If the UMC accepts homosexuality we will follow the same pattern, with a conservative group breaking away and prospering while the denomination itself declines into nothingness.

For the sake of argument, let's say the comparison holds. Let's say that the Episocopal and United Methodist churches are similar enough that this comparison is accurate. Let's say that the Bishops' Commission reports back to a special General Conference in 2018 with a plan that would largely hold the denomination together through a plan that a large majority can agree to but that a remnant on the right cannot agree to. The group on the right splits off and forms a new church. We already know who that group would be in the UMC - it's the group we're talking about in these posts. Who is that group in the Episcopal Church?

I'm glad you asked! In 2009, after several Episcopal churches had already left the denomination, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) formed. It now consists of nearly 1,000 churches. At least a handful of disgruntled United Methodists have already found their way to the ACNA. To their credit, the WCA has jumped ahead of the ACNA in their planning. Why wait for churches to leave the denomination in mass before forming a group that they can join instead? If the Episcopal Church and the UMC are similar enough that the comparison used by the conservatives holds then the WCA must be the UMC equivalence of the ACNA. So let's look briefly at some of that denomination's beliefs.

Who Is the ACNA?*

1. Some of us have asked why conservatives are not consistent with banning divorced pastors as well as LGBT pastors since the Bible seems clear about that. The ACNA would agree. A pastor who divorces and then wants to remarry must receive approval from the archbishop. For comparison, if we had a president of the Council of Bishops in the UMC, that would be similar to the ACNA's archbishop. Please note that the Liberia Annual Conference of the UMC has decided that a divorced pastor is not eligible to be elected bishop. The social norms and standards are different in the US and much of Africa. It may also be significant to note that the WCA's statements of belief are silent on divorce.

2. It's not just about pastors, though. If an ACNA member who is divorced wants to remarry, the pastor must get permission from the bishop (not archbishop) to perform that wedding. Some of us would like the discretion to marry a same sex couple. in the ACNA a pastor doesn't even have sole discretion to marry a divorced couple.

3. Now back to the women. The ACNA has the same issue with women as pastors that I WISH we had with people who are LGBT. Namely, every diocese (read Annual Conference) can choose whether or not to ordain women. Some will say that the WCA/ACNA comparison breaks down right here. After all, the WCA has a statement on equality that includes women. I would say actions speak louder. Having only seven women sign the original document speaks loudly. The failure of the South Central Jurisdiciton to elect a woman not only in 2016 but in three of the last four quadrenia (yes, that's one female bishop elected in the 21st century) speaks loudly. In the Central Conferences, only 15% of clergy elected to the 2016 General Conference were women and only 10% of active bishops are women (one in African and one in Europe.) Representation speaks loudly. Finally, there's a conversation I had with a prominent lay person in one of our South Central Jurisdiction Conferences at General Conference. Almost in passing, this lay person told me "90% of our church won't take a woman as a pastor." Are you serious? I assume that this was an exaggeration, but even if it was the fact that a statement like this could be made at all in 2016 is absolutely absurd. One does not need to be much of a skeptic to doubt the words of an equality statement when the evidence is so clear that there will not be equal treatment.

4. Finally, and perhaps most disturbing, in the ACNA the bishop has the authority to determine which versions of the Bible can be used in a local church. I usually read from the CEB in worship. Over the course of any given year one will probably also hear the NRSV, NIV, and Message used. In the ACNA you may have a bishop who just doesn't like one or more of those versions and won't let you use it. It seems unlikely that even the WCA would go this far, but I will note that their original statement on the Bible (which you can find in my second post) is more conservative than the ACNA's statement. I will also remind you that the real argument about Scripture that we are having in the UMC is not whether Scripture is authoritative but how Scripture is authoritative. There is no better way to win that debate than to control which Bible is used on Sunday mornings.

*all statements about ANCA practice and belief come from their website, mostly from documents in their governance section

Putting It All Together

I believe that as United Methodists we are better together. I believe we serve God more faithfully be staying together. I will be one of those who works towards a solution that holds us together. But if we cannot stay together, I will not be with the WCA. And it really has very little to do with whether or not my LGBT colleagues can be pastors or my LGBT parishioners can be married. Yes, those are concerns. But there are deeper issues. The original statement from the WCA on the Bible undoubtedly points closer to their beliefs than the almost meaningless statement that has been written since then. The refusal to note the equality even of celibate LGBT members, reflected both in the WCA statement and in my experience at General Conference, is repugnant. Finally, using the same analogy that so often is used to cast doubt on the "liberal" side of the UMC, the "conservative" WCA becomes a potentially dangerous group that could directly hinder any pastor who is divorced or who is female.

This is not the United Methodist Church, and it must be rejected.