Note: The opinions presented herewith are mine alone. For those who know (or will search out online) my own church affiliation, I am in no way speaking for my congregation, my pastor, or any other official church body. I’m just one guy who’s frustrated with the United Methodist Church’s refusal to enter the 21st Century.
At its recent quadrennial General Conference (GC2012), the worldwide United Methodist Church (UMC) once again reaffirmed language in its official Book of Discipline that discriminates against LGBTQ persons. Specifically, the Discipline states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that UMC ministers are strictly prohibited from performing same-sex marriages or similar civil union rites. A majority of Conference delegates even rejected compromise language noting the differing opinions on this topic, admittedly refusing to “agree to disagree.”
Many UMC members believe that the official doctrine of the church is, as one blogger put it, “wrong, stupid, and evil.” Various liberal/progressive church members (and GC2012 delegates) have offered responses to the UMC’s ongoing discriminatory policies and theology. One of the most notable statements came from retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, speaking at a Common Witness gathering during GC2012. Bishop Talbert, referring to the UMC policy prohibiting same-sex marriage rites, said, “I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust, and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience” (emphasis added).
(I’m herewith providing a link to his address, which begins about halfway through this video, but I’ll warn you that the production quality is very mediocre which makes it difficult to watch – I mostly wanted to document that I’m not misquoting the Bishop.)
What Bishop Talbert is calling on UMC ministers to do is to disobey the Discipline, which they have sworn to uphold, and to begin offering marriage rites to all couples regardless of sexual orientation. Some ministers have done this in the past, and they have been put on trial by the denomination for their actions. (No, church trials didn’t die out with the Inquisition.) Some clergy lost their credentials for their actions, while others received lesser punishments.
Such a stance of “civil disobedience,” or as Bishop Talbert called it, “Biblical obedience,” would be even riskier for certain UMC clergy post-GC2012. That’s because another action of the Conference was to remove the denomination’s provision of guaranteed appointment, whereby once one is ordained as an elder in the UMC, the denomination guarantees that elder a job in the church until they retire (assuming they don’t lose their credentials via an aforementioned church trial, e.g.). Now, however, a supervising Bishop wouldn’t necessarily have to put a disobedient minister on trial; rather, the Bishop could simply say, “We decided your congregation needed a new minister this year, and oh, sorry, we just don’t happen to have another place to put you. Good luck with that second career at Starbucks.”
It’s obvious that any efforts at mass Disciplinary disobedience would require shrewd strategy. But that’s certainly in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, to quote one of my favorite verses of Scripture, Matthew 10:16: “Be as wise/shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” There is a wide difference of opinion among currently presiding Bishops, which roughly correlates with various regions of the country. Suffice it to say, if you’re a UMC minister in a Jurisdiction that starts with the letters S-O-U-T-H, you’d probably be taking on more of a risk by performing a same-sex marriage than would your colleagues in other parts of the United States. Unless you have a spouse with a particularly good source of income, or you’re content to exist on a barista’s wages, you are justified in treading lightly.
However, if you’re in a Conference or Jurisdiction with a friendlier hierarchy, you might want to consider taking up Bishop Talbert’s call for mass disobedience. If you happen to live in one of the regions where same-sex marriage is already legal, those being Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, plus Washington, D.C., I think you’d have an even more defensible position.
The main strategy, as I see it, is to gather a critical mass of UMC clergy who are willing to defy the Discipline in pursuit of a higher calling. It’s relatively easier, both logistically and morally, for the church to put one or two individuals on trial. It would be nearly impossible for the church to charge dozens, or hundreds, or a thousand of its own clergy with offenses justifying the removal of their ordination.
I know that I’m writing from a very safe place – although I am in one of those aforementioned South- Jurisdictions, I’m just a layperson. My livelihood is not in any way threatened by writing these words or by calling for these actions. I suppose someone could decide to bring me up on charges of being a disobedient Methodist and get me kicked out of the church, but somehow I think the powers-that-be have bigger fish to fry.
But this, as I see it, is the call before us. It’s a call to act in defiance of the misguided and outdated theology of hatred and exclusion, and a call to live into the truth and love of the Good News of Jesus. As society continues to evolve and become more enlightened, with even the President of the United States finally endorsing same-sex marriage, the UMC can either get on board with this movement toward equal rights or it can relegate itself to historical irrelevancy.
In closing, here are two more quotes to ponder, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.