Monday, February 18, 2008

An "Anything Goes" Polity

In our recent discussion about Foundry UMC's decision to hold gay weddings, contrary to the Discipline, Jonathan Marlowe commented:

John, I do not agree with what Dean is doing at Foundry, and I think his actions violate the spirit of the Discipline. However, they do not violate the letter of the Discipline. I therefore think your headline, "Foundry UMC Plans Gay Weddings" is misleading. They are not planning weddings. I know that you would say in response, "wink, wink, nudge, nudge, etc..." but I think we ought to take Dean at his word when he says he does not understand these services as weddings.

So chargeable offenses should be left to the deliberate misinterpretation of the individual elder? Let's look at the ramifications of following this approach.

¶ 2702.1b provides that a pastor may be tried when charged with "practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual union; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies...."

Emphasis added. Now, Dean is proposing that what he is doing is not actually in violation of this statute, and Jonathan is proposing that we take him at his word. Let's apply that another chargeable offense, namely ¶ 2702.1a, which forbids "immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage."

Do we really want to leave it up to the individual pastor to interpret how s/he will uphold this standard? If we buy into Dean's argument, than another pastor can just as easily argue "What you saw me doing with the church secretary wasn't adultery because I choose not to define it as adultery."

Do we want that?

Now, Dean and Jonathan were already red-lining my BS detector when Andy Bryan came along and blew the gauge apart (although admittedly, it was quite worn-out by this point). Thanks a lot, Andy. I had plans for this afternoon, but now I have to drive into Gainesville and find a replacement. Andy writes:

Can this story really be contrary to a Book of Discipline that allows for the "testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective" (para. 104)? Isn't that what's happening here?

In the context of ¶ 104, um, no. If this were true, it would not be improper for a UMC pastor to set up idols to Baal in his/her sanctuary and start cultic prostitution in the fellowship hall -- all in the interest of "testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective."

Come on, guys. You know better than this. I can respect honest disagreement about theology and ethics. But I can't respect conscious, deliberate falsification of the Discipline.

And we certainly can't function as a community of faith if everyone can make up their own rules as they go along.

Do you disagree? Please state specifically how Dean's argument can be true but the hypothetical adulterous pastor's argument cannot be true.

Also: John Battern shares his thoughts.


Michael said...

I cannot argue in Dean's favor. There is nothing but a word-play going on, and it does not pass the smell test.

Gord said...

Yes, given that it would seem that Foundry UMC is in contravention of the DIscipline. But since I (were I UMC) would support an annual attempt to erase the emphasized words of that section from the Discipline as being incompatible with Christian teaching I would support any move of civil disobeience working against it.

However, history shows us that acts of civil disobeience come with a price.

John Wilks said...

The notion of Civil Disobedience assumes an all powerful governing body which has cut off victims from any other means of making change. In the UMC, Elders and laity who agree with Dean have the exact same powers as Elders and laity who disagree. It is absurd to claim civil disobedience given our polity.

Even if that weren't the case, Dean has played a nice game of CYA where as Ghandi and King risked life and liberty. The very nature of his maneuvering demonstrates that Dean has institutional power and agency here which negates the claim of civil disobedience. If he was powerless to do anything other than what he is doing, then why play word games? What would he have to lose?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Here we go again! Another four years and more of the same. Bishop Willimon has said that we should quit talking so much about sex in our denomination, but since both sides believe our stance on homosexuality is crucial, the discussion will simply not go away.

Again, I say that anyone who thinks that somehow we will resolve this and our beloved UMC will remain unified, where all of those going on to perfection, no matter what their views on homosexuality, will all join hands around the big United Methodist campfire and sing 45 verses of "Kum-Ba-Yah," is living with Alice in Wonderland, or has taken a trip with Dorothy and Toto down the Yellow Brick Road.

At some point, our denomination will split over this issue, whether we like it or not, or there will be a mass exodus, whether we like it or not, or we will continue to find ways to play the Pharisees when it comes to the Book of Discipline by straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. In so doing we will continue to undermine our church as a true ecclesia.

I think "GC" should no longer refer to "General Conference." Instead let it stand for the "Genitalia Convention."

John Wilks said...

Looking at the numbers over the last 40 years, I would say there already has been a mass exodus out of our denomination.

Allan R. Bevere said...


A good point; it will unfortunately get worse.

Michael said...

How bad would a split be? We cannot call ourselves "united" if we in fact are not. It reminds me of a conflict I had some time back with a young man who believed that rock and roll in church was THE answer (I had pointed out that the rather aged members of our congregation were somewhat blown away and some actually got up and left). His insinuation was that since I (and they) disagreed with him, we were not "united" and would never be until "we" came around to his more "progressive" understanding of "unity". Indeed.

The point is, of course, that we are never going to be able to come together on this particular issue without compromising some core principles and since this issue is NOT going to go away, why not call it what it is? There will always be conflict as long as the UMC insists that practicing homosexuals cannot be married or ordained in the UMC.

Let's stop pretending that we can ignore this and have "holy conferencing". I don't think it will mean that many will stop being Christians though they may stop being Methodists.

And we wonder why people are leaving.

Jonathan said...

John, the Discipline contains a loophole that Dean is currently exploiting. In a few months, General Conference will close the loophole.

I don't think anyone should be able to make up an arbitrary definition of "wedding," but almost any definition of wedding I have ever heard includes the exchange of vows. Since the service Dean envisions does not include the exchange of vows, I would not call it a wedding. That's why I think your previous headline was misleading.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I agree. The GC will close the loopholes, but more will be found. That's what lawyers/Pharisees do.

decaf owl said...

First, it is clear that there is an intent to disobey the spirit of the discipline.

However, the Pastoral Letter setting up the "worship services which recognize and honor committed relationships of lesbian and gay members and constituents" sets them up as follows:

2. Couples will make their commitment and vows to each other in a setting other than the service. Ceremonies in which these commitments and vows are made “shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” Such a ceremony may be a personal gathering in which the pastor is present but does not conduct the ceremony; it may be a ceremony conducted by a lay person within the congregation trained and authorized to do so; it may be a wedding or civil ceremony in a jurisdiction in which such ceremonies are legal; or it may be any other ceremony which does not violate Para 341.6 of the Book ofDiscipline. [emphasis added]

Note that the ceremony in which the actual commitment and vows are being made "not be[ing] conducted by our ministers and ... not be[ing] conducted in our churches," so there is no violation of the letter of ¶341.6, and, as not being conducted by the minister, there is no violation of the letter of ¶2702.1.

Thus there is a perfectly reasonable reading of the law that these services do not violate the letter of the law, and this reading does not depend on any particularly strained or aberrant reading of the language of the Discipline. The Discipline bans certain types of ceremonies "by our ministers" and "in our churches"; these "services" are quite reasonable seen as not being the banned ceremonies, as they follow the wedding-like ceremony in which the commitment and vows are being made, and, if the situation arises, occur after the ceremony that makes the civil union/marriage legal. It is thus analogous to a couple getting married by a Justice of the Peace and then coming to the Church for a "we just got married" service.

I for one can see no "conscious, deliberate falsification of the Discipline" by those who take this reasonable reading of the plain language of the Discipline, and at am somewhat of a loss to see how you can.

bob said...

Reading the comments I'm blown away by some of the convoluted logic. To say that a ceremony performed at a seperate location and then recognized and affirmed in the church, is different then a service wholey performed in the church surely is a stretch.

The spirit of the Discipline makes it clear that the church wants no part in condoning homosexuality. How is recognizing and honoring anything less then condoning an act prohibited by the Discipline.

Scripture and our interpretation of it are there to help lay a moral framework for society. if our church leaders can't follow rules set-up to maintain this moral authority what credence does it leave our church.

John Wilks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Wilks said...

Actually, paragraph 2702.1b forbids "ceremonies which celebrate homosexual union." There is no distinction between a "wedding" or other ceremony with vows or a second ceremony without vows.

cometothewaters said...

Does anyone ever get charged under 2702.3?

If my daughter does not believe in the biological inheritence theory of original sin as outlined in our official doctrine, should I report her to the bishop if she shares that view at youth group.

That is, after all, disseminating doctrine at odds with official UMC standards.

We must have law in our polity.

Michael said...

Or those who work in a liquor store or work in booze distribution warehouses? Or those who frequent the race tracks or buy lottery tickets or go to casino's?

I still think we get sideways on the whole discussion about homosexuality, and I freely admit that I'm one of the guilty ones. This single issue is but a symptom of a greater problem, isn't it? We who call it "sin" tend to refer to it as the mother of all sins, but there is something much more sinister.

The Discipline has a decent course of action that is settled by popular vote at GC. Homosexuality is, in my humble opinion, a sinful act yet by our UMC standards, it can be voted to be righteous by popular vote. That's why the issue continues to be raised, and it is why so many of us are willing to continue to argue the point.

It is the same circular argument that the Anglicans have with the Episcopalians. Calmer heads on that side, I think, have surrendered to the idea that a split is the only way to go. Fighting is not gaining anything. Too many hairs to split such as this ridiculous play on words at Foundry.

John Wilks said...


If your daughter is an Elder, then yes- you should report her.

If not- then no. Lay member vows are different than Elder vows.

psychodougie said...

anyone been re-reading Bill Clinton's trial records?

i seem to remember him having a similar problem with definitions...

cometothewaters said...

If your daughter is an Elder, then yes- you should report her.

If not- then no. Lay member vows are different than Elder vows.

The Book of Discipline in 2702.3 outlines chargeable offenses against professing members. It includes disseminating beliefs at odds with UM doctrine.

If we are going to use the Discipline as a legal cudgel, then why only swing it at one group of people? If the law is so important to the sanctity of the UM church, if violations of it are tantamount to letting "anything go," then why the hesitancy to use the provisions in it to start bringing charges against our lay members who violate the law of the church?

John likes to ask for consistency. Well, if we are going to insiste on rigorous consistency, let's not be shy about it.

Anonymous said...

OK- let's have it your way. Let's print the Discipine on quilted 2-Ply and put it on a roll since it would be more useful in that format.

truevyne said...

Methinks you paint the dragon red for us.

John Wilks said...

To the whole daughter scenario, simple disagreement is different than actively seeking to subvert the teaching. Secondly- clergy are not just "some group." Elders are charged to oversee the teaching and preaching of our doctrines in the church. The nature of the pastoral office brings with it higher scrutiny and a deeper responsibility. After all, if one dissenter in a Sunday School rooms says something, that has some impact. But if the pastor allows a teacher to teach an un-Methodist doctrine or if the pastor themselves teaches and preaches that doctrine, the impact is far more damaging. Or in other words, 'to whom much is given, much is required.'

cometothewaters said...

The Rev. Snyder is not undermining doctrine.

The Social Principles are "a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive and persuasive" but are not church law.

If teaching or preaching against the Social Principles is a chargeable offense, then we need to start rounding up all the pastors who support the prohibition of abortion.

The administrative rules are administrative rules - again, not doctrine.

He may be using the letter of the law to avoid breaking an administrative rule of the church, but that is not the same as preaching and teaching against doctrine.

John said...

The administrative rules are administrative rules - again, not doctrine.

They are a covenantal oath before God that pastors take upon ordination.

Is that a small thing, in your opinion?

John said...

TrueVyne wrote:

Methinks you paint the dragon red for us.

I'm sorry, but you've lost me. Is this a literary reference that has gone over my head?

truevyne said...

Sorry, John. That dragon saying must be a colloquilism or something. It just means you make the truth obvious to me.

John said...

Thanks for the clarification, TrueVyne. I like that colloquialism.

Anonymous said...

I attend Foundry, and despite your argument for the propriety of your headline, it is ridiculously misleading and inappropriate. These services are NOT weddings, are NOT celebrated by clergy, and very clearly do not violate the discipline. For you to post headlines about "gay marriage" at Foundry shows you to be not interested in really getting to the heart of the matter.