United Methodists stand at a ‘tipping point’ — once again

Yes, it’s time to head into yet another oldline Protestant summer of sex.

This leads to a painful, and very old, oldline Protestant question. Here it is: Just how long have United Methodists been debating whether (a) local bishops have the right to ignore passages in the denomination’s Book of Discipline linked to homosexuality and (b) this means that it is inevitable that schism will result?

At this point, the evangelical (and international) wing of the denomination is openly discussing this equation, which led to a Religion News Service feature on the subject by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey. After months of mainstream news coverage of the actions on the doctrinal and cultural left, her piece focuses on the painful discussions now being held on the other side of the denominational aisle.

Here is the section of the piece — the background, context material — that caught my eye:

Amidst a wave of open defiance over rules that prevent pastors from presiding at same-sex marriages, and a host of high-profile church trials that have largely upheld church policy, some UMC pastors say the 11.8 million-member church has reached an impasse. Many feel that the sexuality debates simply touch on larger issues of how Methodists understand Scripture and how leaders uphold church teaching.

Frank Schaefer, a former Pennsylvania pastor, was found guilty of violating church law when he officiated at his son’s 2007 wedding, though his appeal will be heard on June 20. Schaefer was told he could keep his clergy credentials if he recanted his support of gay marriage, but refused.

And here is the crucial statement that grew out of that:

The tipping point for many conservatives came, however, after Bishop Martin D. McLee of New York announced in March he would drop a case against a retired seminary dean who officiated at his gay son’s 2012 wedding and called for an end to church trials for clergy who violate the denomination’s law on ministering to gays.

The pastors saw McLee’s move as failing to uphold agreed-upon church teaching. He should have gone through proper means of changing the church’s stance on sexuality, they say, rather than declining to uphold the church’s Book of Discipline, or constitution.

The key words, of course, are “tipping point.”

In other words, the alleged point of no return was McLee’s failure to enforce the teachings that he, as a bishop, is supposedly committed to enforcing — even more than one clergyperson’s actions in violation of the Book of Discipline. Bishops are supposed to be the doctrinal backstops, the defenders of the faith. It’s right there in their vows, to one degree or another in the various churches that claim to have bishops.

I do not doubt that Bailey is quoting her sources accurately. I also do not doubt that it is possible that McLee has created a “tipping point” for this long divided denomination. However, I do think it’s crucial to note that this is merely the latest in a long, long, long series of alleged “tipping points” for this Protestant body. Is this the one that cracks through the denominational inertia? Do the lessons of the past matter?

You see at some point it’s harder to break up property laws and pension plans than it is to edit centuries of Christian doctrine, including — some would stress — the 10 Commandments. After all, the folks in the ruling-class middle-left will say:

“The UMC is a pluralistic church with radically different points of views,” said William Abraham, a professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University. “It shows how you can live with differences until it begins to bite into the practices of the local church.”

So is this the real cracking point?

I know that all reporters have only so many words they can put into a wire-service report. Also, it’s important to note that this warfare started, oh, about the time that people like Bailey were born. Is it possible to expect young reporters to know names like “Julian Rush” and “Bishop Roy Sano”?

In this case, I think it matters. Why? Because Bishop Sano, and others, had already demonstrated — in the mid-1980s — that UMC bishops could refuse to enforce the letter of the church law and little or nothing would be done. Let’s take a flashback to 1985:

Church charges have been filed against an avowed homosexual United Methodist minister reappointed earlier this month as a part-time pastor in Denver, church officials say. The charges claim Rev. Julian Rush`s homosexual lifestyle violates church rules approved by the the 1984 General Conference of the nation`s second-largest Protestant denomination.

The charges against Rev. Rush, along with the decision by a New York City Methodist congregation to allow its space to be used as a high school for homosexual youths, threaten once again to embroil the 9.4 million-member church in a bitter debate over the issue of homosexuality–an issue many thought was resolved last year at the General Conference, the church`s highest decision-making legislative body.

And:

Under church procedures, Rev. Rush ultimately could face a church trial and be dismissed from the ministry. … Rush was reappointed June 12 to the 87-member congregation of Denver`s St. Paul`s United Methodist Church by Bishop Roy Sano, an advocate of homosexual rights.

Rev. Rush, believed to be the denomination`s only avowed homosexual, was appointed to St. Paul`s Church in 1981 by Melvin Wheatley, who then was bishop. Bishop Wheatley underwent a national-level church investigation after being charged with defying church law in making the appointment. He was absolved of the charge.

How did Sano create an escape plan for Rush and for himself? I covered that battle back in Denver days and it was actually quite simple. The Disciple forbad the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” to the ministry and, every time Rush took the stand in a church proceeding he simply declined to answer personal questions. Thus, he was not self-avowed, no matter what he said or did in other settings.

Now, the battle over same-sex marriage rites has simply pulled the words of the Discipline out into public view. Where Rush and others — for decades — performing same-sex union rites of various kinds? Of course, and many — like Rush — were candid enough to talk about it. The bishops?

For many United Methodists, that case long ago was a tipping point. For others, not so much. There have been other such cases. This has been a long battle of attrition.

Will this latest tipping point be the tipping point? For some, maybe. For others, almost certainly no. It’s hard to crack the human concrete mixed in with those pensions, property laws, principalities and powers.

So, young reporters out there: Keep updating your file folders. And try to add one or two sentences of additional background material to your stories. Prepare for a future that will contain many more oldline Protestant summers of sex.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Steve

    A fuller article would not only have brought up previous conflicts but discussed WHY this time may be different: the Internet. The ordained ministry has become very reliant on this medium for a variety of reasons, and communication of church-wide issues is now in their face daily, rather than weekly over a cup of coffee or whispered at semi-annual retreats. And while it is still likely that most lay members still never hear of the internecine struggles in their denominations, the percentage that has and has formed an opinion on where their church is heading is likely to have increased substantially in the past 30 or so years. Perhaps that is the “tipping point.”


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