Presbyterians Try a Gay Man

Years ago, I was sitting on an airplane, reading the USA Today that had been dropped at my hotel room door that morning.  In a little snippet, I read that a lesbian pastor had been called before a grand jury of the United Methodist Church.  What shocked me was not that there was a lesbian pastor in the UMC.  What shocked me was that the UMC had a grand jury.

Yesterday, just a few miles from my house, the Presbyterians (USA) did something similar.  It’s convoluted, so try to bear with me.  It seems that a Presbyterian clergyman, Erwin Barron, was put on trial at a church in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Erwin Barron (photo by Jeff Wheeler, StarTribune)

Barron does not live in Minnesota.  He was a pastor at a church in Minneapolis in the 1990s.  At the time, it seems from the article in the StarTribune, “he was coming to terms with both his sexuality and his future.”  That line, I think, implies that he was not actively gay at the time.

But he left Minnesota, attended graduate school, and married a man in the days before Proposition 8 passed.  Now he’s a college professor.

But, because of the byzantine Presbyterian rules, he’s still accountable to the Presbytery of the Twin Cities, and it was they who put him on trial.  From the Strib:

The unusual hearing, held in a church community room, featured defense and prosecution lawyers who were Presbyterians who volunteered their services. About 25 people attended, most of them Barron supporters from Westminster. The six-person judicial commission — three pastors and three church elders — sat with files and copies of the church constitution at a table facing a witness table and a lectern, where the lawyers argued their case.

There are so many confusions for me in this story, but primary among them are,

  • Why do Minnesota Presbyterians care if a former pastor who is now a college professor got legally married in California?
  • Why does Barron care if Minnesota Presbyterians want to put him on trial?

I suppose that a defrocking of Barron would remove him from the pension program of the PC(USA), so there may be financial interests on both sides.  Or maybe it’s simply a matter of principle.  The article doesn’t make that clear.

The article does, however, note that this is probably not the end of the line for Presbylegal process:

The Rev. Neil Craigan, a White Bear Lake pastor who was on the prosecuting committee, said his group will consider an appeal. The case could rise to the synod level and possibly to the national church for final disposition.

And herein lies the biggest problem for me: How do Methodists and Presbyterians theologically defend systems of justice that seem to reflect not theological categories and patterns, but those of the American legal system?  Why constitutions, by-laws, lawyers, and grand juries?

Who’s got a theological defense of these practices?

  • dopderbeck

    Tony — there is precedent for procedures like this in the Medieval and later canon law which grew out of the canons attached to the documents adopted by the early church councils (e.g. Nicea), which grew out of the system of Bishoprics, which grew out of the very early church organization reflected in Acts and illustrated in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The principle of witness testimony when church disciplinary matters are in dispute is also located, e.g., in Matt. 18:15-18 — a passage set in the broader context of Jesus’ teaching about how the Kingdom should look.

    So the theological basis for what this Presbytery is doing procedurally is richly ecclesiological and soteriological — a particular understanding of how the Kingdom functions in this world through the Church.

    • Tony Jones

      David, thanks for that comment. I do understand the history of such ecclesiastical tribunals. Defending them biblically and theologically is, IMHO, very tenuous. But I appreciate you pointing out the resources.

  • Susan Frederick

    So what has happened is that both Islam and Christianity organized themselves in a way that reflected their view of themselves as a governmental expression of God’s will on earth. Thus, Islamic fundamentalists aspire to a worldwide Caliphate and Christian fundamentalists envision the Millenium, a thousand years of peace with Jesus as planetary King, reigning from Jerusalem. I find these similarities strangely disconcerting.

  • Joshua Dunham


    As David stated, the church justice system (I think even the Presbyterian system does too) actually pre-dates the American justice system. Yes it is antiquated, but it’s a hold-over from when church organizations did not trust that true “justice” would happen in secular systems. Also many of these structures are an attempt to standardize disciplinary practices across the entire denomination. It’s not very Biblical, but it was considered a justice issue at the time. Equality of treatment in disciplinary matters. Though now it’s being perverted and used against it’s original intent of true justice. Like many systems in our world, it needs reform. And like the Presbyterians say (and should be doing), “Once Reformed, always reforming.”

  • JoelR

    I don’t know about the PC(USA), but in the UMC, it’s all about order. There’s a reason why we’re called Methodists (which was a originally prejorative name), we have a “method” for everything. Being founded by tightly wound ball of neuroses like John Wesley, it was pretty much inevitable. Not right, but inevitable.

  • Jay

    Sounds like bull shit to me.

  • http://@samosborn Sam

    The UMC, is a uniquely “American” denomination. Methodism, being a sect within the Church of England, was required to form its own identity and structure as a result if the revolution, which obviously cut the tie. As it’s polity has been formed a refined, it has done so within the context of American society, so it is no wonder that it reflects the American system. As has been stated already, the Church has a long history of adopting and adapting the systems of the culture in which it finds itself operating. I’m not sure I see a problem with this, especially given the fact the Christ and Paul both take and use the word “ekklesia.” While this certainly does not indicate the church OUGHT to adopt the polity of its culture, it certainly shows a history of it doing so from its very beginning. I’m curious to know what the issue is that you are having with the current polity of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

  • http://@samosborn Sam

    Please forgive the grammatical errors in my previous post. My phone’s autocorrect function is sometimes less than helpful.

  • dopderbeck

    I’m not sure why folks are saying Church justice systems aren’t “Biblical.” They certainly are rooted in Biblical principles and precedents, such as those I pointed out (Jesus teaching about witness and Acts 15). And in any event I’m not sure what “Biblical” is supposed to mean short of some kind of narrow Biblicism.

    To me this doesn’t seem tenuous at all – what seems tenuous is not having an organized Church polity with some sort of procedures that ensure fairness. Biblically and historically, the radical Reformation / pietistic / Congregationalist church polity many of us have inherited is the tenuous thing.

    Is it really the fact that there are procedures being invoked that seems troubling, or is it really the substance of the issue — i.e., sexuality?

  • John Vest

    I don’t know if I want to make a defense of it, but the theology behind this system is about order and disciplne. Like other ruled or ordered communities, this system is meant to hold us accountable to each other. In our Book of Order, the section that deals with this is called the “Rules of Discipline.” It’s a different form but I think the same basic theology as monastic orders and rules. It looks and feels like a judicial system, but it’s not meant to be. The kind of litigiousness it promotes is part of our wider struggle to reimagine our denominational structures as communities of discernment rather than regulatory bodies.

  • Jay

    At the risk of sounding Methodist (which I am) I have to note that United Methodists actually don’t have grand juries. We have a Committee of Investigation which is charged with investigating complaints about clergy (and theoretically lay folk as well) who fall outside of the rules and doctrines of the church. While this committee functions in some ways as a grand jury, determining if there is enough evidence to go before a court of peers, it also is generally a bit less legal in nature than is presented in the press.

    The ultimate issue here is one of accountability, something that you and I have wrestled with through the years, and something that I think that church planters give lip service to but generally ignore. In a congregational polity, accountability is generally to a small group of community leaders where procedures like investigations and judgments are less fraught with the need for order. In a connectional polity like that of the UMC, clergy accountability isn’t to the congregation but the larger community of colleagues who have taken vows to one another to uphold the order and discipline of the church. The breaking of these vows is, we believe, a serious matter that is not to be easily disregarded as meaningless. As such, we follow a process to attempt to ensure that the rights of the accused are maintained throughout.

    But what about the bible? What about Christ’s teaching to go first to the individual, and then to a smaller group, etc.? In fact, if the process is working as it’s supposed to, and I fully admit that it often doesn’t, that is how things are supposed to work. Press accounts focused on the sensationalism of committees on investigation and church trials fail to note that there are many layers of conversation and dialogue that have happened before things proceed to that level. More often than not these days, church trials are a political act by those who wish to make a point regarding their disagreement with the discernment of the church on a particular doctrine. These trials often represent a prophetic witness by those who believe that the corporate discernment of the larger church is flawed and needs to be challenged. I don’t fault them for that, and in fact respect their actions, but there is an element of prophetic theatre to these events that are more about publicly proclaiming the official teaching of the church as flawed than seeking the truth in regards to maintaining one’s vows to the church.

    Is this influenced by the culture of American jurisprudence? Absolutely, and I would never suggest otherwise. In fact, most of the polity of the United Methodist Church is connected at some levels to the constitutional framework of our nation, which makes sense when we realize that they were being developed about the same time. And yet, the goal of the system is to provide a just and fair system of accountability, a system that wasn’t always apparent in the Anglican communion of their heritage which place ultimate authority in the hands of the Bishop. And if the scriptures are concerned with equity and justice, doesn’t it make sense that trying to develop a just system of accountability would be in the minds of the founders of the Methodist Church?

    The question that I would ask in response to your questions is whether communal accountability is important, and if so, how do we create systems of acceptability that are just?

  • toddh

    I think the arguments of this is “old,” or this is “rich tradition,” or this is “biblical” miss how much this is “American.” Though it might have ancient precedents, I would argue that it likely better accords with current U.S. legal practices than with ancient church practices.

    Also, I think the issue about holding people accountable is an important one, except that it is a lousy way to hold people accountable. Not saying I have all the answers for how that is accomplished in a large denomination, but this bureaucratic/legal stuff just sounds like an ugly mess.

  • Cole J. Banning

    What’s wrong with the American legal system? Why wouldn’t we want liberal democratic values and ideals reflected in our ecclesiology?

  • Kathy

    Believe it or not, this is a procedure which is not meant to be punitive, but was designed originally to be an expression of the community’s love and concern for the individual who has “lost his/her way.” Actions like these should always be attuned to reconciliation and are meant to bring individuals back into full relationship with the rest of the church when they have strayed. Of course, “strayed” needs a boat load of definition, but here referring at least to the Presbyterian Book of Order and to a particular reading of scripture, which of course we don’t all agree on anyway.

    That being said, I think we’ve lost our way. I don’t see these proceedings as being about reconciliation, but rather about making an argument and proving right and wrong, thereby delineating who is “in” and who is “out” (no pun intended). I felt great shame as a minister member of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area when I read this article. Faith, hope and love are being willfully set aside in this proceeding.

    Erwin Barron was always a voice for social justice and mission in this presbytery. How ironic that he now faces these charges. Ironic and Irrelevant – that’s how the PCUSA feels to me right now. Of course, now I’m probably opening myself up to some sort of charges as well :) At least I’ll be in good company.

  • Nixon is Lord

    Why the disproportionate number of gays in the clergy?