Congregation of Cowards
I can't say I'm surprised. I can't even say I'm disappointed. It's just United Methodists doing what they do best: hiding behind rules they claim to oppose.
It's hardly the trial of the century. These church trials have been going on for decades, and not just within United Methodism. All but one of the mainline denominations have a miserable history on this issue, trying clergy who, acting in the interests of compassion, celebrate marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples. It doesn't matter where they're located: pastors have been tried in both the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast, regions in which a sizable majority of both clergy and laity oppose the restrictions on both ordination and marriage of sexual minority church members. Rev. Schaefer, the most recent victim of this modern dogma, was tried in Pennsylvania for performing his son's wedding.
What astounds me is how blind the conservative elements who control the majority vote at General Conference, the only body within the UMC with the power to change the Discipline, are to historical precedent. In the first half of the 19th century, American Methodism endured two schisms. One was primarily over the power of bishops, as Methodist Protestants believed that lifetime appointments to the episcopacy were a recipe for old church corruption. The other was over slavery, as the Methodists of the South insisted on preserving the Peculiar Institution. It took a hundred years to heal those schisms, though the Methodist Protestants essentially gave up all their principles in the merger. The Southern Methodists gave up nothing. Even though you would be hard pressed to find a Southern United Methodist who still believes in the correctness of segregation, let alone slavery, there has never been any kind of corporate admission that that part of the church was on the wrong side of this abomination.
Today, the United Methodist Church in the South is again on the wrong side of a matter of basic human rights. For decades they were able to dominate votes on this issue by virtue of the ongoing concentration of Methodists south of the Mason Dixon Line. In recent years, as those numbers have waned, they have allied with the growing number of Methodists in, of all places, Africa, whence came the slaves those same Southern Methodists divided the church over two centuries ago.
They are abetted in their homophobia by the institution of the lifelong episcopacy. When a church official's power and authority are perpetual, when there is no limit but retirement to the length of his or her term, there is far more to lose in standing against injustice that is enshrined in the church's law book. There are many bishops who pay lip service to their opposition to the homophobic Discipline, but when push comes to shove, when pastoral careers are on the line, the only bishops taking action are those who are retired. Active bishops write pastoral letters, may even preach prophetic sermons, but none of that amounts to a hill of prayer beads next to the simple actions of 1) openly ordaining a gay or lesbian pastor, 2) presiding over a same-gender wedding, or 3) refusing to prosecute a pastor accused of performing such a wedding. Acting in any of these ways would put a bishop at risk of her or his own church trial, which carries with it the potential to be removed from the episcopacy.So far, none of them is willing to take that step. Instead, they cower behind the Discipline, insisting their hands are tied when it comes to doing something concrete in defiance of that book.
And so the front lines of this conflict continue to be littered with the orders of low-level clergy, pastors of local churches, who are the cannon fodder of ecclesial war. Their captains and generals relax comfortably in their plush offices, expressing regret that there is nothing they can do to stop the bleeding, grateful perhaps that pastors are taking the heat so they don't have to.
There was a time when I held bishops in high esteem. There were a few who had genuinely impressed me with their courage, integrity, and compassion. They practiced what they preached. But those days are gone. Increasingly over the years, the episcopacy has been populated by individuals who run for the office like secular politicians and, once elected, even though that election is for life, act in controversial matters as if they were going to have to run for reelection. "There's nothing I can do; the Discipline is clear on this."
The fear of punishment is well-founded: just look at what the church is doing to ministers like Rev. Shaefer. And if his trial seems high profile, imagine how much publicity the trial of a bishop would engender.
And yet, that is exactly what is needed. As Thomas Jefferson said of democracy, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Perhaps Methodism is slowly dying in America because it lacks courageous leadership. There are no bishops with the courage of their convictions willing to sacrifice their office to the greater good, or to actively oppose the tyranny of the African/Southern conservative coalition. Perhaps it is also dying because the incoming generation sees it for what it is: as with slavery, once again on the wrong side of an issue that will define it for decades to come.
Knowing that the voices of evangelical conservatism will be the last to change, I can see no solution but schism. It is time the West and the Northeast followed the example of their 19th century forebears, and left the Southern bigots to their own backward devices. A smaller, principled church in both these regions, a church that really stood for something other than blind adherence to an antiquated code, could go far with the young skeptics who have been avoiding mainline Protestant congregations. Young adults are impressed with flexibility, tolerance, and advocacy. They want church to mean something other than self-preservation. They want church to be an institution that adjusts to the times, rather than forcing the times to adjust to its own antiquated standards.
I hope they're not holding their breath, because the one thing bishops fear more than losing their office is being in charge of some portion of a divided church. I long ago gave up on my hope that Methodism could, someday, embrace true diversity, reflected in the presence of gay persons in the pews, in the pulpit, and at the altar. Leadership will not come from our actual leaders. They're too worried about losing their episcopal offices or, if they're not there yet, their chance at someday occupying those offices. It will continue to come from the lower levels in the hierarchy, the clergy and lay leadership who make things happen at the local level.
And that is where they will continue to happen. Brave pastors will perform same-gender weddings. They may eve be open about what they are doing. From time to time, they'll be held accountable for what they've done with a trial by their peers--who've been instructed to act like a cowardly bishop, enforcing the letter of a law that is an embarrassment, a horrendous indelible stain on a church that, in its beginnings, prided itself on seeking out the poor and needy and ministering to their needs.
When a church responds to a ministry like this by prosecuting it like a crime, it's time to find another church. In my case, that means no church at all: the one congregation where I fit most comfortably no longer exists, creating a justice vacuum within the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. Perhaps I've just outgrown the garments of a denomination that is so deeply rooted in its early adolescence, in insisting on defending rules and practices that are patently discriminatory and reflective of the very worst that Christian identity has to offer.
Thankfully, I have a choice. I no longer have a pastoral office to protect. And I choose, like so many younger than myself, to stay home on Sunday mornings. Let the cowards go on with their hypocritical lip service to principles they don't dare risk a hair on their heads to genuinely advocate. I'll find my spiritual sustenance elsewhere.