Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cheap Courage

You may have heard the term "cheap grace" before. It was coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prophetic German theologian executed by the Nazis just before the end of World War II. Here's a brief definition, from his book The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

I yesterday became aware of a corollary cheapness in the form of a courageous-sounding open letter from a Bishop. The occasion for the letter was the defrocking three days ago of Frank Schaefer, a Pennsylvania United Methodist pastor convicted of performing a same-gender marriage ceremony for his son. The conference board that administered the punishment was acting as required by the Book of Discipline, a set of laws governing United Methodism that are treated as inviolable by church officials, even though they may disagree strongly with those laws.

Within a day of the defrocking, Bishop Minerva Carcano of the California-Pacific Annual Conference had posted an open letter inviting the former Rev. Schaefer to relocate to California, where he would be welcomed with open arms. She wrote that the Discipline was in error, and in need of change. For these words, she has been praised by many United Methodists seeking a voice of courageous leadership.

But here's what she also wrote: the Board of Ordained Ministry that removed Schaefer's orders acted correctly, following the rules that all United Methodists must observe. And she could make no promise that Schaefer would be able to return to ministry in California, since that decision is not hers to make. It rests with the Cal-Pacific Board of Ordained Ministry--which, she had just implied, will also be bound by the same rules that just resulted in his defrocking.

The essence of this "courageous" letter, then, is an invitation for Frank Schaefer to move his family from their long-time home state in which he can no longer be a minister to a new state where he will probably also not be a minister. Oh, and it's such a shame you were punished for performing a marriage ceremony for your own son, and I hope those rules change someday.

You may see by now why I'm having a hard time jumping on the praise bandwagon for this open letter. It costs Bishop Carcano absolutely nothing to post this letter. Any criticism she receives for having voiced her opinions will be drowned out by the chorus of Western Jurisdiction voices praising her for saying what they all believe. This is what's called "preaching to the choir." She has very carefully parsed her language to be sure she is not actually calling for any actions whatsoever that violate the discriminatory rules of the Discipline she claims to oppose, but clearly has no intention of disobeying. You will not find her turning over any tables in Nashville, burning any flags in front of the Good News offices, ordaining any openly gay pastors who have come out to her, or (Asbury forbid!) performing any same-gender marriages. Most importantly, you will not hear her crying out that the decision to defrock Frank Schaefer is null and void because it violates a much higher law than the Discipline, and because of that has no bearing on her decision to offer him something more than an empty invitation to move his family to a place where he knows no one and has no prospects of employment, something with real substance: an appointment to a church and the understanding that, the Discipline be damned, he is still ordained in her eyes and she will defend his right to act in that way until she finds herself defrocked.

What, then, was the point of this open letter? One could argue it was to offer support to Frank Schaefer and his family, but if that was the case, there was no need to post it on the conference web site. The Schaefers could have made it public themselves if they wanted to. No, this is, quite simply, a publicity grab. Bishop Carcano is riding the wave of progressive United Methodist outrage. She's cashing in.

I'm not surprised that she is. Bishops are politicians, and politicians stay in office by exploiting controversies. But courage? Please. This open letter came from a place of utter cowardice.

Courage in this situation demands sacrificial leadership, costly leadership. In this situation, it means putting one's power on the line. Frank Schaefer did that. Out of love for his son and, now, son-in-law, he performed a real wedding for them. Convicted of breaking church rules in the name of love, and given the choice of recanting what he had done by the Board of Ordained Ministry, he refused, and faced the consequences. That, my friends, is courageous leadership.

You won't see many other ministers acting as Frank Schaefer did. You won't see them facing church trials or clogging the agendas of their Boards of Ordained Ministry with disciplinary hearings. There will be a few, and perhaps, in time, the few will become more, but it probably will not be enough to bring about real change. What you will see from the many ordained ministers who support Schaefer's actions is platitudes, prayers for a more inclusive church, petitions to the General Conference that are doomed to failure, much hand-wringing, and an occasional decision to leave Methodism for a more inclusive denomination. But risk losing ordination and guaranteed appointments for life? No, there just aren't enough willing to put those things on the line.

And as for Bishops: Melvin Talbert, the only one yet to act in open disobedience to the Discipline by performing a same-gender wedding is retired. He may yet find himself in Frank Schaefer's shoes, facing a church trial and ultimately losing his title, but it won't cost him a job, a home, a salary (or, in his case, a pension). He'll just have to hand over that pretentious shepherd's crook United Methodist Bishops have taken to carrying in church processions.

As for the rest of them: I would love to have a bishop, any bishop, doing something genuinely courageous. But I'm not holding my breath.


  1. I understand your concern; however, it can and will cost Minerva Carcaño dearly. As an outspoken critic of U. S. Immigration Policy, she has had her life threatened. Her previous office in Phoenix now has bullet-proof glass, because the windows were shot out in an attempt to frighten and intimidate her. She has had the same threats and hate sent her way for her open advocacy for LGBTQ rights for immigrants, both documented and undocumented. She receives hate mail every day, much of it from fellow United Methodists. Her courage and stance may not take the route you wish it might; however, it does not in any way diminish the actual risk. She has done no less than put her life on the line. As the first Hispanic Woman Bishop in the United Methodist Church, she has suffered countless aggressions, both micro- and macro. Now, she makes a statement of welcome from within the church, and from its highest position-- that of Bishop. She knows the power of that welcome. I am grateful that she has done so, with courage and with grace. Not the cheap kind; but the kind that Bonhoeffer knew well. The kind that goes forward knowing that one's own life may very well be at risk.

    1. I've had death threats, too. It goes with the territory of advocating for anything. My issue with the Carcano letter is that it doesn't actually do anything. It's an invitation to leave everything behind with no guarantee that there will be anything waiting at the other end. She could have asked the Board of Ordained Ministry to provisionally recognize the orders of the defrocked pastor, but instead, she is parsimoniously careful to be sure there is not one statement in her letter that could get her in any kind of trouble with the denomination. This doesn't make her any more a coward than the rest of her esteemed episcopal kindred, because not one of them is willing to take this step. Bonhoeffer put his life on the line. Perhaps Carcano has done the same with respect to immigration policy, though I don't see the INS coming after her anytime soon. But when it comes to speaking out for real reform within the church, and taking steps to realize it, every bishop in the denomination hides behind the Discipline, unwilling to put his or her job on the line.