Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What Defrock?

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I waited ten years to become an elder, and fought hard to obtain that status. To an extent, it cost me my first marriage. Four and a half years later, I stepped down from my appointment, going on what has become a permanent leave of absence. Ultimately, ordination in the United Methodist Church just didn't work out for me. Increasingly, my former colleagues, particularly those in the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions, have found the strictures of ordination an uncomfortable fit for them. Some of them have voluntarily surrendered their orders rather than continue to submit to church discipline with regard to the full inclusion of sexual minorities in the ministry and mission of the church. Many others have found themselves put on trial for disobeying that discipline, performing weddings for same-sex couples or openly acknowledging that they are, themselves, self-avowed and practicing gay men or lesbians. Meanwhile, I am still an elder, honorably located (translation: happily performing a secular job, and no longer part of the itinerant ministry), my certificate of ordination tucked away in a box, my alb, cincture, stoles, and clergy shirts hanging in the closet.

Why am I still ordained? Why do I hang onto this piece of paper that no longer means anything to me, even as pastors I respect, to whom it means much more, give theirs up in grief and disgust at the institutionally close-minded church?

One could just as easily ask me why my Eagle badge still resides in the treasure box atop my dresser. Twelve years ago, I wrote a furious letter to the Boy Scout leadership magazine about the phenomenon of Eagles sending their badges in to protest the BSA's homophobic policies. A version of that letter was published in The Oregonian. I remember holding the badge in my hand, contemplating what it would mean to put it in an envelope and send it off to national headquarters, there to be, I imagine, discarded and ignored.

The BSA ultimately opened Scouting up to gay youth, but continues to bar gay adults from leadership positions. Recently a Seattle Scoutmaster was removed from his position for being gay, over the objection of the troop's sponsoring organization--a United Methodist congregation.

And then there's World Vision, a mission organization supported by both mainline and evangelical protestant churches, which made a public statement of inclusiveness in hiring, then pulled back just a day later in the face of conservative apoplexy.

Church, charitable organization, affinity group, sports team, political party--voluntary associations across the United States have engaged with disappointing consistency in the practice of removing discarding both members and leaders whose orientation differs from the norm. The rejection is not always a literal defrocking--the word really only applies to clergy--but the pain of having one's license, certificate, diploma canceled is nearly identical. Nine and a half years transpired between the day I entered Scouting and the day my Eagle badge was pinned to my pocket by my mother. It took my four years to qualify for my first teaching license, six to earn my Master of Divinity, ten to become an elder. Along the way  to each of these accomplishments I spent countless hours studying, practicing, honing my skills, planning projects, fretting over deadlines, driving back and forth across the United States, living in England for two years, defending myself before boards and professors, standing up to church officials who did not think me worthy of ordination. Eagle Scout, licensed teacher, Elder--I earned these distinctions. Those scraps of paper, that bit of ribbon and metal, represent decades of my life. To have any of them taken from me for acting on my beliefs is inconceivable. To give any of them up voluntarily would represent an enormous expression of anger toward the issuing organization, and the decision that the certificate or badge in question no longer symbolized what it did when I earned it.

But that is what is being done to--and in some cases, voluntarily by--a growing number of clergy within United Methodism. The awareness has finally set in that the church is not going to change without a huge reorientation of its leadership. Until Bishops find themselves unable to fill appointments because so many excellent pastors are no longer qualified, whether due to removal by church trial or by voluntarily leaving the denomination, the Episcopacy will not find the courage to pay more than lip service to the principle of full inclusion. And in Scouting, it will take a far stronger cry of outrage than has yet been voiced to counter the much larger numbers of conservative sponsors promoting the still exclusive leadership requirements. World Vision caved to church leaders willing to sacrifice starving Third World children to their single-minded quest to demonize gay people: the mainline churches simply can't make up the difference.

A reckoning is coming. American culture is experiencing a phase shift. Discriminating against gay employees will soon be illegal, and it's just a matter of years, perhaps months, before marriage equality is the law of the land. When that happens, the conservative church voices in every denomination will find themselves as completely in the wrong as did pro-slavery churches in the Civil War. Scouting will have to either open its collective mind or lose half its units.

The alternative is a counter-reformation, a concerted effort by conservatives to fight back against the phase shift. In the Renaissance, the wars that resulted from the first counter-reformation took thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. There's no telling what havoc could be wrought in the Disunited States of America by conservative retrenchment, particularly in the South. United Methodism may choose sides at that point, as may the Boy Scouts of America. If either organization chooses the side of ignorance and bigotry, that will finally be what it takes for me to tear up my ordination and send it to the Bishop, and to put my Eagle in an envelope and ship it off to Irving, Texas. I will grieve these decisions, but much more I will grieve what these two institutions that once meant so much to me have become.

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