Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Very Methodist Excommunication

Clergy candidate removed from ordination process and membership in The United Methodist Church
Candidate for ordination Ginny Mikita at the wedding of her friends, Rev. Benjamin and Monty Hutchison, in July.

Despite all the smiles in the picture, it was a bittersweet occasion.

United Methodist minister Benjamin Hutchison had resigned from his pastorate in order to marry his partner, Monty. I do not know the details of his exit from the ministry, but I expect they went like this: Ben was tired of playing the shell game of having his Staff Parish Committee, district superintendent, and bishop pretend not to know his housemate was also his life partner, parsing his language so as not to say the fatal words which would end his career: I'm gay. This is my lover. We're getting married. At some point, he told the wrong person the truth, and that person, rather than continue to skirt the Book of Discipline, told Ben he had two choices: resign or go on trial. He chose the first option, left his pastorate, and scheduled a wedding.

The Hutchisons wanted a Methodist wedding, but given their high profile, Ben didn't want to ask a colleague to perform the ceremony and put yet another minister's ordination on the line. Fortunately for them (or so it seemed at the time), their friend Ginny Mikita, a candidate for ministry and practicing attorney, thought she had the perfect work-around: she got herself credentialed by the online Universal Life Church, a legal fiction that grants the authority to solemnize to anyone who applies to be one of its "ministers." Ordination mill certificate in hand, she participated with another "universal life" minister, and signed the Hutchisons' license.

Six weeks later, she had a call from her district superintendent: three conservative Methodist clergy from other conferences had demanded the bishop of the West Michigan Annual Conference rescind not just Ginny's candidacy, but her membership in the church. (The text of the letter they wrote can be found at this address.) She had been excommunicated.

Let's stop for a moment and take a look at membership in the United Methodist Church. It's not that hard a thing to get: take a few classes with the pastor, get baptized (or, if you've already been baptized by a denomination, transferred), make a few vague promises about supporting the ministry of the church, and you're in. The responsibilities of membership are not enforced with any kind of rigor: it's not uncommon for Methodists to stay on the rolls of a local church for years after moving away, simply because all it takes to stay a member is check "yes" on the postcard the church sends out when trying to clean the books. One can continue to be a member of the United Methodist Church without serving on a committee, attending a service, or tithing a penny.

Unless, it appears, one commits the unforgivable sin of celebrating the marriage of a dear friend.

I had hoped that, like the Boy Scouts, the United Methodist Church would read the writing on the wall, and realize that, in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States, the denomination's rigid enforcement of its bigoted anti-gay policies is costing it its very soul. The conservative dogma hawks of the denomination have appointed themselves to be an ad hoc Inquisition, and the heresies they are rooting out are open-mindedness, acceptance, compassion, diversity--the hallmarks of the mainline, socially progressive church whose pastors and members fought for the voting rights of women and African-Americans, marched for civil rights and nuclear disarmament, offered sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees, and have offered food and relief to countless disaster victims with no expectation of conversion. The United Methodist Church that raised me and ordained me was a big tent with room for a crazy quilt of believers. The United Methodist Church of the 21st century, though, has become an exclusive club for the doctrinally correct, administered by a milquetoast technocratic bureaucracy terrified of saying the wrong thing and losing their livelihoods--and, it now seems, being excommunicated.

The church is on a collision course. The pressure for the church to give in grows with each passing day, and with that pressure, the voices of denial grow more shrill. At some point, the clash between church doctrine and societal norms is going to split the church. It's only a matter of time until the Inquisition turns its sights on the far more disobedient Conferences of the Western Jurisdiction, demanding trials for gay pastors and pastors who involve themselves in any way in blessing fully legal gay marriages. It remains to be seen whether being forced to join the Inquisition will finally force the hand of the superintendents and bishops of the jurisdiction, inspiring them to finally put their own careers on the line for that which they profess to believe is right. Or will they become Inquisitors themselves, copping to the Nuremberg defense of just following orders, incapable of acting in opposition to a doctrine they believe is false, but which their church insists they must adhere to?

I learned about Ginny Mikita's fate from the Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization I've belonged to since 1992, when I became pastor of the Estacada United Methodist Church, the first and, at that time, only church in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference to declare itself a Reconciling Congregation. Whenever I talked to other Oregonian's about Estacada's bold move, they were startled that this small logging community could be home to such a progressive church. The church's members, though, saw nothing odd about it: their organist was gay, and they'd seen how harmful exclusive church doctrine was to him. This was not complicated scholastic theology; it was simple Christian compassion.

Becoming Reconciling led to condemnation from most of the other churches in Estacada, and while I was there, I received my share of it. One Sunday morning, seeing a flashing light on my answering machine, I pressed play and heard a creepy voice say "God told me to skin you alive." But in the three years I was there, I saw the community gradually shift away from the homophobic hate group that had taken over the town council and to a place of welcoming and affirming its gay citizens.

That church no longer exists. It was never really large enough to be self-sustaining, and it closed several years ago. But its witness lives on in that community, and in me, a shining example of what Methodists can be when they put their hearts ahead of dogma, risking condemnation and, now, excommunication to stand with the oppressed, rather than bowing down to the oppressor.

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