Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Methodists Making Waves

Perhaps I'm a fool, but I believe that anyone who responds to a call to the priesthood is following the will of the Spirit.   If they make it through the meat grinder of discernment and seminary to become a priest it is an act of God's will that gets them before a bishop for ordination.   The priests and pastors of a church are then expected to be a human representation of Christ and help to shape the spiritual lives of others.  And they are expected to obey their bishop.

But what happens when the bishop, or the Church, seems to be out of step with the reality looking back at the priest or pastor from the pews?

That's the question that haunts many clergy in this country who are seeing more and more LGBT people returning to church, and participating in the life of their parishes.  In the northeast, the corner of our country that has been the most favorable toward marriage equality, it has to be incredibly hard to be a leader of a faith community that is lagging behind the civil authorities on the question of marriage.  Imagine being a minister to a lesbian couple that you see week after week at the altar rail, who pledge their money and their time to the life of the congregation, who you know want to get married and would like you to officiate... and you have to say, "No" because your national Church refuses to recognize the love shared between two people as valid?  One can rationalize it away, but the reality is that-- as retired Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris said-- you are forced to treat that couple as the "half-assed baptized."

Well, in New England, 100 clergy in the United Methodist Church signed a pledge to say, "Enough!!"   The renegade reverends have said they are defying their national church's position on performing marriages for same-sex couples.  From the Boston Globe:
The Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, pastor of Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End, signed the statement, she said, because she could not in good conscience deny a practicing member of her church her marriage blessing because the person is gay.
“We’re laying on the line our ordination that many of us have worked four to eight years to get, as well as the expense and time of the seminary,’’ she said. “I certainly stand by this movement.’’
This is a tremendous act of courage, and commitment to following the Spirit.  There are some in New England, and elsewhere in the United Methodist Church, who are not thrilled with this act of defiance of the higher authorities.  But sadly, when it comes to equal rights in the Church setting, it seems the only way things change is for some group within the structure to finally force the issue.  This is a proud tradition throughout the history of the Christian Church. So many of the advancements in thinking within the Church have first been met with resistance and a begrudging release of the power held by a few.  The German Reformation with Martin Luther going toe-to-toe with those who would defend the infallibility of the Pope, and the retention of Scripture and Sacraments to the priestly class is just one classic example.  The creeds came about only after much infighting and struggling and drawing of lines.  Painful and maddening as it must have been in Nicea, the end result is language that has been passed along throughout the ages and beliefs that have survived to this day.

One signal that things might be changing for the Methodists outside New England came last week in the trial of Rev. Amy DeLong of Wisconsin, who had committed the "sin" of being an "avowed practicing homosexual" (the unfortunate and very-dated language of the UMC's Book of Discipline), and she had married a lesbian couple in defiance of the Church laws.   Her trial ended with the jury refusing to find fault with her own lesbianism, and putting her on a 20-day suspension rather than defrocking her.  

"I hope this signals to folks around the country and around the world that the United Methodists in Wisconsin aren't going to throw their gay children out," said a smiling DeLong, sitting beside her partner of 16 years, Val Zellmer.

I believe we are moving in a direction that will bring all these denominations still wrangling and using piecemeal diplomacy to a place of  "pastoral generosity".  That generousity will allow ministers to marry couples regardless of the gender of the two people.  I believe time will show these brave members of the New England clergy and Rev. DeLong to be following what the Spirit is saying to the Church instead of simply kowtowing to earthly authorities who will drag their feet forever on a matter of justice for all. 

I believe in what the Spirit is saying to the Church.


MadPriest said...

This is why I believe bishops should be elected by the priests over whom they will have authority. This is the ancient practice. In England the bishops are elected, for all intents and purposes, by bishops or, at least, by those chosen as electors by bishops. This is one of the main reasons there is such a gulf between bishops and priests in my country. But, and this is where I become controversial, I think the complete democracy of TEC is also wrong. Allowing other bishops and the laity more influence than priests in the election of bishops also leads to political appointments rather than pastoral appointments. If the local congregation chooses its priests then diocesan priests should choose their bishops for exactly the same pastoral reasons.

SCG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I like his comment


SCG said...

@Peggins: I do, too!

My prior comment was a test of the comment box system and needed to be deleted lest MP think I was being snarky.

MP, you have a point, and it isn't that controversial to my eyes since I'm a lay person so far down on the totem pole of this diocese that I am, in fact, part of the earth in which the totem pole stands! I think laity should have a voice, but it shouldn't be at the expense of clergy who have the closer working relationship with the bishop. Meanwhile, the system in CoE where bishops get to pick who gets to join their "Gentlemen's Club" is highly distasteful... and leads to the kind of bullying that apparently happened with Jeffrey John.
It seems whenever people get involved in making these decisions within the church, there is always a mash up of egos and agendas. No wonder we call dogs, "Man's best friend!"