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Commentary: Frank asks bishops ‘to stop the trials’

Editor’s note: The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, an expert on United Methodist polity, is urging the Council of Bishops for the sake of church unity to stop church trials of elders accused of violating the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Frank is a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author of the frequently used textbook Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church. He is also the son of the late Bishop Eugene Frank. His letter is below:

 

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE UNITED METHODIST COUNCIL OF BISHOPS

November 12, 2013

To our episcopal leaders:

I ask you, for the sake of the unity of the church, to stop the trials. We need to engage our differences through “Christian conversation” within our conferences and particularly within our orders of elders. Church trials are “an expedient of last resort” and are not the way forward.

The constitution of our church charges you as a Council with “general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church.” The church over which you preside is deeply divided and these “interests” are now at stake. While you are also charged as a Council with “carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference,” clearly our church lacks consensus on our pastoral duties with gay and lesbian church members. This is no time to continue with church trials that only exacerbate our differences. If we are to find unity in our diversity, we must do so in conference and in our orders.

Your servant leadership of the church does not and cannot mean that you are simply servile to the actions of General Conference. The 2012 session in Tampa failed to acknowledge our lack of consensus and refused a legislative path forward. The Council of Bishops now must act, and can do so under its constitutional powers. The episcopacy is established in our constitution as a constitutive body alongside the General Conference and the Judicial Council. When you as a Council see the unity of the church at risk, you have a constitutional duty to act.

I am not asking you to change the church’s statements on homosexuality. Clearly that is not within the powers of the Council. I am asking you to acknowledge that a large number of faithful United Methodist ministers in good standing cannot in conscience restrict their pastoral duties to accord with these statements.

Nothing in the Book of Discipline requires that you refer complaints to counsel for the church and subsequent trial. You have discretion as the chief pastors of the church over the manner, purpose and conduct of any supervisory response and just resolution under “fair process.” You also have discretion to assemble the pastors under your appointment to address issues that divide us. A church trial court is only a miniature annual conference of thirteen peers in any case. The church is better served by bringing the whole conference and order into conversation.

Many pastors across our church view the performance of same-sex wedding ceremonies as a pastoral duty, particularly with longtime church members. Far from “flaunting” church law, as a recent press headline put it, they are being pastors to their members. At the moment we have the prospect of church trials for at least two different ordained elders who performed such ceremonies for their own beloved children. Really? We have come to the point of trying our pastors for acts, even within their own families, that exemplify the love and ministries of the church?

The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage. It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of “prosecution,” “defense team,” “conviction,” “judge,” and “jury” to our church as if we were all players in “Law and Order.” We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment. Trials are an exorbitant expense for a process that does no good for our church. Of course, any member of our church has the constitutional right to request a trial. But at this moment, I do not see other circumstances under which our church should be conducting them.

Our church is desperately in need of open conversation on these pastoral issues. We are retreating into our various camps and avoiding the hard work of engaging each other’s views. You as a Council and as individual bishops can set a new tone in which we can speak together openly and honestly, without fear of retribution. As Wesley’s Large Minutes began, “It is desired, that all things be considered as in the immediate presence of God; that every person speak freely whatever is in his heart.” This is the collective spirit in which the Holy Spirit is welcomed, and the conversation flourishes. Please lead us in that spirit.

Thank you for your consideration and for your faithful leadership of our church.

Thomas Edward Frank

University Professor

Wake Forest University

67 comments

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  1. Ed Phipps

    Teddy,
    I believe you’ve very eloquently stated the position I hold. It’s one thing to debate the issue, it’s quite another to disregard the governing standards. Regardless, the correct point of decision belongs in the GC. The issue of how United Methodist deal with same sex marriage and homosexuality and the “conversation” Rev. Frank speaks of between opposing positions appropriately belongs at the GC; I also believe the “conversation” on how and when to enforce the governing standards belongs at the GC. I don’t believe that a satisfactory solution to any controversy in the UM church is to disregard our standards as put in place by the GC. If that ever becomes the case, then we should just all agree to do away with our standards and the GC, as they no longer would mean anything.

  2. Paul

    I wonder about the assertion that the Council of Bishops has the constitutional authority and mandate to contradict the action of General Conference. Granted, I’m not a professor and am no scholar, but I thought our system was set up as it is because we did not want the episcopacy to have that much authority. Thus their vow to uphold the Discipline is what is really in question right now. This letter basically argues that GC can vote however they want, and the Council of Bishops can then do as they choose all in the name of “unity”. That’s news to me.

  3. Sarah

    I grew up in the Methodist church. I love the education and the home that it provided me. The fact that the church is so divided breaks my heart. I am so saddened that we have chosen to focus on one of the many issues in society and shun our brothers and sisters. It is painful to see how very unchristian some have become. I grew up in a church where we welcomed adulterers and drug addicts back into the fold with open arms but homosexual individuals were not welcomed. How dare we turn people away? That is not the goal of the church. Let us not forget that Jesus, God incarnate, was one of the most radical men to ever walk the earth. He changed laws, he rebuked the church officials, he hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He was at the forefront of change. Instead of turning away from those deemed undesirable by the church he sought them out. Shouldn’t we be choosing to follow Jesus and love those others turn away even more? I have quite a few Christian friends who also happen to be homosexual and I will say that I have learned more from them about what being a Christian really is than I have from anyone else in my life. They have had to fight for their faith. They have refused to stop believing even after being turned away. They have more conviction in their faith than many Christians I know and I think that we all have a lot to learn from Christians like that. The church is loosing members left and right and quite frankly dying. I hope that we can learn to truly open our doors before its too late.

    1. Rev. Jim Brooking

      Very beautifully stated, Sarah! Is any one out there listening? May God always bless you! You are what a true disciple of Jesus Christ looks like!

    2. preacherdb

      Sarah, you are correct in saying that Jesus was “one of the most radical men to ever walk the earth” and “that He changed the laws”. That being said, if He were convinced that the act of homosexuality should be seen no longer as sinful, He surely would have made that clear. Please provide the scripture that clearly makes that radical change in our view of the act, which is and always has been the crux of the argument. Not are homosexual people of sacred worth, they are, but can the act itself be declared in harmony with God’s will for people, is it compatible with Scripture?

      1. Elsie Gauley Vega

        Dear db, or, preacherdb, I doubt if there is any one ‘act of homosexuality.’ But ministers and marriage councilors assure us that some heterosexuals
        practice those acts, and not all gay men do. The people we see today as lesbian couples and
        gay couples were never condemned in either the Old or New Testaments. God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the attempted gang-rape of Lot’s guests, but because of the inhospitality of these wealthy people. (See two chapters before the burning, where God first declared His disgust at their inhospitality.) Sexual use/abuse of boys and young men was condemned. Fertility rites using human sexuality to improve crop yields and
        increase their herds was condemned in scripture….but that has nothing to do lesbians and gay men seeking life-partners (spouses). The BoD calls sexuality ‘God’s good gift.’ God
        creates most people with a heterosexual orientation, and a minority of people with a same-
        gender sexual orientation. We call the majority of people heterosexual, whether or not they
        are in a relationship (“commiting sex acts”). We call the minority of people homosexual,
        whether or not they are single or in a relationship (having intimate/loving sex “acts”).
        I suggest to you that, much to your surprise, I see several homosexual people in both the Old and the New Testaments. Read carefully. Ruth, a non-Jew, does not take the baby boy “home to Boaz” and have ten or so more children, but home to Naomi, and the two women
        raise the boy together. Please re-read the pledge that Ruth had made earlier to Naomi…..
        a loving commitment if ever we saw one!!! This boy we know grew up to be an ancestor of
        David and Jesus. Please re-read the verses about Jonathan dis-robing in front of his friend
        David. Those words in a dime novel would be understood to mean “Take me; I’m yours.”
        And David later declared that his love for/from Jonathan was greater than any woman, though David had several wives and many concubines. And don’t tell me that this was just
        ‘male bonding.’ As a lesbian, I suggest to you that some of the women, always mentioned together, who housed and fed Jesus, were lesbian couples. Oh, I can’t prove it; you can’t
        prove otherwise.
        Get used to it. God loves diversity. This doesn’t hurt you. But your judgments against me
        hurts a lot.

        1. mrb1036

          I concur with the statements which validate the ways in which we evolve in our thinking and actions throughout the course of time. With extenuating circumstances—including the availability of new information; shifts in attitudes; the “battles” fought in the name of justice and equality—changes are a part of human history.

          Statements of faith-based laws contained in the Old Testament—represent the perceptions of the Jewish faith The extent to which Christ’s teachings are not entirely in sync with previously expressed platitudes is also a matter of fact.

          There is such a natural abundance of variations in the realm of nature. Can we simply accept that as Methodists who wish to worship in sanctuaries with “open hearts, open minds, and open doors?”

        2. dan b

          Elsie, First I want to assure you that I do not desire to hurt you but if my Biblical understanding and historical theological understanding of sexuality does hurt you I can not change that other than to say I love you as a sister. 2nd your views and interpretation of the scriptures that you cited are of such a minority viewpoint in scholarship and in comparison to the traditional and longstanding exegetical work that I of course must reject them as nothing more than revisionist scholarship seeking to justify homosexual sex. 3rd even though you have quoted some examples that are at best even by your own admittance vague, we both agree that we can find nowhere in scripture where homosexual “sexual activity” is clearly stated as being approved. Last I need you to know that the only reason I keep speaking of “homosexual sexual activity” is that I want to be clear that I believe that all people are precious to God and should be precious to me, at the same time there are many actions done by all of us every day that I do not believe are approved of by God, and yet we are all far more in our identity (before God and people) than labels based on our actions or desires. I realize it must be hard for you to believe that I do not hate you, fear you or reject you (although I can understand how you could feel rejected). Please understand how hurtful it is for me being accused of being a hateful, homophobic bigot because I do not find your view of the exegetical work as being convincing. Therefore you are asking me to deny my conscience and to approve of something that I don’t think the Bible allows me to approve of (thus I am focusing on activity and not person). Please pray for me as I will pray for you and for the UMC that each of us and all of us may find God’s will in this very difficult time. (And I do not say that as meaning I am praying that God’s wisdom will show you where YOU are wrong, I really mean that I want God’s wisdom to help us all through this painful process). And Elsie my sister in Christ, may God bless you with God’s unimaginable love, mercy and Presence!

        3. dan b

          Elsie, First I want to assure you that I do not desire to hurt you but if my Biblical understanding and historical theological understanding of sexuality does hurt you I can not change that other than to say I love you as a sister. 2nd your views and interpretation of the scriptures that you cited are of such a minority viewpoint in scholarship and in comparison to the traditional and longstanding exegetical work that I of course must reject them as nothing more than revisionist scholarship seeking to justify homosexual sex. 3rd even though you have quoted some examples that are at best even by your own admittance vague, we both agree that we can find nowhere in scripture where homosexual “sexual activity” is clearly stated as being approved. Last I need you to know that the only reason I keep speaking of “homosexual sexual activity” is that I want to be clear that I believe that all people are precious to God and should be precious to me, at the same time there are many actions done by all of us every day that I do not believe are approved of by God, and yet we are all far more in our identity (before God and people) than labels based on our actions or desires. I realize it must be hard for you to believe that I do not hate you, fear you or reject you (although I can understand how you could feel rejected). Please understand how hurtful it is for me being accused of being a hateful, homophobic bigot by progressives because I do not find their view of the exegetical work as being at all convincing. Therefore you are asking me to deny my conscience and to approve of something that I don’t think the Bible allows me to approve of (thus I am focusing on activity and not person). Please pray for me as I will pray for you and for the UMC that each of us and all of us may find God’s will in this very difficult time. (And I do not say that as meaning I am praying that God’s wisdom will show you where YOU are wrong, I really mean that I want God’s wisdom to help us all through this painful process). And Elsie my sister in Christ, may God bless you with God’s unimaginable love, mercy and Presence!

  4. Rev. W. Lee Truman

    Having been by my ordination under the authority of a Bishop for 40 years, and having been told once to leave a very active live church we had taken from 28 families to a membership of 865, and being told to take an appointment of a “urban mausoleum” and if I did not, to turn in my credentials – I think Bishop Talbert not being in observance of his vows and ordination should, out of honesty, turn in his credentials.

    1. preacherdb

      Agreed, he would have expected it from others who purposely violated the Discipline while he was an active Bishop.

  5. preacherdbdan

    So who decides what rules in the DISCIPLINE of the UMC are enforceable and how? Or is Dr. Frank (and those who are saying we do not have consensus) suggesting that each local church / clergy is to be an autonomous free agent? Dr. Franks’ suggestions leave us with no other logical alternative but to suppose that the “homosexual issue” is not the only one on which we don’t all agree therefore all of the Discipline is fair game to ignore. Therefore if we are not to be hypocrites no one is to be held accountable to the Discipline if said parts violate their conscience. In which case our vows of membership and ordination etc. all become meaningless and our denomination united only in our denial of our METHODism.

  6. Rev. Jim Brooking

    Love the sin hate the sinner appears no where in the bible. It is a lie and a myth because the “sin” is always associated with the “sinner”. You say, “We need to abide by His Words and not man’s words”. Can I assume that you are as out spoken about the words of Jesus on the subject of divorce?

    1. Raymond A. Foss

      Love the Sinner, Hate Ourselves – v2

      Ours not to judge
      but to hate our past
      the sin which we carry
      making us the lost

      We are to bow down
      to fall at Christ’s feet,
      at the foot of the cross
      in the garden with Him

      We are to love, as He did
      to love the sinner, ourselves
      to love Jesus, our Savior,
      our Brother, our Guide

      Love the sinner, all of us
      our sisters, brothers in this walk
      hating only ourselves
      for sin remaining in our lives

      Edited November 16, 2013

  7. Rev. Jim Brooking

    When will people stop putting words in Jesus’ mouth and ignoring what Jesus actually said? Jesus never said any thing about homosexuality. Neither did Jesus say that we should no longer put to death a child who curses their parent (Leviticus). However Jesus had much to say about divorce. The church hypocritical has much to say for Jesus when it comes to homosexuality while ignoring his position on divorce. Since Jesus said nothing about putting to death a child who curses their parent, do you advocate upholding this law?

    1. preacherdb

      Rev. Jim, were they still putting children to death in Jesus’ day for cursing their parents? Perhaps that is why He didn’t say anything about it? Yet at the same time I don’t think He said at any point, since we are no longer putting children to death it is morally correct for a child to curse his / her parent(s).

      1. Rev. Jim Brooking

        Using the same logic are you suggesting that homosexuality did not exist in Jesus time since he said nothing about it? And what about about what Jesus DID say about divorce? Why is the church hypocritical so reluctant to follow the teaching of Jesus on this issue? What makes it acceptable, in light of the teaching of Jesus, for the church to ordain adulterers and adulteresses and allow them to administer the sacraments?

        1. preacherdb

          No Rev. Jim not at all, since Jesus radically challenged many things and corrected many things that people did not fully understand, the lack of Him correcting the existing understanding that the homosexual act was sinful shows He understood the act itself as still being sinful. He did not challenge the establishment to change their understanding of it.
          As for your view on divorce and remarriage I fully agree that the UMC is far too lax in their recognition of what the scripture says about it and when remarriage is acceptable and not. I don’t think that our current acceptance of divorce in so many cases (not saying all) has been helpful to our families, our nation or for that matter our view of marriage itself. So would you justify making the same error in our view of the homosexual act?

  8. Inman Moore, Retired United Methodist Minister

    Our controversy over the homosexual issue and the Discipline of the United Methodist Church is not the first controversy our church has faced and it probably won’t be the last, since the church is a living vital organization. We have survived a big battle over slavery and racial justice. We have faced battles over the Central Jurisdiction, prohibition, dancing in the church, the status of women, war and peace, and fundamentalism, By the grace of God we shall continue.

    As to the Discipline being questioning, and going against it at times, that is nothing new with Methodism. Our founder, John Wesley, set the example. He was an ordained Anglican Priest. He violated many rules of the Anglican Church and yet remained a priest until his death.

    On another note, in discussing issues and the Bible, let us be more specific as to which book of the Bible we are talking about. To say “The Scriptures” said this or that is not very definitive. For the Bible books are not of one voice. None of the books of the Old Testament were written by Christians. They were written by Jews for the Jewish Faith. We simply appropriated them. The Old Testament is powerful and remarkable, but it does not always reflect the teachings of Jesus. His Sermon on the Mount directly contradicts some of the laws of Leviticus. Jesus said, “Of old (In Leviticus) it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.”

    As for homosexuals Jesus did not say “a mumbling word.” Also, Jesus never mentioned Democrats, Republicans, automobiles, computers, cell phones, global warming, and many other things. What we do have is an overall understanding of life given to us by the life and teachings of Jesus.

    Based on the teachings of Jesus, I think he would have put down a welcome mat for homosexuals. Our Methodist slogan has it right: “Open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” It is thoroughly in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.

    Bishop Talbert, thank you for keeping the faith!

    1. Nutriaman

      Rev. Moore, thanks so much for such a compassionate, well thought out and wise reply. If only more, could come to the same understandings…and thank you for keeping your faith!

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