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Commentary: Good News responds to call for no church trials

Editor’s Note: Good News has responded to the Rev. Thomas Frank’s call for United Methodist bishops to hold no more trials of clergy accused of violating the denomination’s laws on homosexuality.  Frank’s proposal “is a recipe for the balkanization of the church.” Good News is an unofficial, evangelical United Methodist group that advocates maintaining the denomination’s definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. The Good News statement is below:

Good News response to an open letter from Dr. Thomas Frank

In an open letter to the Council of Bishops, Dr. Thomas Frank, a United Methodist historian, calls upon the bishops to refrain from processing any more complaints against pastors for performing same-sex unions or weddings.  He proposes that no more trials be held in such situations, and that “if we are to find unity in our diversity, we must do so in conference and in our orders” by “open conversation on these pastoral issues.”

Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage.  For over forty years our church has engaged in extensive conversation and holy conferencing regarding homosexuality and same sex marriage. In every General Conference dating back to 1972, our church has upheld and maintained the historic position that sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman is contrary to God’s design.  Now, Dr. Frank wants to set aside the results of that conversation and substitute the “pastoral judgment” of “a large number of faithful United Methodist ministers in good standing [who] cannot in conscience restrict their pastoral duties to accord with these statements.”

Dr. Frank maintains that “the 2012 session in Tampa failed to acknowledge our lack of consensus and refused a legislative path forward.”  On the contrary, the 2012 session of the General Conference considered alternative points of view and alternative language to describe our church’s position and declined to adopt it.  The legislative path forward is the current and long-standing position of the church, regardless of the fact that Dr. Frank and others wish it were something else.

Dr. Frank decries the “prospect of church trials for at least two different ordained elders who performed such ceremonies for their own beloved children.”  It is important to note for the record that both elders were offered the opportunity to avoid a trial by promising not to perform same-sex services in the future.  Both declined.  Their trials are not simply about “acts … within their own families that exemplify the love and ministries of the church,” but about advancing an ideological agenda to force the church to change its long-standing teaching.

Dr. Frank’s proposal that annual conferences and orders of ministry within annual conferences find a way to live in unity amidst our diversity is a recipe for the balkanization of the church.  Different annual conferences would come to different positions with respect to homosexuality.  Dr. Frank knows that only the General Conference is empowered to speak for the whole church.  The General Conference has spoken on this issue, not once, but ten consecutive times with a consistent message.  The real problem is clergy who refuse to submit to the authority of the church, as they originally promised.

Trials are indeed a last resort.  When clergy refuse to conform their behavior to the requirements of the church through General Conference, the only mechanism left to assure compliance with those requirements is the trial process.  Bishops do not have the authority to override the requirements of the Discipline by failing to pursue accountability for clergy whose actions are chargeable offenses.  The bishops’ failure to act would only cause further harm to the church by revealing the church’s inability to uphold its teachings, encouraging further splintering of our fragile unity.  The door would open for clergy, laity, and congregations to disobey other requirements of the Discipline with which they disagree, inviting chaos and anarchy within the church.

A church trial court is not “only a miniature annual conference of thirteen peers.”  It is a mechanism for engaging in the “review of the ministerial office,” which is a “sacred trust” under the “holy covenant that exists within the membership and organization of The United Methodist Church” (Discipline, ¶363.1 and 362.2).  The trial court does not have the authority to change the church’s teachings or policies, but is charged with upholding them in the practical circumstances of a given situation.  That “holy covenant” includes not only the clergy in a given annual conference, but all clergy and laity of the global United Methodist connection.  As members of one body, we are members of one another.  As such, there can be no such thing as “interference” from United Methodists “outside the annual conference.”  What affects one of us, affects us all.  An annual conference cannot, in our connectional system, be a law unto itself.

In the meantime, the opportunity for conversation always exists, as it has for forty years.  During that time, there have been numerous dialogs and conferences where we have engaged in “open conversation on these pastoral issues” and “[spoken] together openly and honestly, without fear of retribution.”  The integrity of future conversations is threatened, however, by the refusal of some to abide by the results of those past conversations.  Such refusal to honor the process of conferencing erodes the trust necessary to engage in fruitful conversation.

For the sake of the unity of the church, it is time for those seeking to perform same-sex services to honor the process of holy conferencing by refraining from performing such services.  Aborting the conferencing process by enacting individuals’ contrary pastoral judgment hastens the very separation that Dr. Frank seeks to avoid.