Some of you know that there have been big things shaking in the United Methodist Church (UMC) recently. For others, this will be new and/or foreign, and so I’ll summarize. (If this is all familiar and repetitive information to you, feel free to skip down to the section beginning ***.)
Rev. Amy DeLong, an ordained elder in the Wisconsin Annual Conference chose to report to her district superintendent (her supervisor) that she had registered her long-time, loving, committed relationship with her partner, Val, as a domestic partnership in Wisconsin, as well as the fact that she had officiated for a service of holy union for two women.
If you are unfamiliar with United Methodist (UM) policies (count yourself lucky!), being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions” are considered “chargeable offenses.” This means that they are prohibited acts which are grounds for a church trial and, if a person is found guilty, can result in any penalty ranging from suspension to the stripping of ministry credentials.
Let’s get a few other details of UM polity out of the way. To be a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” means that you have “self-avowed” — by openly acknowledging to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, Board of Ordained Ministry, or clergy session — that you are a “practicing homosexual.” All jokes about “practicing” aside, the UMC, through decisions of its Judicial Council, has determined that to “practice homosexuality” is to have “genital contact” with a person of the same gender.
What happened in Amy’s case is that no one had asked her about her sex life during the investigative process (explanation: after the charges had been brought, an investigative committee was formed to determine if there was enough evidence for a trial, and the committee was then responsible for collecting the evidence). Well, Amy’s defense team successfully argued that, in fact, the church had not proven that Amy is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” Not guilty!
I recognize that some might say that this verdict is a matter of mere technicality, but I don’t think so. I’ll probably write more about this later, but first of all, what does the language of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” even mean? It’s rather vacuous. Would a different-gender couple who loves one another identify themselves as “self-avowed practicing heterosexuals”? Amy made clear that those words mean nothing in relation to how she feels about and understands her partnership with Val.
Secondly, this whole “practicing” thing reveals that the real issue is sex between two people of the same gender. The UMC doesn’t like it. It’s a chargeable offense. But what the “trial court,” i.e., jury, in Wisconsin implied with its decision is that loving partnership with a person of the same gender does not deter effective, valued, legitimate ministry; indeed, such partnership may help support, uplift, and sustain the work of clergy and the church. When we don’t get hung up on sex, we can move on to more important questions and realities!
(For a fuller description of the trial and the defense team’s arguments — or really, their prophetic teaching and preaching, I encourage you to read the blog of Will J. Green, a New England pastor who was present for the trial and gave thorough and moving reports; see the entries from June 20-24, 2011.)
On the charge of performing the same-gender union, Amy was found guilty. With that decision, the trial went into the penalty phase, in which both sides made arguments about what an appropriate penalty would be, and then the trial court met once again for its final determination. (If you read no other religious writing all year, I suggest you read Will’s description of the defense witnesses’ accounts, which encompass some very rich theological reflection on what it means to be the church.)
The trial court could have stripped Amy of her ministerial credentials, but they opted for a more creative approach, a path that could lead to reconciliation rather than exacting mere retribution. Amy is suspended from ministerial duties for 20 days for the purposes of reflecting with some annual conference leaders and to begin writing a document outlining procedures to help resolve issues that harm the clergy covenant. This will be reviewed by the Board of Ordained Ministry and eventually voted on by the clergy session of the Wisconsin Annual Conference (i.e., it could actually become a guideline toward reconciliation in the church!).
***Some people don’t appreciate the innovative approach of the trial court. For these folks, things are absolutely clear: Amy broke the rules and should be kicked out. Take, for example, the words of Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News magazine (a conservative publication committed to maintaining the UMC’s anti-gay policies)(as reported by the UM News Service here):
In no other organization would a person be able to willfully break the organization’s policies and expect to keep working. An organization’s response would be to thank the person for his service, let him pack his things and usher him out the door.
I’m quite bothered by this response and not simply because I believe that Amy DeLong is and should always be a valued member of the United Methodist clergy. I’m disturbed because I don’t think the church should be like any “other organization.” Rather, I think the church is called to be different, to be set apart.
If the church looks like every other organization, it isn’t the church.
The Gospel I know offers good news about one who came to show humankind a different path. The leader of this movement pushed the boundaries and broke what were perceived to be the rules of religious order.
If you haven’t read what the gospel of Mark records that Jesus taught about the sabbath recently (or ever), I suggest taking a look at Mark 2:23-3:6. The Pharisees, who are presented in the New Testament as defending pious adherence to laws which Jesus was seen to challenge, questioned Jesus when they saw disciples plucking the heads of grain. This was not supposed to be done on the sabbath!
But Jesus answered (after drawing from religious tradition in defense of their actions), “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
Then Jesus ruffled the Pharisees’ feathers again when he healed a person’s withered hand. On the sabbath! What activities were permitted and prohibited on the sabbath was debated, but what likely would have been acceptable in this case was healing only to save a life (the withered hand presumably not being a good enough reason). Jesus poignantly asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” After noting his critics’ silence and “hardness of heart,” Jesus simply went ahead and healed the withered hand.
The rule keepers of the day were none too happy with Jesus. You know the rest of the story: eventually, as the gospels tell us, they took Jesus out.
Now let’s think for a moment about the parable of the lesbian pastor. I know you know this one!
She was one of those liberated folks, one of those people who knows and trusts the love and grace God brings into her life, even in ways that others don’t expect. But this one went too far. She was nourished by love for, from, and with another woman, and this was against the rules. You know how those United Methodists are about their rules! The rule keepers asked how she could do what was not lawful and still remain in the church.
She answered, “The church was made for humankind and not humankind for the church.”
Then, as she stood within that church, two women approached her. They had been harmed by the church before, but through the grace and mercy shared by this spirit-filled pastor, healing began. Because they believed in God, they sought the blessing of the minister for their holy union.
The pastor asked those who would stifle her, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm in the church, to save life or to kill?” Though she was grieved at the hardness of hearts in the United Methodist Church, she extended a hand of blessing.
Can we pause for a moment?
Can we set aside what we think we know about scripture for long enough to recognize that I am not trying to say uncritically that Amy DeLong (and other queer persons in the church, both clergy and lay) are exactly like Jesus?
But can we acknowledge that what is going on in Mark’s text is a debate about rules?
And can we realize where Jesus stands in that debate? Are we able to affirm that he is the rule breaker?
I know, I know, it seems like Amy and company are blatantly breaking rules. She/they/I/we ostensibly violate what the church has long taught are definitive precepts of scripture.
But what’s going on today, in the United Methodist Church and elsewhere, is not just rule-breaking for rule-breaking’s sake. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons are teaching the church that God is at work through their lives, both individually and in loving partnerships.
We say, “The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath.” That is, the church isn’t supposed to be a box into which everyone forces themselves to fit nicely. The church exists to be a space that affirms God’s grace as experienced and known in human lives. And what we learn from Jesus and friends is that sabbath, the church, religious rules cannot be rigid because humanity is not rigid. God takes the church unexpected places.
We can affirm Jesus, but can we affirm him when he breaks the rules? Likewise, we say we will love all people, but can we walk with them when they take us uncomfortable places?
I still hear the rule keepers: “We can’t just let every person do what she or he wants. There must be some standards!”
Yes, yes, there must be some standards.
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath and in the church, to save life or to kill?”
What if we were able to set aside our pre-judgments for a moment? What if we could wait to see whether or not acts done in good faith would bring love and goodness into the world? What if we sought out what will save life and not kill?
What if the church gave Amy and others a chance to bless the unions of those same-gender couples who know God in their lives and in their relationships and want to make the church a central part of their partnerships?
And what, then, if the result is that the church overflows with love? What if the church both nourishes and is nourished by the commitment, compassion, and love of same-gender couples? Can we follow a new path?
Granted, these are not the questions of Jesus recorded in Mark. But should we really be surprised to hear followers of Jesus asking these questions today?!
If we have something to learn from Jesus, then we have something to learn from those who press beyond the rigidity of institutionalized religion toward a church that truly, fully heals and gives life.
(For those who still want to respond, “But scripture says that people of the same gender shouldn’t be having sex! It’s that simple,” I will address issues of scriptural interpretation in future posts. For now, though, I simply want to leave us with the discomfort of facing those who seem to break the rules, of facing a Jesus who pushes the boundaries of acceptable religious practice. In the end, this might be a more worthwhile practice than any exegesis could provide.)