WTF Just Happened in the United Methodist Church? An Explainer
In 2003, Crusty Old Dean was the young, idealistic associate ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church. He didn’t wear bifocals and didn’t need to trim his eyebrows with a hedge clipper. For those of you who don’t remember how excited you were when they came out with a 33.6 modem,
|Modem our cavemen forebears used.|
Those were heady days; regardless of where one stood on the question, there was no doubt that this was something momentous, and we were living through historic times. The day the diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene as bishop, Crusty was finishing up a dialogue session with one of our ecumenical partners. We didn’t have smartphones back then, so somebody actually called Crusty on my flip phone and left a voicemail saying Gene had been elected. What do you think this will mean? My ecumenical colleague asked me. Crusty replied, “The Anglican Communion will never be the same.”
If you were around back then, can you remember what odd mixture of anxiety, hope, dread, and exhiliration that seemed to fill the air, depending on who you were and where you stood on the issue? Regardless of how one felt about the election, either for or against, everyone knew that we were at some kind of turning point in how Anglicanism understood itself.
OK. Hold that. And how imagine something very much like that sense of anxiety and dread has been going on for almost 20 years. Our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church have been going through a slow burn, an escalating, tension-filled drama that seems to have been lasting as long as it takes to read a Dostoevsky novel in the original Russian. The 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 United Methodist General Conferences (for Episcopalians, that’s like their General Convention) have all been wracked with discussions around human sexuality, with a dreading foreboding that each General Conference might be the last of the entity that is called The United Methodist Church before it breaks apart.
|Even I couldn't have made this Methodist stuff up.|
Before we go any further, couple of important things to keep in mind before we get to the Explainers, with all your questions answered:
1) The United Methodist Church, like The Episcopal Church, likes to capitalize the The in a really annoying and pretentious kind of way. Crusty doesn’t like it. The only people that can get away with this is the awesome 80s post-punk (NOT new wave) band The The.
2) The United Methodist Church (hereafter UMC) is, like The Episcopal Church (hereafter not TEC, since people like to pronounce that as if it rhymes with “tech”, which is even more annoying than the The), an international church. It has overseas annual conferences (for the purposes of this blog post, Episcopalians should read "annual conferences" as "dioceses" even though they are not perfectly analagous to diocese, because sometimes annual conferences group together to form an episcopal jurisdiction...but I've said too much for now), like The Episcopal Church has dioceses in Taiwan and Colombia and whanot. But there's a couple of important differences.
--The Episcopal Church’s overseas dioceses make up a fairly small percentage of overall members. Recent figures list 1,817,000 members in domestic provinces and 139,000 members in non-domestic provinces. Doing the math, 93% of The Episcopal Church’s membership is in dioceses in the 50 states.
--UMC overseas annual conferences outnumber domestic annual conferences. There are 56 Annual Conferences (remember, annual conference=diocese, except when it doesn't) in the USA, over 75 of them overseas. There are about 7 million members in USA annual conferences, about 5.5 million overseas members of annual conferences (according to the numbers Crusty could find, quite likely current numbers are a little different).
And, as in the Anglican Communion, overseas United Methodists tend to be more conservative theologically.
So, the situation is completely different in The UMC than in The Episcopal Church (see how annoying it is to have to keep capitalizing The?): whereas overseas dioceses make up a small
|There's a difference between post-punk and new wave.|
3) How governing documents define homosexuality.
Whatever one’s opinion might be on the election of Gene Robinson, it was certainly within the boundaries of Episcopal polity. Back when he was ecumenical officer, Crusty was in a dialogue meeting with the Reformed Episcopal Church and one of their bishops noted, “Well, even though we disagree on whether practicing homosexuals can be ordained, even we acknowledge that Bishop Robinson’s election occurred properly and canonically according to your Constitution and Canons.” Though Anglican Christians may disagree on what the Bible says about human sexuality, in terms of governance it is crystal clear that there has been no explicit canonical prohibition of gay and lesbian persons from being ordained in the Episcopal Church, ever.
The situation is very different in The United Methodist Church. In fact, The UMC has one of the more sweeping prohibitions among the mainline Protestant denominations. The Book of Discipline, as the governing document of The UMC is analagous to the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, states:
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
There have been numerous efforts to try to change or amend this definition, but all have failed at General Conference (remember, General Conference = General Convention, but they don't know how to judge a decent mojito). Given the growth of the overseas annual conferences (because representation at General Conference is tied to membership of the annual conference), it is also unlikely that there may ever be the votes to amend or change this, given the generally conservative theological stance of the overseas conferences, and the fact that the overseas annual conferences are showing more growth than domestic annual conferences.
4) The Supreme Court.
One of the greatest historical canards The Episcopal Church tells is that there was some kind grand synergy that the people who shaped the US Constitution also drafted the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church in 1789. This is, unfortunately, nonsense: a hangover of privilege If anything, the founders of the Episcopal Church and the drafters of the U.S. Constitution may have been drawing from similar common ideas of liberty and local autonomy. This myth can be disproven because the Constitution of The Protestant Episcopal Church in 1789 and the federal Constitution of 1787 frankly don’t have a lot in common (though they do have some common aspects, to be sure, but one can make a strong argument it’s not because of intentional overlap, but because they’re drawing from the same well).
|No one man Episcopal wolf packs, please.|
One of the biggest differences is that all The Episcopal Church did was set up a legislative body: the General Convention. Unlike the federal constitution, which set up three branches with checks and balances. There was no separation of powers in the Episcopal Church because there were no other powers. The Presiding Bishop was senior bishop whose main job was presiding over the House of Bishops once every three years. The church also didn’t set up any method to adjudicate different understandings.
The United Methodist Church does have a kind of Supreme Court: it has a Judicial Court which can make rulings that clarify matters of polity and doctrine. The closest thing the Episcopal Church has:
--General Convention, which can change the canons to clarify or resolve a dispute concerning doctrine or polity.
--A troubling tendency to use the clergy misconduct system to adjudicate thorny theological or polity questions. For instance, in 1995 there was heresy trial for Walter Righter, a retired bishop, who was charged with violating the doctrine, discipline, and worship of this church by ordaining a non-celibate gay man. It was through the disciplinary process that a ruling came down that dismissed the charge,
|"You've got Core Doctrine ruling."|
--Leaving things to local discretion. We often give diocesan bishops, Standing Committees, even local Vestries and rectors wide latitude in determining whether something is permissible or not. And they can come up with radically different interpretations, and there’s really nothing anyone can do to reconcile these wildly differing interpretations. Just to give one example…Crusty knows two Episcopal priests who have had a ministry of being intentional interim clergy, going in and helping congregations sort out issues.
One of them was contacted about being an interim in a denomination the Episcopal Church is not in full communion with, and does not have interchangeability of clergy. The person asked the bishop if this would be OK, and the bishop said that if the clergyperson did this the bishop would charge her with abandonment of communion.
The other was contacted about being an interim in a denomination the Episcopal Church is not in full communion with, and does not have interchangeability of clergy. The person asked the bishop if this would be OK, and the bishop said that he would be glad to have her do it, and would use the canon for clergy engaged in non-parochial ministry for the duration of the assignment to cover this situation.
Both are perfectly within the boundaries of polity. Maybe that Supreme Court isn't sounding so bad?
--A tendency to ignore the canons. For example: whatever one may think about the practice, fact is we have a canon that specifically says unbaptized persons should not receive communion, but it’s just ignored (and Crusty weighed in this particular aspect of Communion Without Baptism here). The fatc that our canons more or less mean nothing is something The Episcopal Church will eventually need to address. In our current context, where there is a majority or there is the will, canons just get overlooked. Where there isn’t, they get enforced. Crusty has argued elsewhere on this blog that ignoring the canons in the pursuit of justice can also lend itself to ignoring the canons to further injustice – the weaponization of resignation in some areas being precisely one example.
All right, so much for setting context. This now leads us to… The Explainer! Remember, the whole point of this blog posting was to be an explainer on WTF was up in The UMC?
Your questions answered! All answers guaranteed 100% correct or your money back!
OK, as usual, it takes forever for you to get to the point (BTW, f**k you, Crusty, seriously, this was supposed to be an FAQ Explainer).
So: Crusty, WTF happened in the UMC in the past week?
Unlike in the Episcopal Church, where each diocese elects its own bishops on its own timeline, in The UMC each annual conference does not elect its bishop directly. Bishops serve over episcopal areas, some a grouping of several annual conferences, some based over a single annual conference. Every four years bishops are elected in jurisdictional conferences, which are groupings of annual conferences, and the number of bishops to be elected is based on the number of openings. Openings can be known with some regularity because, in addition to announced, age-related mandatory retirements, United Methodist bishops must itinerate: they cannot stay in the same posting for more than a certain number of years (though a bishop may move to a different annual conference). The Jurisdictional conferences elect the bishops, who are then assigned to an episcopal area and then consecrated. This would be roughly, though not entirely, analogous to electing the bishops for an Episcopal diocese at the provincial synod. If Province IV had openings, they would elect the appropriate number of bishops to fill those openings. And then, after the election, those bishops would be assigned to a particular diocese (if there’s more than one opening and more than one elected) and consecrated.
|Circuit Rider, (sex)texting while itinerating, circa 1806|
In July of 2016, the Western Jurisdiction, covering a good chunk of the West Coast, elected one bishop because it had one opening. They elected the Rev. Karen Oliveto, pastor at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Rev. Oliveto is married to a deaconess, Robin Ridenour. After election, she was assigned to the episcopal area with a vacancy, the Mountain Sky Area (which covers Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and one church in Idaho) and consecrated.
What did the court do?
Complaints were lodged that this election clearly violated the Book of Discipline, which specifically forbids self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from serving in the ordained ministry. These complaints went to the body charged with adjudicating these matters, the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council held a hearing, heard testimony, and in a decision released April 28 voted 6-3 that the consecration violated the prohibition in the Book of Discipline. The fact that Bishop Oliveto was married to a woman was seen as evidence of being a “self-avowed” and “practicing” homosexual. The Judicial Council confined itself only to the matter of consecration, saying it did not have jurisdiction over other matters, like the election itself (thus it could not declare the election invalid since it did not claim jurisdiction).
What did it not do?
It did not defrock or depose Bishop Oliveto; in fact it specifically stated she was still in good standing. It did, however, throw open the door to two potentially even more seismic issues:
OK, what could be more seismic than what they did?
While not ruling on the validity of the election, and not defrocking Bishop Oliveto, the Judicial Council dropped these two turds into the punch bowl:
1) It stated that a bishop who is a self-avowed homosexual could be considered to be in violation of church law if a complaint was brought; and
2) It stated that all bishops and clergy persons who participated in the consecration of a bishop who violated church discipline could also be considered to be in violation of church discipline.
So, while Bishop Oliveot was not defrocked or deposed, the court flung open the doors -- nay, literally begged people -- to not only bring charges against her, but against every single clergy person who “participated” in the consecration.
Commence the witch hunt! Not only those who laid hands as part of the consecration – but does
|United Methodists be all like.|
What happens next?
Hold on, there’s more. The same week the decision came down, The UMC announced it was holding a Special General Conference in 2019. General Conference is normally held once every four years. The last one was in 2016, so the next one should be in 2020. However, the issue of human sexuality has been so contentious, and concerns about possible schism so prevalent, the 2016 General Conference appointed a Commission on a Way Forward that was, well, tasked with finding a Way Forward. As part of this, the bishops of the United Methodist Church, in turn, called a Special General Conference in 2019 to deal solely with the question of human sexuality.
So not only might there be multiple ecclesial trials, there will be a gathering of the highest governing body solely to debate and address this question.
Translation: it’s going to potentially get a lot, lot worse and a lot more contentious.
What should Episcopalians do?
Good question! Thank you so much for asking, Straw Person Crusty.
Let’s start by saying what Episcopalians should NOT DO: Please do not say any form of the following to a United Methodist friend: “There’s a home for you in the Episcopal Church.”
Frankly, this is akin to saying to someone who has lost a baby, “You can always have another child,” or to someone who has lost their grandfather, “You still have two other grandparents.” Yes, I know that’s a bit of hyperbole. But it’s an apt analogy because while all three statements are technically true, for people who may in feeling hurt, or grieving, or in despair, perhaps we should not leap to problem solving.
And, not only is this perhaps a little insensitive, it’s also rather arrogant and presumptive: There are over 12 million United Methodists. A good number, perhaps 4 million, might be considered moderate/progressive/open/welcoming on LBGTQI matters. Who are we, as a church of about 1.8 million members, to think we can “welcome” numbers 3 times our size? The notion that Methodists can come “home” smacks again of establishment and presumption. This is like congregations who obsess over themselves as a "family." A "family" decides to let other members into their club, instead of seeing where the kingdom of God is leading them. Offering the asinine option of having a "home" in The Episcopal Church projects this presumption from the local to the national level. After all, if anything, why aren't we asking why 1.8 Episcopalians shouldn't find a "home" with 4 million United Methodists?
Dammit, Debbie Downer, what would you have us do?
Hey, thanks for asking. How about this: Listen. Let people share what they may be feeling. As appropriate, share your own experiences. Don't rush to problem solving or be presumptuous. You know, be pastoral.
Damn. OK, Anything else? Is there anything we can do?
Why yes. As timing would have it, The UMC and The Episcopal Church have a proposal for full communion that has been released for discussion and debate. You can find it and a whole lot of other documents here.
Full disclosure: Crusty not only has a dog in this hunt, Crusty has a whole f*****g pack of basset hounds in this hunt. Crusty started serving as staff support for The UMC-Episcopal Church dialogue in 2002, helped draft a Congregational Study Guide in 2006, the resolution on Interim Eucharistic Sharing in 2006 which permits joint celebrations of the Eucharist, the summary of the first round of the dialogue titled A Theological Foundation for Full Communion, and the f****g full communion proposal itself.
|Full disclosure. Crusty at last dialogue session.|
Read through this blog and you’ll see time and again that Crusty thinks that not only is denominationalism a sin that reflects our brokenness, it’s also bad for business. Hey, here's over 10,000 words on this from six yars ago. Enjoy. The paradigm of church from the last 500 years is changing, as it does occasionally, and COD firmly believes we need to think about new ways of being church. Ecumenical cooperation is part of that.
And this is not through merger, or some people finding a “home” in the other, but through being called to mission and ministry, forming partnerships with like minded people, and finding ways to cooperate and collaborate.
The way forward is to give this proposal between The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church the time, consideration, and care it deserves. Yes, there are certainly issues which will need to be addressed; no, this proposal is far from perfect. Like every compromise it should leave everyone a little unhappy.
But I think the way of being church has undergone particularly profound change in the last thirty years, and will do so again in the next 30. Do we really think there’s only one way of being church, and our denominationalism which reflects our racism, class stratification, and geographic accidents of history, is the only way? Crusty’s not saying we can’t enjoy, treasure, and celebrate those aspects of what is spirit-filled about being a United Methodist or an Episcopalian. But God is calling us to so much more.
Pray for our United Methodist brothers and sisters. Pray for the church. Pray we may overcome our hubris in the sin our division.