My soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, chronicles the journey toward full inclusion in the five, principal mainline denominations of the US, including the United Methodist Church. Of the five, the Methodists have lagged behind, and I attended the 2012 General Conference in Florida, hoping to witness history and to be able to write a fitting final chapter for the book. However, a legislative breakthrough was thwarted due to the alliance of domestic gatekeepers with a swelling international contingent. Thus, my final chapter became How Long, O Lord?
Early chapters of the book chronicle the pan-denominational ecclesiastical disobedience that spurred change, including the irregular ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven. In 1974, eleven women challenged 2,000 years of church patriarchy and were ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, despite church canons to the contrary. In the buildup to that historic event, a rousing sermon of Dr. Charles Willie called for bishops to step forward.
And so it is meet and right that a bishop who believes that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, ought to ordain any … person who is qualified for the Holy Orders. A bishop who, on his own authority, ordains a woman deacon to the priesthood will be vilified, and talked about, but probably not crucified. Such a bishop would be following the path of the Suffering Servant, which is the path Jesus followed. It requires both courage and humility to disobey an unjust law.
The church is in need of such a bishop today.
My book suggests that Methodist progress would similarly require the ecclesiastical disobedience of the UMC episcopacy.
At a gathering in the makeshift “Tabernacle” that housed the allied progressive Methodist groups that trumpeted change during that 2012 General Conference, retired bishop Melvin Talbert issued a call reminiscent of Dr. Willie’s sermon 38 years earlier. “Biblical obedience demands ecclesiastical disobedience,” he intoned, calling forth his own experience in the civil rights movement.
Each day, it seems, a new Methodist story of ecclesiastical disobedience hits the newswire. The list of clergy who have defied church policy against officiating at same-gender weddings includes: the retired dean of the Yale Divinity School, a collection of Pennsylvania clergy who jointly officiated at a same-gender wedding, and Rev. Frank Schaefer, whose ecclesiastical trial resulted in defrocking. Just in the last week, we witnessed the wedding of Methodist clergy, Rev. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rev. Christie Newbill in Seattle, and the officiant was none other than their district superintendent. Dr. Brown was the first (and only?) out-lesbian ordained as UMC clergy in 1982, which resulted in the 1984 General Conference enacting a restrictive ordination policy that remains in effect today.
Methodist ecclesiastical disobedience has moved upstream from pew to pulpit to district and now to the episcopacy itself. Though the Conference of Bishops voted to institute judicial proceedings against one of their own, retired bishop Talbert for officiating at a gay wedding in Georgia over the wishes of the local bishop, individual voices in the episcopal wilderness are crying out.
Sitting bishops Peggy Johnson, Rev. Schaefer’s Pennsylvania supervisor, and Minerva G. Carcano, bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, have openly decried the discrimination written into the Book of Discipline.
Listen to Bishop Johnson:
Several statements in our Book of Discipline are discriminatory (forbidding ordination of homosexual persons, forbidding the performing of same-gender marriages, and considering the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching). There appear to be contradictions between the many affirming statements (mentioned earlier) and these statements.
In a watershed moment that goes beyond words to action, Bishop Carcano has invited the defrocked Rev. Schaefer to come and join the ministry of the California-Nevada Conference. Defying the action of the church court, this invitation amounts to ecclesiastical disobedience at the highest level. In issuing the invitation, Bishop Carcano writes:
[The UMC Book of Discipline is] an imperfect book of human law that violates the very spirit of Jesus the Christ who taught us through word and deed that all God’s children are of sacred worth and welcomed into the embrace of God’s grace. I believe that the time has come for we United Methodists to stand on the side of Jesus and declare in every good way that the United Methodist Church is wrong in its position on homosexuality, wrong in its exclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and wrong in its incessant demand to determine through political processes who can be fully members of the body of Christ. Frank Schaefer chose to stand with Jesus as he extended love and care to his gay son and his partner. We should stand with him and others who show such courage and faithfulness.
Legislative change in the UMC remains uncertain. The General Conference will not meet until 2016, and the political alliance between international delegates and domestic gatekeepers may remain insurmountable. In the face of such realities, policy change must come through alternate avenues, including the direct action of local clergy, district superintendents, and conference bishops.
Ecclesiastical history is unfolding before us. In the words of Episcopal Priest, Dr. Carter Heyward, one of the irregularly ordained Philadelphia Eleven,
I believe (as do many others) that, for the Church to change, the Church must act its way into new ways of thinking. The Episcopal Church will not be able to think its way successfully toward an inclusive gay-affirming reimaging of Christian marriage until there are gay and lesbian Episcopalians who are married. People act–only then do laws change. The canons and liturgies catch up with people’s lives over time. That’s how laws get changed inside and outside the church.
So, too, the Methodists. Godspeed.