by John Lomperis*
Is it time for the United Methodist Church to do away with church trials to adopt a more efficient system of automatic penalties for wayward clergy?
The United Methodist Church is being besieged by an apparently nationally orchestrated movement of a relatively tiny minority (far less than two percent of the whole) of radical United Methodist clergy performing pastorally harmful same-sex “sin blessing” ceremonies, in open defiance of the biblical church policies they vowed at their ordinations to uphold.
Liberal United Methodists from Amy DeLong to Adam Hamilton support various proposals to get our denomination, to one extent or another, to follow in other mainline denominations’ disastrous footsteps, while ultimately conceding that they will likely not have the votes at this next General Conference to liberalize church policies on marriage. And if they got their way in officially liberalizing our moral standards, this is guaranteed to split our denomination, as the record of other mainline denominations makes clear.
Other proposals would strengthen enforcement provisions for situations of clergy choosing to step outside of the covenant into which they chose to be ordained while largely leaving the basic structures of our denomination’s accountability system intact.
While it is no secret that I prefer the latter approach over the former, I ask if it is not time to take a major step further by radically replacing the UMC accountability system as we know it with a much more efficient system of automatic accountability.
Towards that end, I have submitted to the 2016 General Conference a relatively simple, two-part legislative proposal to establish automatic penalties for clergy who admit to performing same-sex unions. It does so by creating a separate accountability process for this single offense.
I carefully worded it to have zero impact on the rights of clergy who are involved in any other sort of wrongdoing, or who are falsely accused of anything. The reason it singles out the cases of clergy who are unambiguously guilty, by their own admission, of violating the prohibition against same-sex union ceremonies is because there is no other form of covenant-breaking that has been pushed by such a well-funded (but unrepresentative) disobedience movement, with the open goal of encouraging too overwhelming a number of violations for our tedious current accountability system to be able to handle.
We have seen numerous recent cases of folk ordained into United Methodist spiritual leadership demonstrating a remarkable lack of integrity by flippantly violating their vows to not perform same-sex union ceremonies, bizarrely bragging in the media about not being men or women of their word, and enjoying the protection of sympathetic bishops who arrange for largely consequence-free “just resolutions” (the church equivalents of out-of-court settlements).
Under the new automatic-penalty system, any clergyperson who openly admits to performing a same-sex union ceremony, which has long been prohibited in the Book of Disciplinecovenant they vowed to uphold, or who tries to play legalistic games by refusing to cooperate with the bishop’s basic attempts to determine the most relevant facts, would face swift, automatic, and major consequences.
If this is the first time the clergyperson has committed such an offense, s/he shall be suspended for at least one year, and potentially as many as three years, from key benefits of the covenant s/he has chosen to break (serving as a minister or in appointed leadership positions). At the end of their suspension, the wayward clergyperson shall be given a clear choice: either re-commit to the clergy covenant s/he chose to walk away from or else be defrocked from United Methodist clergy status.
Our denomination does not ordain anyone in the first place who will not first vow to God and the church to uphold our disciplinary covenant, among many other vows. This new system would not ask anything more of those who choose to leave this covenant and are seeking to be admitted back in.
This is no more unreasonable than asking an adulterous husband to recommit to his marriage vows of faithfulness before he can be fully reconciled with his wife.
Unlike several recent embarrassing cases, the result would be clear and readily understandable to all: the UMC rules do not clergy to perform allow same-sex union services, and so this United Methodist clergyperson was not allowed to continue performing same-sex union services.
The covenant-breaking clergyperson would no longer have any right to make their case in a church trial of their peers, would not have any possibility of dragging things out with further appeals, and would be categorically excluded from the Discipline’s frequently abused “just resolution” process.
The savings to the church’s time, finances, and emotional energies by having such efficient, just, and sensible accountability would be great. And we would ironically accomplish the stated goal of the homosexuality-affirming United Methodist activists who have recently rallied around the slogan, “stop the trials!”
After seeing the offending party so decisively removed from United Methodist ministry, other clergy currently promoting the disobedience movement would think twice before going down that same road.
This plan would offer by far the quickest, most decisive way for our denomination to move forward in mission beyond our present internal conflicts over sexuality.
Since this requires amending the section of the United Methodist Book of Discipline known as the Constitution, some have questioned if such a proposal could get the necessary two-thirds vote of General Conference and then two-thirds of the votes of every annual conference delegate around the world.
I readily admit that this would be a rather dramatic change and would be an uphill battle to pass. But the political odds may not be as steep as some have suggested.
Anyone who spends half a minute thinking about it understands that a large denomination like ours needs some sort of operating standards. No one seriously argues that clergy should be categorically free to violate these standards without any accountability (which would be the same as having no policies).
Rather strong super-majorities (well north of 60 percent) at recent General Conferences have repeatedly voted to maintain policies forbidding our clergy from performing same-sex unions. (For some reason, even significant numbers of delegates who vote to “soften the language” in our Social Principles calling homosexual practice inherently “incompatible with Christian teaching” also vote for the binding policies forbidding same-sex unions.) Furthermore, votes on other constitutional amendments in recent years suggest that annual conference voters are relatively more conservative than those at General Conference.
And unlike the U.S. Constitution, the UMC Constitution is routinely amended in several places at once.
You can read for yourself the entirety of the bold new plan below. I welcome your thoughts in the comments!
But as an elected General Conference delegate myself, this plan has my vote.
The first petition, #60802 (printed on pages 1078 and 1221 ofthe Advanced Daily Christian Advocate) is the constitutional amendment, with underlines reflecting language this petition proposes for addition, while non-underlined text is what is already in the Discipline:
Automatic Penalties – I
Amend Book of Discipline ¶ 20 as follows:
¶ 20. Article IV.—The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal; neither shall it do away with the privileges of our members of right to trial before the church, or by a committee, and of an appeal.14 This shall not apply to cases of clergy who admit to their bishop, or to the bishop supervising a directly relevant complaint against them, of having conducted a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or performed a same-sex wedding ceremony. In such cases, automatic penalties shall be imposed.
Rationale: Currently, a small minority of covenant-breaking clergy have been abusing our lengthy accountability system to use the threat of the costs of church trials to avoid serious accountability for this one offense. This would allow for a more effective, efficient, and ultimately less painful process than trials.
The second, implementing petition is #60803 (found on pages 1141 and 1223):
Automatic Penalties – II
Amend Book of Discipline ¶ 363.1 by adding after ¶ 363.1a a new section, ¶ 363.1b, and re-lettering the following sections accordingly:
- b) Automatic Penalty for Acknowledged Same-Sex Unions—other provisions of the Book of Discipline notwithstanding, when the complaint is based upon allegation of the specific misconduct of a clergyperson having conducted a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or having performed a same-sex wedding ceremony (¶ 2702.1b) within the preceding six years, this separate process shall be followed:
(1) Upon receiving the formal complaint, the bishop or the bishop’s designee shall, within a timely manner, directly request the person against whom the complaint was made for a brief written statement simply confirming or denying if he or she did in fact conduct or perform the Disciplinarily prohibited ceremony in question. In any meetings related to this process, both the person against whom the complaint and the person making the complaint may choose another person to accompany him or her with the right to voice.
(2) Throughout this process, the complaint shall be treated as an allegation or allegations until the person against whom the complaint was made delivers written confirmation of having conducted or performed the alleged prohibited ceremony or until 30 days have passed since he or she received the bishop’s request for confirmation or denial, and has chosen to give no answer.
(3) If the person against whom the complaint was made provides a written response to the bishop’s initial request other than confirming having committing the chargeable offense in question, then the ordinary supervisory response as outlined beginning in ¶363.1c below shall be followed as outlined below.
(4) If the clergyperson against whom the complaint was made either admits to have conducted or performed the Disciplinarily prohibited ceremony in question, or chooses not to deliver a response within 30 days of receiving the request for confirmation or denial of the offense, then he or she shall be considered guilty of having broken covenant with The United Methodist Church.
(5) If the clergyperson’s file indicates that that he or she has previously been penalized according to this process, then the penalty the bishop imposes shall be termination of the conference membership and revocation of the credentials of conference membership, commissioning, ordination, or consecration of the clergyperson. Otherwise, the bishop shall suspend the guilty party from all ministerial functions, and from any appointment to a local church, general agency, or cabinet-level position, without salary, for a period of no less than one year.
(6) The precise length of this suspension shall be at the bishop’s discretion, provided that it shall not be less than one full year and not more than three full years. There shall be no right to appeal such a penalty. A record of this penalty shall be placed in the clergyperson’s file.
(7) 60 days before the conclusion of such a suspension, the bishop shall contact the suspended clergyperson, either directly or through a designee, to request a written statement promising to not conduct or perform any such ceremonies in the future as long as doing so remains a chargeable offense under our Church’s communal covenant as expressed in our Book of Discipline. If the suspended clergyperson fails to make such a written promise, the bishop shall at the conclusion of the suspension period permanently terminate his or her clergy status.
(8) All of the process as outlined above shall be carried out in a timely manner, with attention to communication to all parties in the process. At the determination of the bishop, persons with qualifications and experience in assessment, intervention, or healing may be selected to assist in this process. The bishop also may consult with the committee on pastor-parish relations for pastors, the district committee on superintendency for district superintendents, appropriate personnel committee or other persons who may be helpful.
(9) When this special process for the specific offense of conducting a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or performing a same-sex wedding ceremony is initiated, the bishop shall notify the chairperson of the Board of Ordained Ministry that a complaint has been filed, of the clergyperson named, of the general nature of the complaint, of each response of the person against whom the complaint was made to the requests noted above, and with a summary the bishop’s own subsequent actions in implementing this process.
Rationale: This efficiently lessens our reliance on trials for covenant accountability. It prevents a single minister from holding an entire conference hostage with a needless, costly trial. There is only one chargeable offense for which there is such a disruptive minority movement to shatter the integrity of our connectional covenant.
*John Lomperis is the United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, and has an M.Div from Harvard University.
This post was originally published at https://juicyecumenism.com/2016/01/28/a-modest-proposal-automatic-penalties-for-disobedience-movement-clergy/