by Dr. Thomas Edward Frank*
The 2016 General Conference faces a daunting task of acting on hundreds of legislative reports and petitions in only ten days. But no task at hand is more important than correcting 44 years of unconstitutional and exclusionary church law on human sexuality.
The Wesleyan tradition has always been much more successful at welcoming people than excluding them. Our native openness – an open communion table and open hearts responding to the abundance of God’s grace – derives at least in part from John Wesley’s basic admonitions in the General Rules of 1743: to do no harm and to do good in all things. Efforts to exclude a certain undefined class of persons termed “homosexuals” from the fullness of church life and ministry have inflicted incalculable harm on our church, our polity, our church law, and above all, on professing members and constituents of our own congregations.
The acts of exclusion began in 1972. It all started with oddly vague language added to the newly proposed Social Principles, carefully crafted by a General Conference commission but now subjected to an amendment from the floor. The new sentence stated that the church does not “condone” something called “the practice of homosexuality” and considers it “incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶161.F). The church did not “condemn” this, did not name it a “sin,” and did not connect it in any way with our doctrinal standards, but only asserted that this undefined “practice” was somehow “incompatible” with an unspecified “teaching.” The sentence was adopted after a brief floor debate, without any informed study or consideration that would solicit voices and views from across the church.
From that time forward, church laws on this subject have continued to produce neologisms and contortions that have no place in our Book of Discipline. Search just the term “homosexuality” in the Judicial Council decisions posted on umc.org and you will turn up 51 decisions. Obviously the church is not of one mind on this question or even how to address it.
- The exclusion of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” was added in 1984 to the ordination paragraph addressing “frailties of the human condition” in ordained ministers (¶304.3). The language came as a minority report from a legislative committee and passed by a margin of only 525-442. This sentence was adopted as a sheer assertion, without any rationale or basis in our constitution or doctrinal standards. Its only implicit reference is to the Social Principles, which explicitly are not church law (p. 103). Bishops, boards of ordained ministry, and the Judicial Council have wasted untold hours trying to interpret these indecipherable terms. In particular, General Conference has never adopted any definition of “practicing.” An especially activist Judicial Council tried to assert the language of “genital sexual activity” as a definition in a 2001 opinion which the Council had no authority to issue (920) (the Judicial Council is not a legislative body and cannot write Disciplinary language). Subsequently such language has crept into guidebooks for superintendents and BOMs, but General Conference has had the good sense and modesty not to put such a voyeuristic and pornographic phrase in the book. The term is useless in any proceeding, since no one knows what it is and no one is authorized even to try to define it (common BOM procedures notwithstanding). A “wink-wink we all know what this is” gesture may get a church body through this conundrum in the heat of the moment, but just ask what a “practicing heterosexual” is if you want to hear some profound silence.
- The exclusion of funding for “any gay caucus or group” (where did the word “gay” pop in from?) or “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” was added in 1992 (806.9). What does “acceptance” mean here, and who “promotes” it? Does this eliminate support of a group that, for example, helps gay and lesbian youth reconcile with their parents, or cope with feelings of suicide stirred by rejection at home or church? Is a group working to overturn civil laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians “promot[ing] acceptance?” Do same-sex partner benefits for church agency employees fall under this funding ban or under “rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation?” (162.J) Judicial Council has ruled for the latter (1264), but the ambiguity of such a church law serves only to create a climate of fear and suspicion.
- The exclusion of “homosexual unions” from UM churches and pastoral practice was added to the “Unauthorized Conduct” paragraph under pastoral responsibilities and duties (¶341.6) in 2000, following its original placement in the Social Principles in 1996. But the church has never defined what constitutes such a “union” or what exactly a pastor is not allowed to do. This again has led to bishops and conference bodies inventing a menu of actions allowed (prayer of blessing?) and disallowed (declaration of union?), without any authorization from General Conference. And performing such a “union” is virtually the only specifically pastoral act that is excluded for UM pastors.
- The exclusion through chargeable offenses and church trials of any clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexual[s]” or who “celebrate homosexual unions” or perform “same-sex wedding ceremonies” was added in 2004. These offenses are listed between “immorality” and “crime” (2702.1). This sentence lists both “homosexual unions” and “same-sex wedding ceremonies” and thus appears to differentiate between them. But the latter are not mentioned anywhere else in the Discipline. How can a pastor be subjected to a church trial for a pastoral act that is not excluded by any paragraph of church law? Such “unions” and “weddings” are the only specifically pastoral acts that have been designated as “chargeable offenses,” and that came by a margin of only ten votes in General Conference. Should the church add a chargeable offense that so obviously creates division in the body?
Notably, none of the above problematic sentences was proposed by any commission, agency, or other body authorized by General Conference itself. They came to be considered either as amendments from the floor or as petitions from individuals or churches. They were then put to votes that left a substantial minority of the church without a voice and without any safe venue for continuing conversation about obviously divisive laws.
Because these sentences and terms were never vetted through careful study by the laity and clergy who serve over a period of time on a General Conference commission or agency, they have created mayhem in church law. The addition of the chargeable offense has fostered a prosecutorial atmosphere in the church, turning what should be conversations among people of varied outlooks into adversarial proceedings. Bishops and conferences have regularly turned for advice to attorneys, who often have had difficulty making a critical distinction between the covenants of church law in a voluntary association and the police powers and civil procedure of the state under public laws and ordinances. Bishops have been advised that they must proceed to appointing a counsel for the church based on these charges (even a good county prosecutor has much more flexibility than this in the civil courts); trial courts have been advised that the broader charge of “disobedience to the order and discipline of the church” can be applied to any single pastoral act rather than taking into consideration a lifetime of ministry; and worst of all, a cloak of fear and silence falls over any attempt at open conversation in the churches.
Using church law to exclude rather than welcome persons into the church and its ministries has profound consequences. One of the most significant is the constraint on pastoral ministry. Some bishops have announced to the clergy whom they appoint that church law is a settled matter and there will be no further discussion. From fear of such authority many pastors and boards of ordained ministry have stood by silently as their work was constricted by church law. Our polity is organized to enable sound pastoral judgment to flourish, whether in pastoral acts of preparing couples for Christian marriage or in collegial acts of assessing the fitness of persons for ordained ministry. Under the civil law of the United States, pastors now have active church members of the same sex obtaining a civil marriage license and seeking to ground their marriage in the blessings of God through the church. Should our pastors not be free to be pastors? Countless gay and lesbian candidates for ordained ministry, demonstrating the gifts of intelligent and faithful leadership the church so badly needs, have been discouraged from applying or turned away even by boards of ordained ministry who have known these candidates since they were children growing up in the church. Should not the board of ordained ministry of an annual conference be empowered to do their work of examination and discernment of gifts for ministry?
A second consequence is that exclusionary laws codify the church’s duplicity. With one face the church purports to welcome all with “open hearts.” When the other face turns, however, the church is prepared to exclude persons from the fullness of Christian life and vocation. Which is the real church? Which can be trusted? Is it the church that sings lovingly around the happy campfire? Or the church that uses that same church camp facility as the site of a church trial to expel a pastor from ministry?
This duplicity in church law and practice leads directly to a broader conclusion: the exclusionary laws of the church are profoundly unconstitutional. The constitution of the church is one of our most precious documents. It announces who we are as a church and as an organization. It conveys our very character and the foundation of our practices. The church cannot grandly announce in its constitution that “all persons are of sacred worth . . . [and] shall be eligible” to become professing members (¶4), and then turn around in its legislative paragraphs and attempt to exclude a certain undefined class of persons from full participation.
The time is long past to put a stop to these travesties of church law. We have lived with these contortions for nearly half a century. We must begin by deleting the sentences that have created so much division and heartache in our church community. This will return us to the Discipline that serves us best, in which constitutionally grounded offices and bodies are empowered to do their work, using their best judgment in Christian conference with those who share such responsibilities.
The UMC is at a crossroads in 2016. John Wesley warned of Methodism becoming a “dead sect,” which it will surely be in the next generation if it continues to define itself by exclusionary church law. Differences of perspective on human sexuality are an occasion for open and earnest conversation, not for issuing more laws. It’s time to return to the wisdom of our constitution and strive to be one church for “all persons.”
*Dr. Thomas Edward Frank is University Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Wake Forest University and the author of Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church which is used as a standard textbook on United Methodist polity in United Methodist seminaries. Dr. Frank is the son of a United Methodist Bishop, and elder in the United Methodist Church, and a graduate of Harvard College and Emory University.