Many of my theological friends in the UMC–brothers and sisters in Christ–are much more progressive than I am. I feel the need to state publicly that I value these friends a great deal. I learn from them. They challenge me and keep me from becoming too comfortable with my own positions. They remind me that my own ideas are necessarily fallible and incomplete. I hope they value me, too. I’d like to think that our conversations have in some small ways helped them to grow in the life of faith.
I’m afraid, though, that after 2016, these theological friends and I–these brothers and sisters in Christ–will no longer share a worshipping community. The denomination has reached a breaking point. Of course, our disagreements over many topics, most prominently “homosexual practice,” are nothing new. What is different now than in the last four decades? The answer is quite clear: ecclesial disobedience. Some clergy, including some bishops, have made the decision to disobey publicly the denomination’s church law regarding gay marriage and ordination. The hope seems to be to embolden others who hold similar ethical positions and bring about a change of denominational policy.
The model for this practice of ecclesial disobedience is the U.S. civil rights movement which brought about change through peaceful, public acts of civil disobedience. There are, however, at least three important ways in which civil disobedience is unlike ecclesial disobedience.
1. For most of us, our national citizenship is not altogether voluntary. It’s much more difficult to say, “You know, I think I’d make a better Norwegian or Guatamalan than American,” than it is to say, “You know, I think I’d fit better in the UCC or the Southern Baptist Church than in the UMC.” Yes, hypothetically, each of us could emigrate to another country, but for most of us this simply isn’t a live option.
2. Unlike our national citizenship, ordination is a sacred covenant between the individual, God, and the church. If we engage in acts of civil disobedience, we are not violating a sacred covenant as we are in the case of ecclesial disobedience.
3.Presumably, we know what we’re signing on for when we’re ordained. (If not, you need to have a talk with your UM Polity instructor.) We know what kind of body we’re joining. We know its ideals, rules, standards, and ethical positions. Unless we immigrate to the U.S. from another country, this isn’t the kind of decision we make about national citizenship. When folks do immigrate from another country to the U.S., it is often because they are seeking a better way of life, and not because they wish to undermine the ideals of our nation. In fact, we take a very dim view of immigration with the intention of undermining our national ideals.
Willful acts of disobedience to the church as acts of protest, then, are quite different than acts of civil disobedience. I’m sure that some readers could point out differences that I haven’t brought up here. In light of these differences, it is incumbent upon the protesters to demonstrate that this is an ethical and appropriate way to bring about change in the denomination.
Let’s be clear: the inevitable result of this kind of action, if it continues, will be a division of the denomination. It will not be reform of the denomination. That would have to come through some action of the General Conference, but what has precipitated these acts of ecclesial disobedience to start with is the fact that the progressives cannot get what they want at the General Conference level. Acts of ecclesial disobedience will not sway conservatives toward the progressive position. In fact, it will probably bring about a greater level of entrenchment. One reason for further entrenchment will be the fact that the denomination cannot allow this kind of action to change church law in lieu of the decisions of the General Conference. If we do allow this, then every group that feels strongly about its position in opposition to the Discipline can move its agenda forward by circumventing our established procedures.
It’s worth noting that the Protestant “Reformation” was really a Protestant schism. The Protestant impulse ever since has been to divide when we cannot agree. Now, let’s keep in mind that we Wesleyans are really not very good Protestants. Our parent tradition, the Anglican Church, was not born out of a theological protest (as, say, the Lutherans were), but out of a political dispute. Further, rather than being the heirs of sola Scriptura, we are the heirs of the Anglican “Middle Way,” which relied upon the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason. All this notwithstanding, however, we’ve soaked in enough real Protestantism from other traditions that we know a good opportunity to split off from one another when we see one. The disintegration of our structures of governance and authority will surely provide sufficient reason.
This is all leading up to a few questions that we should think through denominationally:
1) At what point does one’s individual conscience supersede the collective decisions of the body to which one is ordained?
2) What is the appropriate response when we feel the body to which we are ordained is acting unethically?
3) What are we to think about people who seek ordination with the intention of undermining the collective decisions of the body that will ordain them?
To be clear, I’m not calling for division. I don’t want division. I want to worship alongside brothers and sisters in the faith who help me think more deeply about God. I’m simply pointing out what I think is going to happen if we continue on our current trajectory. I’m interested in reading your comments and hope you’ll help me think through these issues.