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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Implosion of The United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church has just convicted The Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, PA of violating Church law for performing the wedding of his son to another man. In the punishment phase of the trial, he was suspended for thirty days, at the end of which he must agree to abide by the Methodist Book of Discipline (their equivalent of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law) in its entirety or surrender his ministry credentials.

Pastor Schaefer's prosecution by the UMC is but one in a series of such trials, some of which have already been performed and others which are yet to be convened. In these trials one of the accused clergy's colleagues serves as a kind of prosecuting attorney. I must confess that the idea of serving as a prosecutor of a colleague is so foreign to my understanding of what it is to be an ordained minister that I cannot understand why any ordained person would agree to serve in such a role. Perhaps more importantly, I fail to understand why in the 21st century any Church body would ask a pastor to serve in such a role. Either the Church is a place of forgiveness and grace or it is a place of prosecution and persecution. It cannot be both at the same time.

Did Pastor Schaefer violate UMC Church Law? There can be no question that he did. The question is whether or not the Law is just. The Bible and competent ethicists agree that human beings are under no obligation to obey an unjust law. In order to be just, a law cannot be arbitrary nor can it be arbitrarily applied. On the second count the UMC Book of Discipline fails, because there are UMC pastors who have performed many marriages for same gender loving people and not been prosecuted because their bishop sees the injustice in the law. There is also disparity in the so-called punishment phase of the trials because the punishments are not uniform. In some cases pastors are instructed to work with local Church officials to determine a way to best move forward. In Pastor Schaefer's case, there is no such grace afforded him.

The truth is that the UMC is the only mainline denomination that has not afforded some place in the Church for Same Gender Loving people. Even groups that support LGBT people must hide in the shadows because they are illegal in the UMC and those belonging to them can be excommunicated. Some claim that this is the case because the UMC is a world wide Church and the UMC clergy in the southern hemisphere are profoundly conservative in their views of human sexuality. While those claims have merit, there is still the issue that someone has to decide to prosecute these cases and others must be willing to help. Comparisons with the terribly evil Spanish Inquisition in the Roman Church are unavoidable. People are not only willing to prosecute these cases, they are fairly salivating to get at them. That reflects a true and frightening evil, for it is nothing less than evil when human beings relish the opportunity to devour one another.

Unfortunately for the UMC, they have taken a position regarding human sexuality that allows no dissent because dissenters can be prosecuted by the Church. This is absolutely incompatible with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ on which Christian Churches are allegedly founded. Such small mindedness and autocratic leadership style is the stuff of the great despots of history and the UMC appears willing to goose step solidly in line with that tradition. Could there be any more convincing evidence that what was once a fine and respected denomination has descended to the ranks of evil?

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