This E-pistle is a word of instruction and guidance for the clergy of the Indiana Conference, but of course lay persons from Indiana and all other readers are welcome to read and reflect upon these issues.
Three newsworthy developments in the past week have left many of our United Methodist clergy in Indiana wondering "what's a pastor to do?" regarding the issue of same-gender marriage. In case you are not aware, those three events were:
- The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted to change their definition of marriage from "one man and one woman" to "two persons." They also voted to allow each Presbytery (most are the size of a District or Conference in the UMC) to determine whether or not a candidate for ministry who is gay or lesbian may be approved for ministry. And of course in the Presbyterian system the final decision about calling or hiring a pastor is made by the local congregation.
- The Committee on Appeals of the NE Jurisdiction of the UMC voted to overturn the second of two punishments of Frank Schaefer, the UM clergy in Pennsylvania who was found guilty of conducting a same-gender wedding. Upon appeal, it was determined that his trial was in error to suspend him for 30 days and to also remove his credentials when, after 30 days, he did not agree to promise not to conduct any future same-gender weddings. The Committee on Appeals ruled (I believe rightly) that a pastor cannot be punished for a possible future violation. The decision of the Committee on Appeals may itself be appealed to the Judicial Council of our UMC.
- A federal judge in Indiana ruled yesterday that the Indiana law defining marriage as a legal commitment between "a man and woman" is unconstitutional (by the U.S. Constitution) because it discriminates against same-gender couples who want to get married in Indiana. The Attorney General of the state of Indiana has already filed an appeal of that decision, and he has also asked for a "stay" on the decision during the appeal. However, in the meantime hundreds of same-gender couples have gone to county courthouses to secure marriage licenses and some have been married in civil services, too. Undoubtedly we are in for a long legal battle over this issue in Indiana as various appeals are heard and adjudicated.
In the midst of these newsworthy events and the general changes in our culture in the U.S., what can and should a United Methodist clergy do with regard to same-gender marriages? As your Bishop and supervisor of your ministry, here are my instructions:
- Our United Methodist Church stance on marriage defines marriage as a covenant between a man and woman, and so our clergy are not allowed to officiate at same-gender weddings, and ceremonies which celebrate same-gender marriages may not be held in our UM churches. If or when that stance is changed it will happen by the General Conference of our UMC, and a change of state law or the change of stance by other denominations does not apply to the religious practices of our UMC.
- Our United Methodist Church also declares that all persons, gay and straight, are persons of "sacred worth" and so our pastors and churches are mandated to be in ministry "to and with" all persons. Especially we are to advocate for equal civil rights for all persons. So any couple who are legally married should be respected as such by our pastors and churches, and if members of our churches they should be listed that way on membership records. Likewise the adopted children of any same-gender couples are eligible for baptism by our pastors in our churches, because baptism focuses upon the children and upon God's grace. Any parents bringing a child for baptism should be willing to respond to the appropriate vows of faith, but it is always the discretion of the pastor of the local congregation whether any person is "ready" for membership or for any other sacraments or rituals. Such rituals as the "blessing of a home" might be ways for a pastor to offer care and support for any same-gender couples, without that pastor violating our Book of Discipline.
- Those two paragraphs above should make it obvious to everyone that being a United Methodist clergy today is not an easy task. We have placed our pastors in a tough situation of making pastoral decisions which are faithful to our UM policies but which are also pastoral and caring for each individual situation. I hope that all of our laity will understand and encourage their pastors in making these wise decisions. I trust our pastors to make wise decisions. I do not look for opportunities to second-guess our pastors who make such decisions with integrity, although deliberate acts of disobedience and violation have to be addressed in my responsibility as bishop.
- I cannot predict what the future will bring for the issues of homosexuality, same-gender marriages, and the ordination and appointment of practicing homosexuals. Clearly our U.S. culture is changing on these issues, but it is also true that the vast majority of Christian denominations around the world maintain a traditional view of marriage (namely a man and woman) and a disapproval of homosexual behavior (no Christian denominations condemn persons for having homosexual orientation). I think it is likely that our United Methodist Church will continue to grapple with these issues. Perhaps we will move toward the European model whereby couples can only get married legally in civil ceremonies by the government, and then those who want a "Christian marriage" do so in a church covenant service. Up until now, our clergy have acted as agents of the government when we officiate at weddings. That might change in the future.
- While there are no recorded teachings of Jesus in the Gospels about the issue of homosexuality or same-gender marriages, the teachings of Jesus about religious hypocrisy are quite clear and convicting. Those of us who are heterosexual must be very cautious to avoid the sin of religious hypocrisy. Already I have received e-mails and letters from some persons lamenting that these same-gender marriages have "damaged the institution of marriage." My response is to the contrary: the institution of marriage has been damaged in recent decades by the misconduct, misuse, and immorality of heterosexuals. We have allowed marriage to be violated, ignored, abused, and reduced to mere convenience. It is the heterosexual community which needs to confess and repent for our destruction of the institution of marriage. Until we do that, our judgmental attitude toward same-gender couples who want to commit to a life-long monogamous relationship must cease. Indeed, as I watched the news report about the hundreds of same-gender couples who hurried to the courthouses of Indiana to get a marriage license, I found myself admiring their desire to be married and faithful and legal. And I remembered the times when, as a pastor, I officiated at weddings of heterosexual couples who seemed not to take seriously their marriage vows. As such times, as a pastor I have felt "used" by those couples, and I doubted that our church was being treated with respect. All pastors can tell such stories with regret. In the midst of that reality, I am very reluctant to engage in judgment and condemnation of anyone who really wants to be married, committed, and faithful.
So, what is a pastor to do? My answer: do the best you can. Be faithful to your vows to United Methodist ministry, even if you choose to advocate for changing any of our UM policies. Be pastoral to each person and each situation you face. Be assured that your Bishop trusts you but also holds you accountable. Be blessed by God as you minister to all people in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ.