Let the penalty fix the “crime”

shame hands face coveredHere we go again…

A month after the Board of Ordained Ministry in Pennsylvania stripped Rev. Frank Schaefer of his ordination credentials for officiating at his son’s wedding and refusing to state he would follow the entirety of the Book of Discipline in the future, the United Methodist Church is back at it again.

The New York Annual Conference announced the date of March 10 as the beginning of the trial of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree. Like Rev. Schaefer, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is an ordained United Methodist Elder. Like Schaefer, he has a son who is gay. Like Schaefer, he officiated at his son’s wedding. In addition, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is a former professor and Dean at a Divinity School in Connecticut, oh, right, Yale, and before that Drew. Where he taught such irrelevant courses as theological ethics and Christian social ethics. And literally wrote the book in the church’s witness to the world– Oh, just read about him here.

At least one friend has compared the coming trial to that time that the Ministry of Magic tried to interrogate Professor Dumbledore. Not a bad comparison.

I don’t want to get in to all that right now.

These trials have a sort of fatalistic nature to them. We all assume that the persons on trial will be found guilty. I’m not sure this should be the case– after all, the church says we can’t officiate at same-sex weddings, but does not take time to define sex, or explain how, in the absence of legal background checks, medical screenings and examinations, hormonal and chromosomal lab results and so on, a pastor is supposed to determine such. But I digress.

Let’s assume for a moment that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is found guilty of violating the unjust law as laid out in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Where the real interest lies is in the sentencing.

Some clergy members who have been found guilty of such violations have their credentials revoked, as was the case with Rev. Schaefer (legal or not). But in 2011, the jury in the Wisconsin Annual Conference sentenced Rev. Amy DeLong (found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of officiating a same-sex wedding) with a twenty day suspension, and then charged her to research and write a paper addressing the nature of the clergy covenant, how it has been harmed and how it might be healed.

The old saying goes, let the punishment fit the crime. But DeLong’s “punishment” seemed more intended to fix or at least address the root problems in the alleged “crime.”

What if the jury in Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s trial took that approach? What if they used this opportunity not to punish Ogletree or scare others into compliance with laws they find unjust (how’s that working for ya?), but to address root problems in this issue?

Specifically, I would like to see the jury, should they find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty of a violation of unjust church law, instruct him to create or propose a system for dealing with charges that persons are self-avowed practicing homosexuals or have officiated at same-sex weddings, in ways other than trials. Church trials are a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength. They show the watching world that The United Methodist Church is divided and broken, and no better able to live together in difference and brokenness than middle schoolers on the playground. Yes, they highlight the injustices in the system and as such become a force for eventual change, but I fear there won’t be much of a church left by the time they’ve accomplished that work. If only we had a former Dean of a theological school, a professor of Christian ethics, an author who has researched the church’s witness to the world on social issues, and a pastor and parent with life experience to reflect with us on these things!

So that’s my modest proposal for the jury in the Ogletree trial: Find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty if you must (although try to see if you can get your terms and concepts around sex and sexuality and gender and gender identity somewhat consistent if you can). But then consider the injustice of the letter of the law. Consider the pain to the whole church and the whole world for as long as the world is still listening to anything remotely called “church.” Consider the resource and gift of the person in front of you.

Seek the Middle Way. Remain in connection. Work for justice and for healing.

Let the punishment at least try to start fixing the crime.

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13 Responses

  1. We really need to stop doing this to good pastors. For those who follow the Discipline, what if it was your son? Would you really deny him that right?

    • Thanks for your comment, Dan. I agree, and my reflection about whether or not I would officiate for my child quickly led to a broader conclusion. Yes, I would officiate for my daughter or son, regardless of the gender of their partner, so long as the relationship was healthy and mutual and loving and so on (and if it’s not, I’d have bigger issues as parent to work with them on!). And if that’s what I’m prepared to do for my child, it had better, for me, be what I am prepared to do for anyone else’s. And so it is.

      Blessings,
      Becca

  2. Hey, Dan. Yes, I would decline to perform a same-sex service for my son or daughter. I don’t give them everything they want, and there are other ways for me to show love and affirmation besides breaking my promises. Besides that, getting married in the church is not a “right,” but a service offered to those who qualify. Otherwise, no pastor would ever refuse to marry anyone (but we sometimes do).

    Becca, I agree that trials are “a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength,” as you put it. Every person who has had a complaint filed against them for performing a same-sex service has had the option of not going to trial if they would simply agree not to perform another same-sex service as long as the Book of Discipline prohibits that. So far, they have all refused. So the reason we are having trials is because of the intransigence of the respondents, not because of the eagerness of those filing the complaints.

    Bottom line: the way to avoid trials is for people to maintain their conduct within the parameters that the church has communally decided to observe, even while passionately expressing disagreement with those parameters. I commend Bishop Scott Jones’ thoughts on the subject: http://www.greatplainsumc.org/files/bishop/unity_of_the_spirit_in_the_bond_of_peace.pdf

    • Bishop Scott Jones, who says if 100 clergy officiate same sex weddings then there will be 100 trials. Mr. Lambrecht, how is that any way to go forward in compassion for those in disagreement with our current church law? Where is the compassion by the church for those couples who would be married in and by the church with clergy doing so under the auspices of Biblical obedience? Do you say to me ‘Julie, you are of sacred worth but your marriage is not equal to mine therefore we must pursue the Elder who officiated it, so that you truly understand God loves you differently than God loves me?’ Is that what you mean? Is that what you would say to your own child or grandchildren if they came to you? If not, then what?

    • Hi Tom,

      I agree that getting married in a particular church or with a particular pastor is not a right; it is an act of faith, a sign of grace, a powerful and important ministry. I truly hope you are never put in a position where you feel you have to wrestle with your love for your children and your understanding of church doctrine. Or with your call to and love for all God’s children, your living out your deep and inescapable call to ministry, and your understanding of church doctrine.

      I disagree with the suggestion that trials are the result of either the complainants or the respondents. Trials over these matters arise, in my opinion, from a brokenness in the system, not from the actions or beliefs being lived out. When there is question about what is right and just in a given circumstance, it seems that we need healing and closer relationship, not punitive rulings and sentences.

      We are not talking about clear cut instances of wrongdoing upon which everyone can agree; in this case the people living out their calling to be in ministry with all persons, regardless of the narrow interpretation of the Discipline when it comes to the sexes of people getting married, do not believe that their actions are in violation of God’s law, but are in fact in keeping with it. To suggest that they simply obey the unjust laws before them so as to avoid trial is the same as suggesting that Rev. Dr. King and Ms. Parks and their friends stop marching and sitting where they are not allowed to avoid the police gangs, and Gandhi keep his mouth shut about castes to not enrage those in power, and that that Jesus fellow keep his healing hands to himself on the sabbath if he’d like to keep them free from nail holes. Those passionate for justice cannot and will not be muzzled or intimidated by fear when the fire of equality under God’s sight burns in them.

      Finally, I do have to take issue with the claim that those filing complaints are not pushing trials in their eagerness. At least when such a claim comes from the Vice President of a group that has been actively pushing for a trial against at least one clergy person my own conference. The irony is a little thick.

      Seeking shalom,
      Becca

      • Hi, Becca.

        The system is designed to provide for accountability. Trials are the last resort part of the accountability process. It’s not the system’s fault that some people won’t abide by the covenant we have established through holy conferencing. If you as an ordained elder decided not to itinerate, there is a process for holding you accountable that allows for a trial as a last resort. The right to a trial is mainly to protect the accused person from an unsubstantiated or arbitrary complaint/action by the bishop. So if you felt you were being unjustly treated because of your decision not to itinerate, you could request a trial. The problem here is not with the system, but with those who decide not to comply with the parameters set by the church which they freely chose to vow allegiance to.

        You are wanting to say that, because a minority percentage of the church is so convinced that the church is wrong on its requirements, you reserve the right to ignore the church’s covenant, of which you are a part. That course of action puts personal opinion/discernment ahead of the discernment of the body. And it is a course of action that may very well lead to the destruction or at least structural separation of the denomination. You may think that consequence is worth risking. I do not.

        If Good News were “eager” to push for trials, we would be out combing through records to try and identify every last clergy person who has performed a same-sex union or marriage. We are not doing that. We help with cases that come to our attention, either because they have national publicity or because they are brought to our attention by United Methodists in a particular area. At this point, I believe there are perhaps dozens of services that have been performed that we have no knowledge of and no plans to file complaints on. In fact, up to this point, we have not filed any complaints ourselves. Our “push” is for clergy members to hold themselves accountable to our covenant and for our church to hold accountable those who refuse to do so.

    • So let me alter that question a bit for you Tom – suppose your child comes to a realization that they are gay, even if they try to fight it for years since your stance has been so clear. Suppose that after all the heartache and internal conflict that creates (along with consideration of suicide, fear of being truthful with you, perhaps a bout with depression that leads to use of drugs and alcohol)…..suppose that after all that, they come to grips with who God has made them and realize that they are of Sacred Worth, their life turns around, they become happy again and eventually find someone that loves them for who they are and life becomes complete. Recognizing their worth to God, this couple has found a church where they can worship and be part of the body of Christ in communion with others. After all this they decide to get make their union official, find a church where it is allowed and make plans to be wed. Knowing your stance, your son or daughter spares you the painful spot of having to choose between your belief and your love for them, the couple decides out of love for you to not put you on the spot and ask you to perform the ceremony – BUT – they do want you to attend as part of the family they love. Would you attend? If so, how would you justify that to your group. If not, how would you live with it the rest of your life – especially if it leads your child to decide that your love for them was not what they thought?

      Granted this is all hypoethical – but that IS the position that so many families actually find themselves in. That is the reality of God’s world – and points our the Harm that can be done by the laws we have as written. So how would you deal with it if it was your family?

  3. The Upper NY Annual Conference voted 568 to 449, not long ago, to dump the bigoted language in the Book of Discipline. In 1971, when the language went in, might there have been a similar ratio among the humans voting? Remember when we did not want to worship with Methodists with darker skin pigmentation?

  4. Excellent post, Becca. Republishing on UM Insight.

  5. Reblogged this on Wheneftalks and commented:
    Worth your consideration, my friends. This may well be the direction the church must go in order to move forward on these issues. I appreciate Becca for, as usual, giving us all so much to consider….EF

  6. So when ya’all are ordained you don’t promise to adhere to the Book of Discipline? Is adherence optional? If it’s such an issue why join up with the UMC in the first place? And if you do vow to uphold the Book of Discipline, why don’t you feel morally obligated to keep that vow? Or do some of you Methodist-types think keeping promises is no big deal?

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