Thursday, December 05, 2013

Just Pretend It Isn't There?

Scripture interprets Scripture.

But Book of Discipline apparently does not interpret Book of Discipline.

At 3:20 in this video, Rob Renfroe and Tom Lambrecht discuss how pleased they are that Frank Schaefer was not allowed to use a section of the Book of Discipline to “undermine” another section in the recent United Methodist judicial proceeding against him. (Here’s what I wrote previously about this case.)

A judicial ruling that prohibits someone from using the Book of Discipline to “undermine” itself is really all you need in order to perfectly encapsulate how screwed up our denomination is.

The fact that we have a Book of Discipline that actually could be used to undermine itself is a sign of the messiness of our processes. I for one love this mess; it is holy, and we call it “conferencing.” I think we do holy conferencing pretty well, actually. I saw it at work in the South Central Jurisdiction during our most recent meeting, with regard to Bishop Bledsoe. Messy, tense, yet filled with grace and respect. No, the mess is not where the problem lies.

The problem arises when you try to impose “by the book” thinking on a “holy conferencing” system. One is neat and tidy, either/or, cut and dried. The other is the aforementioned holy messiness that we know as the conference. We really need to make a choice here; it needs to be one or the other. How serious are we about upholding our commitment to conferencing? If it truly is a part of our Methodist identity, then why in the world would we prohibit discussion of the entire Book of Discipline in a disciplinary setting?

I do not know what specific part of the Book of Discipline Schaefer wanted to use in his defense. My facts are limited to the video I saw. But it doesn’t matter with regard to my larger question in this instance.

The Bible contradicts itself all over the place. Like women don’t speak in church but in Christ there is neither male nor female, for example. How do we followers of Jesus deal with these contradictions? We talk about them. We discuss, we think, we pray, we conference.

Yes, the Bible and the Book of Discipline are two very different things, I get that. But the principle is the same. I would never dream of ignoring parts of the Bible just because they happened to “undermine” another part. Instead I wrestle with it until it begins to make sense to me, and I do so in relationship and conversation with others.

I suppose I just find it incredibly disheartening that we can’t do the same with the Discipline, especially when that is exactly what we are supposed to do as Methodists. We’re not a “by the book” church. We are a concentric set of conferences – charge, district, annual, jurisdictional, general – built on relationships and dialogue, not hierarchy and dogma.

The message of this ruling is clear. Don’t bother looking in the Book of Discipline for anything that might contradict the “Don’t marry gay people” policy. Nothing along the lines of, oh say for example…

“Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law.” (Paragraph 162.J)

And you’re definitely not allowed to ponder how in the world we can make a claim like this and at the very same time forbid our pastors to marry same sex couples in states where it is legal. That would be “undermining,” you see, and get all messy. We just can’t have that.


Unknown said...

holy CRAP. that paragraph at the end just makes my brain explode.

also, we weren't good at acknowledging our contradictions 20 years ago either:

Todd said...

Thanks for posting this, Andy. As a pastor serving in one of those places where same sex marriage is legal, you've summed up my conundrum pretty well.

On a side note, I was struck by this part: "We’re not a “by the book” church. We are a concentric set of conferences – charge, district, annual, jurisdictional, general – built on relationships and dialogue, not hierarchy and dogma."

While in theory this is true, and we clergy like to talk about our identity as a "connection", I'm not sure how real this is for most people in the pews. Let's face it - most people have no experience of or interest in Jurisdictional or General conference. Polity geeks, yes, but they are an endangered species.

Annual Conference isn't all that much better - most congregations I've served have maybe 10-12 people who have ever attended, and outside of an obligatory report (usually given on a summer Sunday with low attendance or printed in a summer newsletter) no one else gives it much thought. District conferences don't exist in my area anymore, and even charge conferences (which were once quarterly, but are now annual) are usually sparsely attended. So while we talk a good game about holy conferencing, we don't really do that much of it.

More importantly - this system of conferencing used to extend down a few more levels - through a system of bands and classes. The idea was that everyone had a direct, personal, experience of being "in conference", sharing faith and life with others. Without that experience underlying the rest - well - you get what we have: A system more concerned with getting results efficiently and according to Robert's Rules than in building relationships.

I see much more hope in a return to the messiness and the mystery of this kind of real relationship than in any "reform" or "reorganization" of our current system, but our addiction to business models our fear of institutional death sadly seems to be ruling the day instead.