United Methodists are in the middle of a conversation about the consequences of being in ministry with good consciences.
An open letter from the Council of Bishops and a recent decision by the Judicial Council have most United Methodists thinking that we are talking about whether or not loving couples should be married by our pastors or in our churches—if the couple happens to be the same gender—and whether our pastors should be punished for this ministry.
The truth is, we are talking about having a good conscience about providing ministry to all of our members as much as we are talking about marriage.
Yet, it was marriage equality in states across this country that highlighted the conundrum of whether we should minister to all of our members. Today, with loving couples who happen to be gay or lesbian marrying in Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., and the Northwest’s Coquille Indian Tribe, pastors in those states and many others are realizing that they face a decision of conscience that has consequences.
If they follow their vow to minister to all of their church members, they fall outside of the ban of marriages and performing of marriages for same gender couples and could face official complaints—and possibly charges and a trial.
If they follow the prohibition, they betray their vow to the people of God. When a pastor refuses to minister to the members of their church and community, they are effectively creating second class citizens in the kingdom of God—a baptism with caveats, grace with a catch-22.
Too often, couples who are heterosexual are supported and told they have a special blessing. They are urged to make God and the church essential to their marriage and family life. Same gender couples are denied and relegated to finding community and spiritual nurture someplace else.
Happily, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans have all dropped language that bans ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. More than ten million Protestants now belong to denominations that are living into inclusion.
But, shall our clergy simply refer couples who are gay and lesbian to a church down the street? “Sorry, no-can-do, but I know this really great Lutheran church that might open their door to you.” It is situations like this that have piqued the consciences of more than 1,000 ministers across this country who have signed a vow to live up to their original vow of ministering to their entire congregation.
Of course the Council of Bishops is facing their own crisis of conscience and stated that they will “uphold the Book of Discipline as established by General Conference.” Yet, their own letter lays out the ethical contradictions when they quote the Discipline which says “we implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (par. 161F).”
I believe if the church reads the letter from the Bishops carefully, they will hear the bishops beginning to lay the groundwork for when the policies change within The Methodist Church so that there is only one baptism, one ministry to loving couples and one ordination.
There will be consequences of all of these actions. Bishops will work hard to bring reconciliation to any official complaint and any complaint that goes to trial will receive decreasing punishments. The United Methodist Judicial Council left sanctions up to each jury.
Eventually—sooner than later—The United Methodist Church will drop all bans that create second class baptisms. Like all ethical decision by United Methodists, good judgment and the core value of God’s love for everyone will shine the light on rules that are dehumanizing.
When Jesus was challenged about the ethics of his ministry on the Sabbath, he confronted his critics with their own ethical contradictions. “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” (Luke 14:5)
In a similar story in Mark, Jesus laid out how he made his decisions: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27.
United Methodists will soon return to ministry with all people. We know that loving God comes first, loving neighbor is like unto it. And, in the end, we know the Book of Discipline is made for humanity, not humanity for the Book of Discipline.
The Rev. Troy Plummer is the executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network and a former pastor at Bering Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, where he provided psychotherapy and support to families living with HIV/AIDS.