- by Rev. Steve Wolff -
This is national 2013 in review week, particularly for lists of who died. I was looking at the list of notable passings in Methodism and was quite surprised that the lead off name was was Margaret Thatcher, and the last was Nelson Mandela. Both baptized as Methodists. Any organization that can hold both of these two must have something to say about openness, passionate discourse and tolerance. The United Methodist motto of Open hearts, Open minds Open Doors might just fit.
Along side the honored dead list I found reports on the fate of the Rev. Frank Schaefer. The Rev Schaefer’s story as I have followed it goes like this: In 2007 his son asked Rev Schaefer to preside at his marriage to someone else's son. It’s important to recall that these are real people involved here, not just faceless categories of gay or straight. Under current Disciplinary rules in The United Methodist Church, presiding at the wedding of two people of the same sex, or blessing such a covenantal union, is forbidden. The Rev Schaefer was charged, tried and found guilty of violating the Discipline, and sentenced to a 30 day suspension by the the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference. Rev Schaefer was instructed that at the end of the 30 days, he would be asked to promise to abide by the Discipline “in its entirety” or resign his orders. At the end of the 30 days, Rev Schaefer gave his answer: no, in good conscience he could not give that guarantee. He was then asked to surrender his Orders as an Elder and refused. At this point, the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry declared that they considered Rev Schaefer’s orders to be surrendered.
There is a certain common sense to this procedure. If a pastor is found guilty of any serious misconduct, when (and if) they are reinstated to ministry, there is an expectation of assurance they won’t offend again. This is for everyone’s protection, including the institution. Still, something does not taste right about the action in this case, and it has nothing to do with the church’s stand on Homosexuality or Marriage. Throughout the proceedings Rev Schaefer has been clear that he understands the rules, that his actions are at odds with the rules and that he acted because he disputes those rules. His refusal to surrender his orders is in effect an act of Civil Disobedience aimed at the institution of The United Methodist Church. The Board of Ordained Ministry is within its authority to rescind Rev. Schaefer’s orders and bar him from ministry in The United Methodist Church or, as the press likes to call it, Defrock him. That’s not what they did though. In declaring Schaefer’s orders surrendered, rather than removed, they moved to erase his protest, to render his act of civil disobedience and him as nonexistent. This action of the Eastern Pennsylvanian Board of Ordained ministry is one of pure institutional protectionism. That is a very different issue than who can and can not be married and one that will have a chilling effect on the life of the church.
My own feelings on same sex marriage fall closer to those of the Rev Schaefer, but I do believe that a church that can hold in tension both Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela will survive dispute and discourse around this and most any issue. What it cannot survive is institutionalism and loyalty oaths that seek to suppress and purge all evidence of opposition. That sort of institution would not be able to hold the tension of diverse people. To preserve that sort of institution, dissenters have to go, and go silently.
My response to this is a small thing, a very small thing. The symbol of my accreditation from the institution of The United Methodist Church is the stole I wear most Sundays, as an ordained elder in full connection. As sign of solidarity and honor and protest, Sunday January 5th, Epiphany Sunday and the Sunday we recall Herod slaying the innocents to preserve another institution, I am going to very intentionally put my stole aside. I invite any of my colleagues who will to join me. As such acts go, it is not much, but it is a sign act, just as communion is sign act. My prayer is that it will also be a sign of the Real Presence of Christ in our church.
. . .
Rev. Steve Wolff is the lead pastor of North East Oregon Cooperative United Methodist Circuit.