Enough: UMC Polity is Not Serving Us Well

This week things kind of blew up in the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As I outline my thoughts, I want to be clear that I believe the vast majority of people involved here mean well. Our Bishop means well, and he has been called upon to walk us through some historically tumultuous times. These are confusing times. Here’s the timeline as I understand it:

  • February 2019: The UMC passes the Traditional Plan, which strengthens prohibitions on all things LGBTQ+ inclusion in the UMC system.
  • May 2019: The Minnesota UMC passes two key items: One rejecting the Traditional Plan at an 80% margin. One, a boldly inclusive aspirational vision at an 85% margin.
  • Summer 2019: A complaint is filed against a queer clergy person in the MNUMC. Bishop Ough does not process nor does he dismiss the complaint.
  • Fall 2019: Because of Congregational strife wherein she is the subject, she resigns from that appointment.
  • December 2019: A plan of separation in the UMC is drafted by representatives of many of the differing parties in the UMC system (many, but not all) is announced. It gets a lot of national press.
  • January 12, 2020: The Star Tribune publishes an article about this plan of separation, but also about the queer clergy person in Minnesota about whom the complaint was filed. Subsequently, progressive Methodists in Minnesota write and post letters and calls to the Bishop to dismiss the complaint.
  • January 13, 2020: The Bishop dismisses the complaint.

If I got any facts wrong here, please gently correct me. artem-maltsev-EbjW1dK9Xic-unsplash

I was one who wrote an email to the Bishop and posted it on my blog. The trick to all of this is that in it the Bishop has been quiet as a way of protecting the confidential HR issues within it. I get that. I respect that. There is a lot to be said about this, and there is a lot that folks like me simply don’t know. That needs to be noted. With that in mind, however, here is my primary learning through this:

On matters of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church, UMC polity is broken and doing harm. United Methodist polity and doctrine as outlined in The Book of Discipline (our governing book), cannot justly solve these issues at both the macro and micro levels, because it is United Methodist polity and doctrine that created them. Our Bishop did what a Bishop is called to do, which is work the system to come to a just resolution. But the system itself has been exploited in such ways that more harm was done. It is not merely the Traditionalist wing of the UMC that is bringing harm to our LGTBQ+ siblings. It is the Traditionalist wing exploiting the polity in such way that the UMC system itself as well is doing harm.

From what I see, what happened here is that there is a process in place which our Bishop chose to follow (and which he is charged with following) that perpetuated and left room for increased harm to come to this clergy person and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. This is why I am not in favor of a merely LGBTQ+ inclusive version of what we already have in the UMC. That would be better, but we would still be submitting to a broken system, and the harm won’t stop, it will merely reimagine itself. Polity should exist to serve the Church, but now the Church is serving the Polity and the result is active harm being done in an institution whose first General Rule is “do no harm”.

As we approach the day when we remember the life and work of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I cannot help but think of his words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which to me today are a like clarion call to the United Methodist Church in our relationship to our polity on these matters: “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”.

There comes a time when for the sake of what is truly right and good and just, a leader has to say, “I don’t care what the rules are, this is harmful, I’m shutting it down, and I’m doing so right now“. There comes a time when privileged folk like me have to muster the courage for the sake of others and say, “no, I will not follow that rule”. There comes a time when it doesn’t matter that it is the sabbath: We need to heal that person anyway. It’s what is right and good and just. Those stories of Jesus violating the letter of law to live out the spirit of it are staring us in the face today. It’s hard to do. As I’ve reflected over the last few days, I can see where I’ve perpetuated harm as a leader in similar ways. Lord, have mercy and grant me the grace to do better.

And this is why it is so vital that marginalized voices are centralized. Because what this week has taught me is that it’s harder to buck the system when the system works well for you. We need to step aside and let those for whom the system hasn’t worked well shape a new way of being. And for some of us, that’s going to be uncomfortable. But it’s good.

Bishop Ough has since published a statement which is available here.  I cannot imagine the hours of sleep has lost trying to do the right and good thing in a complicated system and in a tumultuous time over the years. I appreciate him, his heart, and his work. Pray for Bishop Ough. And pray for our LGBTQ+ siblings and allies who have been and continue to be harmed by our Church.

But as I said in my letter: Justice was compromised the moment this complaint was filed, and it should have been shut down right away, because justice continued to be compromised and harm continued to be inflicted with every second it remained. If we are going to live into the vision to which we voted to aspire in May, we are going to have to ready ourselves for massive and uncomfortable systemic changes. Enough is enough.

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