The United Methodist Reporter has published an open letter from United Methodist polity expert Thomas E. Frank asking the Council of Bishops to halt further church trials for clergy who officiate same-sex unions. Several such trials are pending, and Frank believes the the Bishops have the authority to put a stop to these trials by opting not to refer complaints to the counsel for the Church. Frank’s appeal rests on his conviction that the trials put the unity of the UMC in peril. The Bishops, he argues, have the pastoral responsibility and authority to preserve the unity of the Church, even if it means acting in opposition to the will of the General Conference. As an alternative to church trials, Frank calls for open conversation and serious engagement with each other’s views. The letter comes at a crucial time as the Council of Bishops are meeting at Lake Junaluska this week.
I appreciate Dr. Frank’s concern for the unity of the Church. It is a concern that I share, which is why I find his argument somewhat shortsighted. Two observations are in order that will hopefully shed light on why his proposal will neither solve our problem nor preserve our unity.
First, if the Bishops heed Frank’s call to halt the trials going forward, it is likely to lead to schism, which is what Frank wants to avoid. Those who hold a traditional view of human sexuality are likely to perceive such a move as the Council’s intentional leading of our Church down the path taken by other mainline denominations who have adopted attitudes toward human sexuality contrary to that of historic Christian orthodoxy. Such a move could be perceived as a functional, if not an official, change in our denominational stance that would easily result in increased calls for schism. Ironically, following Frank’s advice is likely to lead to the very thing he is desperately trying to avoid.
Second, Frank calls for open conversation as an alternative to church trials, but it is difficult to imagine how this is possible. Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert recently refused to abide by the requests of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and entered her episcopal area to conduct a ceremony of blessing for a same-sex union. Bishop Wallace-Padgett insisted that such action would not only be an act of disobedience to The Book of Discipline but would also undermine the ministry that she superintends in the North Alabama Annual Conference. It seems unlikely that the Council of Bishops will be able to model and oversee the sort of conversation that Frank would like to see when one Bishop forego conversation and undermine the ministry of another Bishop. It’s hard to see how Frank’s suggested alternative would result in healthy resolution of our rather critical situation.
In the end, the Council of Bishops is in an exceedingly difficult place as our pastors and as the leaders of our Church. Let’s not underestimate the weight of the burden of their responsibility, and let’s cover them with much prayer. Frank is probably right. Continuing to bring clergy up on charges is likely to dissolve any semblance of unity we may still have. But the alternative of stopping the trials makes schism seem almost inevitable. It is sobering to consider that we may have come to the place in which we discover just how deeply divided the United Methodist Church really is.
UPDATE: Since the publication of this post Good News has published a response to Dr. Frank that substantiates the first observation above by saying, “Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage.” Read the rest of their statement here.