October may become a month of completion (like the corresponding number 10) for the Eastern PA Conference in regard to resolutions on the controversial issue of clergy performance of a same-gender wedding.
Bishop Peggy Johnson announced on Oct. 3 that a Just Resolution was completed to satisfy a complaint filed May 30 against 36 clergy who had co-officiated such a wedding for two men at Philadelphia’s Arch Street UMC on Nov. 9, 2013.
She also is meeting with clergy and laity groups during October for dialogues on this very issue as it pertains to clergy adherence and opposition to church law. Those meetings were requested by the Annual Conference in May as part of its decision to refer to the bishop’s Cabinet six related resolutions on this same matter.
And finally, the Judicial Council, the United Methodist Church’s high court, will affirm or reject on Oct. 22 the Northeastern Jurisdiction Appeals Committee’s June ruling to restore clergy credentials to the Rev. Frank Schaefer.
He lost those credentials last December for refusing to promise to “uphold the Book of Discipline in its entirety,” following his trial for performing the same-gender wedding of his son, Tim. Schaefer has since transferred to the California-Pacific Conference and is serving a church there as an Elder in full connection.
The Just Resolution announced Oct. 3 was completed by the Sept. 30 deadline and then signed by representatives of both sides in the negotiations. Both the complainants and the respondents began their statements in the joint resolution asserting that their actions show faithfulness to the Discipline and “reflect the love of God.” They disagree on the whether or not the church law book is discriminatory against “practicing homosexuals” and consistent with Christian principles.
The complainants advocate for upholding order, unity and accountability among ordained clergy, while supporting the right to challenge church law through “all appropriate and legal means.” However, when clergy vows are violated even in good conscience, they say, “disciplinary action must be taken.”
Acknowledging that they violated “certain rules of our Discipline,” the respondents admit to having “opened ourselves to certain consequences, which we are willing to face.” However, they explain their “civil disobedience” as being “in solidarity with our LGBT friends, family members, neighbors and church members,” for whom “discriminatory policies and practices continue to cause emotional and psychological harm.”
Both sides agreed to the resolution “to avoid the cost and pain of an ecclesiastical trial, and to maintain the unity of the church amid our deep disagreement.” The respondents “acknowledge their obligation to obey the Discipline” and that a repeat violation will subject them to the complaint process and “prompt and appropriate disciplinary action.” In response, the complainants agree to not pursue any complaint for any such violation committed up to Sept. 30.
Both sides agreed to not disclose any of the “internal debates” in their negotiations and to refrain from making “defamatory” comments against each other. They acknowledged that each side sees itself as obeying good conscience and “the call of Christ.” They also agreed to engage in dialogue to seek “ways that enable both groups to live together within the same communion with integrity.”
The dialogues will comprise two meetings. The first will define a respectful process of listening and honest discourse. Small groups will dialogue aided by an outside facilitator. The second session will probe beyond differences to determine “how we can live and work together, moving forward.”
“This is where we can move (to) the next step in our conference,” the resolution asserts, “and model a sense of unity for the denomination.”
Bishop Johnson, in an attached statement, accepted the terms of the resolution, acknowledging each side’s “principled belief” about challenging and upholding church law. “Though I may sympathize with the pastoral concerns of the respondents,” she stated, “it is unacceptable to disregard and disobey the Book of Discipline; change must be sought through our established means of Holy Conferencing.”
She further pledged to “handle swiftly and with significant and appropriate consequences” any future complaints lodged against clergy who “officiate or host a same-gender ceremony.” Those consequences, she added, may include a trial or unpaid involuntary leave in accordance with the Discipline and in consultation with the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session.
“It is my hope that the dialogues will provide a way forward for us,” said Johnson, “and model for the church a way of engaging one another in love and respect, in accord with the Discipline, amid profound disagreement.”
—John Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director