The DeLong Challenge

By Rob Renfroe

Within this edition of Good News you will find several articles describing and reacting to the trial of the Reverend Amy DeLong, a United Methodist elder that was recently brought before a church court in Wisconsin for (1) having performed a “holy union” for a same-gender couple and (2) being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. She was found guilty of the first charge, but not guilty of the second.

Representing the church’s case against DeLong were the Rev. Tom Lambrecht—a UM pastor in Wisconsin, a long-time Good News board member, and now on our staff as General Manager—and the Rev. Keith Boyette, a former attorney, a UM pastor in Virginia, and the current chairperson of Good News’ board of directors. Theirs was not an easy or pleasant task, but they fulfilled their duties admirably. I tell you that because I want you to know that no other group is doing more than Good News to defend The Book of Discipline, hold church officials accountable for enforcing the Discipline, and fight for the unity of the United Methodist Church.

The Good. The split decision is actually as good as we could have hoped for. Wisconsin is a very liberal Conference and the verdict of “guilty” on either charge was not a given. “Jury nullification” was a very real possibility. We can be gratified that the Rev. DeLong’s peers held her accountable (by a vote of 13-0) for breaking the Discipline when she officiated a “holy union” for a lesbian couple.

The reason she was found not guilty of being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual is twofold. First, whether through incompetence, neglect, or ignorance, before charges were brought against the Rev. DeLong, the officials of the Wisconsin Annual Conference did not ask the questions necessary to prove that she was a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Second, when asked those questions at her trial, she refused to answer. Hence, even though DeLong’s partnered relationship with another woman is well-known (they filed for domestic partnership in Wisconsin), the jury had no evidence before it to find her guilty on the second charge.

The Bad. Unfortunately, the penalty for Delong’s actions was a mere slap on the wrist. She has been suspended for twenty days and she must participate in a small group to discuss what she has done, write a report on her understanding of covenant-keeping, and present her thoughts to the Wisconsin Annual Conference.

What makes this “penalty” particularly disturbing is that the Rev. DeLong is neither remorseful nor repentant of her actions. “I’m excited,” she told the Associated Press after the trial. “I feel like I’ve been sentenced to write and teach, and that’s what I dedicated my ministry to anyhow. I’m always open to the opportunity to get people together and help us resolve our differences.”

Furthermore, she said before the penalty was determined that she would continue to perform same-gender marriages.

So, let’s get this straight. You knowingly and purposefully break the Church’s policies. You do so in a public way that creates pain to many faithful UM members—and no doubt will cause some to leave the Church. And asked if you would do it again, you respond affirmatively. And your penalty is to join a small group, write an essay, and enjoy a platform for espousing your views before your Annual Conference.

In no other institution in the world would we see such a ludicrous response. Secular or religious, every other organization that cares about its integrity would have said, “Thank you for your past service. You can gather your personal belongings, we will escort you to the door, and we wish you well in looking for future employment. Maybe you can find another company that will allow you to break its policies and embarrass it publicly simply because you believe you are more enlightened or more sincere than it is.”

At the very least, the Wisconsin court should have suspended the Rev. DeLong from pastoral ministry until she promised to abide by UM doctrine and policies. That was the modest and reasonable penalty proposed by the counsel of the Church.

Some who defend DeLong claim that for her marrying same-gender couples is an “act of conscience;” and, therefore, she should be given a light sentence. But what would become of UM pastors who as a matter of conscience refused to pay apportionments to support the General Board of Church and Society? Or as a matter of conscience re-baptized persons previously baptized as infants? Or who as a matter of conscience refused to work with ordained female clergy? In each of these cases, “conscience” would not be accepted as a valid excuse for breaking the church’s policies. And you can be sure, that persons continuing in these practices would be suspended and finally removed from the ministry.

But Amy DeLong gets a pass. Why? Because a liberal agenda in a liberal Conference trumps consistency and integrity.

The Ugly. Recently, hundreds of UM pastors have recently signed statements that they will perform same-gender marriages in the future—most notably in Minnesota, Northern Illinois, New York and New England. It’s possible that we will go through a time of massive ecclesiastical disobedience that will threaten our ability to live together as a united church.

Those who want to promote a pro-gay agenda contrary to the teachings of the Bible know they do not have the votes to change the official positions of the UM Church that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. We are the only mainline church that has maintained a scriptural position on these issues and the liberals know that they have little hope of changing our official stance any time soon.

They have also seen the Judicial Council continue to be faithful in its interpretation of the Discipline. The present Council has been given opportunities to liberalize some past decisions but has refused to do so. So what is left to those who want to change our positions is disobedience so rampant and so wide-spread that enforcement will become onerous and overwhelming.

We are entering a time of crisis. You have done your part. You have stood up for the truth of the Gospel, you have remained faithful in your local churches, and you have made the work of Good News possible with your prayers and your financial support.

It is now time for the Council of Bishops to do its part—and that is lead. Not after the fact, but before. It is time for every Bishop to sign a statement that he or she will enforce the Discipline regardless of how often it is disobeyed or how many pastors in his/her Conference breaks it.

What we do not need is another tepid, innocuous statement about holy conferencing and having a conversation. For 40 years we have engaged in the holy conferencing that is called General Conference; for 40 years we have listened to each other; and for 40 years delegates have been given the opportunity to vote their conscience. And that process will continue.

Breaking the covenant that holds us together is not holy conferencing—it is, in fact, the very antithesis of holy conferencing. It is disobedience—and disrespectful of the witness of a worldwide denomination, the Holy Scriptures, and the historic teaching of the Church. And if it is allowed to continue, we ourselves will discover the disastrous effects of living in a time when “each one did what was right in his own eyes.”

Those who are in positions of leadership need to understand that widespread homosexual marriages by UM pastors will cause so much damage to United Methodism  that it may not be repairable. And it will be done on their watch.

History will record the actions of our Bishops— whether they stood for the integrity and the unity of the church and led in a way that prevented a church split or whether they were oblivious to the signs of the times and fiddled while the church burned.

Please join me in praying and believing that our Bishops will be the leaders we need them to be: proactive, courageous, and committed to the clear teachings of the Scriptures. The future of the church we love depends upon it.

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.