Good News response to an open letter from Dr. Thomas Frank

In an open letter to the Council of Bishops, Dr. Thomas Frank, a United Methodist historian, calls upon the bishops to refrain from processing any more complaints against pastors for performing same-sex unions or weddings.  He proposes that no more trials be held in such situations, and that “if we are to find unity in our diversity, we must do so in conference and in our orders” by “open conversation on these pastoral issues.”

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.  For over forty years our church has engaged in extensive conversation and holy conferencing regarding homosexuality and same sex marriage. In every General Conference dating back to 1972, our church has upheld and maintained the historic position that sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman is contrary to God’s design.  Now, Dr. Frank wants to set aside the results of that conversation and substitute the “pastoral judgment” of “a large number of faithful United Methodist ministers in good standing [who] cannot in conscience restrict their pastoral duties to accord with these statements.”

Dr. Frank maintains that “the 2012 session in Tampa failed to acknowledge our lack of consensus and refused a legislative path forward.”  On the contrary, the 2012 session of the General Conference considered alternative points of view and alternative language to describe our church’s position and declined to adopt it.  The legislative path forward is the current and long-standing position of the church, regardless of the fact that Dr. Frank and others wish it were something else.

Dr. Frank decries the “prospect of church trials for at least two different ordained elders who performed such ceremonies for their own beloved children.”  It is important to note for the record that both elders were offered the opportunity to avoid a trial by promising not to perform same-sex services in the future.  Both declined.  Their trials are not simply about “acts … within their own families that exemplify the love and ministries of the church,” but about advancing an ideological agenda to force the church to change its long-standing teaching.

Dr. Frank’s proposal that annual conferences and orders of ministry within annual conferences find a way to live in unity amidst our diversity is a recipe for the balkanization of the church.  Different annual conferences would come to different positions with respect to homosexuality.  Dr. Frank knows that only the General Conference is empowered to speak for the whole church.  The General Conference has spoken on this issue, not once, but ten consecutive times with a consistent message.  The real problem is clergy who refuse to submit to the authority of the church, as they originally promised.

Trials are indeed a last resort.  When clergy refuse to conform their behavior to the requirements of the church through General Conference, the only mechanism left to assure compliance with those requirements is the trial process.  Bishops do not have the authority to override the requirements of the Discipline by failing to pursue accountability for clergy whose actions are chargeable offenses.  The bishops’ failure to act would only cause further harm to the church by revealing the church’s inability to uphold its teachings, encouraging further splintering of our fragile unity.  The door would open for clergy, laity, and congregations to disobey other requirements of the Discipline with which they disagree, inviting chaos and anarchy within the church.

A church trial court is not “only a miniature annual conference of thirteen peers.”  It is a mechanism for engaging in the “review of the ministerial office,” which is a “sacred trust” under the “holy covenant that exists within the membership and organization of The United Methodist Church” (Discipline, ¶363.1 and 362.2).  The trial court does not have the authority to change the church’s teachings or policies, but is charged with upholding them in the practical circumstances of a given situation.  That “holy covenant” includes not only the clergy in a given annual conference, but all clergy and laity of the global United Methodist connection.  As members of one body, we are members of one another.  As such, there can be no such thing as “interference” from United Methodists “outside the annual conference.”  What affects one of us, affects us all.  An annual conference cannot, in our connectional system, be a law unto itself.

In the meantime, the opportunity for conversation always exists, as it has for forty years.  During that time, there have been numerous dialogs and conferences where we have engaged in “open conversation on these pastoral issues” and “[spoken] together openly and honestly, without fear of retribution.”  The integrity of future conversations is threatened, however, by the refusal of some to abide by the results of those past conversations.  Such refusal to honor the process of conferencing erodes the trust necessary to engage in fruitful conversation.

For the sake of the unity of the church, it is time for those seeking to perform same-sex services to honor the process of holy conferencing by refraining from performing such services.  Aborting the conferencing process by enacting individuals’ contrary pastoral judgment hastens the very separation that Dr. Frank seeks to avoid.

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Comments

  1. Brian Allen says

    God Bless your work, Good News! You are the only portion of the UMC I have any faith in any more. As much as I “like” my fellow Methodists and want to be “united” with them, my first priority is to God and His scripture. Jesus tells us the 1st and Greatest Commandment is to Love God with all your heart mind and soul and mind. Jesus also tells us, if we love him, we will keep His Word.

    • chuck chipman says

      “and our neighbor as our self” “And who is our neighbor?” Even Good New persons are my neighbors, am I there’s?

      • Chuck, thank you for adding Jesus’ 2nd Greatest Commandment, not first. We are to love ALL. I love ALL so much that I take the “hate, racist, homophobe, etc.” labels that people “stone” me with for simply reading the Bible and not skipping over Matthew 19:5 and the 4 specific NT verses that mention homosexuality as a sin. I judge no one’s heart. If someone self avows themselves as a homosexual, I LOVE them enough to make sure that they are in a church that does not selectively edit the Bible. If it okay to change the NT that we stand so firm on with passages of love, forgiveness and acceptance (which is conditional upon repentance), what other things can we delete? PLEASE help me with that one, thanks!

  2. Wow, asking people not to bring these issues to the forefront, when “clergy” are clearly disobeying is just sad and weak.

  3. The egregious activity of same sex marriage and audacious requests of active and retired Clergy is making the Methodist UMC a laughing stock in many Christian circles and to the un-churched. The Council of Bishops does harm to the UMC by not addressing these issues and upholding their vows of loyalty. These “radicals” are trying to overwhelm the foundations of our church and by increased incremental disobedience and notoriety; they think they can effect the changes they desire. Our Christian witness, to the world and each other, is being tested for an appropriate response concerning our beliefs and unity.

  4. “Open conversation” ends where active violation of the Discipline begins…

  5. Michael W Jeter says

    I agree with Amanda not addressing the clergy sends the wrong message and leaves the church open for more problems down the road, sooner or later the church will have to address the issue. We are all sinners and we are are to love one another and let God do the judging but the church is the cornerstone of our Savoir Jesus Christ and his father didn’t create man for man, he created women for man and the church must stand behind that.

  6. Many, many of us have faithfully lived in covenant with the UMC and one another for as long as we have been ordained. Tom Frank, Melvin Talbert and others who have insisted on disobeying church law clearly do not care to live within our covenant order, nor do they wish to be held accountable. The time has come to allow those who so vehemently disdain Biblical authority and orthodox teaching to peacefully depart, with the well wishes of the entire church. Conferencing will not change the minds on either side; and we have witnessed, at the most recent General Conferences, that “pro-gay” sympathizers will resort to disruptive protests and will foist their agenda on all with whom they disagree. There is no room in the LGBTQ tent for Biblical orthodoxy. The to be “Wesleyan” while denying the value of both Scriptural authority and 2,000 years of Christian tradition is disingenuous at best and heretical at worst. It would be most loving and compassionate to allow those who so hate the church to depart with as much grace as can be offered.

  7. My comment is that you can NOT ignore the truths of God’s Word and expect His blessings in your life or in your/our church

  8. Larry Hicks says

    Steve,

    Amen, you say much better than I can. I am a pastor in the UMC. We must stay true to the Word of God. It is my desire to continue to serve the Lord, not men. It is very clear to me that homosexuality is sin. What’s next? Will there be a group that condones adultery, and demands that we all go along with it? Jesus is Lord, and the Bible is His Word. I for one will continue to follow the Lord and shepherd His people, I pray that I and others can as a UMC pastor.

  9. In all of the discussion of same sex”marriage”, I have yet to see anyone in favor give their definition of marriage. It is as if they want to assume that everybody has the same definition; which seems to be: “marriage is a permanent committed relationship between consenting adults”. If everybody agrees that that is correct; then they are right. So would those, who might advocate that any number of consenting adults would be able to call their relationship a marriage.
    As Methodist clergy, we all affirmed our commitment to follow the rules in the Discipline, including accepting the Discipline’s definition of marriage.
    Until we change the definition, we must abide by the Discipline or work to have the General Conference change it. If we are not willing to do that then we should consider leaving the Denomination.
    I personally think it would be more appropriate to add a recognized personal partnership relationship for those individuals who by possible genetic influence are not orientated toward the opposite sex.
    All of the homosexual couple that I know and have known over the last 4 decades have always introduced or identified each other as “partner”.
    A long term committed relationship recognized by society and the church promotes social stability and spiritual growth.
    For me, the word marriage has the oldest continuous definition in all human cultures and religions. In fact it describes a religious commitment made by men and women to bind together for life and rear children in that commitment. Homosexual couples are a biological anomaly that cannot produce children. It is that possibility that makes “marriage” unique in all human relationships.
    I remember when “gay” meant a happy carefree person of any gender. I remember when “cool” meant a range of temperature. At what point did we change the definition of “marriage”/

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