A Bishop’s Lament

Walter-Fenton-BioBy Walter Fenton –

In a passionate email to the people of the Michigan Episcopal Area, Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey writes that her “heart is broken” regarding the potential “next steps” she will have to take in the case of the West Michigan Annual Conference pastor, the Rev. Mike Tupper. Kiesey’s letter came after Tupper informed her he would not agree to a “just resolution” regarding his performance of a wedding for the Rev. Benjamin Hutchison and his partner this past July. It was the second time in as many years that Tupper had violated the church’s prohibiting clergy from presiding at same-sex weddings.

In August 2014 Tupper presided at his daughter’s same-sex marriage. A “just resolution” was reached in that case. However, in the terms of that resolution Kiesey failed to hold him accountable in any meaningful way for his actions. She did not even require him to agree to refrain from presiding at same-sex weddings in the future.

So it is a little odd to read Kiesey’s lament about the difficult situation she finds herself in now that Tupper has presided at another same-sex service, and this time refuses to enter into a just resolution. “This impasse has forced me into the position of having to choose between two options…. Dismiss the complaint, or hand over everything to the Counsel for the Church for a possible church trial…. Unfortunately, someone will be harmed by either of these two options available to me.”

But this all seems somewhat overblown given the facts in the case. Tupper recently wrote that he believes the UM Church might change its position on same-sex marriage if just ten pastors were willing, as he put it, to serve as “martyrs” for the cause. In a brief note to Kiesey he wrote, “I acknowledge that I am guilty of violating one of the chargeable offenses in the Book of Discipline (Par. 2702.1b).” He went on to add that he would forfeit the use of an attorney, and waive his right to appeal following the verdict and any penalty.

In the event Kiesey hands the case over to the Counsel for the Church, such a move does not automatically mean Tupper will be tried. Nor does a guilty verdict require the penalty of defrocking. In a worst-case scenario Tupper, who is near retirement age, would retain his church pension, and of course be free to travel the country sharing his story, and perhaps even writing a book about it. This is hardly martyrdom, and certainly not worth all the fretting Kiesey writes of in her letter.

Would even a brief trial be a circus and draw unwanted negative attention to the Michigan Episcopal Area? Probably. But no one forced Kiesey to be a bishop. And no one forced her to sign-off on a “so-called” just resolution that winked at a clergy person’s willful disregard of his covenantal vows. At least in part, the situation is of her own making.

Finally, Kiesey writes, “no number of letters, or complaints, or trials, or protests in the Michigan Area can ever change the fact that these important matters can only be addressed at General Conference in Portland, Oregon in May 2016.” That may or may not be true, but it certainly does not absolve her of the responsibility to “lead and oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of The United Methodist Church,” including holding clergy members accountable to the Book of Discipline that is in effect now.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.


  1. Stephen Burkhart says

    I lament Elders who willingly violate their ordination, lack the ethics to resign, and are arrogant enough to consider themselves as” martyrs” . I lament Bishops, who are so Spiritually confused , they are unable to to uphold the Discipline of the Church, realize they are administratively and Spiritually dysfunctional, and lack the ethics to resign. But Christ is still on the throne, and the church will survive…even if the part of the Church called Untied Methodist fades into the history.

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