By Thomas Lambrecht
As has become all too common, another complaint against a pastor for celebrating a same-sex wedding has been resolved without any discipline. In other words, the case has been “resolved” without any form of authentic resolution.
The Rev. Ben Marshall, a retired clergy member of the North Texas Conference, performed a same-sex wedding on April 22, 2017, in violation of the Book of Discipline, which forbids such services. A complaint was filed against him by the Rev. Fred Durham, also a retired clergy member of North Texas. According to a statement released by the annual conference, the complaint was mediated by Bill Waddell, the legal consultant for the Council of Bishops.
Durham also filed a complaint against the Rev. Eric Folkerth, the pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, a Reconciling Congregation that hosted the April wedding.
Both Marshall and Folkerth stipulated that they are “sorry for any harm … caused to those who disagree with our understanding of our pastoral calling and covenant.” (The full text of their statement was not publicly released.) There was no regret or repentance for breaking the church’s teachings and requirements, just an “I’m sorry if you feel hurt” response. There was no commitment not to repeat the violation, nor was there any mention of consequences suffered for breaching our shared commitment to “support and maintain” our “Church government and polity” (Discipline, ¶ 336.12-13).
The fact that there were apparently no consequences for this breech of covenant is doubly galling because it is a direct affront not only to the general church and our Book of Discipline, but also to the actions of the North Texas Conference. Bishop Michael McKee specifically outlined in a letter to clergy in 2015 that they would be unable to “preside over the ceremony, give the vows or the exchange of rings, pronounce the couple married, or sign the marriage license.” The fact that Marshall did so was in direct defiance of his bishop.
In addition, the 2016 session of the North Texas Conference adopted a resolution “stipulating that, until the Commission on a Way Forward completes its work, members of the North Texas Conference would be bound to uphold the Book of Discipline.” Marshall and Folkerth’s actions directly contradicted the will of their annual conference as expressed in this resolution.
The “just resolution” of the complaints against Marshall and Fokerth continues a pattern of clergy in various annual conferences performing same-sex weddings and receiving no consequences for their act of disobedience. Most complaints are settled with a “just resolution” that apologizes for any harm that people feel because of the violation, with some resolutions giving the offender a platform to promote their views in opposition to the church’s teachings. Other complaints are simply dismissed without action.
This is one very dramatic reason that laity and clergy alike have so little regard for episcopal leadership in the UM Church.
The longer these acts of disobedience are ignored or rewarded, the harder it will be to restore accountability. In general, most bishops have shown an unwillingness to hold clergy accountable for these actions. We are grateful for the isolated instances where UM bishops actually uphold our mutually-agreed upon covenant. This situation in Dallas, however, demonstrates how unlikely it is that the 2019 General Conference will be able to maintain the church’s current teachings on marriage and sexuality in a way that gains the compliance of all, or even most, U.S. United Methodists.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.