By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
Yet another United Methodist minister is joining the nationwide siege against our denominational structure to challenge the United Methodist Church’s biblical standards affirming sex only for man-woman marriage. This appears to be simply the latest battle in a planned campaign by secular gay rights groups and the disruptive activists they help fund within our denomination (neither of which supports United Methodism’s historic, Wesleyan core doctrinal standards) to use any-means-necessary, direct-action tactics in hopes of overwhelming and forcing the United Methodist Church into submission of having a de facto reality of affirming sexual immorality, now that their decades-long efforts to liberalize the denomination’s official, on-paper policies have failed.
Sara Thompson Tweedy has chosen to subject herself to a formal church complaint, and possible church trial, because she is openly involved in a lesbian relationship while UMC policies clearly forbid our clergy from being “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” or otherwise sexually active outside of man-woman marriage. Her current main appointment is to an administrative position at a community college, although she also serves as the Sanctuary Pastor for Memorial UMC in White Plains, NY, preaching monthly. The congregation is in the New York Annual Conference, which includes the New York City metro area but not upstate New York.
United Methodist News Service (UMNS) has a helpful overview of the facts of the case.
It is notable how Tweedy and her vocal supporters try to strategically frame her choice.
Here is what Tweedy told UMNS:
“I have served this church faithfully almost my entire life long and certainly for most of my professional life. I am in this situation because I love another woman, and I have been honest about my identity. What kind of ‘just resolution’ can come out of an unjust process? That is out of my hands and in the hands of church counsel and possibly, a jury.”
Ms. Tweedy’s statement is misleading in several ways.
She claims this matter is “out of her hands.” Actually, if she chooses the route of thinking first of what she can do for the church rather than what the church can do for her, she can always resign her clergy credentials and continue in her secular profession, saving United Methodist officials the trouble of another prolonged, tiresome, and utterly needless complaint process. Or she could go the admittedly difficult route of carefully examining why she should continue a relationship that is inherently spiritually harmful for both herself and her lesbian partner, if Tweedy truly wants God’s best for her. But instead RMN’s latest poster child is choosing to do what she can to make her own refusal to follow our church’s clear, biblical rules as much of a problem for as many other people in the church as possible.
Tweedy knew all along that United Methodist ministry is a path that rather explicitly demands some basic, biblical standards of sexual self-control by which she was unwilling to abide. She could have found a religious body more in line with her values (like the Unitarian Universalist Association), although perhaps with less job security, or simply continued her current secular career without demanding the affirmation of having some religious body call her a minister. And yet she freely chose to pursue ordination, chose to do so in our particular church, and chose to continue as a United Methodist minister, while also choosing to grab attention by publicly breaking a very basic part of the covenant of conduct she chose to make before God and the annual conference. Thus her charge that she is being subjected to “an unjust process” makes little sense. If she never accepted to core doctrine or values underlying the clergy policies of the United Methodist Church, then why did she sign up in the first place? No one forced her. What other employer would tolerate an employee being hired upon her promise to fulfill certain job requirements, and then after being hired flatly refusing to do key parts of her job description while demanding to nevertheless receive all the benefits of a faithfully serving employee?
Tweedy also frames the charges against her as some sort of persecution for her “hav[ing] been honest.” But before she was ordained, she was required to make a solemn promise that as a future role model of “complete dedication to the highest ideals of the Christian life,” she would exercise some basic self-control, including perpetual abstinence from sexual relations outside of man-woman marriage (Book of Discipline ¶304.2-3), knowing that if she ever strayed from this standard then United Methodist ministry would no longer be for her.
Anyone who willingly pays lip-service to a covenant she has no intention of honoring raises very fundamental questions about her own integrity.
Tweedy’s making it through the ordination process may also stem from some (deliberate?) negligence on the part of those who screened her for ministry, which sadly would not be shocking in such a heterodox-dominated, fast-shrinking conference.
At the heart of Christian discipleship is taking up one’s cross (a sign of death) and following Christ, regarding Him as worth any even very serious sacrifice. Throughout the New Testament, it is very clear that whenever we say there is something we refuse to give up for the sake of following Christ – popularity, a job, an inherently sinful relationship, or anything else – then we are committing idolatry. Which is exactly what Ms. Tweedy is doing with her disavowal of celibacy as a same-sex attracted woman.
Tweedy also serves on the steering committee of Methodist In New Directions (MIND), the annual conference chapter of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). RMN is an unofficial activist group which angrily demands United Methodist Church blessing of sex outside of man-woman marriage, including but not limited to homosexual practice. MIND is notorious for its divisively strident tone, its disavowal of loving, Golden-Rule treatment of conservative United Methodists, and its encouraging renegade United Methodist clergy to destructively besiege our denomination by pledging en masse to break our biblical, historic, and consistently democratically confirmed policies on sexual morality. The new revelations about Tweedy’s own active homosexually paint her pro-homosexuality activism in a bit of a self-serving light.
Her MIND group even cheers the threats by RMN-connected activists at the 2012 General Conference to use raw, bullying physical force to prevent the duly elected delegates from even discussing a committee-endorsed proposal to end our denomination’s embarrassing affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). RCRC defends abortion – an act of rather non-gentle violence against unborn children created in God’s image – against any moderate legal restriction or even moral opposition.
While Tweedy apparently believes that her record noted above constitutes part of “serv[ing] this church faithfully,” it is worth noting that Galatians 5:16-26 describes “the acts of the sinful nature” as including sexual immorality, idolatry, discord, and selfish ambition and lists among “the fruit of the Spirit” peace, patience, and self-control.
Meanwhile, the New York Conference RMN chapter put out its own press release defending Tweedy by claiming that it was “an outrage” that our church is following its own rules, that “the UMC seems hellbent on moving backwards towards 1692,” and that Tweedy “has lived a life of integrity” (apparently redefining “integrity” to be consistent with fundamental dishonesty). MIND boasts that the group “is already mobilizing to support and defend Sara” Thompson Tweedy. Tweedy’s congregation’s website currently has a statement expressing strong support for Tweedy’s chosen church-destructive path, echoing RMN/MIND talking points.
And what sort of congregation is Memorial UMC? Like another church championing a lesbian activist pastor, it is formally affiliated with RMN, in direct violation of church law. It is located in the same New York Conference in which another renegade minister, for whom RMN/MIND is also mobilizing support, is facing charges for breaking church law on sexual morality, and where RMN/MIND is calling on the new, liberal bishop to refuse to fulfill the vows he made upon his election last summer to uphold church law.
Tweedy began her current appointment in September 2009 after a period of family leave. Within the following full two annual-conference-year cycles, worship attendance at the church she helps lead has declined by 34.6 percent, membership has declined by 2.5 percent, and Sunday School / UMW attendance by a whopping 77 percent. (Statistics from last month’s annual conference session are not yet publicly available.)
While membership inflation is sadly common among churches of a range of regions, sizes, and theologies, having more attenders than formally committed members is a key mark of congregational vitality rather consistent with our denomination’s history. Memorial UMC’s claiming nearly four times as many members as who they have in church on Sunday is an extreme degree of inflation even by modern United Methodist standards.
Within the last two years for which records are available, the dying congregation has not received a single new member upon their profession of newfound Christian faith. Not one.
Despite the above realities, we can expect to hear a lot of rhetoric in the near future from RMN/MIND and its supporters about how defrocking Tweedy would result in us “losing a good pastor” and “hurting a vital congregation.” Wise United Methodists will think carefully and biblically about what such words should actually mean while taking what the church-destructive protest caucuses say with a heavy dose of salt.