The United Methodist Church’s official blog UMCConnections reported Monday on yet another gay wedding officiated by a United Methodist minister. But this ceremony, which took place on December 7, has a new twist that even most recent doctrine-defying marriages lacked. In this case, both members of the same-sex couple are also ordained United Methodist ministers.
Rev. Joanne Brown is the pastor of Tibbetts United Methodist Church in Seattle, the church in which the wedding was held. Her partner is Rev. Christie Newbill, the newest pastor of Woodland Park Church, also located in Seattle. The two met at Seattle University, when Brown was a professor of Wesleyan and Protestant history at the Jesuit university and Newbill was a ministerial student. The wedding was officiated by Rev. Patricia Simpson, who is also the pastors’ district superintendent. The latest figures indicate Woodland Park Church has an average attendance of 43, while Tibbetts UMC manages a weekly attendance of 108 . Both churches are affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), an unofficial LGBT lobbying group within the UMC.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline explicitly bans “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions” and forbids hosting same-sex ceremonies in a United Methodist church. Likewise, the Book of Discipline prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from serving as ordained ministers. But despite making a vow to uphold these laws, Rev. Brown declares that she has the ability to pick and choose which parts of the Discipline and Bible she follows. “I approach the Discipline the way I approach the Bible… the Gospel is a Gospel of radical love and liberation, and anything that does not speak the word of radical love and liberation is not of God.”
Both churches fall within the Western Jurisdiction, which has long been something a hotbed of liberal activism within the UMC on LGBT issues. Leader of the “biblical obedience” movement Melvin Talbert was a former bishop of the Seattle Area, and claimed at RMN’s annual convocation that the Jurisdiction’s “entire Council of Bishops… stood solidly in support” of such covenant-breaking. In 2012, the Jurisdiction passed a “Statement of Gospel Obedience” restating their continued opposition to language in the Book of Discipline that disapproves of homosexual conduct. Despite its activist streak, the Western Jurisdiction remains over-represented in the UMC’s denominational leadership, and inflicts a financial drain on the church by receiving more than it contributes.
The lack of integrity involved in the entire wedding is shocking. Two ministers, both of whom have sworn solemn oaths to uphold the teachings of the UMC and abide by certain personal standards, both decide to break their oaths. On top of that, their direct superior, who is ALSO sworn to uphold her oath and pastor to her subordinates, encourages sexual sin. Not only does she bless and encourage the wedding, she performs it herself, on UMC property. One can’t help but to wonder how none of the participants missed the obvious irony: why should anyone take seriously the couple’s marriage vow, when the entire ceremony makes a mockery of three solemn vows made before God?
Perhaps in other clerical disobedience cases, one could believe that the minister in question was one bad apple in a church community that otherwise frowns upon the behavior. But this most recent case showcases that some local United Methodist communities have fostered an environment where disobedience to biblical and doctrinal standards is not simply permitted, it’s encouraged. The United Methodist News Service notes that all three women “acknowledged that there could be consequences for the wedding — consequences they say they are prepared to accept.” Let us hope that those consequences are forthcoming, and that a clear message is sent to those communities fostering disobedience.