While attracting virtually no media attention (in stark contrast to the recent defrocking of Frank Schaefer in Eastern Pennsylvania), another liberal minister has also recently been pushed out of the ranks of United Methodist clergy over our church’s biblical standards for sexual self-control.
Philip Thomason recently “retired” from his associate-pastor position at St. Mark’s UMC in Atlanta. The senior pastor, Beth LaRocca-Pitts, recently reported that 90 percent of the congregation’s membership self-identifies as LGBT. St. Mark’s recently violated church law by becoming formally affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.
I contacted the church to try to interview Thomason to confirm details for this story, but did not hear back.
Nevertheless, in a speech/sermon he delivered last November at Hapeville First UMC in Georgia, the former United Methodist pastor shared most of the relevant details (beginning at around the 7:20 mark). He reported that in 2010, he traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts (a Cape Cod resort town described by its own tourism office as a “gay and lesbian mecca”) to perform a wedding ceremony between two male members of his church. Thomason further reported that he himself had some sort of “marriage” commitment ceremony to his long-term gay partner, Rick, on August 16 in Gaithersburg, Maryland at the home of a friend named Bonnie Benedict. He admitted that he and Rick had been cohabitating for 19 years, and that Rev. LaRocca-Pitts had been aware of this. Finally, he lamented that at some recent point, a formal complaint was filed against him.
In response, Thomason chose to surrender his United Methodist ordination credentials. While this means that, very strictly speaking, Thomason was not technically “defrocked,” the ultimate result of the complaint filed against him was the same as what could have been expected had he insisted on dragging out the process with a church trial.
It is tempting to say that Thomason’s response to the charges against him demonstrate much greater integrity than the response of the recently-defrocked Frank Schafer. Thomason’s response notably lacked Schaefer’s self-serving media self-promotion, Schaefer’s bizarrely pleading “not guilty” to having blessed the same-sex union he openly admits to having blessed, and Schaefer’s insisting on causing as much damage to the wider denomination as possible (not to mention the devastating harm he inflicted on his former congregation). In contrast, when Thomason’s regional church superiors were made aware of his unwillingness to remain in covenant with his fellow United Methodist clergy, he did the most honest thing for him to have done (short of repentance): he resigned from a clergy order to which he was no longer committed, rather than insist on needlessly wasting the church’s time and resources.
However, in explaining his surrendering his credentials, Thomason indicated no concern for the integrity of his own ordination vows or protecting the church from a hurtful and wasteful trial. Rather, the reasons he offered were entirely selfish: the only alternative he saw would hurt his relationship with Rick and cause him to live with oppressive fear. He framed surrendering his credentials as a way to defiantly tell the one filing the complaint, “You don’t have any power over me.”
He repeatedly stressed that while surrendering his credentials was the right path for him to take, that did not mean that others should follow suit. After all, the context for Thomason’s remarks was at a vigil/rally in support of Schaefer’s covenant breaking shortly before the latter’s trial.
As Thomason chose to continue his ordination in the United Methodist Church over the years, he did so knowing full well that UMC ordination was a solemn covenant to God and the church which includes very clear agreements by our clergy to not conduct “[c]eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” (¶341.6), to not be homosexually active (¶304.3), and to not be sexually active outside of marriage (¶304.2). Yet Mr. Thomason chose to spend years dishonestly claiming to be a part of this covenant while secretly breaking all three of these agreements, only coming clean when a fellow United Methodist brought some long-needed Christian accountability.
Rather than welcome the sort of communal correction of personal sin that was the hallmark of early Methodism, Thomason appeared rather upset about the complaint filed against him and declared to his audience that “we’ve got to be willing to be activist in the United Methodist Church to see that this type of behavior no longer goes on.” He exhorted his fellow liberal United Methodists to promote a greater liberal boldness in the denomination and to work to elect “the right people to General Conference,” since the denomination “needs to be enlightened.”
Divisions Far Deeper than Homosexuality
Mr. Thomason’s speech sadly but helpfully demonstrates many of the ways in which the divisions within United Methodism are far deeper than whether or not we believe homosexual practice is inherently sinful.
His flippant and unrepentant discussion of his living together outside of marriage with his romantic partner for nineteen years may indicate a liberal attitude that simply does not expect homosexually-attracted individuals to be capable of having the same degree of sexual self-control the church expects of “straights.” More likely it is yet another indication of how the “Reconciling” movement within the UMC promotes a sexual ethos of “anything goes” as long as it’s consensual.
The pro-homosexuality activists in the audience seemed to betray their extreme degree of secularization with their mocking laughter of Thomason’s mentioning that some would still consider non-marital romantic cohabitation to be “living in sin.”
Thomason’s willingness to base so much of his time in United Methodist ministry on living a self-serving lie, and the quick readiness of church liberals to celebrate those years of lie-based ministry, raise very fundamental questions about the basic trustworthiness of self-described “progressive” United Methodists.
Thomason also made some rather revealing indications of his own sources of authority. In defending his blessing the same-sex union in Massachusetts, Thomason presented a false dichotomy between ministering to the two men, Scotty and Dale, from his congregation, or following his own covenant vow to uphold policies in the Book of Discipline written by people who “didn’t even know Scotty and Dale.” But Thomason was especially bothered by the UMC Social Principles declaration that homosexual practice was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” He inaccurately quoted that statement as saying that “I am incompatible with Christian teaching,” and argued that this was invalid simply because the writers of it “didn’t know me” and had “no idea about my life.”
Today, one would be hard-pressed to find any intelligent, informed arguments that the Social Principles statement is not deeply grounded in Scripture and church tradition. Yet Mr. Thomason appears to promote a rather chaotic worldview in which any moral teaching of Scripture or church tradition can be invalidated simply on the basis of personally “knowing” an individual who chooses to live outside of it.
But in a sense, I suppose that the Book of Discipline does say that Mr. Thomason is incompatible with Christian teaching. Article VII (“Of Original or Birth Sin”) of the Methodist Articles of Religion declares that since Adam, all of us have suffered from a fundamental corruption of our nature and that man “of his own nature [is] inclined to evil, and that continually.” Liberal United Methodist clergy have departed from biblical Christian faith on far more than sexual morality when they knowingly lie at their ordinations in vowing to “preach and maintain” this doctrine, when their ministries are not consciously framed to recognize the fundamentally depraved nature of humanity, and when they suggest that the church must simply affirm people as they already are instead of lovingly offering the personal transformation uniquely available through Christ.
Thomason declared that the goal of himself and the Reconciling Ministries Network was to bring about the day in which “no one, no one, no one ever has to present their stole or ordination papers back to the United Methodist Church, because you are who you are, made in the image of God.”
Any worldview that argues that church leaders’ being created in God’s image gives them moral infallibility and a lack of any need for firm means of accountability is grounded in something other than the New Testament, and could hardly be more diametrically opposed to the Methodist tradition.
In any case, further such defrockings of unorthodox United Methodist ministers – whether through church trials or through the wayward ministers being convinced to surrender their credentials – are expected in the not-so-distant future.