Earlier this month, the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church announced two nearly identically worded “just resolutions” for two of its clergy who performed same-sex union ceremonies last fall.
A “just resolution” is basically the equivalent within the UMC of an out-of-court settlement, which avoids church trials. The UMC’s governing Book of Discipline is clear in affirming biblical standards for sexual self-control and making our clergy liable to formal complaints if they conduct “ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions.” Our clergy are not ordained unless they vow to God and the church to “support and maintain” our Discipline.
A few positive points put these “just resolutions” in an entirely different category from others we have seen in the past year
First of all, the process was much shorter. The two “sin blessing” services were performed on October 7 and November 1. The “just resolution” was agreed upon and publicly announced within five months. In other cases, the confidential process was dragged out for a ridiculously long amount of time, by bishops and bishop appointees who made clear they had no interest in assuring the church that our standards would be upheld or that clergy would be deterred from breaking them.
Secondly, unlike “just resolutions” we have seen in New York, Iowa, or Michigan, these two resolutions did not reward the offenders by providing a new platform to promote their views.
Thirdly, there is at least was some degree of punishment for the offenders, who did serious pastoral harm to four same-sex-attracted individuals by actively misleading them about God’s will for their lives and actually encouraging them to continue in what Scripture and 2,000 years of consistent church tradition call ultimately self-destructive sexual sin. Amanda Garber is “suspended from her church and from performing any ministerial functions for a period of one month without salary.” Meanwhile, Dr. John Copenhaver is “suspended from performing any ministerial functions for a period of three months,” a period which began this last Sunday and will end just in time for him to fully participate in the 2015 Virginia Annual Conference session.
Virginia Bishop Young Jin Cho explained that the differing lengths of suspension were due to the differing impacts of such suspensions on Garber, who is the paid pastor of a new church-start, and on Copenhaver, who as a retired professor faces no direct financial consequences from such a suspension.
Fourthly, both Copenhaver and Garber pledged, somewhat vaguely, that from now on, they will commit themselves “to honor the Book of Discipline,” after acknowledging that with their actions last fall, they “knowingly and publicly violated” the Discipline.
However, like all the other “just resolutions” we have seen in the past year, these two resolutions lacked two key, non-punitive elements for which we in the renewal movement have long asked: (1) genuine apologies from the clergy who chose to break covenant (beyond language that amounts to “I’m sorry you feel that way”), and (2) a pledge to keep their own word to support our standards in the future, specifically by performing no more “sin blessing” ceremonies.
Indeed, Copenhaver has already begun his suspension on a bit of a defiant note, preaching a “last sermon before suspension” likening his own disruptive covenant breaking to Jesus overturning the money-changers’ tables in the temple and encouraging others to find their own way to “overturn tables” to undermine the UMC’s adherence to traditional Christian sexual ethics. At one point in this sermon, Copenhaver specifically encouraged congregations to formally affiliate with RMN, thus rather openly defying Bishop Cho’s statement two years ago warning that the Judicial Council ruling forbidding such congregational caucus affiliation needs to be obeyed.
Furthermore, the punishments were extraordinarily light, and hardly sufficient to provide much of a deterrent to other wannabe clergy celebrities who may be enticed to follow the example of Copenhaver and Garber, who RMN lionizes as heroes and claims will be highlighted in future “history books … as faithful prophets.” Copenhaver may have to refrain from baptizing, preaching, or presiding at funerals, communion, or weddings until mid-June, but it’s not clear anyone would have asked the retiree to do so within this narrow window. As noted, Garber’s loss of one month’s salary has already been covered by the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), for the explicit purpose of neutralizing the “financial deterrent” aspect of Garber’s punishment. This transforms her penalty into a one-month paid vacation, with a side order of becoming financially beholden to the radical caucus group. (I wonder if RMN would have covered as much of Garber’s lost salary as quickly if the suspension had been for longer.)
But this highlights the problem of how our denomination’s current governing Discipline, without some desperately needed reforms, effectively empowers covenant breakers while tying the hands of church officials who want to uphold our standards. These “just resolutions,” signed by Bishop Cho along with the district superintendents who filed the complaints, could only be enacted with the signed agreement of Copenhaver and Garber. It is difficult to imagine either of them agreeing to more serious consequences for themselves. But without such a “just resolution,” the only way to hold such covenant-breaking clergy accountable is through a church trial, which can be very time-consuming, costly, emotionally draining, and unpleasant affairs for any annual conference. Thus, out current system allows wayward clergy like Copenhaver, Garber, and others to bully our church leaders and hold our entire system and standards hostage to their personal, individualistic, accountability-rejecting whims.
It would certainly be nice if the next General Conference could give us better options for holding out-of-control clergy accountable beyond ignoring the problem, accepting their terms, or going through a costly, unpleasant, and unpredictable church trial.
It is always rather odd to hear rhetoric praising such ministers for somehow demonstrating “heroism,” “courage,” “integrity,” “conscience,” or “a principled stand” by doing such things as winning a one-month’s paid vacation courtesy of their wealthy sponsors at RMN.
In publicly bragging of the same-sex union he performed, Copenhaver recalled his ordination vows to “support and maintain” our denomination’s standards and doctrines, after assuring his bishop and his conference that he believed the UMC’s “doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures.” But Copenhaver went on to declare that he “no longer believe[s] our doctrines are in harmony with Holy Scripture,” as he said he did in the vows on which his status as an ordained United Methodist minister is based. Garber explained her own rationale for performing a same-sex union for two members who met at her congregation by recalling how she “felt like an enormous coward” and “like a poor excuse for a pastor” for not performing such a ceremony for two others in 2012.
But if there is such a concern for the conscience and integrity of folk like Copenhaver, Garber, and Talbert, then why ignore the facts that no one forced them to pursue ordination in our church, that no one is forcing them to stay within a denomination whose doctrine they openly reject, but that both are matters of unforced choice on their parts? (Interestingly, the lesbian couple “married” by Garber now reports that their “journey has diverged from the UMC” as one of them pursues ministry in the United Church of Christ.)
If blessing homosexual practice, along with the theological and doctrinal steps taken to arrive at their liberal position, are really such core values for the integrity and conscience of these ministers, they could always stop trying to infiltrate and undermine a church whose doctrine they no longer believe (and perhaps never did), but just start their own denomination, or join a church whose beliefs are actually in line with their own.
But for folks like Talbert, this could mean risking all the prominent prestige and status he has used the UMC to build up for himself. For non-retired appointed pastors like Garber, honestly admitting that they are out of place within the guaranteed-employment appointment system of a denomination whose beliefs and values they reject would mean taking some risks for their own salaries. For all of them, it would mean the scary uncertainty of leaving the environment in which they have become comfortable for waters that are entirely uncharted for them.
In other words, it would require some more genuine courage and commitment to principle, even at the risk of actual personal cost, beyond what any of the “just resolution” offenders of the past year have experienced.