The ongoing saga of liberal United Methodists challenging our denomination’s biblical ban on clergy performing same-sex unions or personally being sexually active outside of man-woman marriage continues to get more interesting.
An activist who co-officiated in a recent publicity-stunt same-sex union has been removed not only from the process of being a United Methodist ordination candidate but also now finds herself no longer on the membership rolls of the United Methodist Church. Around the internet, liberal activists are screaming foul, led by the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) in claiming that this woman, Ginny Mikita, was “excommunicated.” Meanwhile, others of us are relieved at a bit of accountability being exercised within the UMC.
So what really happened?
As we reported earlier this summer, the Rev. Benjamin Hutchison was removed from his pastorate of Cassopolis United Methodist Church after revealing that he was in a homosexual relationship. Hutchison, who is white, is ordained in the predominantly black African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Since he is not a United Methodist minister, it was a relatively straightforward process for local UMC officials to remove him from his pulpit, in fulfillment of our governing Book of Discipline’s policy stating that “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals are not to be … appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” (¶304.3).
Interestingly, while the AME denomination also forbids its clergy from presiding at same-sex unions, it apparently has no specific policy against clergy being personally homosexually active.
Shortly afterwards, a bunch of “supporters” put on a big publicity stunt of a wedding ceremony for Hutchison and his longtime partner, with reportedly about fifteen United Methodist ministers co-officiating, in open defiance of the UMC’s policies. But Michigan law specifies that only two officiants can actually sign a legal marriage certificate.
Having not yet been ordained in the UMC, second-career clergy candidate Ginny Mikita, within the same West Michigan Conference of the UMC, got a legally valid ordination from the Universal Life Church’s ordination-mill website so that she could be one of the two co-signing officiants.
But United Methodist church law is very clear: “a person cannot belong to another denomination and remain a member of The United Methodist Church.” ¶241 of the Discipline provides for the removal of lay members from our membership rolls when it is discovered they have joined another denomination. In a blog post two years ago, left-leaning Bishop Peggy Johnson of Philadelphia warned that getting any non-UMC ordination, including such shallow ones as those promiscuously offered by some groups online, amounts to choosing to be “no longer a member of the United Methodist Church.” As Johnson put it, “It is an affront to those who have worked hard, studying many years in seminary, spending much money, making many personal sacrifices when others, maybe unknowingly, seek ordinations in an easy, anonymous way.”
On Twitter, the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, a senior official with our denomination’s Nashville-based discipleship agency, pointed out that Mikita’s taking such an online ordination amounted to removing herself from the ordination process as well as from the UMC.
So after Mikita’s bishop, Deborah Lieder Kiesey, and her district superintendent, the Rev. William Haggard were made aware of these facts, the removal of Mikita from UMC membership and from ordination candidacy was duly processed, according to our standards.
Thus an activist who drew high-profile attention to her efforts in seeking to “hijack” our church’s name and reputation for the sake of causes directly contrary to our biblical moral and doctrinal standards has been thankfully discontinued as a United Methodist ordination candidate, and now can no longer even claim to be a nominal United Methodist.
A September 9 statement from the Michigan Area of the UMC refuted RMN’s claim that Mikita had been “excommunicated.” Indeed, in a strict sense of the term, no one ever claimed or suggested that Ms. Mikita should be denied any invitation to receive communion at one of our churches.
But Bishop Kiesey has invited some of the protests and turmoil her area of our church is going through. Last year, within mere days of the Council of Bishops unanimously expressing a re-affirmed intention to keep their vows to uphold our disciplinary covenant, Kiesey showed how trustworthy she was about such commitments when she announced a joke of a “just resolution” in which she basically rewarded rather than disciplined two renegade Michigan clergy for performing same-sex unions in open defiance of our Discipline. One of these renegade clergy Bishop Kiesey rewarded was none other than the Rev. Mike Tupper, who was apparently emboldened by his bishop’s weakness last year to be Mikita’s main co-officiant this summer. Tupper has now expressed his apparent determination to not agree to any settlement, for the sake of forcing Michigan United Methodists to pay for a costly and emotionally draining church trial. Notice that we are generally not seeing such brazen defiance of our standards in areas whose bishops are not expected to roll over as easily for the disobedience movement activists.
This case is full of so many ironies.
I have not seen much comment on the fact that Hutchison was removed from the pulpit for violation of our ban on “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” pastors before he got “married” to a longtime partner. So apparently, it would seem that he was removed for not only being homosexually active, but for his unwillingness to abide by the basic ethic of self-controlled sexual celibacy before marriage. Again and again, we see demonstrations of those seeking to liberalize church teaching on homosexuality indicating that they either do not expect gay people to be capable of the same level of no-premarital-sex morality Christians routinely expect of heterosexually attracted individuals, or else that such activism against church disapproval of homosexual practice is simply one part of a wider campaign to remove church disapproval of non-marital sex more broadly.
Liberal United Methodists who have interfered in other annual conference’s elections and have loudly cheered retired Bishop Mel Talbert for invading another bishop’s territory to undermine her ministry are now professing to be outraged that anyone would dare to “interfere” in another geographic region’s business. (So much for UMC connectionalism.)
Activists who have supported open violations of our agreed-upon disciplinary standards suggest, without any foundation, that Ms. Mikita was not given proper due-process protections in our now-suddenly-holy disciplinary standards (not the first time we’ve seen this). Meanwhile, RMN’s executive director, Matt Berryman, apparently conceded to United Methodist News Service that, in a UMNS reporter’s paraphrase, “the actions taken against Mikita may be in line with church law.”
It is also a bit striking to come across this particular part of RMN’s official release: “we must also fully concede and internalize the reality that we have sorely misinterpreted scripture, drastically distorted the mission of the church, and failed to behold the gospel in its most obvious and plain meaning.” While I would love to commend the “Reconciling” folk for a very candid admission, they may not be using the normal sense of the word “we.”
In another notable concession, Patrick Scriven, Communications Director for our denomination’s notoriously radicalized Pacific-Northwest Conference admits that “If I was a traditionalist, I would likely see Mikita’s actions as underhanded.” So even this liberal Western Jurisdiction leader readily judges Mikita’s actions as “underhanded” according to the UMC’s own official doctrinal and moral commitments.
Scriven also talks about an annual conference leadership having “shown where it stands on the question of enforcing the denomination’s current set of rules regarding same-sex marriage.” This revealing comment further demonstrates how protest caucuses and allied leaders are trying polarize our denomination to the point where we disagree not only on what we variously believe about doctrine and morality, but now also on “the question” of whether or not we will have the basic personal integrity to actually keep our word when we choose to give it to God and other United Methodists, as bishops and other clergy do when they vow to uphold our disciplinary communal covenant.
Although Ms. Mikita said she was aware of some risks to her ordination candidacy, it is not clear how much she put her legal training to work in really thinking her actions through ahead of time. She could always go back to her career as an animal-rights activist lawyer. And like anyone else, she has the option, as the official Michigan Area statement indicated, of finding a local UMC, taking whatever membership classes required there to rejoin our denomination. She could even potentially begin the UMC ordination candidacy process all over again, if she is willing to give up her ULC ordination and can find a District Committee on Ministry irresponsible enough to approve her, potentially begin the long UMC ordination process all over again.
But let’s not lose sight of one very important thing:
The Universal Life Church is clearly a much better fit for Ginny Mikita.
By her actions, she has made clear she respects neither our church’s moral standards nor its people (outside of a very loud but minority fringe cheering on such flippant disregard of our fair and democratic decision-making processes). Now in the ULC, she won’t have to worry about either.
With her endorsement of a manifesto that appears to go beyond opposing animal cruelty to deny the biblical distinction between humanity and animals, as no more morally important than the distinctions between human races, and her actions detailed above, Ms. Mikita has hardly shown herself a big loyalist of the historic, biblical doctrine of the United Methodist Church. The ULC’s much vaguer and more inclusive official commitments would seem much more to Mikita’s liking.
Methodists have always been defined by our belief in discipline and mutual accountability, and being very, very structured. In applying to be one of our clergy, Ms. Mikita could not bring herself to refrain from blatantly violating our communal standards before she even finished interviewing. She shouldn’t have to worry about things like accountability or any meaningful structure in her new ULC church home.
United Methodists (at least those of us within the theologically United Methodist wing of the UMC) are committed to loving people by calling them to lives of biblically bounded, radically self-sacrificial submission to Jesus in all areas of our lives. The ULC and Ms. Mikita express very different understandings of how to love people.
It has been widely observed how the sort of secularized, progressive theology of RMN and company is incapable of building healthy, vibrant, sustainable churches, but mainly serves to tear apart and shrink churches built by others. But that should not be a problem in Ms. Mikita’s new denomination, which appears to have no congregations.
We can wish Ms. Mikita well in her new church home while we all take away an important lesson: the practice of REALLY not thinking your actions through is incompatible with Christian teaching.