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December 15, 2016

Giving Credit Where It’s Due: Some UM Bishops Seek Justice in “Just Resolutions”

IRD/UMAction has documented numerous cases of our United Methodist bishops behaving badly, particularly in their handling of matters related to accountability.

But when bishops make good-faith efforts to uphold our denomination’s official adherence to biblical standards for sexual self-control, this is also worth highlighting.

In two Midwestern annual conferences, clergy recently defying our denomination’s rules against homosexual behavior did not receive the most dramatic or thorough consequences for breaking our denominational covenant, but they received far more accountability than in other cases.

It is important to keep in mind that according to the Discipline, offending clergy have the right to veto any “just resolution” settlement they do not like.

In the Great-Plains Conference (Kansas and Nebraska), an interesting “just resolution” was reached with Cynthia Meyer. She had used a sermon to the congregation she pastored to “come out” as living in a lesbian relationship, despite the Discipline’s explicit ban on “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” serving as UMC clergy.

Interestingly, even the Rev. Christy Thomas, a liberal blogger who strongly supports liberalizing UMC policies on homosexual practice, criticized Meyer for “living a lie” by choosing to violate her own ordination vows to live according to United Methodist standards. While United Methodist clergy “are called to live lives of deep integrity and personal transparency,” Meyer, by contrast, “has either had to keep her personal life deeply hidden, even impenetrable, to close associates and to the congregations she served or asked them to join her in perpetuating the lie,” Thomas said. So while Thomas still argues for changing church law to allow Meyer to stay ordained, she also lamented that Meyer chose not to voluntarily surrender her credentials without needing a costly church trial.

Thanks to Meyer’s recalcitrance, every step prior to a church trial had been taken, including the scheduling of the trial for August 24. But then on August 1, over a dozen hours of negotiations resulted in a creative just resolution between Meyer, Bishop Scott Jones, and others.

This resolution essentially gave Meyer a temporary defrocking, removing her from her pastorate and from all rights to be appointed to another congregation or exercise the rights and duties of an Elder (such as administering the sacraments). This involuntary leave of absence will last until shortly after the next General Conference, whether that is a specially called one in 2019 or the regularly scheduled one in 2020.

What happens then would depend on what the next General Conference decides:

  • If this General Conference simply maintains our present orthodox standards on sexual morality, then her postponed trial process resumes.
  • If this General Conference liberalizes church law to allow self-avowed, practicing homosexual clergy in our denomination, then she would be fully reinstated.
  • If this General Conference creates “some new structure which would allow Rev. Meyer to be in good standing,” then she could move into that new structure.

This ends up putting more pressure on the next General Conference to do something decisive towards resolving our denomination’s current crisis of accountability.

On a side note, it is interesting to contrast the rather generous behavior by Bishop Scott Jones, who is largely theologically orthodox, in establishing such a just resolution that included giving this blatantly covenant-breaking minister the equivalent of a year’s salary, with the bullying way in which now-retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer of Virginia, who is militantly liberal, sought to defrock a faithful, evangelical pastor, who had not actually violated any of the UMC’s moral standards, without any such compassion or provision for the financial needs of this pastor and his family.

In June, a very pastorally harmful homosexuality “sin blessing” ceremony was held in Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, Indiana, officiated by the Rev. Larry Dimick. Dimick is father of one of the members of the same-sex couple. The church covenant our clergy vow to uphold includes clear prohibitions on such ceremonies being conducted by our pastors or in our congregations. So a complaint was promptly filed against both Dimick and Broadway’s pastor, Mike Mather.

Bishop Mike Coyner (who retired as Indiana’s longtime bishop at the end of the summer) soon called both men into his office.  Both complaints were resolved without a trial.

From Dimick, the bishop extracted a pledge that this was a one-time thing he was doing for his son, and that he would not do another same-sex union again. A record of this incident was also placed in Dimick’s file.

Interestingly, these are the same terms that Frank Schaefer was offered and that Schaefer refused, necessitating a church trial for him in 2013.

Bishop Coyner told Mather that as senior pastor of the congregation, he needed to uphold the Discipline’s rules about the use of its building. Mather reportedly agreed to tell his trustees, who had supported hosting same-sex unions, that they could not do so anymore. A record was also placed in Mather’s permanent file.

Later, Bishop Coyner sent a public message to Indiana United Methodists declaring that “it is important for everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – to be faithful to our current Book of Discipline” and to not force Bishop Julius Trimble (who transferred in from Iowa on September 1) to face disobedience just as he is getting settled in.

In the Great Plains as well as Indiana cases, while I am not sure I would have behaved exactly as those bishops did in every detail, the basic facts give enough reason to trust that these bishops were acting with integrity in seeking to uphold our denominational covenant.