Within the United Methodist Church, great fanfare and enthusiastic, polarized reactions have followed various publicity stunts by a vocal minority within our denomination of “disobedience” or “non-conformity” to the UMC’s official policies affirming biblical boundaries for sexual self-control.
However, significant setbacks or reversals for this disobedience movement do not always garner as much attention.
So it seems worth noting the cancellation of a gay-affirming ordination policy for Chicago-area United Methodists. You may have missed this, as it was announced during 2016 Christmas vacation.
Outside of the Western Jurisdiction, the Northern Illinois Conference, headquartered in Chicago, may be the most extreme of all United Methodist regions in its degree of theological radicalization. (Although alternative cases could be made for the New York or New England Conferences.) It was not long ago that its bishop, Joseph Sprague (now retired), notoriously denied the virgin birth, miracle-performing ministry, eternal divinity, and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. None of this went too far for the conference’s dominant “progressive” faction nor for Sprague’s close allies in the Reconciling Ministries Network, which is also based in Chicago. Few who were at the 2016 General Conference could forget the unhinged moment of belligerent Northern Illinois clergy delegate Gregory Gross taking to the microphone to — without basis — accuse the presiding bishop of “telegraphing votes” (something for which, to my knowledge, Pastor Gross has never publicly apologized, despite being called out by other delegates across the theological spectrum). The list goes on.
It was unsurprising in May 2016 when this conference’s board of ordained ministry (the body charged with reviewing ordination candidates, among other things) released “An open letter to The United Methodist Church” announcing that it would follow the lead of a couple other rapidly declining conferences in adopting a formal policy in open defiance of the denomination’s longstanding ban on ordaining “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” The key part of this policy read as follows:
“We publicly affirm that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and straight candidates will be given equal consideration and protection in the candidacy process. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not and will not be considered in the evaluation of candidates by the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Northern Illinois Conference.”
Such language obscures the distinction made in official UMC policies between homosexually inclined people (a group which includes orthodox Christians committed to lifelong celibacy) and homosexual practice. But the intent of disregarding the UMC’s biblical standards was clear enough.
But because a lone, courageously faithful pastor in that conference named Scott Field was willing to challenge that policy, the case has come for review to the Judicial Council.
As part of her relevant decision, released on December 31, Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck declared, “The Board of Ordained Ministry’s statement is out of order.” This key part was buried at the bottom of the second page of her four-page ruling, taking up only 48 of the 1,371 total words.
Now Bishop Dyck hardly deserves special credit. To be fair, the Northern Illinois Conference was already radicalized when she arrived in 2012, and the board of ordained ministry members who unanimously approved this schismatic ordination policy would have been nominated by her predecessor, Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, per ¶635 of the Discipline. But bishops ultimately bear great responsibility for the spiritual climate of the areas they lead after they have been there for four-and-a-half years, as Bishop Dyck has been in Chicago.
Field should not have had to be the one to challenge this ordination policy. But after there was no real correction of this “open letter” of which I am aware, Field made a motion in the conference clergy session to challenge this new Northern Illinois ordination policy by simply requiring that all ordination candidates in the area be properly screened for meeting “the minimum standard for licensed or ordained ministry of ‘fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness,’ with marriage as defined by The United Methodist Church, ‘the union of one man and one woman’ (Discipline, ¶¶ 161B, 304.3, 330.5(c)3, 335(c)3).” The majority of Northern Illinois clergy voted down the motion to follow the very standards of the UMC Discipline these clergy had themselves voted to uphold as a condition of their being ordained in the first place. Field requested a bishop’s decision of law in response to the rejection of this motion, asking for a ruling by the bishop on if the board of ordained ministry is “required to ascertain” if clergy candidates meet the standards of either fidelity in heterosexual marriage or celibacy, and if the board has any right to affirm a clergy candidate believed to fall outside of these two acceptable categories.
Any individual voting member of an annual conference has the right to request a bishop’s ruling of law, provided the request is made in the proper way and it relates to actual business being conducted in the annual conference session. Such requests are not voted on. After the bishop issues a ruling, it is automatically sent for review to the Judicial Council, the UMC’s version of the Supreme Court. Whatever decision the Judicial Council issues on the case then becomes a binding part of our church law.
As noted earlier, Bishop Dyck initially sought to dodge directly answering the questions, and to effectively allow her anarchic board of ordained ministry to continue ignoring as much of United Methodism’s standards as it wants to.
But the Judicial Council did not let her get away with this, instead forcing her to issue a substantive ruling by the end of 2016.
It was only after the Judicial Council forced her hand that Bishop Dyck issued her ruling in which she did thankfully cancel the pro-LBGTQ ordination policy, while also trying various ways to prevent too much further accountability.
A lot of questions still remain to be determined, such as how exactly this development will actually effect practices in the Northern Illinois Conference and how exactly this may ultimately impact other annual conferences. Of course, we cannot expect those who pushed the now-canceled open ordination policy to all suddenly abandon their preference for secular Western over biblical, United Methodist values.
But the fact remains that this was a significant setback for the dominant, revisionist faction of the Northern Illinois Conference. However the Judicial Council rules on other relevant matters in this case when it meets in April, it is very unlikely to reverse Bishop Dyck’s cancellation of the explicitly LGBTQ-welcoming ordination policy.
This episode shows that despite all the high-profile antics of individuals defying our covenant standards, we have not reached the place where theologically liberal United Methodists enjoy free rein to say and do whatever they want in defiance of what they call our “discriminatory” disapproval of sex outside of man-woman marriage. Not even in as notoriously radicalized an annual conference as Northern Illinois.
And if such disobedience can even be reversed in Northern Illinois, then it can be reversed in in less liberal annual conferences, as well.