In a closely watched case, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church disappointingly avoided making substantive rulings on questions brought before it concerning activist Iowa clergywoman Anna Blaedel’s openly living in violation of our denomination’s requiring clergy to exercise such basis standards of self-control as refraining from sexual relations outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
However, the official summary by the United Methodist News Service missed one very key detail from the rulling: that it effectively mandated that Iowa Conference Bishop Laurie Haller advance a new complaint against Blaedel.
The background facts are as follows: The United Methodist Church’s governing Book of Discipline has long had an official, biblical standard forbidding ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” supported by overwhelming super-majorities at one General Conference after another. But over the years, liberal activists in some regions have pursued a cynical, dishonest strategy of protecting homosexually active clergy from accountability by playing transparently ridiculous word games, such as claiming there was “no evidence” that a clergyperson was guilty of violating this standard, even if s/he was publicly open about having a homosexual partner, unless and until they personally said the magic words, “I am a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” At the June 2016 Iowa Conference session, activist clergywoman Anna Blaedel went to the microphone and delivered a lengthy statement to everybody there, which included her saying “I am a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” A complaint was properly, promptly filed against her. Several weeks passed, and then on his very last day as Iowa’s bishop, before transferring to Indiana, Bishop Julius Trimble informed Blaedel that he was dismissing the complaint against her, for which she expressed appreciation.
But given that Blaedel had not retracted her 2016 self-avowal and that our church’s biblical standards have not changed to permit such behavior by our ministers, there were many questions of church law left unresolved. So last June, a lay member of the Iowa Conference requested a ruling on five relevant questions of law, related to if and on what grounds complaints like the one against Anna Blaedel could be dismissed, and clarification of the current status of Blaedel.
If the Judicial Council had issued substantive responses to any of these questions, this could have provided some much-needed clarity to this awkward situation and some much-needed pastoral accountability for Ms. Blaedel.
But disappointingly, in Decision #1351, the Judicial Council chose to basically uphold new Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller’s attempt to dodge giving a straight answer to any of the five questions.
You can read here all about the questions and the public reasoning of the Judicial Council and Bishop Haller.
But there are four key take-aways from this case.
First of all, while this decision does effectively answer some questions for the present moment, as this decision keeps Anna Blaedel as an ordained elder in good standing (for now), it leaves the main questions of church law unanswered. Dozens of pages of legal briefs were submitted to the Judicial Council presenting key documented facts, legal precedents, and exhibits of evidence for why the Judicial Council should have issues a stronger ruling. As a “friend of the court” who wrote and submitted a lot of this material, it was disappointing to see this ruling seem to ignore several key, relevant concerns. However, by avoiding directly ruling on the important five questions before it, the Judicial Council avoided establishing significant new church law – which could have potentially clarified our church law in a positive or negative direction.
Secondly, the Iowa Conference leadership is being very, VERY secretive. ¶362(e) required Bishop Trimble to produce a written statement outlining his reasons for dismissing the complaint, and place a copy in her file. But did Bishop Trimble actually do this? If so, what did this statement say? And what did his “letter of reprimand” he reportedly also placed in Blaedel’s file say? If our denomination was being run well, laity would not have to seek the extraordinary last resort of appealing to the Judicial Council to seek answers to such basic, simple questions. According to foundational teaching from the New Testament and the UMC’s own Doctrinal Standards, accountability in the church, particularly for folk entrusted with as much leadership as Anna Blaedel has been, is NOT a matter for a “need-to-know” select few, but is of legitimate concern to the whole church. Blaedel herself has publicly said that she neither “sought [n]or expected the process to be confidential” (although any of her remarks about those who filed the complaint should be taken with a grain of salt, given her other misrepresentations of them).
By publicly sharing such basic information, the bishop could have saved the church from much pain, harm, mistrust, and confusion. But instead, it seems that Bishop Haller would prefer to tell the hundreds of people whose annual conference session Blaedel disrupted with her declaration last year, especially the lay people, that these matters are none of their dang business. And at the same time, the Iowa Conference under Bishop Haller’s leadership this year demanded that these same people fork over $171,286 in apportionments from their respective congregation’s offering plates next year to give to the campus ministry run by Blaedel.
Thirdly, there are serious dangers of our church law becoming such a matter esoteric “secret knowledge,” with commonsense logic breaking down and words having the opposite of their dictionary definitions, which only works for an increasingly small, privileged denominational elite.
Question #4 in this case asked, “Does someone who states directly to the bishop, multiple superintendents, and multiple members of the board of ordained ministry, as Rev. Blaedel did before the entire 2016 Iowa Annual Conference, that she is ‘a self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or an ‘out, queer, partnered clergy,’ and never retracts or contests the accuracy of such a statement, meet the minimum requirements for ordination and appointment under 304.3 310.2d, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)?”
No one questions that Blaedel stated before the entire 2016 Iowa Annual Conference, which included the bishop and others listed in Question #4, that she is “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” and an “out, queer, partnered clergy.” The full text of the questions presented include a web link to the Iowa Conference’s own official report and video of her making this statement. Bishop Haller’s initial statement to the Judicial Council confirmed the fact that Blaedel indeed made this “public disclosure” during the 2016 Annual Conference session. In her own legal brief, Blaedel herself confirmed that she made this statement, and provided the full text of it for the Judicial Council’s record. In my “friend of the court” brief, I included documentation of various statements from Blaedel, including one made after the complaint was dismissed, in various ways reiterating or vowing to never retract her June 2016 self-avowal.
And yet the Judicial Council declared that this Question #4 concerned merely “a hypothetical situation” and that on that grounds it was an inappropriate matter to bring before the Judicial Council.
Most people would understand the word “hypothetical” to refer to a premise that is not a matter of clear, obvious, or undisputed fact, but rather is something that is nothing more concrete than “an assumption or concession made for the sake of argument.” Apparently, the Judicial Council is working with a very different definition of “hypothetical.”
The Judicial Council further suggested that this question is “moot and hypothetical.” Merriam-Webster defines “moot” as meaning disputed or debatable. But since all parties basically went on-record agreeing with the factual record embedded in Question #4, and no one has disputed or debated its accuracy, it is not clear how it can be “moot.”
I will leave it to others to quibble about the nuances of what exactly the Council’s idiosyncratic working definitions of “hypothetical” and “moot” might be and how exactly that might work in our church law.
At this point, my bigger concern is the danger of tying our church law into such rhetorical knots that words are radically redefined in ways that do not make sense to reasonably informed, intelligent members of the church this law is supposed to govern. Clergy and lay members of our denomination are asked to pledge our support to the church within the context of a church law that at least in theory remains accessible to anyone with English literacy and ability to get hands on a copy of the latest edition of the Book of Discipline. Our church law is essential for giving clergy and other leaders guidance for their responsibilities, boundaries, and rights in all kinds of areas. Whenever trust is broken and people are hurt, it provides victims lacking in relative power the means for getting wrongs set right.
The more our church law moves away from commonsense, plain-meaning understanding of words like “hypothetical,” the more this makes our church law inaccessible to most United Methodists. This serves to dim the chances that victims of abusive treatment by bishops or other powerful people will be able to make sense of all the ever-increasing complexities and idiosyncrasies of UMC lingo to find relief or justice. And it serves to concentrate effective power in the hands of a small circle of only the most elite leaders who have become experts on the finest and most obscure points of various Judicial Council rulings and unique denominational vocabulary developed over decades – in other words, in the hands of a group of people who is generally more likely to be in a position to abuse the power they have already had.
Fourthly, Blaedel is still not off the hook. While I remain disappointed in much of this ruling, it is noteworthy that a key question in the Judicial Council’s collective eyes was “whether there is evidence of a self-avowing public statement by the clergy person at issue here” after the first complaint was dismissed. The Judicial Council went on to rule, “Clearly if the record in this case alleged a self-avowing statement since that date, the current bishop would have a duty to initiate proceedings under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341.” In other words, if anyone can point to any new public statement by Anna Blaedel since September 1, 2016 identifying herself as a practicing homosexual, then Bishop Laurie Haller is “Clearly” required under church law to pursue a new complaint against Blaedel.
We did not have to wait long. Within hours of the Judicial Council’s decision being publicly released, Anna Blaedel made a public post on Facebook, which anyone can view regardless of whether or not they are Facebook friends with her, declaring, among other things: “however, i proudly remain a ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual.’ i delight in my queerness, and my relationship with my beloved. i lament the use of loopholes to hide any aspect of queer life and love.” The next day, the Reconciling Ministries Network publicized her new self-avowal on its blog.
We should be dubious of Blaedel’s attempts to portray herself as some sort of hapless victim. When it came to the three faithful pastors who filed the first complaint against her, Blaedel showed her willingness to be a merciless bully, encouraging harsh harassment, character assassination, dehumanization, and even disruption of the worship services of these marginalized ministers of the Gospel. Neither this latest lengthy statement nor others she has publicly released over the past year or so contain any hint that I recall of repentance of her anti-Golden-Rule mistreatment of these people she claims to regard as brethren in covenant connection. Any attempt to paint Blaedel as marginalized within Iowa United Methodism under Bishop Haller’s leadership flies in the face of such facts as her being invited to help lead opening worship at this year’s annual conference, her being one of only four preachers at the Iowa UMC Clergy Women’s Convocation (alongside the bishop and a District Superintendent) later this month, and again, her becoming entitled to steward $171,286 of conference apportionments as a campus minister. We must never forget or underestimate the dire spiritual harm inflicted on students who should be receiving compassionate Christian ministry when undisciplined false teachers are placed in such positions of teaching and power. And of course, Blaedel is entirely responsible for her own unforced choice to pursue ordination within a denomination whose very non-secret historic doctrines and longstanding moral standards she rejects, rather than pursuing ministry within another religion like Unitarian Universalism. Of course, the Unitarians might not be able to afford to send $171,286 her way, but one would like to think that Ms. Blaedel’s choices were driven by higher motives than simple monetary greed.
And of course, most of those claiming to “support” Anna Blaedel are not really helping her, but are actually being complicit in harming her, by actively enabling and encouraging her to pursue ultimately self-destructive behaviors and life choices. In fact, it is simply not possible for evangelical United Methodists who support the historic doctrine of United Methodism and who are part of the strong super-majority in our denomination supporting our ordination standards to love Ms. Blaedel with truly biblical Christian love unless we ultimately continue seeking the correction, discipline, and ideally, redirection, she so desperately needs, for her own good. We can never give up on that as long as we remain part of the same covenant community.
In any case, for all of Decision #1351’s sins of omission and word games, the standard of church law as it relates to Anna Blaedel is now quite explicit that “clearly” if a record emerges of her making a new statement of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual, then Bishop Haller “would have a duty to initiate proceedings under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341,” as a basic matter of the bishop’s own obedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church. And as noted above, Blaedel wasted no time in producing such a public statement.
Bishop Haller cannot claim to be unaware of this. I have emailed the contents of this article, including screen shots of Anna Blaedel’s new public self-avowal on October 28, 2017, to Bishop Haller, as well as to each of her district superintendents.
So stay tuned for another complaint.