As director of the UMAction program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), I’m accustomed to all sorts of fabrications from liberal conspiracy theorists: that I and the UMAction Steering Committee and Advisory Board to whom I am accountable are not “real Methodists,” we’re funded by the Koch Brothers and the Illuminati, we’re part of an elaborate Roman Catholic plot to “destroy” our denomination, etc.
But sometimes in their attempts to scapegoat us and other renewal caucuses for various problems, our critics reveal more than they may have intended.
This was seen in some recent reactions to complaints filed against liberal clergy who unambiguously violated the Discipline they vowed to uphold.
The aggressively liberal “Mainstream UMC” caucus recently fired off several emails about such matters to supporters and General Conference delegates. They were sent in the name of caucus director Mark Holland, a key ally of Adam Hamilton.
Mainstream UMC makes some curious juxtapositions: painting covenant-breaking clergy as helpless victims while covering up their harming others; decrying complaints against covenant-breaking clergy while defending a harshly punitive complaint against a traditionalist pastor; and bemoaning the costs of our accountability process while instructing people to take actions that would magnify such costs.
Apparently, this caucus expects enough appreciation in the UMC Council of Bishops to feel comfortable publicly demanding that our bishops collectively and individually move towards betraying their vows to uphold our standards and keep church-harming clergy accountable. This would really boil down to our bishops having their actions governed NOT by Scripture, official United Methodist doctrine, or the Disciplinary covenant they have vowed to uphold, but instead by the loud dictates of Mainstream UMC and that caucus’s fans, and perhaps also by a desire to appease disruptive activists who will never be appeased.
Holland describes situations as if those of us defending our denomination’s accountability standards seek to exclude anyone who is gay, in terms of their unchosen feelings, from ordained spiritual leadership, even if they keep their behavior within traditional biblical moral boundaries.
Any such suggestion is slanderously false. I have long protested how official, liberal-dominated United Methodist forums on homosexuality have excluded our brothers and sisters in Christ “who remain same-sex attracted while, because of their faith, choosing celibacy.”
A mid-October Mainstream UMC email (somewhat echoed in another Mainstream UMC email sent today) publicly names and shames several United Methodist clergy and laity for daring to complain about an activist pastor, David Meredith, brazenly violating the UMC Discipline’s ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy. This rule was first established in 1984, and Meredith knew it and agreed to it when he chose to be fully ordained as elder in 1987 (as indicated in conference journal records).
This was not a matter of anyone hunting Meredith down. He was reportedly legally married to his partner back in December 2015, with no complaint filed then.
The complaint came only after Meredith went out of his way to make this an issue for others, staging a public same-sex union ceremony for himself right before the 2016 General Conference, receiving much local newspaper and television coverage. I am told that all this publicity Meredith chose to create, and the blatant disregard it showed for his covenant with supposed colleagues in ministry, caused “great concern and consternation” for numerous pastors and laity in the West Ohio Conference.
Mainstream UMC’s reaction seems to tell supporters of official UMC doctrine that no matter how far activists go in picking a fight and forcing it on our doorsteps, we have no right to respond with anything beyond silent submission.
Meredith violated confidentiality by publicly “outing” complaint filers’ names, resulting in them getting targeted for no small amount of hate. Meredith’s antics have caused such harms for complaint filers as drops in church attendance and giving, hate mail, marginalization in the conference (while Meredith remains as part-time district staff). There was even one high-profile incident in which a “Reconciling” activist mentored by Meredith stormed into the front of the sanctuary and loudly disrupted the Sunday worship service of one of the complaint filers.
I have not seen a single leader of any liberal caucus willing to say that such disruption of Sunday worship crosses a line. I know of no leader in any traditionalist caucus who would tolerate anyone in our movement doing the same to a liberal pastor.
When liberal activist clergy choose to “out” traditionalist pastors who file a confidential complaint so that they are subject to abuse—after the liberal clergy chose to make a public spectacle of violating their covenantal vows—it is hard to discern any motive other than an unchristian spirit of seeking revenge, and of inflicting so much harm on those defending the integrity of clergy covenants that these covenant breakers and their enablers hope to intimidate others against filing future complaints.
When liberal caucus leaders dismiss all of this with such rhetoric as, in Mainstream UMC’s words, claiming that none of those filing the complaint against Meredith “has been harmed by him in any way,” they send a clear message: we do not care about any such harms being inflicted on United Methodist pastors and congregations, if the victims are outside of our narrow liberal faction.
Bizarrely, Mainstream UMC bemoans the financial and time costs of this drawn-out West Ohio complaint process, but then calls for those entrusted with accountability responsibilities in their annual conferences to practice the very sort of jury nullification that have needlessly magnified the costs of the Meredith complaint.
And while claiming that “there are no ‘liberal’ activists filing charges against ‘traditionalists’ to try and run them out of the church,” Mainstream UMC misrepresents another a complaint that actually was filed against traditionalist pastor in Virginia in attempt to run him out of the church.
A United Methodist pastor who believes in our denomination’s doctrine, Ed Johnson, compassionately welcomed a non-celibate gay man to participate in the life of his congregation, while also seeking to delay immediate church membership (moving from regular attendance into eligibility for leadership positions) until the man was ready to say the membership vows about repenting of his sin, including any sex outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage, with integrity. While not all evangelical pastors would take the same precise approach as Johnson, there is no serious question that it was grounded in biblical teaching related to sexual morality and church discipline. It was very much in line with our Wesleyan tradition of caring about each other enough to humbly confront people when they have committed ultimately self-destructive sin. If our denomination has no room for any pastors like Ed Johnson, then it would hardly have room for John Wesley.
Virginia’s very liberal activist bishop at that time heavy-handedly butted into what was then an ongoing matter of pastoral care and counseling, and had a complaint filed against Johnson. Mainstream UMC misrepresents this as Johnson’s clergy colleagues being “outraged” and taking the initial action against him, and omits how Bishop Charlene Kammerer tried to not merely suspend him but to permanently remove him from United Methodist ministry.
Johnson and his family (including his school-age daughter) were kicked out of the parsonage and suddenly deprived of his pastoral income, while being denied a fair process. All Mainstream UMC says about that is to blast the Judicial Council for re-instating Johnson and directing that he receive the back pay of which his family had been deprived.
This all sends a striking message from a prominent group of liberal United Methodists: No concern whatsoever for the harm, disruption, bad example, and unchristian vengeance-seeking done by liberal activist clergy like David Meredith and Anna Blaedel. Somehow ministers who unquestionably commit what the Discipline calls “chargeable offenses” and stage publicity stunts to seemingly invite complaints while disrupting the ministry of others are flawless victims, while an evangelical, Discipline-following minister quietly pastoring without seeking publicity or disrupting anyone else’s ministry was getting what he deserved when he had a complaint filed against him and (unlike Meredith or Blaedel) this directly resulted in him and his family being deprived of his income and kicked out of their home for months. Even fourteen years later, some liberal United Methodist leaders are evidently STILL upset that a complaint did not permanently kick out a faithful, traditionalist pastor, even though his actions did not violate the Discipline.
With Mainstream UMC’s apparent support for subjecting a traditionalist pastor to such an excessively punitive complaint under the basic standards of our current Discipline, how much further would they go in supporting complaints against insufficiently LGBTQ-affirming clergy if this caucus succeeds in liberalizing the Discipline? The behavior of liberal caucus leaders since February almost makes it seem like they are trying to confirm the worst suspicions of how they would have treated remaining traditionalists if the One Church Plan had been adopted.
An earlier Mainstream UMC email focuses on a complaint filed by yours truly against Anna Blaedel in Iowa, another activist minister who staged her own publicity stunt not long after Meredith’s, declaring to her entire annual conference her violation of the Discipline’s sexuality standards.
Anyone interested in all the key facts of this case, as opposed to the distorted caricature you may read from Mainstream UMC and its fellow travelers, should read what I have explained here.
Mainstream UMC claims that Blaedel “is clearly effective in ministry” (there’s plenty of question about that) and that she was “never accused of causing harm” (she absolutely has).
Well before Mainstream UMC’s missive, it was all a matter of public record how Blaedel has a history of what most would consider bringing out the worst in people, how she sparked vicious harassment—of a sort I see no one claiming Blaedel has faced herself—of three faithful traditionalist pastors (including one who had been shepherding a larger Iowa UMC congregation in a period of impressive growth) to the point that they all appear to have been driven out of UMC parish ministry, how she has publicly encouraged her fervent fans to disrupt the worship services of other pastors, and the obscene, genitalia-themed package mailed to a layman’s home.
Blaedel also casually admits to engaging occult “tarot” practices and the UM Forward caucus, on whose Leadership Council she serves, recently prayed to “Sophia” on her behalf.
Mainstream UMC’s insistence on nevertheless lifting up Blaedel as a faithful and “effective” pastor suggest a rather callous lack of concern for liberal United Methodist clergy indulging in occult practices or abusing their pastoral authority in such ways.
While Mainstream UMC’s later email talks about “centrists and progressives want[ing] to remain in the church with traditionalists,” this earlier email plugs a manifesto of liberal caucus activists and several cabinet representatives of Bishop Julius Trimble strongly suggesting that theologically traditionalist laity should have no place anywhere within the Indiana Conference of our denomination. (I responded here.) Mainstream UMC’s own Advisory Board has already gone on-record in declaring “we cannot affiliate” in the same denomination with supporters of the UMC’s official policies related to sexuality and accountability.
Between these two emails, Mainstream UMC spins calls for accountability for some of the most blatant violations of our denomination’s clergy standards as some grand conspiracy of the renewal groups that shows our “malicious intent.”
Rev. Tom Lambrecht further rebuts details of Mainstream UMC’s accusations, including its misleading spin on a 15-year-old document discussed internally within a renewal group other than UMAction.
Mainstream UMC’s scorched-Earth approach appears to be increasingly “mainstream” among liberal, white American United Methodists. The content of each of these emails was promoted by conference chapters of the more established Reconciling Ministries Network. Mainstream UMC’s Advisory Board includes liberal leaders from ten annual conferences – including at least one in every U.S. jurisdiction as well as eastern Germany – who were elected as members of their conference’s delegations either this year or in the previous cycle.
Many of us would love to see even one liberal United Methodist leader with the courage and conviction to clearly, unequivocally offer a more gracious approach that contrasts with the italicized summary paragraphs above in these cases, or to say that Mainstream UMC’s any-means-necessary tactics have ever gone too far.
But I have seen no liberal pushback on any of the above. I cannot recall ever seeing a single leader within liberal UMC circles willing to publicly challenge that Mainstream UMC’s record of distorting the facts over the past year. Such distortions have included repeated claims that the so-called One Church Plan would have had “no impact” on United Methodist conferences outside the USA, and misrepresenting a Pew poll to exaggerate the extent of rank-and-file United Methodist support for same-sex marriages.
Those outside of Mainstream UMC’s narrow faction can hardly be faulted for increasingly assuming that such attitudes and tactics, along with the belief that it is appropriate to blatantly misrepresent the truth if that may help advance liberal agendas, are widely supported by liberal United Methodist leaders and activists. And if such attitudes are indeed so widespread among this faction, then it is only reasonable to assume that such attitudes shape the proposals Mainstream UMC and allied liberal caucuses like UMC Next and the Reconciling Ministries Network will push at the 2020 General Conference.
This is an area where I would really love to see any liberal United Methodist bishops and caucus leaders stand up and prove us wrong.
But it’s been a long wait.
Stay tuned for Part II.