[Via Bill Cork.]
According to this Houston Chronicle article, a UMC church panel has reversed the decision to suspend Beth Stroud, a UMC minister who admitted to having an ongoing lesbian relationship:
The United Methodist Church reversed itself today, deciding to reinstate a lesbian minister who was defrocked after revealing her relationship with another woman.
A church panel voted 8-1 to set aside an earlier decision to defrock Irene "Beth" Stroud for violating the church's ban on openly gay clergy.
Stroud had been found guilty of violating the Book of Discipline in December of 2004 by a 12-1 vote, and a 7-6 vote had determined that the appropriate penalty was removing her ministerial credentials. (The link I've provided is to the Institute on Religion and Democracy, whose founder recently died at a tragically young age.) The determination that Stroud had violated the Book of Discipline should have been a foregone conclusion. Stroud had preached a "coming out" sermon to her congregation in April of 2003 and her story eventually found its way onto public television.
The problem is that the Book of Discipline is actually clear in this matter. The UMC's Book of Discipline spells out the UMC's democratically-ascertained understanding of suitability of a "self-avowed practicing homosexual" to serve as a UMC minister as follows:
While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.
1. "Self-avowed practicing homosexual" is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844.
The text seems clear enough. But the UMC Appellate decision played the old result-oriented game of finding ambiguities and imprecisions in the statutory language to justify reversal. Specifically, the court found that the terms "practicing homosexual" and "status" were not defined, and so, well, they didn't have to engage in the normal gap filling that happens in statutory language because, after all, it's the language we all use every day. Moreover, Stroud seemed painfully clear in her sermon that she was proud to confess to being a "practicing homosexual."
After all, what part of "you're not supposed to be a UMC minister who tells her parishioners that it is morally acceptable to have sex outside of marriage" didn't the appeals panel understand?
Not to worry, though, if the UMC's delegates rise to the bait and offer definitions for "practicing homosexual", another court will randomly pick a word in the definition to find ambiguity and imprecision. The game could go on into the next century.
It really is an old game - set the bar high enough and you can paralyze the system through semantic overload. I've seen the UMC play this kind of game of "straining at gnats and swallowing camels" before, which is why state courts that defer to the interpretations of church bodies under a "quasi-hiearchy" theory are allowing their property and corporations law to be turned into silly putty. For example, the kinds of semantic niceties are never invoked when it's a "conservative" minister under the guns of a liberal superintendant. In those cases, the powers that be have declared "there is another more basic and fundamental covenant that has precedence over" the will of the General Conference." (See also this letter from UMC ministers reprimanded for objecting to violations of the Book of Discipline.)
The ability of the "progressive" elements in Methodism to "game" the democratically-ascertained rules of the UMC in the name of a truth higher than the Book of Discipline has led to renewed concerns about a UMC schism. (I was tempted to say a "Methodist schism", but there are, in fact, other Methodist denominations.) Wesley Blog captures the frustration of the "conservatives" who don't want to go into schism but can't get the "progressives" to play by the rules:
Never mind that 70% of the 2004 General Conference delegates were against ordaining practicing homosexuals. That doesn't matter when you've got the courts in your hip pocket. In a way I guess some on the left see this as fair. After all, conservatives can pass all the laws they want as long as liberals can play dirty and ignore those laws (justifying themselves with, ironically, the law).
Let me say that there are liberals I respect and who have shaped some of my opinions in the past. These are the liberals who remind me that faith is action as well as having good theology when I go off on one of my orthodoxy rants. These are the liberals who read this blog regularly, disagree like gentlemen (sorry ladies...couldn't think of a gender accurate word that captured the meaning I was looking for there), and who keep me from going over to the schism camp myself.
But these aren't the same kind of liberals who were on this appeals committee. Real liberals don't win their battles on technicalities. Real liberals don't use any means necessary to achieve an end. Real liberals value honor and integrity over some sleazy judicial victory like the one that went down today...
Apparently, in this UMC action we can see the virus of judicial activism, which devalues the meaning of texts and undermines the integrity of democratic processes.
The IRD's UMC Action Project appears to be confident that this "ill-reasoned, obtuse and tortured attempt to avoid applying the plain, unequivocal meaning of the Scriptures and church law" by "the fading voice of a declining, elite minority within United Methodism that is still enthralled by the failed, revisionist theologies of the last century” will be overturned by the UMC's highest court.