Last week, the Arkansas courts struck down a law prohibiting gay marriage as unconstitutional, prompting the expected reactions from across the political spectrum. Several of those who weighed in on social media were United Methodist clergy.
A few days later, the pastors in my annual conference received a letter from our bishop reminding us that, regardless of personal feelings, United Methodist clergy are not permitted to officiate any form of union between same-sex couples. While he recognized that some of his pastors have strong feelings that the Disciplinary language is unjust, he insisted that our duty is to uphold the Discipline. Those who disagreed were invited to call him to converse.
Enough ink (and blood) has been spilled over issues of marriage and sexuality without me adding to the muddle. But I do think that the bishop’s letter brings up related issues of authority that have tentacles throughout our jumble of UM polity and practice.
The question to me is not whether the bishop was within his rights to order his clergy not to perform same-sex ceremonies. As the one charged with ordering the life of the annual conference, he clearly was. That other bishops have chosen a different course does not lessen this bishop’s authority to speak directly and firmly on matters of the Discipline.
But what right do rank and file clergy—particularly dissenting clergy—have in responding to the bishop’s directive? Should they accept the authority of the bishop as the UMC’s governing representative, make an appointment to see him, and issue a private plea for a change in policy? Should they wait on the next General Conference and try once again to change the language of the Discipline legislatively? Should they openly defy the bishop and perform same-sex unions anyway, as has happened elsewhere, and thus force the issue?
Even in a state as conservative as Arkansas, the answers are not evident. Radicalism necessarily breaks connection, but connection inherently serves the institutional majority. Legislation has proven near impossible to pass. Conversation and prayer are at the core of our self-understanding, but they are often tools of inaction.
Tension continues to mount. People are talking openly of schism. It’s an uncomfortable position to find ourselves in.
And it’s one from which authority, no matter how well-meaning, cannot save us.
In a culture with a democratic ideal, authority cannot merely be assumed. It must be granted by those being governed. If authority gets used for anything other than the highest good, it will be ineffectual.
The UMC lives in a strange, idealized version of Rousseau’s social contract. We are willing to give up some of our individual convictions for the greater good, whether that good is practical governance or theological vision.
Lately, however, the concern of our administrative leaders have been with the nature of their authority (as per the last General Conference proposals) and with the numerical growth of the denomination. While these may be important, they don’t address the things most of us are talking about—things like fiscal responsibility, mutual accountability, and arbitrary itinerancy.
And same-sex marriage.
Again, I don’t question any bishop’s authority to speak on the subject, nor any thoughtful person (lay or clergy)’s right to respond. What I am saying is that, in a time when our convenant is strained, our trust in authority is strained even further. That’s a recipe for trouble.
My prayer is that those who wish to challenge authority—myself among them—will be measured and kind. But also that those in offices of authority will learn to listen more closely and govern more evenly. Perhaps it is too late to achieve complete unity on any issue, but we might at least find cohesion, if we can learn to trust each other somehow.