This week the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the denomination’s governing body, is convening in Tampa. The Rev. Katie Dawson is in Tampa as part of the delegation from the Iowa Annual Conference. Her post, reprinted here from her blog, “salvaged faith,” raises questions particular to the UMC, but also for young clergy women in other churches.
Last Saturday afternoon, the Faith and Order legislative committee passed an amendment to paragraph 304.3 in the Book of Discipline that discusses qualifications for ordained ministry. The change actually removes language that would bar a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and removes language that talks about from service and instead inserts this language:
I have a LOT of questions about this amendment that I hope are discussed before we decide to pass this change.
1) Does this amendment refer to only ONE marriage, or does it leave open the possibility for someone to be remarried. As it stands, the amendment refers to a marriage between a man and a woman and makes no comment on the reality of divorce and remarriage, remarriage after death, etc. Clearing up that question is important. We have many re-married clergypersons in our midst and if we are already concerned about the retirement tsunami in the next 10 years – this impact might be HUGE.
2) While our standards previously called for “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (and still retain that language earlier in 304.2) there were no particular stipulations re: appointment for those who have failed to live out the highest of these standards. Clergy who today have committed adultery may have sanctions, but we leave room for forgiveness, repentance, etc. This new proposed language seems to preclude that by including unfaithfulness in marriage (as well as co-habitation) in the list of things that will make a person ineligible for commissioning, ordination, AND appointment.
3) Point two leads to deeper questions if the answer to my first question is “only one marriage.” With the new language that is listed here, are clergy persons who have divorced and how have remarried not eligible for appointment?
4) What about sexual conduct outside of marriage that happened in the past? What if I was a wild child as a younger adult and have since matured and changed my ways… does this amendment preclude them from being a candidate for ministry? What if a person co-habitated before marriage? Does this amendment apply retroactively to their behaviors and now as an ordained elder or deacon mean they will not be appointed?
5) **thanks to folks who talked with me in person and in the comments here** WHAT IS SEXUAL CONDUCT?! genital sex? kissing? smouldering eyes at one another over a table? Lord help our unmarried younger clergy (which we are trying to recruit) if they have to constantly fear something they are doing might be construed as sexual conduct.
I could go on and on and on about questions and implications of the wording of this amendment… the language needs to be CLEARER or else it might have implications on our current clergy that we have not for seen.
On the other hand, I’m guessing that someone who would respond to some of my questions might see that little word “may” in the fourth line from the bottom. It says that those persons “may not” be certified, ordained, appointed. It doesn’t say “shall not.” It says “may not.” And that means that Boards of Ordained Ministry and the Appointive Cabinet can exercise judgment and flexibility and can leave room for grace and compassion and forgiveness.
And that is because legislatively speaking, “may” language is permissive language. It has flexibility. It leaves the question up to the person who is exercising judgment, rather than simply following a set, prescribed rule.
And actually, for friends of the LGBT community… that means it is a step in the direction of inclusiveness. Previously the paragraph read: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”
“Are not” is very different from “may not.”