I can’t help shake the uneasy feeling that it’s all coming apart today. For in just a few hours a retired Methodist bishop from California will conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony in Alabama in a ceremony that is neither legal in that state nor allowed by the rules of our denomination.
He will do so against the expressed wishes of the resident bishop of that area, as well as the counsel of most of his fellow bishops. But as a retired bishop, it is unlikely that he will face any real consequences for his actions at all.
In the coming weeks, some thirty UM pastors elsewhere have similarly pledged to jointly conduct a same-sex ceremony in an act of solidarity with a fellow clergyman who awaits a church trial on just such a charge.
And in the meantime, our Judicial Council is deliberating today in Baltimore on whether or not the decision to simply ignore church law on this question is an allowable action by an annual conference which is convinced that the wider church is wrong.
Some will say that it is all political theater, of course, particularly as the ceremony today is taking place in Birmingham, where decades ago the civil rights movement unfurled against the harsh realities of unrepentant racism.
And others will call what the bishop is doing there an act of “gospel disobedience,” necessitated by the continued refusal of the denomination to change its policies on same-sex issues.
But what if those policies are actually not just a matter of Pharisaic legalism or even blind-sided bigotry wearing religious clothing, but instead reflect the authentic witness of the scriptures which tell us of God’s ultimate protective will for all of his children?
You see, I have no doubt whatsoever that those who are advocating the change–even violently taking the kingdom by force at this point to quote Matthew 11–are completely sincere in their desire to “do no harm” by extending the ministries of the church to all.
And I understand that we are talking about real people here, and not just the avatars of someone’s agenda. Indeed, many of them are individuals whom I have come to love, and it pains me to see their pain as well, much less contribute to it in any way.
But I likewise know that many of those who stand on the other side of the question are equally sincere in trying to simply hear the still small voice of God over the cacophonous chorus of the culture. And if so, does that not mean that someone here must be “sincerely wrong” in their assessment of what the scriptures actually say to this question?
The very possibility of that requires us all thus to walk carefully, taking seriously the insights of those from across the world and even across the ages. And towards that end, may we not believe that the collective judgment that speaks in our church as expressed through the General Conference is worth following, again not as a matter of mere legalism but as an authentic act of faith and obedience, not to our own perceptions but to the wider understandings of the church assembled?
Today may not be the beginning of the end of the United Methodist Church. But as frayed as we already are in the eyes of the world, it clearly won’t take much to unravel us completely if we are not extremely careful. It’s thus not a time for any of us to be pulling the loose strings of our already disentangled denomination.
In the words of an ancient prayer, may God deliver us from the “laziness that is content to settle for half-truths and from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth.”
Today is definitely a day for prayer.