JUDICIAL COUNCIL CASE 0411-4
IN RE: Request from the New York Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision Regarding an Annual Conference Policy That Affirms that Article XXI of the Articles of Religion in ¶103 Takes Precedence Over ¶2702 That Prohibits Same Sex Marriage for Clergy
My name is Kevin Nelson. I want to request five minutes of my time be reserved to respond to the opposing presentation. As a home missioner, a lay person, a member of the New York Annual Conference, and a straight person who supports full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, I collaborated with some of my colleagues on the petition that brings us here today. I am here to represent the NYAC position that the policy we have adopted is what Jesus and John Wesley would do, and it is the only constitutionally justifiable position. I am here as a witness to the pain of successful gay clergy in the NYAC who struggle to faithfully fulfill their pastoral role to their congregants but are blocked by church policies that go against the Constitution of The United Methodist Church. I am here also as a witness for and to speak out on behalf of friends and loved ones who are excluded from ordained ministry because of their faithful loving, like Nehemiah Luckett and Ann Craig, whom you met last fall; my heart breaks for them. Nehemiah is at the beginning of his service to the denomination and is considered a second class church member. Ann Craig finished seminary 30 years ago and should have served the church in an ordained capacity. I am here because through prayer, meditation and experience of the Holy Spirit blessing faithful gay marriages, I’ve been convicted and must stand up for persons like Ann and Nehemiah and our UM Constitution.
Recapping the Case
This is basically a case that argues that when the Articles of Religion, in Article XXI on “Of the Marriage of Ministers” states in part that clergy may “marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness,” this truly means that they may marry at their own discretion, with their judgment of what best serves godliness as the only guide. This includes discretion to marry a person of the opposite sex, marry a person of another race, ethnicity, nationality, faith and/or culture, and it means marrying a person of the same sex.
This Article is Constitutionally-protected text, governed by the First Restrictive Rule, found in Division Two, Section Three, Article I of the Constitution , which is ¶17 of the 2008 Book of Discipline. This Article states, “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
Based on Article XXI of the Articles of Religion and the First Restrictive Rule, the New York Annual Conference established a conference policy allowing our clergy to marry at their own discretion, including marrying same-sex partners, and directing all conference boards and agencies to conduct their business consistent with this policy. Noting the contradiction between this policy and ¶2702.1(a) & (b), provisions that are now at issue in Wisconsin in the trial of Rev. Amy DeLong, we then included a request for a declaratory decision regarding the Constitutional validity of this policy. ¶2702.1(a) & (b) makes it a chargeable offense for clergy to enter into the covenant of marriage with anyone other than a heterosexual partner and to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, even within the context of the covenant of marriage, thus interfering with a right we merely wish to affirm based on Article XXI of the Articles of Religion; therefore, these provisions clearly alter the right granted in Article XXI. This petition was adopted by show of hands with overwhelming support from the Annual Conference.
Rebuttal to Good News Amicus Brief
The reason the NYAC adopted this policy is because to do otherwise goes against the Articles of Religion, and more broadly the UMC’s doctrinal standards, which are protected by the Constitution.
Let’s be clear on this point. God blesses all loving relationships that embody the principle found in the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially when the individuals involved seek to present that relationship before God in the form of the covenant of marriage. Our founder, John Wesley, felt the pain of discrimination in his day when his brother blocked his own marriage due to class distinctions, and partly in response Wesley granted the right of our clergy to marry at their own discretion—a view that the NYAC effectively endorsed when it adopted this policy. The current status of marriage laws in NY and CT are only relevant in that they shined the light on our own unconstitutional contradictions. Whether legally recognized or not, residents of NY and CT have always had the ability to perform ceremonies celebrating marriage covenants. Thus, the assertion made in the opposing brief that we seek to tie the meaning of “marriage” in Article XXI to civil law amounts to nothing more than a willingness to ignore the doctrinal standards when they become inconvenient.
On the other hand, the opposing perspective seeks to tie the meaning of “marriage” to an interpretation of the Bible that condemns same-sex relationships and a presumption of what John Wesley must have meant by “marriage” in Article XXI. The opposing brief even goes so far as to characterize Article XXI as exclusively permitting “heterosexual monogamous marriages” as though those words actually appear in the text. On the contrary, Wesley chose not to include any such prohibitions at all. Furthermore, scholarly Biblical interpretations vary widely on these passages, but that diversity has little meaning in terms of Article XXI. While Wesley cared a great deal about what the Bible does and does not say, as do I, Wesley also made it abundantly clear as he said in his description of “The Character of a Methodist” in 1742, “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
And what did Wesley have to say about what constitutes that “root of Christianity?” Amongst other places, he answered that question in 1750 in his sermon, “The Catholic Spirit,” when he said that what matters, what is essential, is that our hearts are right; that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; that we love our neighbors as ourselves. And as long as we are in agreement on these things, Wesley said, “although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
Thus, Wesley rejected attitudes such as those presented in the opposing brief which seek to take interpretations related to matters that do not strike at the root of Christianity and uphold their imposition upon all United Methodist persons in the form of church law.
As for what marriage means in Article XXI, in the end, John Wesley did not use the phrase “heterosexual monogamous marriage” and made no such simple attempt to define “marriage.” On the contrary, Wesley embraced complexity and took a sort of dual approach. On the one hand, by rejecting even Paul’s teaching that Christians should not marry unbelievers, Wesley endorsed the insight that there is a surplus of meaning in scripture, that there can be more than meets the eye. Standard interpretations from the past can be superseded and new meaning can be found. This is an insight similarly embraced by the General Conference in its past in overturning approximately 175 years of Methodist policy prohibiting women clergy, which was in turn based on nearly two thousand years of Christian tradition.
On the other hand, Wesley didn’t stop at embracing this insight about a surplus of meaning; he put in place a principle to guide the people called Methodist—clergy discretion as they see fit to serve to godliness—which is the only guide he gave us on this matter. And Wesley made this move with intention, as my colleague Ann Craig pointed out back at the fall hearing when she said, “In Wesley’s context, class, race, and status as a Christian and Methodist society member could all be a block to marriage. Wesley added none of these restrictions to Article XXI, even though Paul in the Bible tells Christians not to marry unbelievers. Although John Wesley may not have considered marriage for same-gender couples in Article XXI, the discretion of clergy to marry whom they choose can be understood on the face of it as a challenge to arbitrary social categories and prejudices.”
Sunlit Path of Justice
Chains of Discrimination
Imposing such arbitrary social categories and prejudices is to continue to impose upon our gay and lesbian clergy brothers and sisters the chains of discrimination. It sets homosexuals apart from and clearly communicates that they are less valued than heterosexuals. It is the very antithesis to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a challenge to Jesus’ words on the greatest commandments, which specify in the case of the Good Samaritan the neighbor may not be who we expect. It denies Wesley’s words about what is most essential about what it is to be Christian and Methodist. Heterosexuality is not essential for salvation; neither is imposed celibacy on homosexual persons essential for salvation or faithful discipleship.
The opposing perspective would have us believe that separate and unequal is ordained by God. Through the legislative process of General Conference, it would trample on our Constitution and impose a majority-mandated interpretation of non-essential religious truths upon all who call themselves United Methodist clergy, and by extension, all who seek to support their ministries. It is anti-Wesleyan, and it ignores a fundamental essence of Jesus’ ministry on earth, which included outreach to the marginalized—a marginalization that in today’s world and in the case of gay and lesbian persons is all too often perpetuated by the very Christian churches that have been charged by God with opposing it. Fortunately, there is an alternative, the sunlit path of justice.
The Sunlit Path
The sunlit path is not about winning concessions. There is no acceptable place in between humiliation and full respect; a little discrimination, just a little injustice, is never okay. The integrity of the UMC must be restored.
The perspective presented in the opposing brief is one of Road to Damascus blindness, a refusal to see the injustice that exists before us and partly at our hands, and that requires repentance. Through policies like ¶2702.1(a) & (b), this perspective seeks to create veterans of creative suffering. This perspective believes that justice should be determined by majority vote when history has proven over and over again that without adequate constitutional protections, majorities tyrannize minorities. Thus, the opposing perspective is one that believes the suffering of LGBT persons should be submitted to vote at General Conference and then forgotten. Meanwhile, they go behind the scenes and pour unending amounts of energy into ensuring the outcomes of those votes. Fortunately, we work with faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Therefore, the suffering caused by being charged with ecclesial offenses based on who you love and who you enter into a marriage covenant with must be especially redemptive.
A Broken Covenant: The Covenant of Ordained Ministry and the Covenant of Marriage
We ask our clergy to enter into the covenant of ordained ministry, an especially sacred covenant. Part of this covenant includes the responsibility of walking with the laity through many of the most important steps in their own lives and faith journeys, including that of when and how and with whom to enter into the covenant of marriage. This includes the wide array of relationship support that many laity receive from their pastors even before entering into a covenant of marriage. It includes pre-marital counseling. It includes officiating at ceremonies celebrating the decision to enter into marriage covenants. And it includes a wide range of on-going support after the wedding day. Unfortunately, for some of our faithful gay clergy, this sacred duty is returned to them with ecclesial charges when it comes time for them to enter into their own covenants of marriage. This response is a violation of the church’s responsibility to those who enter into the covenant of ordained ministry and an assault on the marriage covenants they enter into—it represents a broken covenant—and it is a violation of our Constitution.
Fortunately, it is not too late for us to begin to repair this covenant. I continue to believe in a day when the great commandments will be fulfilled in every way possible and, within The United Methodist Church, members of the Renewal and Reform Coalition and the Common Witness Coalition, along with all other United Methodist people, will sit down together at the table of Christian fellowship as one reconciled people, with no more coalitions. We know love does win.
Role of the Judicial Council to Act
As I stated before, majorities tyrannize minorities; denying marriage equality to persons who do not fit the opposing side’s acceptable social categories amounts to imposing arbitrary social categories; it is anti-Wesleyan and it does harm to our United Methodist body. And whether it is comfortable or popular or not, the Articles of Religion and the Constitution protect this area—that of clergy discretion to marry—and the Judicial Council is charged with receiving requests for declaratory decisions from Annual Conferences and ruling as to the constitutionality, meaning or effect of any portion of the Discipline or any actions by an Annual Conference in relation to the aforesaid. I ask nothing more than that you fulfill a duty prescribed to you in the Book of Discipline. That you take a controversial but clearly prescribed stand for the integrity of our Constitution and Articles of Religion. That you remember previous Judicial Council Decisions that took a stand for the Constitution as “a set of basic principles to serve the church in its historic mission, not a document for the passing hour with its meaning and application shifting with the winds,” such as Interim Judicial Council Decision 5. And I ask that you rule in favor of the NYAC’s position that ¶2702.1 (a) & (b) impermissibly alters Article XXI. Just because we have been wrong for a long time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct the contradiction.