United Methodist Church found guilty of having a bad law

First, a word from the official heckler of GetReligion:

A church whose slogan is "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors" can hardly seem to be pushing the growth bandwagon by catering to a large traditional minority! It is entirely appropriate for protesters to highlight the hypocrisy in the Methodist Church. And it's a sad state of affairs when a journalist writing about such protesters and noting objectively that "Some worry..." about the impact on the church's progressive image is taken to task on your blog as "one-sided." Posted by: Joe Perez | March 20, 2004 03:26 PM

Let's unpack this for a minute, before considering the verdict out in the Pacific Northwest.

Perez is right, of course, that the slogan "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors" perfectly expresses the worldview of the national leadership of the United Methodist Church and it does not express the doctrines found in the church's own Book of Discipline. That is what this battle is all about. A large majority of United Methodists has repeatedly upheld the Discipline's traditional views of marriage and ordination. At the same time, the Discipline's standards have continued to face strong opposition in the church's bureaucracies and seminaries. And it is also clear that the law is being read one way in places such as Colorado, Washington and California and in another way in Texas, Georga and Kentucky (especially Wilmore).

Mr. Perez is also right to note that it makes sense for progressives to protest this clash between their church's advertising and its laws. You betcha, that's an awkward situation.

However, Mr. Perez clearly did not understand the point I was making about the Washington Post story and the contrast with the more balanced report in the New York Times. I was not claiming that Alan Cooperman's report was unbalanced because it made a (valid) comment about the protesters. I was saying it was unbalanced because it included little or no factual material that described the size and nature of the conflict in the United Methodist Church and among Methodists at the global level. The goal in journalism is to offer information representing both sides of a conflict, especially one as bitter as this gash in United Methodism.

Meanwhile, the verdict is now in. A jury of 13 pastors found the Rev. Karen Dammann innocent of violating her church's teachings against homosexual conduct by clergy. In effect, the jury found the United Methodist Church itself guilty of having an unclear law, or at least one that can be considered unclear by those who oppose the teachings contained therein. The Seattle Times reported:

Church law says that "since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals" cannot be ordained as ministers.

One juror, the Rev. Karla Fredericksen of Tukwila United Methodist Church, read a statement from the jury, saying: "The church did not present sufficient, clear and convincing evidence to sustain the charge" against Dammann. "We searched the Discipline and did not find a declaration that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

... Although the jury said it found "passages that contain the phrasing 'incompatible with Christian teaching,' we did not find that any of them constitute a declaration."

This is not a surprising verdict, since it comes 18 years after a trial in the Rocky Mountain conference in which a case against an openly gay pastor was dismissed due to similar confusion over the meaning of "self-avowed" and "practicing." The bottom line: It is next to impossible to make a United Methodist annual conference enforce a law that it does not want to enforce.

What this demonstrates for reporters is that the political structures of individual religious bodies are not always what they seem at first glace. The Southern Baptist Convention looks like a powerful national structure, but the real power is at the local church level. Ask Bill Clinton.

In United Methodism, the key power switch is at the regional conference level. This is where national laws are enforced, or not enforced. The same is true in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), only the regional bodies are called presbyteries instead of conferences. And the same thing is true in the Episcopal Church. The real power is at the diocese level, unless national or international structures dare to flex their muscles.

Come to think of it, the same thing is true in the Roman Catholic Church -- unless Rome decides to step in and enforce its laws and teachings.

Actually, these flocks and their shepherds appear to have a lot in common.

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