Do ordination vows matter? A crucial hole in RNS report on United Methodist dispute

When United Methodist ministers are ordained, the rites follow a pattern established in this oldline Protestant denomination's Book of Discipline.

There is a reason for this, of course. If the church is going to be one body, one Communion, then it helps to establish that there are ties that bind its members together, especially at the level of pulpit and altar.

Here is one vow spoken by women and men as they are ordained to the ministry. It asks the new United Methodist clergyperson if she or he will accept the denomination's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The candidate then replies: "I will, with the help of God."

The assumption, of course, is that ministers are telling the truth when they take this vow.

The problem is that the Book of Discipline -- the touch point for those doctrines and disciples -- also addresses now-controversial issues, such as marriage and sex. At one key point, it requires clergy to honor their vows that they will maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." The denomination has defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Let me stress, as always, that reporters covering stories focusing on controversies among United Methodist clergy, especially those identifying as LGBTQ, do not have to agree with these doctrines and the ordination vows that point back to them. However, it's hard to argue -- if a vow is a vow -- that the contents of the Book of Discipline are not relevant to United Methodist events and trends.

This brings us to a new Religion News Service report with this headline: "Methodist pastor in Kansas placed on leave after coming out as a lesbian." Here is the overture:

(RNS) The Rev. Cynthia Meyer has been placed on an involuntary leave of absence after coming out as a lesbian earlier this year to her rural Kansas congregation.
The leave allows Meyer, a United Methodist minister, to avoid a church trial and comes after she met for more than 12 hours on Monday (Aug. 1) with those involved in a complaint against her, according to the denomination’s Great Plains Annual Conference.
“I am heartbroken, as I agree to give up the right to serve in ministry as an Elder in The United Methodist Church for an undetermined time,” Meyer said in a written statement released through the Reconciling Ministries Network.

So here is the crucial question: Why is Meyer being removed from her pulpit and altar?

The story says clearly: Because she came out as a lesbian.

Is that actually the reason? No. That alone would not be a violation of the Book of Discipline. However, much later in the story there is this:

The second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and its Book of Discipline calls the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

And then this:

In her first sermon of 2016 this January, on Epiphany Sunday, Meyer told her congregation she felt “called by God to be open and honest” about who she is: “a woman who loves and shares her life with another woman.” She was ordained 25 years ago and was appointed pastor of the church in July 2015.
Soon afterward, Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Conference asked for her suspension, and the Rev. David Watson, district superintendent, filed a formal complaint against her.

So was Meyer told to step down because she is a lesbian, or because she said she "loves and shares her life with another woman"? Under the Book of Discipline, orientation is not the issue -- it is sexual activity outside of traditional marriage (as defined by the church) that is the issue.

But is this the real reason she has been placed on a leave of absence? Not really.

Ultimately, the reason this has happened is that she openly violated her ordination vows. After all, she vowed to defend the doctrine and disciplines of the church in which she is a leader. Thus, wouldn't it have been relevant for RNS to mention her ordination vows -- perhaps even to quote them -- in this report? For many in the pews the crucial issue is whether she is willing to defend the teachings of their church and to follow them.

Is a vow still a vow? Do they matter, anymore? To be blunt: Why isn't Meyer seeking ordination in one of the U.S. flocks -- the Episcopal Church would be relevant, to a Methodist -- in which she could take ordination vows without violating her own conscience? Did anyone ask?

So is this story accurate? In one sense, yes. She was placed on a leave of absence AFTER she came out as a lesbian. In terms of timing, that is accurate. But is that WHY she faced a complaint about her ministry?

In terms of the doctrines of her church -- no. The ultimate issue is that she violated the vows she took when she was ordained.

Do readers learn that crucial fact in this report? No. Thus, the story has an important hole in it. That's a journalism problem.

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