Location, location, location: Did the whole United Methodist Church ordain a non-binary deacon?

This truth cannot be stated too many times: This whole religion-beat thing is complicated.

Take the gazillions of complicated facts and potential errors hidden in one simple word -- "polity." In addition to having countless doctrinal differences, the world's thousands of organized religions also have their own systems for laws and governance.

One flock's bishop fills a completely different role than another flock's leader with the same title. Each of these "bishops" has completely different powers and tasks, according to the laws or his or her flock. Church history matters. Scripture matters. The words in vows matter.

So what about that recent headline in The Washington Post? The one that proclaimed: "The United Methodist Church has appointed a transgender deacon."

Well, there is the United Methodist Church -- a global denomination. There are also local United Methodist churches, with a lower-case "c." To understand what happens at the various levels in between means wrestling with UMC polity.

As I said in a 2014 post: "United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location."

So, has the United Methodist Church -- the whole shooting match -- appointed (or even approved the appointment of) its first trans deacon? Let's look carefully at the top of the Post story on this complicated event:

The bishop spoke the traditional words as she placed her hands on the new deacon named M with just a slight difference from the way those words have always been spoken before.
“Pour out your Holy Spirit upon M,” the bishop said. “Send them now to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to announce the reign of God and to equip the church for ministry.”
Not “send him now” or “send her now.” “Send them now.” 
That’s what M Barclay has been working for 12 years to finally hear.
Barclay, a transgender person who identifies as neither male nor female and thus uses the pronoun “they,” was commissioned on Sunday as the first non-binary member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church.

Now, the crucial question: Who commissioned M Barclay?

This is a crucial fact to know, when considering the accuracy of that headline that stated that THE United Methodist Church" -- not "a," not a section of, but the whole body -- had approved the ordination of a non-binary trans deacon.

The Post story proceeds:

The United Methodist Church is one of the largest denominations in America, falling behind only the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. The mainline Protestant denomination has been bitterly divided over sexuality and gender identity: Its official rules say clergy must either be celibate or in heterosexual marriages, and can perform only such marriages, but American bishops have ordained gay and transgender clergy before, and clergy have conducted same-sex marriages.

The crucial fact is then mentioned, but its significance is left unexplained: 

In the Northern Illinois Conference, where Barclay was commissioned Sunday, Bishop Sally Dyck said in a statement, “While M’s journey over the last few years has included gender identity, all of those who were commissioned or ordained on Sunday have been on some kind of journey that has brought them to new places of faith, life and relationships. Likewise, I hope the church will find itself at a new place in the near future when it comes to full inclusion.”

We are back to issues of polity. Let's walk into that maze.

Does the Northern Illinois Conference have the authority to ordain deacons, because these actions are processed and occur at the regional level? The answer is "yes."

Does this mean that this person, at this moment in time, is a deacon in the whole "United Methodist Church"? Things get complicated at this point, but I think most would agree that the answer is "yes."

But did the whole church ordain M Barclay? That's the big question linked to the headline.

Moving on. Do other jurisdictions in the national and global church have to agree with this decision? Can the whole body reject an action of one of its members? The answer is "yes." Will that happen? That pulls us back into the maze behind the polity maze, the level of church life in which activists (including bishops) act on their own doctrinal convictions and the global church scrambles to respond.


You see, this doctrinal United Methodist civil war has been going on for decades. As I wrote in 2014, we are dealing with case studies, decade after decade, straight out of a mid-1980s study -- "The Seven Churches of Methodism" -- published by two scribes from Duke University.

In this next quotation, I was discussing a gay-ordination case in Denver more than three decades ago:

One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church's leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshipping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the larger and still growing "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."
The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.
Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions ... were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.

As you would expect, the Post story does a great job of telling M Barclay's story, from M Barclay's point of view and that of M Barclay's supporters.

As is the current norm in most, but not all, Post reporting on stories involving heroic religious believers who are in fights with traditionalist bigots, this story does not include a single sentence drawn from Post interviews with (a) United Methodists representing the larger church and/or (b) conservative United Methodists who disagree with the actions of the Northern Illinois Conference. 

Yes, there is this:

Still, Barclay’s gender identity is a cause of concern for some in the church. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, general manager of the United Methodist group Good News, which advocates against allowing same-sex marriage or gay clergy, told United Methodist News Service that most people in Good News believe people should live as the gender they are assigned at birth, though transgender people should be welcome in churches.

Note the source of that quote. Apparently, there was no need for a reporter or editor to deign to talk to traditional United Methodists. That might complicate the narrative. Or did doctrinal conservatives decline to talk with Post personnel? If that was the case, I think readers would have been given a "so-and-so declined" to be interviewed reference.

A basic journalism question: If and when someone from another, larger United Methodist body challenges this ordination, do you expect a Post story about that development to include fresh quotes from those on the doctrinal left as well as the right? Will the left be limited to a second-hand statement drawn from a press release or a denominational publication? 

Finally, there is another interesting polity question raised in this Post report:

Barclay is not in a romantic relationship now, so is not violating the church’s rule that clergy can have sexual relationships only in heterosexual marriages. The church does not have any rule banning transgender clergy.

Ah, so the service did include ordination vows. To its credit, the Post team included a tiny note about that. So what do those vows say? In a 2016 "On Religion" column about a different clash between United Methodist doctrine and the Sexual Revolution, I wrote:

... The candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church'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 replies: "I will, with the help of God."


... The UMC Book Of Discipline remains clear on premarital sex, requiring clergy to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness."

Thus, the news report's reference to the current status of M Barclay's love life was not irrelevant information. It would appear that officials in that jurisdiction knew that some lines should not, at this time, be crossed or erased.

Nevertheless, if there are reporters interested in covering both sides of this story, they should prepare for future discussions of whether M Barclay vowed to uphold the "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline" of the whole United Methodist Church or merely that of the Northern Illinois Conference?

Newsmakers have been asking variations on that question for decades. That's the big story.

IMAGES: M Barclay photos from social media.

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