Wednesday, November 20, 2013

In defense of the Methodists

When I was 12, my family moved from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, then a city of about 60,000, to Sheridan, a town of about 3,000 some 30 miles away, where my dad's parents lived, where my dad grew up, and where my parents had met.

We had been Presbyterians in Pine Bluff, but there was no Presbyterian church in Sheridan.  As we were a churchgoing family, it would not do to stay home on Sunday, so we tried the Baptist church where my grandparents were members.  It was nice enough, and large enough to have plenty of kids my and my brother's ages, but there were some problems.  In Pine Bluff, our church was what passed for liberal in a small Southern city. It had even begun to desegregate and had hired a female associate pastor, but even more than that, it was doctrinally liberal, consistent with the national denomination's ideological bent toward social justice.  The Baptists, however, were the opposite of that, as befits most Baptists--though it was less so in the 1980s than today.  In a meeting with the Baptist pastor, my parents were encouraged to try out the Methodist church down the street--not out of any rancor, but out of the recognition that we would find the Methodists more in line spiritually with what my family was used to.

So that's where we landed.

I have written on this page about where I stand today, but in those days, it was as good a fit as might be expected.  I am lucky to have grown up in a tradition in which careful examination and scholarship are to be valued even when they challenge the old ways of thinking, and I tend to think of myself as Presbyterian in my approach to policy if not in my conclusions, especially about spiritual matters.  I have always found the Methodists similarly to be thoughtful and intentional when it was important to be so, but in my experience, most Methodists are content to be easygoing, open to all, and nonjudgmental.  They dislike strife even as Baptists seem to thrive on it. 

There is a great struggle within the old-line main-line denominations--the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and so forth--about how to deal with the rapid changes our society is experiencing.  These denominations, for various reasons but largely because of their focus upon scholarship over evangelism as means for developing faith, have tended to be more accepting of social change than their more conservative brethren, even if some have come more slowly to that status.  (There is a great line in Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It and Other Stories in which Maclean's father, a Presbyterian minister, is said to regard Methodists, contemptuously, as "Baptists who can read.")  It is to their credit that it's a struggle, because in the more evangelical branches of Christianity, it's not a struggle in the slightest.  It's hardly even a question.

That struggle has brought the Methodists into the news lately.  Rev. Frank Schaefer is the pastor of the Zion United Methodist Church of Iona in Lebanon, Pa.  In 2007, he officiated at the wedding of his son in Massachusetts.  The controversy is that his son is gay and married a man, an act that was legal in Massachusetts but not recognized in Pennsylvania.

After a complaint brought by a parishoner, Rev. Schaefer was charged under the rules specified in the Book of Discipline, a Methodist doctrinal document that carries the force of law as far as the church is concerned, with officiating at a same-sex wedding and with being disobedient to the order and discipline of the church.  On Tuesday, a panel of 13 ordained Methodists voted unanimously to find him guilty of the charges and to impose upon him a 30-day suspension.  The judgment also carries the proviso that if Rev. Schaefer officiates at a future same-sex wedding, he will be defrocked.

Anyone who reads my blog or who interacts with me regularly in any other way will know that I have been a long-time supporter of the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, dating even to before Vermont passed the first-ever "civil unions" statute.  Rev. Schaefer's decision to officiate at his son's wedding was undertaken with the knowledge that doing so violated the rules of his church.  It was a brave act and a loving act for which he is to be commended.  The church's decision to discipline him for doing so is merely the latest in a long parade of horribles through which Christian churches have sought to stem the tide of social change.  In the abstract, I oppose their decision.  I wish they would be better people than they are.

Nevertheless, I am writing today to defend them, and I write also today to defend everyone who chooses to say "no" in their private lives to gay marriage on the basis of a principled objection to it.  I believe that the law should recognize same-sex marriage on the same terms as different-sex marriage, and I am convinced that in a short time, the law will do so.  The freedom of all Americans--not just people who want to enter into same-sex marriages, but all of us--depends upon the extension of the freedoms that recognition of same-sex marriage provides.

But our freedom also depends upon the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion.  We cannot advance ourselves by forcing one group to step aside from their rights in favor of another.  Religious people must remain free to decline to participate--not to have their beliefs codified in the law, but to determine for themselves how they themselves act.  As such, the Methodists must remain free to discipline their clergy for violating church doctrine, as long as that discipline carries no legal consequences.

For the record, I don't think this concept is necessarily limited to churches.  I am not comfortable with private service providers being forced, through the law, to accommodate customers whose business violates the service providers' conscience.  It should not be illegal for a baker to refuse to furnish a cake to a same-sex wedding party, for example.  On the other hand, should a reception hall that is in the business of renting out space for weddings as a public accommodation (like a restaurant or hotel is a public accommodation) be permitted, under the law, to discriminate against same-sex couples, when they would not be permitted to discriminate against mixed-race couples or (more broadly) minority couples?  Should a pharmacist be permitted to refuse to dispense birth control on the basis of a religious objection?  My gut reaction is no to both.  In the latter case, the problem I have with it is that the law reposes special trust and licensing in the pharmacist and restricts access to drugs on that basis, but overall, I have trouble figuring out where the line should be drawn and on what basis.

That does not mean that these folks are immune from criticism.  I believe their doctrinal decision is foolish, short-sighted, and wrong, and I don't mind saying so.  But that's hardly the only thing, or even the most important thing, over which we disagree.

And it doesn't leave Rev. Schaefer without recourse.  He can use this opportunity to show how his church is wrong, and perhaps his efforts will lead to change.  If not, it is certainly no blot on his record to have been defrocked as the result of an unjust policy.

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