August 8th, 2005

saxon cross

Pastoral discretion

I had lunch today with caoimhinolorica in Greensburg. He is one of my oldest friends (at least, that I stay current with). We chatted about this and that. Finally, we got to the issue of this pastor being placed on Involuntary Location for refusing to receive a (homosexual) person into membership of his local church.

We see things very differently. He sees the acceptance of homosexuality generally as inevitable (whether that's a good thing or not). If it's inevitable, I say, then why are we wasting time squabbling over it? Let it be done, get it over with, and those who can't deal with it can depart. But that issue isn't really the crux of the matter. The crux is the way this pastor has been treated.

Here again, we see things differently. He is hopeful that the review of the Judicial Council will ensure that no injustice is perpetuated. I am far less sanguine about things. (Sigh) I envy him his hopefulness toward the future; most of all, I envy him his seeming comfort level within the Church as it is. I feel less and less comfortable as time goes on, and this particular issue has hit me very hard.

It seems to me that this is a matter of pastoral discretion. The Discipline says only a few things about discretion. Pastors do NOT have the right to refuse a member's funeral. Pastors have the ABSOLUTE right to refuse to do anybody's wedding. Pastors cannot refuse to perform infant baptisms; however, it is unclear where the boundaries of pastoral discretion lie with any particular baptism. Can I refuse to do this baptism (for whatever reason)? Pastors cannot refuse to receive new members because of their race, color, or national origin.

That about exhausts what the Discipline says about pastoral discretion. But it would seem to me that judging when and under what circumstances So-and-so is ready to take the vows of membership is part of my job. Normally, I wouldn't refuse an adult who came forward to do so. But, I have. I have been rushed by people who wanted to be baptized or confirmed in a big hurry; I didn't understand their motivations, and played for time. Their ardor cooled. Was that bad? Should I have been as eager as they? Or is it only wisdom to say, "let's see how we feel about this in a month or two?" if I think it isn't going to stick with them.

So a pastor (for whatever reason) refuses to receive Person X into membership. His District Superintendent hassles him over and over about it (and what business is it of his, pray tell?), finally ordering him to receive this person into membership. When he refuses, rather than just having the bishop move him to Third Ring of Hell UMC and appoint a more pliant pastor, the DS files formal charges of insubordination against him. The Board of Ordained Ministry passes along a recommendation to the Clergy Executive Session that he be placed on Involuntary Location (his guaranteed appointment revoked, in essence). The Bishop refuses to let the Executive Session evaluate all the relevant matters, herding them into considering only the straight-up insubordination charge. The Executive Session then places him on Involuntary Location.

Now the pastor in this case may be wrong or right, brave or stupid, a compassionate conservative or a hopeless bigot. That's all irrelevant as far as I can see. I keep asking, what insubordination? How can ignoring an improper command land you in such trouble? From where I sit, that DS should have been charged with interference with the ministry of a fellow Elder of the Church.

Well, maybe caoimninolorica is right, and the Judicial Council will clear up whatever this was about. I hope so. But, I tell you, I am absolutely sick at heart. Some years ago, I summed up my whole attitude toward the UMC: I want to belong to a Church that I can be proud of -- and which will be proud of me. I fear my Church will end up as a connection of kangaroo courts and make-it-up-as-we-go-along beliefs and values.

Following St. Cuthbert into a hermitage is sounding better and better all the time.

EDIT: This issue has so upset me that I need to think about it a while before continuing the discussion; therefore, I am temporarily disabling comments while I mull over it.

PENULTIMATE WORD: I want to thank everyone who has contributed such thoughtful comments to this post. I am sorry now, though, that I brought it up. Instead of the cathartic and calming effect of working out my ideas and feelings that I had hoped for, I find myself getting more negatively hyped as I monitor the discussion. The problem is me: I'm just not able to discuss this coolly right now.

Please do not take my disabling of comments as a rejection of your input. I deeply appreciate all of you. But if I keep going on this, I'm afraid I'm going to say something so outrageous in response to this outrage that it can't be unsaid. Then I might have to answer for that. And quite properly so. I'll come back to this later, maybe, when I've calmed down considerably, and then I will welcome your comments.