Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Clergy Authority and Controversial Subjects

In response to Rob Bell's recent statement which seems perhaps to be affirming marriage equality, Homebrewed Christianity asks, among other questions, "How do we give voice to issues that our congregations may not be 100% with us?"  Here is an anecdotal answer from me.

In 1992 the General Conference of The United Methodist Church was held in Louisville, just a few hours from where I was serving my first full-time appointment as pastor.  As it was within easy driving distance, I went to the Conference a few days. When I returned, one of the prominent members of the tiny, rural, United Methodist Church where I was the pastor asked me if I had put those delegates straight about homosexuality (yes, we as a denomination have been arguing about this since before then).  I answered, "Yes, I did.  I told them they were sinning by excluding people based on their sexual orientation and that they should repent and follow Jesus."  His eyes widened, but he didn't respond in any way, and he never brought it up again.

When I was doing my paperwork for ordination, way back when, I said that I felt that my calling and my request for ordination was multi-leveled.  I am certainly called to present the faith as it has been historically passed down through the centuries.  I am also called to present the faith as uniquely expressed in my specific tradition, that of The United Methodist Church.  In addition, while I am not called to be Reverend Lone Ranger, I have a calling to speak from my own individual conscience, which may or may not align with official pronouncements of the church at large or of the UMC in particular.

As it relates to homosexuality, I said, I will obey the rulings of my denomination, but I will do everything within my power to overturn those rulings in order to minister to all people and to allow all people to minister, regardless of their sexual orientation.  When I met with the ordination committee, not one question was posed to me about this.  This surprised me because Kentucky is the home of the most conservative stream of United Methodism.  I asked my counseling elder about this, and his response was that the committee was satisfied that I had wrestled with the issue using all the resources of the church and that agreement with official positions of the church is not a requirement for ordination, while obedience is.

I am frustrated with the slow movement of my church on this matter, and I am less inclined to obey than I was as a young man.  But I still feel that a multi-leveled calling and authority are operative for me.  Sometimes I am called and have authority to say, "Thus says the Lord."  Sometimes, "Thus says the church."  And sometimes, "I personally feel the church is wrong about what God is saying in this context."  I think it's important to be clear about what level of authority I am exercising at any given time, but all three, I think, are indispensable.

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