September 18, 2013
Bishop Mark Webb
Resident Bishop, Upper New York Conference
The United Methodist Church
Greetings, Brother in Christ,
I wish that I might have been as eloquent as my brother Steve Heiss in bringing together a foundational, biblically-based, discernment of support for United Methodist Clergy performing same sex marriages. In that I am not that eloquent, I simply state that I fully affirm what he has said so well for so many, many of us, clergy and laity alike. I stand with him in his position. To his discernment, I wish to share some observations of my own.
With regard to same sex marriages, ultimately NYS has sought a higher ground than the UM Church. This places United Methodist pastors in a theological bind as to how to serve those same sex persons freed by State Law to become their fuller selves through marriage when they seek their own pastors to officiate at their marriage ceremony. This is not just a "church law" issue because pastors are led into a theologically differentiated relationship with differing members of the Body of Christ they are appointed by the UMC to serve with and for Christ ... Christ who seeks unity even when the denomination does not yet wish to do so. By Discipline, I can now be pastoral in a marriage setting to heterosexual couples [within which marriages the divorce reaches above 50 percent, with many couples divorced multiple times.] But I cannot be pastor to a same sex couple in a marriage setting, except to say, "I'm sorry, but my church will let me pastor to you in every other aspect but this ... so either don't come to me, or go somewhere else." That does not reflect the Jesus I meet in the gospels. Jesus stopped, called people to him and ministered with them. It is not just a matter of church law that pastors must "theologically" divide their ministry, putting themselves at odds with the One they ultimately serve within their appointment by the UMC, while acting in a hypocritical manner within the local church and community to which they are appointed.
Furthermore, General Conference "makes" church law based on numerical vote totals. The theological bind is this: "When it comes to the ethical and moral implications of the gospel of God's grace in Jesus as it applies to street-level living, is "church law" to trump “values of Jesus?" Does Discipline triumph over Gospels? Society-at-large, often ignorant of Jesus of the gospels, is steadily moving beyond an exclusionary position … the Source of Life and Love is well and present outside the walls of the church as well as working within. I listen to that Spirit in both locations.
I do understand that there is a General Conference of 2016. I know that the sentiment of the majority of people in the USA is swinging visibly toward inclusion of same sex marriage. I can expect that at one of these General Conferences we might find a way for the church to “catch up” to many states’ practices, when all the while the church should actually have been leading. But there are same sex couples NOW who have waited most of their lifetime, and there are pastors NOW having to manipulate their "ministry" practice to either "marry," or "not marry," same sex people. And we have been waiting for as many General Conferences as I have been in ministry.
Shall United Methodist appointed pastors give priority to a "majority vote" overriding the ethical and moral values for which Jesus lived, gave his life, and lives in Spirit among us today? I believe not. The Spirit of Jesus among us is leading the way as did Jesus when he engaged those cast aside by society in his day. The Spirit is offering all the same grace. And I hear the Spirit asking, if there is a probability that the General Conference might actually “vote” to affirm its leading in the near future, why should those who grasp the Spirit’s leading NOW but simply lack the “vote” of General Conference be punished “just before hand?”
Lastly, I want to engage the "kind and degree" of "sentence" to be delivered. I grant that a breach of church law must be addressed head on. Nevertheless, if I grasp anything clearly about Jesus, I grasp that he did not take judgment and punishment to be his priorities. He did take compassion, fairness and restoration to be his priorities. In light of the understandings that the best in biblical study is unlocking about Jesus today, may the "kind and degree" of "sentence" that concludes this trial be "healing" and "transforming" for and of all -- those on trial, those presiding at trial, those on whose behalf this trial has come to be, and the general public who are measuring the United Methodist Church against the love of God in Jesus of the Gospels. May we demonstrate the grace to which we are all called.
May any “sentence” that comes forward at Steve Heiss’ trial reflect the call of the Holy Spirit within the United Methodist Church to put this peripheral discussion that saps far too much energy without offering blessing behind us, so that we can bind together in community that expresses Jesus’ way of love, justice and peace for all people so that our world may be a place to live safely in succeeding generations.
In great love and care for you, Bishop, and for all who are involved in this process in any manner.
Shalom in all its fullness,
Shalom in all its fullness,