Bishop Mark Webb
Upper New York Annual Conference
324 University Ave., Third Floor
Syracuse, NY 13210
September 27, 2013
Dear Bishop Webb,
I add my thoughts and prayers to all those that have been sent your way in recent days regarding the Just Resolution Process for Rev. Steve Heiss. As many others have stated, I also understand the position you are in regarding the need to support the Book of Discipline. However I also understand that this is a situation in which there is a potential for important actions that reflect the word of God, rather than the words of humans. The Book of Discipline arose from Wesley’s attempts to bring order to a new movement. This movement that looked to reignite the Holy Spirit in the lives of all persons. I have seen this Spirit in many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters through their passion to serve God, to follow Christ and to be true and active disciples. This passion exists despite the decades of abuse, oppression and separation from full communion resulting from the last minute addition of a few words to a resolution originally meant to support full inclusion – “incompatible with Christian teaching”.
It is clear that the UMC in general is not of one mind regarding this issue, and that many you serve as Bishop feel that this wording contradicts the entirety of Jesus message that the greatest commandments on which all law should hang are to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Based on my understanding of the Gospel, anything which contradicts those commandments, whether it was Hebrew law before Jesus or not, should be considered incompatible with Jesus’ own teachings. For me, the teachings of Jesus hold a higher value than the often flawed historic teachings of the church teachings which once accepted slavery as compatible with Christian Teaching; which once accepted that women should not be allowed to be clergy or lead in other ways; and which once found the Doctrine of Discovery and the concept of Manifest Destiny to be compatible, even though they led to the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. As these examples show, the things considered compatible with Christian Teaching have not always proven to be compatible with our current understanding of Jesus’ Teaching – and in each such case the United Methodist Church and its predecessors have eventually come to understand that it is Jesus’ Teaching which takes primacy over Church Teaching. Thus we have changed what the church teaches to be compatible with the true intent of Jesus’ message.
Many denominations and large portions of our society in general have already come to that realization, and it is my prayer that someday soon the United Methodist Church will as well. But, in the meantime you are left with the existing dilemma. I ask you and those making the charges to consider, during this process, what happens if Pastor Heiss and others are found guilty of violating the Book of Discipline (BOD) and suffer consequences, then in 2016 there is a change in the BOD? If the teaching of Christ to love all equally finally becomes the law of the UMC, will Pastor Heiss and others be reinstated? Will they be asked to go through the ordination process again? Will they receive apologies and services of repentance as we have already had to do for our treatment of people of color, for woman and as we are currently in the process of doing for the harm we did to Native Americans? I ask that you keep this potential in mind as the process continues.
Finally, I want to ask you to consider the “just resolution process” itself. What does just resolution truly mean? How do we examine the concept of harm and who is harmed when this is what the process hopes to address? These question has been considered quite eloquently by Kevin Nelson in a recent piece posted to the Reconciling Ministries Blog. I copy here only a small portion of his thoughts, but I recommend that you and everyone involved in this procedure take the time to read the entire piece at http://www.rmnblog.org/2013/09/covenantalharm.html. Nelson, in considering what harm is created by such actions, writes:
“Turning to the matter of “harm,” I understand harm to clergy, to the clergy
covenant, and to the covenant with all Christians in the following ways:
-Harm is done to the clergy covenant of mutual care when complaints are filed against clergy related to their pastoral care efforts.
-Harm is done to that covenant of mutual care when complaints are filed against clergy related to their loving, covenanted relationships.
-Harm is done to the clergy covenant with all Christians when our members are denied pastoral care.
-Harm is done to that covenant when members of The United Methodist Church see their pastor dragged into complaint procedures and put on trial because that pastor dared to marry them.
-Harm is done to the covenant with all Christians when members of The United Methodist Church see their pastor dragged into complaint procedures and put on trial for whose love they bless or whom they love and with whom they form covenanted partnerships.“
With all this in mind, I close by once again:
recognizing that the situation is not an easy one and that there is no easy way to resolve it;
recognizing that you are being asked to be a prophetic voice that discerns and acts according to the difference between the Teaching of Christ and the Teaching of the Church;
recognizing that to respond in accordance with the Commandments on which all law should hang, rather than on what is written in the BOD will not go over well with some;
recognizing that you have over and over again asked us to make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the TRANSFORMATION of the world – not that we make Disciples of the Book of Discipline for upholding outdated Church teaching which maintains the status quo and continues to do harm by treating many of God’s children as something less than full kindred working with us towards God’s Kingdom;
and finally, by praying for everyone involved in this process, Pastor Heiss, the person that brought the charges, you and all those whose lives are affected by the actions under consideration. I pray that all are able to come to an understanding that respects all persons and that truly demonstrates that we recognize all humans as children of God, equally blessed by God’s grace, and equally worthy of full recognition and acceptance by the Church.
May all of you, and all of those affected, find peace and justice in this process and may we all seek to spread the Good News of Christ in every action we take.
Seeking God’s peace for all