In Sophocles’ Antigone our tragic heroine demonstrates to us what is regarded as one of the greatest moral principles of the Western world: when the laws of the state require one to do something against one’s own religion, or when following one’s own religious beliefs become categorized as against the law, the right thing to do is to follow your religious practices above the laws of the state. The legends of Socrates and Jesus, and their traditions, confirm and validate this virtue in the ancient world.
But what to do when religion causes one to break religious laws? Christianity has always worked through the tensions of what happens when doctrine become dogma, and when either become enforced—sometimes enforced despite of or in spite of contradictory doctrine or flying in the face of tradition.
This is what is being played out in the church trial of a United Methodist pastor from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Rev. Frank Schaefer. The story is that the pastor officiated the marriage of his gay son to another man, and will this week be sitting trial for violating UMC discipline. The first level of irony to the whole charade may be lost on those not local; namely, that the Bishop in the big city, Philadelphia, has placed the liberal pastor in the very conservative countryside of Lebanon County on trial. This is the same county where the idiot local state representative forgot to edit out her anti-Muslim language on a legislative bill that she sponsored and where the crowd in front of a college threw food and other objects at atheist veterans in the state’s largest Veterans’ Day Parade.
The second level of irony, at least for me, is that another United Methodist pastor will also be standing trial for murder in Lebanon in the coming months, A.B. Shrimer. This case, which is too complicated to justly describe here, involves a pastor who has already been convicted of another murder now being accused of killing another wife in a death ruled accidental years ago. That pastor, whose ministry credentials were not revoked by the local bishop until after two women were dead and one of their husbands hung himself in a church office, has been the subject of numerous news reports and a Dateline episode even titled “the Sinister Minister.” (I ate with Shirmer at a picnic once, but that’s a story for another time.)
Back to the current story of Rev. Schaefer on trial. The local bishop, a graduate of that before-mentioned college, brought charges against the local pastor for officiating a gay wedding. The bishop’s hands are tied on the matter, if she knows that he violated the church’s Book of Discipline, she herself would face a trial if she would not judiciously act according to church law. In protest, a group of UMC clergy (who would not release their names to the press) co-officiated a gay wedding in Philadelphia as an act of solidarity with the pastor on trial. And coincidentally, there are calls from conservative groups in the UMC for a bishop to go on trial for recently officiating a gay wedding himself.
Suffice to say, these past few weeks have been somewhat eventful for the United Methodist Church. Again, the trial of the local pastor in Pennsylvania begins this week. Many of my colleagues and United Church of Christ peers are being supportive of the pastor and money is being raised for a legal defense of the pastor in his church trial.
I say this as someone who was removed from the ordination process in the exact same conference (diocese) of the United Methodist Church, and who was later a licensed pastor in the Northern Illinois Conference: My bets are that Schaefer will be found guilty of violating church law. UMC polity is that clergy take vows to “word, sacrament, and order.” The oath to “order” along with word and sacrament has to do with the episcopal power latent in the UMC. There is room for theological and practical innovation in the United Methodist Church, but the first priority is to the subjective investment that clergy are supposed to have for each other, usually called in Methodist theology “connectionalism.” In practice, however, the oath to order is a convenient excuse to exercise episcopal authority and to veil the politics of the church’s polity.
While I can sympathize with the pastor, I wonder, though, this: if your religious persuasions are such that you’re not willing to work through the system to which you took an oath for “order,” why fight to stay in the system? I understand that it is true that those Methodists who want to seek inclusion for gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons in their churches have an uphill battle to climb: It was just last summer where an African bishop likened homosexuality to bestiality while debating a resolution to affirm the deep conflict and deep wounds in the church—the anti-gay delegates were so, well, anti-gay, that even the resolution acknowledging conflict was voted down.
For many of my UMC friends, at least those who will still associate with me, the pastor on trial has become a symbol of the struggle, and perhaps of ecclesial martyrdom, for those sticking to their theology that runs contrary to their own church’s theology.
But if this issue is so important for them—and to be fair, it is an important issue to me—doesn’t it simply feed the nihilism of the whole situation to, well, “stay?” Back when I was United Methodist, even after I was dismissed from the ordination candidacy process, I justified to myself that it was important to stay because Methodism mattered. There is no more American form of church Christianity than Methodism. Transforming the United Methodist Church is a way of transforming the very base of American culture. But these were lines that I was taught in the UMC polity classes that I was required to take to convince us all not to defect, as they taught us the legislative and judicial processes described in the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. (I was also taught to love Wesleyan theology, which I still do, even though Wesley is deeply castrated by his modern interpreters, and, I would argue, Methodism as a movement is no longer Wesleyan in its theological content.) Perhaps the obsessive and excessive polity requirement that I had to fulfill (I think it was eight credits) was largely to know the Discipline of the UMC well enough to either not get caught, to evade, or to defend oneself when working in “the real world.”
Returning to Rev. Schaefer’s trial: To stand up in defense when you have violated church law, and to allow a movement to build around you on this point, does not really speak to courage, but of protest, and there is nothing really wrong with protest in and of itself. But in the large scheme of things, is not such an antinomian protest, made voluntarily within a voluntary context, ultimately nihilism speaking to, or within, nihilism? Nihilism protesting nihilism, nihilistically? If one takes an oath to the rules, and then violates them, all within voluntary contexts, should not one accept the consequences? To think out loud: If the church’s rules were thrown out the window en masse, I have a feeling many churches would dismiss their pastors appointed to them by their Bishops, against the Bishops’ appointments. Surely, UMC clergy wouldn’t want that. If enough of the effective pastors walked off the job in protest, the denomination would have a real problem, or at least a bigger one than they already have.
On one hand, perhaps I am old-fashioned when it comes to oaths and oath-taking. But if we are to take oath-saying and oath-taking as the sacrament of language rather than a sacrament of power alone, in the Methodist ordinand’s oath and commissioning to the ministry of word, sacrament, and order, the order is a referent to the event of the taking of the oath itself. This is to say, the circumstances of the oath are contingent upon Methodist Discipline. The Bishop and his or her “connexion” of pastors lay hands in the act of ordination. The ordinand’s oath may be to God, but the oath’s world of language is mediated through the Bishop and all she represents.
The nihilism of the contemporary church is just this: the polity of big denominations assumes that the denominations themselves are either laboratories for the spawning of the Kingdom of God, or that their polities somehow prefigure said Kingdom. Methodist history is latent with this notion, from its social justice and social holiness roots that gave us witness against slavery—to the point of splitting a denomination in half—to prohibition. In our post-Christendom era, to even think this way is not only laughable, it calls the entire Christian enterprise under suspicion. Church trials aren’t good PR, but the Mighty Fortress demands, and will continue to demand, that we must have more and more of them. People can keep blogging and selling books about “Why Millennials Don’t Go to Church,” etc., but the bare reality is this: post-Christendom culture has figured out that this is all a ritual, sado-ritual, dance of power. And while being told that such polity rituals must matter, and that it will eventually change our culture, the fact is that these trials don’t even really change church culture for the better after a short time. In Matthew 12, Jesus asks, “Does Satan Cast out Satan?” The church has always preached: of course not! The truth is its opposite: Absolutely!
I wish Rev. Schaefer luck.