As I sit down to write these words, the Reverend Benjamin Hutchinson and his partner, Monty, are getting married today in the Cass County Courthouse in Western Michigan. As they do this, Reverend Hutchinson has been forced to resign as pastor of Cassapolis UMC. What a juxtaposition of emotions these two people must be feeling right now.
Following the details of all this the best that I can, I have been moved to remember the exhortation of the late Bishop Rueben Job in his chapter in the book, Finding Our Way (Abingdon Press, 2014), a plea to suspend all retributive actions between now and General Conference, so that propaganda and reactionary thinking will not infect the discernment process required of General Conference delegates with regard to human sexuality.
I reiterate his exhortation, not simply because I read it in the book, but because Bishop Job was one of the Christian leaders I most respect–in both the substance and spirit of his faith. Much of this was from afar, but Jeannie and I were blessed to know him and his wife, Beverly, during our years at The Upper Room in Nashville. I have not known anyone who manifested a kinder and gentler spirit than Rueben–and who loved Christ and the Church more than he did. I cherish his influence and friendship.
I would never presume to put words in Bishop Job’s mouth, but I am willing to put his words into mine, and hopefully perpetuate his view–one that I own on a day when I believe it is needed. I put it this way: it is a day to suspend the sorrow.
Some will immediately respond by saying, “To suspend retributive actions violates the existing Book of Discipline–case closed.” There is no way to dispute that, but I do not believe a “case closed” approach includes everything we need to be taking into account these days, and I do not believe it generates the spirit we sorely need in the days preceding General Conference.
I have no institutional authority to speak into this complex and controversial issue, but I am willing to say, as Christians before me have said in the past as they spoke to thorny problems: “the love of Christ constrains me.” My soul is stirred by the testimony to love by the great cloud of witnesses, now including the likes of Rueben Job.
I urge a suspension of retributive actions based on the fact that all people on the spectrum of opinion are agreed that the General Conference must deal with the double-talk and restrictive nature of the current Book of Discipline. In spirit our agreement has already “convened” General Conference in the soul of the United Methodist Church. We do not serve our soul well by acting retributively prior to the actual General Conference itself. We only trouble the waters without anyone stepping into them to be healed.
Moreover, to act retributively is to assume in advance how the General Conference will legislate the 2016 Book of Discipline. And the fact is, we do not know how revised statements will read. How sad it would be to realize we took actions ten months prior to General Conference to prohibit clergy from serving the Church in ways that would then be allowed in whatever way the General Conference effects our position and future.
If the General Conference finds a way forward and preserves unity, we will have what so many hope for–a new set of regulations for The United Methodist Church that are more gracious than the current ones. If, however, it maintains the current language, or perhaps even tightens that language, then many of us will have what we need to decide our future relative to the post-2016 UMC.
In the meantime, it is not disrespectful or disobedient to our current Book of Discipline to suspend action using statements we all agree will be changed some way next May. We have, in effect, already suspended them by our agreement that they must be reviewed and revised.
Returning to Bishop Job’s exhortation, I share his sentiment that the better way for us in the coming months is to pray, pray, and pray some more–rather than follow a trail of tears blazed by words and actions that erode our discernment. We have elected our delegates to General Conference. Our “job one” is to intercede for them, asking (in the words of the hymn) that God will “grant them wisdom, grant them courage” for the living of these days.
If we do this, rather than divert our energy to enforcing statements we already concede will somehow change, we will arrive in Portland wiser, stronger, better, and more loving. Do we not believe that is better than getting there through a swamp of retribution?
Bishop Job offered this challenge in his chapter–one that I own and repeat today: “To give up the gods we have made, will require a deep humility, an incredible trust in God, and the courage to lose everything, and to die to everything else for what is the primary call of our lives ”
God, may it be so! For us all.
And in keeping with the overarching spirit that has moved me to write this post, I say to Benjamin and Monty, “God bless you as you are married today. May you continue to love and serve God, trusting that the One who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.