Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes. And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.
Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church. Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members can happen for a range of offenses. This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].
Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:
“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”
Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense. The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.
In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury. It begins with a conversation. “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV] It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation. As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.
What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution. When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken. When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments. And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.
photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash
Don’t get me wrong. I feel like shouting, too. There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending. Separating families is such a thing.
But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too. To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.
A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor. I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news. It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.
I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.
The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends. Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary. In her sermon she said:
”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”
It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value. It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.