William Willimon

Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

As veteran journalists know, sometimes there are stories that seem really, really big when you read the press releases, but they turn out to be business as usual when you dig into the details.

That appears to be what happened with the Cincinnati Enquirer story (part of the USA Today network) offering on update on one of the many legal battles unfolding in the United Methodist Church about the status of LGBTQ ministers. The headline: "Gay Methodist minister David Meredith, church claim victory."

It's a very familiar story, part of a familiar ecclesiastical puzzle that has been in place since (wait for it) 1980. How many years ago was that? Let's put it this way: I wasn't even working full-time on the religion beat at that point.

We will return to the WABAC machine angle of this story in a moment. First, let's look at the story that the Enquirer thought it had, as opposed to what appears to have happened. The key question: Is this a local story, a regional story or a national/global story? Here is the public-relations release overture:

Claiming victory for LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church nationwide, officials told The Enquirer on Wednesday that two of three charges against a Clifton congregation's openly gay pastor, David Meredith, were not certified
The Rev. Meredith appeared Sunday before the Methodist Committee on Investigation in Columbus, Ohio. Several complaints were filed against Meredith after his May 2016 marriage to his significant other of 29 years. Meredith and Jim Schlachter were married in a Methodist church by a Methodist minister.
Meredith was not charged with being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or with immorality.
Clifton United Methodist Church, whose membership overwhelmingly supports its pastor, said the case may be the first time in denominational history that a charge relating to homosexuality reached the investigative body and was dismissed. A charge of disobedience was certified. 

OK, readers, here is my question. Based on what you just read, at what level of United Methodist polity was this decision made?

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United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location

Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it’s time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History. Yes, it was in 1980 — note that this was one-third of a century ago — that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church’s teaching that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Note the words “self-avowed.” Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, “self-avowed” (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church’s doctrinal standards.

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