The Council of Bishops (all bishops retired & currently serving in the US & around the world - around 150 in all) has been meeting this week at a retreat center in North Carolina. Among them are Bishop Talbert who recently performed a wedding for two men, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett who publicly asked him not too. During plenary times, the public is allowed to sit in on what the CoB is doing, and among the public are reporters, leaders in the anti-gay movements and leaders in the pro-gay movement. And there groups of people on the grounds of the site holding prayer vigils - praying the CoB does this or that.
Its one of those times when, as a UM Elder, you say "I never want to be a Bishop!"
I feel great compassion for these Bishops who are charged with leading the UMC as a whole, yet love people on both sides of the LGBTQ issue. They are each, at heart, pastors who got into this whole thing because they love the church, they love church people and they want to see the UMC grow. I'm sure that none of them relishes anyone or any church leaving the denomination because of one of their actions or statements -- just like no pastor likes losing a member over something they do. It always hurts.
Right now the Bishops can't change the Book of Discipline, only a General Conference vote can do that and they meet every four years (next one 2016) and even then it is doubtful that the BoD would be changed. We are a global church and when we meet delegates are elected by membership in the Annual Conferences. Annual Conferences in the USA are declining, in Africa and Asia membership is skyrocketing. Their votes are consistently more conservative than USA votes. The fact remains that in our current system, LGBTQ people will not be allowed to be pastors or be married in our churches in a very long time.
So what are people wanting the Bishops to do?
Several people have put forth the proposal to simply not hold any more trials for clergy who do a same-sex wedding or who come out as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or queer). Rev. Dr. Thomas Frank who is a professor who teaches polity (church law) has written an open letter to the Council of Bishops asking them to stop church trials.
Church trials are expensive and painful. The Annual Conference has to foot the bill for lodging, travel and meals for a plethora of people: an outside Bishop to be the "judge", an Elder to be the "Prosecutor", 13 jury members who are all pastors and alternates, support staff etc. You have at least 20 Elders who are not in their churches working for a week, and lets face it, the weeks leading up to it and the weeks following are probably not productive either. You have a whole Annual Conference of people anxiously watching and waiting, and the whole of Methodism watching and waiting. You have churches not being properly cared for, and the home church of the pastor on trial is a big mess.
If you read the Book of Discipline (not fun, but sometimes necessary!) Para 2704.2 a) has a lot of "shalls" which in UMC talk means "you have to do this". It says "If the bishop determines that a written complaint is based on the allegations of one or more offenses listed in Para 2702.1 the bishop shall refer the complaint to the counsel for the Church" In other words, if they did it or the Bishop thinks they did it then they have to refer it to a counsel who SHALL investigate and prepare documentation for a trial.
So, by my reading, asking the Bishops to not refer a pastor who has done a same-sex wedding for trial is asking them to go directly against the Book of Discipline. I'm guessing most Bishop's won't want to do this. Its possible that with the local bishop's support the counsel and the Committee on Investigation who are supposed to investigate may determine not to bring a trial. This has happened before, in 2000 when 68 clergy in California presided over a wedding of two women, not the bishop (which happens to have been Bishop Talbert) but the Committee on Investigation dismissed the charges. How much Bishop Talbert advised the CoI on their decision is a good question, but ultimately it was not his decision alone.
So can (or will?) the Bishops be able to do anything? They can ask their Committees on Investigation for a moratorium on clergy trials until the next General Conference and in the mean time call for a committee to bring a proposal on how to handle this. They can call for a Plan of Separation to be brought to the next General Conference as was done in the 1850's with the slavery issue. Or they can decide together to break the Book of Discipline on this matter. Or they can uphold the Book of Discipline and prepare to spend tens of thousands of dollars on clergy trials. No matter what, some people are not going to be happy.
My first senior pastor Rev. Martha Bennett always said, "Sometimes divorce is healthy." And she's right. I was determined to never divorce, yet I was a complete wreck trying to stay married to someone who lied to me and made me feel crazy for being suspicious (when I had every reason to be suspicious!). The only way to be healthy - physically, mentally and emotionally - was to divorce my husband. It was painful and difficult but I think made me healthier in the long run.
When First Lutheran Church in Milford had a break-away group leave and form a new conservative Lutheran church, I was horrified and angry. I do not think that this is the way to be a Christian, and I think Jesus' heart breaks when we reject each other and break the church. Yet, at the same time, if people cannot let the issue go and have a "live and let live" attitude then we can't be stuck in unhealthy relationships either. First Lutheran Church is fine, in fact they have taken in more new members since the other church left to more than make up for their split. And the other church, Harbor of Joy is fine too. They have new members and are doing good ministry too.
No easy answers, just thoughtful discussion and prayer.