This Open Letter to the Clergy Members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference below first appeared May 13 in the blog Cross + Purposes. It was written by the Revs. Charles and Stanley Harrell. Since then, several others have signed on to the letter. Their names are at the letter’s end.
Our dear brothers and sisters:
With great sadness of heart and disappointment we have read the news that the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Baltimore-Washington Conference is recommending for commissioning as Provisional Deacon Tara Morrow, who is described as a “married lesbian”, that is, a woman married to another woman.
At the outset, we wish to say that, whether or not she agrees, we are sorry that her recommendation for commissioning has become the focal point for controversy. We also hope that, in whatever place and in due course, she will be in that setting which reflects God’s best will for her growth and thriving in ministry, and in community with other believers. We say this sincerely and without reservation. Our opposition to BoOM’s action in recommending Tara Morrow for provisional membership does not negate our desire to embrace her as a person and as our sister in Christ.
The issue of homosexuality and the church is not a new one. It goes back to the beginnings of our denomination, and even long before. It has been debated at every General Conference session since 1972. “The church,” we often hear, “is divided on this issue;” and internally, this is true. We also frequently hear that “we do not have a clear mind on the issue.” This is false. Every four years, the same essential position has been affirmed, using one form of language or another, usually with little variation. The culture has changed around us, but the church has not. Since change in the culture is not always for the better or God-ward, we cannot therefore assume that the church is wrong or “behind the times”. Both history and contemporary life provide examples of where cultural change has gone in a destructive direction, and what is labeled “progressive” does not necessarily represent progress toward virtue. In such times the church’s insistent but loving steadiness in her fidelity to God is especially important, and instrumental in bringing healthful correction down the way. Nor are civil law or court decisions sure guides: the church is to be guided by the word of God.
The statement of the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and the interview in conference media with its chair, Dr. Charles Parker, offers tortured logic for avoiding the plain sense of the Book of Discipline on the pertinent paragraphs regarding the credentialing for ministry of self-avowed, practicing homosexual persons. The Board’s recent press releases, and the subsequent open letter by the chairs of the BWC and New York Conference Boards try at the same time to say that the Discipline gives their boards the cover to make recommendation of LGBTQI persons for ministry, but that the language in the Discipline is wrong and unjust. That the Boards have the “right” to recommend “to their Annual Conferences based on standards for effectiveness”, while ignoring that the parameters for those standards are set by the Discipline on this issue in words that are clear, and that any authority entrusted to conference BoOM (note: theirs by trust, not by “right”) comes precisely from the same Discipline.
Quotations are also offered in the press release regarding Discipline passages consulted, including the material on sexuality in the Social Principles. A telling omission is the definition of marriage in the Social Principles, para. 161.B), where the church expresses a clear understanding concerning marriage: one man and one woman. This clearly did not enter into BoOM’s discussion or, if it did, had no bearing.
The essence of the press releases, the interview with Dr. Parker, and the open letter distills down to this: “This is what we are going to do, based on our view, regardless of what the law of the church is. We invite you to join us.” For all the appeals to “Christian conferencing”, this is not consensus. [Note 1] This is nullification. It is not order; it is anarchy.
None of us is perfect. Certainly no clergy or layperson in ministry who has even a trace of self-reflectiveness believes that each action and every decision in her or his ministry has been made in perfect obedience and full grace. Because of the amplification that ministry brings any mistake, whether an error in judgment, a failure in leadership, a moral or ethical lapse, or an instance of acting where we should have held back or failing to act when action was called for, can have consequences long and serious for real people, churches, and more. In the same way few, if any of us, have upheld the Discipline absolutely 100% of the time, perfectly performing all that it requires of us. We acknowledge these things, not with pride, but with repentance, and a commitment to use the grace of God not as a cover for future errors, but to free us to learn from yesterday’s failings so that we might serve the more faithfully today and tomorrow.
It would be a serious breach to use a sin or fault in the past to excuse a new one in the present. As St. Paul wrote: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? May it never be so!” (Romans 6:1-2a) How much more so for one leader not only to practice, but to teach and commend that which is wrong. Jesus addresses this sharply in Matthew 18:6. Still more, it is a grievous lapse of a whole order of magnitude for that very body which is entrusted with commending and safeguarding the standards of ministry to vacate their duty as expressed in the Discipline, and calling on the Clergy Executive Session to do the same.
Yet with heavy hearts we must point out that this is exactly what BoOM is doing now. Every person commissioned and ordained for ministry has made a commitment before the annual conference session to “preach and maintain” the doctrine and uphold the discipline of the church. [Note 2] Each has made a vow at their ordination to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church”. How? Exactly by “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and accepting the authority of those who are appointed to supervise your ministry.” The clergy of the conference are now being called upon by BoOM, the very body which is charged with watching over the integrity of the vows of ordination, to violate this one. This action, if successful, will do moral harm to all participating clergy in both orders.
Even this, however, is not deemed sufficient: the chairs of two Boards, including our own, have called upon other Boards of Ordained Ministry across the connection to take similar steps, in advance of or in the absence of any action by the General Conference, which according to the Discipline is the only body which can speak and legislate for the whole church. [Note 3] Inviting other BoOMs to disobedience to the order and discipline of the church and to call their clergy to disregard their vows: this is indeed, in the language of their open letter, “a different way of being church”.
In the same letter, Rev. Dr. Parker and Rev. Dr. Pfohl cite the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which has rightly become, in the past half-century, one of the most hallowed texts of American Christianity. But their use of Dr. King’s words is miscast and destructive. It is miscast, because where Dr. King recalled the white clergy of Birmingham to return to imperatives of the Scripture and the foundational documents of the American republic, Drs. Parker and Pfohl call upon the church’s leaders to set aside the foundational documents of the United Methodist Church, the Constitution of the church and the Discipline. About Scripture they have nothing to say at all, for it would not support their argument. [Note 4]
The use of Dr. King’s words is also destructive, for it implicitly casts those who disagree with their private opinion – regardless of how widely shared it is – in the same mold as the segregationists and Klansmen of the old South – along with (if one is familiar with the full letter) Babylonian emperors, Greek despots, Nazis, and Communist dictators. This is profoundly offensive, though many harbor a concern that it accurately portrays what some of our brothers and sisters really believe about us.
We must also insist, humbly, that this characterization is built on a lie – namely, that those United Methodists, wherever they may be, who do not share the views of the Drs. Parker and Pfohl or their BoOMs, do not care about or are hostile to the concerns and pain of LGBTQI persons in our midst. We also have struggled, and continue to struggle, with the best ways of caring for and being in ministry with LGBTQI brothers and sisters. We also have friends and family members who live with these questions daily in a personal, visceral way. Indeed, some of ourselves have and do, as well. We have painfully grappled with Scripture and tradition, as well as informed reason and Christian experience, [Note 5] around these questions. Nor is our struggle over, regardless of what is or is not “settled” under ecclesiastical law, one way or another. Our love for Christ and for real people compels us to continue to deepen faithful understanding and practice. The highhanded tone of this letter, dismissive of those who disagree or even of those who agree and do not follow in lock-step, is as wrong as it is offensive, and does a terrible disservice to countless faithful United Methodist Christians around the world.
One final point. The order and discipline of the church as embodied in the Discipline, being a human expression both of God’s teaching and of practical administrative order, is not infallible. Yet it has provided, in those many instances touching many fraught and contentious issues within the church’s life, a shared covenant with a set of boundaries for conversation and action – an arena, in a sense, for the church to live out in ways old and new, proven and daring, our call to faithful discipleship. This is an advantage many other denominations do not enjoy as we do. Where we have disagreed about what Scripture says (or even its role), we have been able to say, “Well, we may not agree; but we share a fidelity to the Discipline as a way of being in worship, fellowship, and ministry together across those differences.” The action of BoOM, if affirmed by the Executive Session, and the call of Drs. Parker and Pfohl for other conferences’ BoOMs to do the same, gives both the appearance and the reality of shattering that covenant, and moving us to a new place where words and covenants and the Discipline itself mean whatever those with the levers of power want them to mean. This is not the balm from which healing comes. These are the ingredients of bitterness and schism.
We understand that this may not be a pleasant letter to read; and indeed, it has been painful for us to craft and to affirm. But at the end of the day, we must call for the Board of Ordained Ministry to fulfill its duty under the Discipline and withdraw its recommendation for provisional membership for Tara Morrow. If this is refused, we must humbly call upon our voting brothers and sisters in the Clergy Executive Session to cast their vote in the negative to her commissioning and provisional membership.
We are not saddened to need to affirm our position, which aligns with that of the General Conferences through 2012 and the Discipline. We are deeply saddened that we have been put in the position of needing to do so by the unfaithful action of conference BoOM in recommending our sister Tara Morrow, so that we have no option but to support a “no” vote for a fellow believer in Christ who may well be otherwise highly gifted and qualified, and thus also add to the pain of her journey into ministry.
Charles L. Harrell
Stanley G. Harrell
Rev. Joann Alexander
Rev. Kent Alexander
Rev. Glen Arnold
Rev. Kevin Baker
Rev. Robert Barnes
Rev. David Deans
Rev. Mark Derby
Rev. Mark Gorman
Rev. Barry Hidey
Rev. Wade Martin
Rev. Ramon McDonald
Rev. Matt Poole
Rev. Keith Schukraft
Matthew Sichel, Lay, Wesley UMC
Rev. David Simpson
Rev. Jim Swecker
- If the General Conference were to change the denomination’s position, would the same people who have said “we are not of one mind on this matter” take note of the large number of United Methodists who would disagree and make the same statement on the other side of that decision? Would BoOM and other conference leadership still support “Christian conferencing” around it? We are skeptical.
- Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 336:
“8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?”
See also Questions 11-13.
- “No person, no paper, no organization, had the authority to speak officially for The United Methodist Church, this right having been reserved exclusively to the General Conference under the Constitution.” (Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 509.)
- They also do not quote Dr. King in two other critical passages within the same Letter:“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”Given the text of Scripture and two thousand years of tradition and teaching within the Christian community on sexual and family ethics, it is very difficult to maintain that the change being advocated for here comports with eternal law, and perhaps even harder to show that it aligns with natural law. Assuming Dr. King is right, does the present position of the Discipline uplift or degrade human personality? The Discipline itself strenuously upholds the dignity of all persons, including homosexual persons. We are aware that there is a case being made that the language of the Discipline ipso facto denigrates the personality of homosexual persons. But this is a discussion for the whole church for consensus through the General Conference, not a matter for conclusory statements and summary actions by conference Boards.
Dr. King also wrote: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
We agree. Many of us have expressed a sincere, if at times grudging, respect for those who, because they disagree with UMC polity on this matter, have disobeyed the Discipline and willingly borne the consequences of their personal witness. Even where we disagree, the courage of their conviction is highly praiseworthy. But the action of the BWC BoOM seems to be precisely about “evading” and “defying” the law through tortured argument and trying to create “facts on the ground” around the General Conference. It is also about evading any consequences for doing so by coopting the voting members of the Executive Session into the same evasion and defiance. This has no integrity, and it merits no respect.
- Meaning here experience in the Wesleyan sense, of life in the knowledge of one’s sin forgiven.
Anyone wishing to add their signature to this letter may do so by emailing . Please indicate conference connection (clergy) or local church membership (lay).