A complaint was made in 2015 against Rev. Janet Ellinger of the Wisconsin Annual Conference for officiating at two same-gender weddings. The Book of Discipline was followed in response to the complaint. When it appeared an agreement had been reached Bishop Hee Soo Jung concluded the process with a decision communicated to both the complainant, Rev. Gilbert White, and Rev. Ellinger. Rev. White indicated he did not agree with the decision but did not respond to where it fell short for him or how it might better represent his understanding. As a result of Rev. White’s not continuing toward a just resolution, Bishop Jung’s decision stood and Rev. Ellinger spoke at the June 10, 2016 Clergy Session of the Wisconsin Annual Conference.
Rev. Ellinger’s apology (in the church use of that term, not the cultural sense) for her actions follows:
(This reflection on my thoughts and feelings began after clergy colleague, Gil White, filed a complaint against me with the bishop on May 13, 2015. The substance of the complaint was that, 1) I had officiated at two weddings of same gender couples, and 2) the complaint requested the removal of my clergy credentials. This writing has been an ongoing editing process, looking toward being shared at the June 10, 2016, clergy session at Annual Conference.)
Bishop Jung has communicated to you his ruling on the complaint filed against me by Gil White, now a retired elder, requesting that my clergy credentials be removed because I officiated at two weddings of same gender couples. The bishop’s ruling on this complaint has directed me to speak with you today, offering my admission and an apology if my actions have harmed our clergy covenant. I did officiate at the marriages referenced in the complaint. My apology is in the spirit of Christian apologetics, offering an explanation or defense of my faith that grounded my actions, intending that this statement might be an additional source for respecting and understanding our unique gifts and perspectives as clergy colleagues.
I grew up in the church, experiencing God as a presence of loving kindness, a purposeful energy of both compassion and justice. I have no memory of ever being taught that God was judgmental or punitive. I have never feared that a lack of faithfulness or repentance on my part could make God’s love conditional.
Though probably unaware in my early years of the impact of this grounding, I experience it now as a consistent spiritual gravity pulling upon the words, deeds and engagements of my life. It is this experienced Divine essence I strive to express in my life and to which I believe I am accountable, and by which I am held responsible when I find myself complicit with violence, injustice, personal harm and systems of oppression.
I remember reading William Sloan Coffin’s words about creed, dogma and church law. He called those the signpost – and then said that love is the hitching post. I think that captures my relationship to the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is the signpost. But the unconditional love expressed in the Gospel is our hitching post. The Church’s task is to consistently express this love in how we order our ministry in the world. Our United Methodist orderliness is not an end in itself but a means by which the Gospel is to be set free in our shared life and witness.
All of this is what informed my decision to preside at these weddings. The couples are church people and when one couple decided to have children, they wanted their family to be grounded in a spiritual community and to be married in that same community. Their pastor and United Methodist congregation chose not to be that community. The scenario was similar for the second couple.
Prior to my learning that the complaint had been filed against me, Gil White had not talked to me about his concern. Later he said he didn’t do that because he was sure he couldn’t change my mind and he wasn’t about to change his. Rather than seeking agreement, I would have welcomed a conversation for understanding, no matter the outcome.
When Gil and I did talk as part of the just resolution process, I learned of his 20 years of service in the Navy. He shared that in the Navy, there was zero tolerance for disobedience. One strike and you were out. So maybe that influences the lens through which he sees discipleship. In baseball you get three strikes before you are out. I have coached basketball where you get five fouls before you “foul out.” I will let you do the math on seven times seventy. But we aren’t in the Navy and we aren’t playing baseball or basketball.
We are the church. And from where I sit, this incarnational community, flawed yet faithful, is about personal spiritual growth and deepened relationships with God, neighbor and stranger…more than it is about rules based on a majority vote. It is about faithfully navigating our way in the world together, rooted in the Gospel.
The bishop suggested in his ruling that my actions may have had a negative impact on our covenantal relationship as clergy so let me speak to that. Over the past couple years many of us have been exploring our clergy covenant. In practice, I think “covenant” has come to function among us mostly as a means to hold us obedient to the Book of Discipline. It is that use of the Book of Discipline I find most harmful to our covenantal relationship. I deeply regret the harm and spiritual violence that pollutes the air we breathe in the United Methodist Church because of our ongoing discrimination that excludes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people from participating in the full ministry of the Church. Until the Book of Discipline changes to truly welcome the God-given gifts of all people, I feel our Book of Discipline will continue to be a barrier to an authentic clergy covenant.
To me it seems more demanding, and I would say more faithful, when covenant, tethered to the strong love and justice of the Gospel, is understood as a relationship of chosen accountability with no partiality. The resilience and capacity of this experience of covenant is not found in the teeth of a rulebook. Rather, it is found within an ever expanding embrace of compassion and justice – hitched, if you will, to the heart of the Gospel.
I have been United Methodist since my conception, literally. When I made a conscious choice to confirm that identity, a significant part of that decision was because of the quadrilateral – which I understand to be a process of spiritual discernment used in community, not in isolation – to gain understanding, guidance and correction. So when I considered all four – scripture, tradition, reason and experience, for me it was a faithful decision to officiate at the weddings of these couples. It was both my honor and my joy to do so.
In Matthew 5 Jesus is represented as saying repeatedly, “You have heard it said of old”…about murder, divorce, bearing false witness, loving your enemies to name a few…and then the words follow, “but I say to you,” and then Jesus offers a broader faithfulness to the listeners on that hillside, just west of Capernaum.
Jesus’ radical witness still compels us all to wrestle with where we do stand and what we do take to heart so that compassion and justice come to life in and through us as we live our lives every day. May it be so among us.