Self-Avowed, Practicing Ambiguity: NEJ Episcopal Interview Reflections

By Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
July 13, 2016

Yesterday, the Love Prevails Team listened to interviews with eleven candidates for the episcopacy in the Northeast Jurisdiction. The group we attended asked the following question of every candidate:

“Please answer this as an either-or question. Recently, three annual conferences decided to stand in non-conformity with the discriminatory language in The Book of Discipline with regards to LGBTQI people. As a bishop, where will you stand? Will you uphold the current language of The Book of Discipline or will you stand in non-conformity?” This group was the only interview group (of eight groups) that asked about the practice of LGBTQ discrimination with such clarity.

Two of the eleven candidates clearly stated that they would stand in non-conformity. One stated clearly that they would uphold the current rules. While speaking with a range of support for LGBTQ people from sympathy to solidarity, the rest of the candidates did not answer the question as an either-or.

After the interviews, Rev. Will Green noted that “not one candidate invoked the incompatibility language or said they agreed with The Book of Discipline’s statements on sexuality. Not one candidate showed up to hate on queer people. Not one person thought it would be wise to align their candidacy with the denomination’s policy.”

The reality Will Green described felt like some disorienting kind of progress toward LGBTQ inclusion.

Yet Love Prevails claims that the baseline for supporting any episcopal candidate is the willingness of that candidate to unequivocally state and practice 100% non-conformity with the anti-LGBTQ policies of the United Methodist Church.

The avoidance or outright resistance of the majority of the candidates to answer this question in the either-or fashion in which it was asked amounted to stating the moderate-to-liberal status quo in the United Methodist Church.

There were only two real and tangible differences in this particular group of episcopal interviews in the Northeast Jurisdiction concerning LGBTQ exclusion. First, TWO candidates said unequivocally that they will not conform with anti-LGBTQ policies in the UMC. This is real change and it should be lifted up and celebrated. Second, eight moderate-to-progressive candidates willingly and publicly articulated what has been the mostly unstated, current practice of the majority of U.S. bishops.

This practice was variously stated and interpreted. No candidate actually said what follows, but here is what I heard, and which seems consistent with what has been the de facto practice of most moderate-to-liberal U.S. bishops. If an openly LGBTQ person comes to a bishop, the bishop would not file charges against them. If a complaint is filed by another United Methodist against a clergy person for a violation of some anti-LGBTQ prohibition, the bishop will try to resolve the process through a “just resolution.” There seems to be a difference among the moderates and liberals how far any given bishop would take a complaint beyond a private conversation with the bishop, or how quickly any individual bishop would deliberate before moving to a “just resolution.” Regardless of how far or quickly the process would proceed, the bishop will do everything to avoid trial and use the “just resolution” process.

Conversation, dialogue, relationship building, being a shepherd for the whole flock, holding disagreements in tension, we must value all perspectives – we have heard the rest of all of these approaches to change before. As platitudes, they are merely ways of side-stepping conflict. Just resolution is not just. It is a way to avoid dealing directly with the Christian oppression of LGBTQ folks, which most episcopal candidates and current bishops alike fail to identify as the heart of the matter.

From the majority of candidates, the reasons given for shifting exclusionary practice away from criminalization and punishment for LGBTQ persons and their allies were not theologically or prophetically oriented towards the gospel demands of love and justice, but towards the avoidance of conflict, costly trials and time-and-resource-wasting litigious procedures.

A number of the candidates answered that if they were appointed to an episcopal area where non-conformity was the ethos of that context, they would support non-conformity. If they were appointed to more conservative areas, they would conform to that context. There is no theological center to candidates who, on the one hand, state that they absolutely believe that the current stance of The Book of Discipline towards LGBTQ persons is wrong, yet who will uphold the processes and procedures that are outlined there, or not, based on context.

“Just resolution” has been fashioned as the current, acceptable compromise with injustice. Self-avowed, practicing ambiguity about the practices of injustice and discrimination towards LGBTQ persons in the UMC has become the new status quo.

Among the majority of candidates’ responses, there was much affirmation of the integrity of non-conformity with LGBTQ discrimination. I suppose this is progress in the Northeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

But as progress, perhaps it is something also something else. Processing the interviews with Dr. Dorothee Benz at the end of the day, she reached for a saying, something to the effect of, “Hypocrisy is the first concession to virtue.” Concessions and compromises with injustice, while appearing as progress and virtue, nonetheless smack of hypocrisy are, unavoidably, still oppression and injustice.

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