Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Methodists and Mormons --- oh my ...

United Methodist minister Frank Schaefer had his preacing credentials restored this week.

It's been interesting to watch this week as two major Christian expressions, the United Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dealt with dissent.

On the East Coast, a United Methodist regional appeals committee restored (on a technicality) the ministerial credentials of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, defrocked last December after being convicted during November of violating the denomination's Book of Discipline by officiating at his son's same-sex wedding, then declining to pledge that he wouldn't do it again.

The committee ruled that Schaefer had been justly punished (suspended for 30 days) for performing the marriage, but unjustly punished (defrocked) because of the possibility he might perform  same-sex weddings again. Schaefer said after the ruling that he would not hesitate to marry same-sex couples, but is expected to relocate to California where he is less likely to be prosecuted.

In the Intermountain West, the LDS church moved (via regional authorities) to silence through excommunication two influential members, Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women, an advocacy group urging inclusion of women in the church's all-male hierarchy; and Dehlin, founder of Mormon Stories, a Web-based forum where Mormons freely explore their doubts and concerns about all things LDS. Dehlin, who is straight, also is an advocate for full inclusion of LGBT people and marriage equality. Kelly has been excommunicated; Dehlin's fate is pending.

Although Methodists have for the most part dealt (at least officially) with the issue of pesky women by including them as equals on all levels, the Mormon heirarchy has not. Both denominations have been increasingly plagued by even peskier gay people.

It's useful to understand that there are few similarities between the polities of the two organizations. The Methodist church is highly democratic --- its official positions are what a majority of members decide they are. The LDS church is the opposite, ruled by a president/prophet and his council, all men, many of them very old. The current president, Thomas S. Monson, is pushing 90.


Official United Methodist positions are embedded in a Book of Discipline and its provisions declaring "the practice of homosexuality" incompatible with Christian teaching and barring "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from ordination have become increasingly divisive. Although the Book of Discipline directs members not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members, its policies regarding leadership and expenditure of funds tend to do exactly that.

And these Book of Discipline provisions are unlikely to change any time soon. The denomination has 12 million members worldwide, some 7.7 million of them in the United States and 4.4 million elsewhere. "Elsewhere" tends to be very conservative, unlikely to endorse inclusion. Even in the United States, the denomination's "big tent" approach attempts to unite parishioners with wildly differing social and political views.

Many United Methodist congregations are quite liberal, others quite conservative. And the middle most likely spends a good deal of time on its knees praying that gay folks will just go away. This, of course, is a recipe for schism and not a recipe for growth. From the outside looking in, dealing with Methodists appears to have some similarities to walking through a mine field. You wish them luck, but from a safe distance.


The LDS church is another kettle of fish entirely. Mormons have considerable potential for change. When the practice of polygamy drew the ire of the U.S. government and threatened survival of the church, polygamy was discarded as a practice for time, if not for eternity. And as the United States moved increasingly toward equal rights for black people, the church ditched its racist revelations and began to admit blacks as equals. So the church can turn on a dime, if it chooses to do so.

The LDS church excommunicated Kate Kelly this week; John Dehlin faces the same fate.

But Mormon theology has the great disadvantage of being rather shallow. More conventional Christians have had centuries to obfusticate. Mormons have been around for under 200 years, so many basic tenants of their faith are easily undermined. DNA evidence, for example, easily disproves a basic tenant of the Book of Mormon --- that Native Americans are descended from lost tribes of Israel.

Nor has the church been especially frank about its history. It still comes as a considerable surprise to some Mormons, willing to think beyond Sunday school level, to discover that the prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., had somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 plural wives, some rather young, others married to other men. So the man who founded the church was not only an enthusiastic practitioner of polygamy, but an advocate by example of polyandry as well. Traditionally, Brigham Young has gotten the credit for this plural marriage penchant. 

The church has prospered in part because of its missionary efforts, but also because of its insularity. And the Internet threatens that --- allowing members to range widely and privately in their explorations --- which makes skilled users of Web-related media, like Dehlin, especially vunerable.  

On the other hand, most Mormons are extremely loyal to their church, powerfully linked by its culture, which has much to recommend it, and not eager to leave it --- because to do so represents a particularly painful sort of exile.


So I'm still kind of thinking that, were I a betting man, I'd lay my money down on Mormons rather than Methodists. But I'm grateful to be a spectator rather than a combatant.

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