Episode 3 - Podcast Transcript


Below is a transcript of Episode 3 of "At The Table with Bishop Sue" 

Hello, North Georgia Conference and Methodists everywhere. This is Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and I've been reviewing the protocol that came out as a result of the mediation from some parties in The United Methodist Church. I've taken a couple days to read it, to process it, and to, quite frankly, deal with my own emotions. I feel immense sadness at the thought of separating and immense sadness that folks I've worked closely with may become part of another stream of Methodism. I've had to think theologically and try to work my way through this.

What has helped me is the history of marriage and divorce in the Methodist Church. I looked to Dr. Rex Matthews, who was my Theology of Wesleyan Methodism professor at Candler. He drew up a timeline and I don't think this history is well-known. I think it illustrates some of the same issues we're facing today. It also helps me move from "unity at all cost" to maybe seeing the benefit of separation. So I'll give you a little history.

In 1884 the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the earlier Methodist expression in the United States, issued a big message about the sanctity of marriage. And in the Discipline for the first time they said that it would be against church law for a pastor to officiate and solemnize any marriage of a divorced person if a former wife or husband was living. The history of the church, the tradition of the church from the beginning, is that the marriage between a man and a woman represents Christ and the church. You see it in the Roman Catholic church continued to this day. They go to scripture, Matthew 5:31 and 32, Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18. And then the teaching of Paul in First Corinthians 7:8-16 that there was one scriptural cause according to Jesus for divorce and that was adultery. And so in the history of the Methodist Church, you keep hearing the one scriptural cause, the one scriptural cause.

A pastor could lose his credentials for performing a wedding of somebody who was divorced unless the divorce was the result of adultery. That is the ancient history of the church that was held up by people. That was the clear biblical teaching. The Bible says this, and we are people of the Bible, and we're going to stick to the Bible. And so that's how it went on until 1908. They emphasized, they even made it stronger, and they stated that divorce creates consecutive polygamy. Now isn't that fascinating? So I am entitled to marry one person until I die. As Christ is linked to the church, I am linked to that person until they die, unless they commit adultery. I am only free to remarry after they die. And if I marry before they die, I'm committing adultery with my next spouse or, and I think it's fascinating, the language of the church in 1908 this is consecutive polygamy. So it's not just adultery with my second or third spouse, it is I'm married to more than one person, which violates the laws of God as well. The church was really strong about this and this was upsetting to a lot of people and really caused a lot of consternation. And one side said, "We've got to hold to the Bible," and the other side was like, "Yeah, but gosh, this seems a little rash, a little harsh."

In 1924, this is how it continued to be, it continued to be against church law to marry divorced people if you were a pastor. Then they reject it. I love this. They tried to change the Discipline so that instead of just adultery, it would allow divorce from any person who was physically, mentally, or morally unfit. And the General Conference rejected that. They said, "No, the only reason for divorce is adultery and we're not budging." And same in 1928. The Methodist Episcopal Church South had the similar language and time went on and they were solidly against divorce.

This didn't change until the late 1940s. People started saying, Wait a minute, isn't this too harsh? We live in a broken world and there are a lot of situations that can lead to divorce. This just seems really draconian. This seems really contrary to the grace of Christ. We live in brokenness and in the grace of Christ should be extended. And so the church really started rethinking that. In 1968, with the formation of The United Methodist Church, the church started to move away from that kind of strict understanding.

By 1972, in the Social Principles, they affirmed the sanctity of marriage, but stated that they reject social principles that discriminate against people because they're unmarried. This is the language they added, which I think is important. The language that went into the Discipline in 1972 says, "In marriages where the partners are, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, estranged beyond reconciliation, we recognize divorce and the right of divorced persons to remarry and express our concerns for the needs of children of such marriage." In 1972 the Discipline was rewritten to allow re-marriage after divorce, even in cases that didn't involve adultery. It's interesting that in 1969, before the 1972 Discipline was written, California became the first state in the union to develop a no-fault divorce law so any couple experiencing irreconcilable differences could get divorced.

Do you see the shift from the ancient doctrines of the church? I'm sure folks were outraged because we had moved away from the tradition of the church and the clear language of the Bible and that we were caving in to culture, especially California writing irreconcilable difference laws. But that's the language The United Methodist Church started to adopt. And as did the other mainline denominations.The Roman Catholic church still has very rigid sanctions and strictures against divorce except for adultery. I give you this history because it's fascinating to me how far we've swung the other way. We've gone from "marriage is so sacred, it is represents the bond between Christ and Christ's church," to almost anything goes.

I mean, we don't talk in our churches about the sanctity of marriage. We don't really talk about bearing with one another in love. It's interesting to me how much we've swung the other direction. I remember filing a lawsuit in court in Tampa in the courthouse and there was a long, long line of people and I thought, I wonder what that is. And then I looked more closely and it was the line of the no-fault divorces, where they just come in and sign and it was done. There was no sense of this is a covenant, that this is sacred and that we work at relationship. It is Christ's work. It is Godly work to love each other and to stay in relationship even when we don't agree with each other.

I know in John 17, Jesus prays for unity, the ultimate unity of the church. When he gives the commandment to love one another as God loves us, he talks about how our witness to the world is our love for one another. And so this is the background I'm thinking about as I keep hearing people in The United Methodist Church say, "Well, we just need to get divorced, this is a bad marriage. And I've pushed for unity because I think it shouldn't be that easy to just say, 'Well, we're done. We're right, you're wrong.' And where is the Holy Spirit in that? Where's the acknowledge of covenant? Where's the depth of relationship that marriage should represent?

Being married, I know there are days when I would just like to say, Enough. Every marriage has good times and bad times, but there's something that holds you together that's beyond human capacity. That's why we bless a marriage in a church. That's why we say and invoke the Holy Spirit upon it because it's a work of God that keeps two people together. And so when I think about the unity of the church, it's the work of God that holds us together. It's the Holy Spirit that should hold us together. And I was really strict on that. I mean that's my total theological understanding. And then I had to think about the history of divorce in the church and I had to think about how we live in a broken world and we live in a world where people get lost in themselves and their humanness.

And I think, at this point, I have to say we have failed at loving one another. We really have. I hear traditionalists called bigots, which is not the case. They hold a strong authority of scripture, much like the folks advocating divorce only for adultery, a strict understanding of scripture. That is a good thing. We need folks in our church and in our midst to call us to that. But I also hear horrific things from the other side. Saying that gay and lesbian people are an abomination. We have done horrific damage and harm by hinging the future of the church on this one discussion, when it involves people who are created by God and who have feelings and relationships and families. No one should say stuff so hurtful and demeaning. No one should question their worth. In 2008, we even questioned whether they could be members of the church. I'm glad that's gone away. But there are a bunch of folks arguing that they shouldn't be members of the church, which is ridiculous.

So I'm to the point where, much like divorce, when it gets so ugly that more harm is being done, when people are tearing each other apart, our mission is being hurt because of it. I see the children as the children of God outside the church who desperately need to hear the gospel and the word of grace and mercy from Jesus Christ. It's hurting our mission. And so I think we've reached a point, sadly, where we must have some sort of separation to end the harm.

I don't think this lives into God's vision for God's church. I don't think it lives into how God calls us to live together and love each other, but I think we're to the point where, to end the harm, we need to do something. So that's where my theological path has taken me. It's interesting that it tracks. And I want to make sure we're not just doing this glibly, that we're not just saying it. But I think we've seen enough damage and enough harm over many years that we need to go a different route now. And so my heart is broken because I really do have a focus on unity and the sheer beauty of people of different opinion, different doctrine, different ideas, different experience bearing with one another in love and trying to be the church. That is the vision of the church that I hold.

That said, although with great sadness, I read about the Protocol that calls for separation. We're going to give you the links to the protocol to frequently asked questions. Please read this carefully. I've seen so much on social media, comments that have no basis in fact and that reflect a lack of reading the material. So I invite you to carefully sit down, pray, and read these. Don't read them to critique them, read them not to react. Read them to absorb, ponder, pray and reflect. I would like to say though that I think this Protocol is a gift to the church. The key players, the key leaders of different caucus groups, who have been at the heart of this conflict for decades, sat down at a table together. I think that is a work of the Holy Spirit.

Another work of the Holy Spirit is the mediator who gave his time because he loves and sees the need for strong groups of faith and wants the church to thrive, although he's Jewish. This lawyer, Mr. Feinberg, did the Exxon Valdez settlement. He did the 9/11 reparations, a compensation fund to the victims of 9/11. He settled the Agent Orange class action suit against Vietnam and the United States soldiers who were injured in Vietnam. He's done remarkable work and I think he's done remarkable work with these United Methodist leaders who came with open hearts and with humility and with a sense that we've reached a point where we have to separate in some way. I honor their work together. And I don't think this is just one more plan among a lot of plans. I mean even the Commission on a Way Forward, with its three plans, didn't have folks willing to put the work into agreement, to put the work into something that we could live into together that would end the harm and that would end it in the foreseeable future. And so, when you read it, think about that.

I also want to speak to the delegates and to the delegation. You know, I see bishops say, "Just pray and hope for the best or pray and study and hope for the best." We've done that every four years for a long time. And you know what? Praying and hoping for the best hasn't gotten us a long way. I think God is in this mediation work. I think God is in this Protocol and I think it would be really helpful if the delegation and the delegates would sit down with each other, sit down with folks you disagree with, who are on the delegation, and hammer out legislation that will support this agreement together. I think it's our best and most hopeful way. I know bishops don't talk about this, but I was a delegate to three General Conferences. I led a legislative committee. I led a delegation. I think to lead in this time, delegations need to take seriously this Protocol and work to make it happen.

I have seen some things that disturb me. A lot of people are saying, "Well, there's a lot of plans before the General Conference. A lot of plans for the delegates to consider. Just consider them and look at them." And I've also seen requests, "Let's compare this to the other plans." But I want to turn you toward the frequently asked questions and in the protocol what it says. It says that a plan such as the Indianapolis Plan for Amicable Separation, the Next Generation UMC legislation, and other such petitions continue to be petitions to be considered by the 2020 General Conference. However, the signatories to the Protocol (and they were those who wrote the Indianapolis Plan and the Next Generation UMC legislation), the signatories to the Protocol have agreed to not participate in or support legislation or other efforts that are inconsistent with the principles and terms of the Protocol and its implementing legislation.

The signatories have also agreed (this is important) to use their best efforts to persuade any groups or organizations with which they are affiliated to support the legislation necessary to implement the Protocol. In short, the leaders of the different caucuses, the folks around the table who can make this happen, with their constituencies, have agreed that they will not support anything that works against this protocol and that they will support the legislation necessary to implement it. So the last sentence of the Frequently Asked Questions is that the Protocol urges the General Conference to consider its implementing legislation before addressing other such legislation because of the comprehensive representative nature of the signatories to the Protocol.

Reflect on everybody at the table. They all represent different parts of this conflict and they have all come together with the vision for the future that they can all live into. I don't want The United Methodist Church to splinter into tiny pieces. I don't want any future branches of it to be destroyed. I want an orderly, methodical way of resolving this and this is a way to do it. I'm tired of hearing delegates and bishops say, "Well I just don't know what's going to happen at General Conference." That is deadly. We need to know exactly where we need to go. I think this protocol gives us a good blueprint for the future with dates and times and a way that we can see the end of our conflict. Because the longer this goes on, the more the church will splinter and the more folks will be compromised and the mission of the church will be shredded.

All along I've said that my whole purpose is to lead the church to introduce people to Jesus Christ and letting them hear the grace and mercy of the gospel. And we are being stymied in our work. We are being distracted and torn apart and we need a clear pathway to the future so that we can devote our full attention. And I hope that whatever comes out of this Protocol, that the branches of the church, the vestiges of Methodism, The United Methodist Church and what comes out as a result of this plan, wish each other well. I want us to stay in relationship. I want us to work together to further the mission of Jesus Christ. And I want us to put this wrangling and nastiness behind us. And once again, I call the church to live into the Fruits of the Spirit.

I am tired of the name calling and the nastiness. I'm tired of folks piling on with descriptors that are horrific for progressives and conservatives. I am being called names. But, I am here as a witness to the power and the love of Jesus Christ in my life and in the life of the folks I've ministered through throughout my ministry. So I beg you, I beg you in the name of Jesus Christ and his church, let us move forward in a systematic, supportive, relational, loving and mutually supportive way that furthers the ministry of the church. I know there's a lot to flesh out. The delegates will have their work ahead of them doing the legislation.

None of this is official until the General Conference votes on it, but I don't think that means we have to wait until General Conference to just "see what happens." I think that is a fruitless task. So I invite you to be in prayer with me. I invite you to do the hard work of living into this. I invite you to build and rebuild relationships between those who disagree with you. There's a lot of healing work to do and I commit myself to being part of that and to lead you that into the future. If you have particular questions, there's a lot to parse here. There's a lot to be unpacked, a lot to analyze. If you have particular questions that we can help you with, please don't hesitate to email me at bishop@ngumc.org and I will find somebody who can address your questions. It will help us to know what are you fuzzy on, what do you need more clarity on, what will be helpful.

But I do beg of you in the name of Christ, love each other, work with each other. Let's get on the same page and let's see beautiful expressions of Methodism in the future. I'm tired of this.

Another way this work is necessary is to avoid years of litigation. Other denominations have had years of litigation and they've paid more in legal fees than they put into the mission of the church. And that is a travesty. I practiced law and I've done my time doing that. I really do not want to spend the rest of my life immersed in legal stuff. So spare me that please, in the name of God. I'd much rather be in ministry. I'd much rather be furthering the mission and church of Jesus Christ than being immersed in litigation until my dying day.

I am in prayer for you. I hope you are in prayer for me. We're in this together and I sense even in the worst times, that God is leading us, that God is renewing God's church and that God will be faithful to us if we have the mind of Christ and we model his love and grace in all of our relationships. Peace be with you. And I look forward to further conversation.


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