God's Word for today

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Grace, law, and the MCSA

The verdict is out on Ecclesia de Lange's disciplinary hearing that took place yesterday, and the finding of the committee was that her entering into a civil union with her same-sex partner is in breach of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's disciplines, and has therefore suspended her from active ministry.

The period of time from when it first became known publicly that her Superintendent had laid a charge against her, up to the time of writing, has been accompanied by a great deal of emotion from both sides - those supporting the decision, and those against - and unfortunately there has been some subtle mud-slinging in the process.

My purpose in this post is not to air anyone's dirty linen in public - the parties concerned have already brought this matter into the public arena via Facebook and other forums. And I am also not going to use this particular post to further debate the matter of same-sex relationships per se. But I do have a question that concerns the right of an institution to set its own standards, codes, and laws to which those associated with it are required to comply.

Please indulge me for a few moments as I elaborate on where my mind may be going with this. In 2008 when I stood as a candidate for the ministry before the Central District Synod, there was some discussion around what we understand to be a "covenant relationship" between ourselves as ministers and the MCSA. Paul Verryn, who was then Bishop, summed up this relationship quite succinctly by stating that as people who present ourselves as candidates for ministry, we believe that God has placed a specific call on our lives to serve as ministers of this church at this time. The MCSA, as the said church to which we offer ourselves as candidates, has the role of creating a space for us to explore, develop, and exercise that call.

As part of that call we agreed to fulfil certain promises. Among those was to adhere to the Church's disciplines. For example, one of those disciplines is that we agree to go to whichever Circuit we are sent. Now readers of this blog need to go back about 6-9 months and recall the anguish that I was facing at the time concerning whether or not I would be going to seminary, remaining in Uitenhage, or going elsewhere. And you will also recall that I definitely did NOT want to go to the seminary - the idea of being a full-time student at the age of 40, especially given my family responsibilities, did not sit well. In the end, Conference decided that I would be going to seminary after all, and here I am.

Now I could have refused to come here, opting instead to remain in Uitenhage, but I would have been in breach of the promise I made and in defiance of the lawful (in terms of our Laws and Disciplines) decision of Conference, and would have been subjected to disciplinary processes that would have undoubtedly found against me. In such event I would not have been in a position to cry "foul", because I knew the rules beforehand.

Okay - perhaps not the best example. It can be validly argued that being moved from one Circuit to another is by no means the same thing as being denied the right to enter into a civil union, particularly since this right is enshrined in civil legislation and protected by South Africa's constitution. But having said that, there's lots of things that are permissible legally that organisations choose to exclude.

For instance, civil legislation doesn't give a hoot or a holler whether we as a Church choose to baptise infants, adults, or cats and dogs for that matter. And I must confess that despite infant baptism being the preferred practice for baptism within the Methodist Church, I'm not particularly wild about it. (I'll discuss my reasons in a later post). But if I were to feel so strongly about it that I refused (as a minister in the MCSA) to conduct baptisms of infants, I would surely need to reconsider my position within this particular church. Certainly the MCSA would be entitled to take disciplinary steps against me if I were to breach its doctrine in this manner.

And I think that this is where the issue lies. Different practices of baptism can be equally justified Scripturally and otherwise by their respective proponents, while the respective detractors can do likewise concerning their own positions. Such is the case when it comes to same-sex relationships as well - sincere Christians argue passionately on both sides.

But the question is not about who is right or who is wrong. Both sides of the same-sex debate sincerely believe that their position is the correct and appropriately Christian one, with the opposite view (by definition) being "wrong". Rather, it's about the application of the prevailing disciplines at the time of a particular action. And in any organisation, if you want to change a particular rule, you lobby through the appropriate channels, and if sufficient support is gained, the rule will be changed.

The MCSA has been engaged in debate around same-sex relationships since the early-2000s, and the fact that this issue is even being discussed has caused joy in some quarters and dismay in others. Many have left the church as a result. Some feel that we have gone too far in this area, while others believe we have not gone far enough. And certainly there is dismay at the fact that a firm decision has not been arrived at (either way) in six years of intense discussion. Possibly the long timeframe is precisely because there are so many different (and passionately-held) points of view? Whatever the actual reason for the lengthy time-frame, until the rules are changed (if in fact the MCSA goes this route), the prevailing rules remain in force. Which means that same-sex unions, despite being legal in terms of civil legislation, are not recognised by the MCSA.

Could the whole situation with Ecclesia have been handled differently? Arguably it could have. Many have argued that in choosing between grace and law, the MCSA came down on the side of law. But it was probably left with little choice in this matter. And those who formulated the charge, met as a committee, and ultimately came to the decision that they did were probably in a no-win situation as well - if they returned a guilty verdict, they would be vilified by those supporting Ecclesia and others who are wanting to go the civil union route (as has in fact happened). But if they found in favour of Ecclesia, they would have been equally vilified by those who feel that same-sex relationships and Scripture are incompatible.

My own take on this matter? To be honest, I'm still trying to process it all. And at the outset of this post, I hoped that trying to get some words down would help me do so. It hasn't. Part of me believes that the Church was correct in enforcing its discipline - it does, after all, reflect the will of the MCSA as expressed through various Conferences down the years, even if parts of the disciplines do not sit well with parts of the Church (I guess this is true of all of us, if we are honest - I for one don't agree with everything contained in L&D). Yet part of me also recognises that there is a human element here - that of Ecclesia, her partner, the local church community, and the "powers that be" involved.

But when all is said and done, should an institution have the right to set its own policies, rules, and regulations? I believe that it should. The difficulty is when the laws of the organisation are (in certain respects) different to those that exist outside of the organisation, such as in civil society.

Sometimes our human nature is to want the best of both worlds. And I'm not sure that it's always possible, especially when we agreed to accept the organisation's rules up front.

Not easy...

1 comment:

Jenny Hillebrand said...

You've said a lot here, but the one thing that relates to what I am thinking is about an organisation setting its laws and so on. Denominations came into being because of the things that they stood for and believed in. The MCSA is in danger of becoming significant for having no beliefs. (Ok, that's extreme and a long way down the line . . .) I'll blog about it sometime.