Recently Bishop Minerva Carcaño equated her inviting Frank Schaefer to become a part of the Cal Pac Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, to Bishop Gerald Kennedy welcoming eight ministers from Mississippi to his conference fifty years ago. Some, but not all, of these eight persons had signed a statement, Born of Conviction, which was a witness against racism as well as a plea for the preservation of public education, during the civil rights struggle in Mississippi in the early 1960’s.
I was one of the four persons who wrote the Born of Conviction statement, which was then signed by a total of twenty-eight young pastors in Mississippi. At least twenty of the original signers left Mississippi during the next two years. The Mississippi Annual Conference honored us fifty years after the fact, at the meeting of their Annual Conference in June 2013. Poignantly, we received this honor from Myrlie Evers, wife of Medgar Evers, civil rights advocate killed in the city where we were meeting, also fifty years ago.
Only African-Americans can determine whether the debate about same-sex marriage now is equivalent to the violent struggle against racism that took place in those days. Only African-Americans can make a judgment about the appropriateness of comparing the current disagreement regarding Church discipline with the fight for voting rights and equal access to education we were engaged in back then. Yet apart from a general comparison, I continue to be troubled – albeit in a vague way – by the connection Bishop Carcaño has made between Bishop Kennedy’s welcome of some of us to California and her invitation to Frank Schaefer.
The differences seem clear. None of the 28 who signed the Born of Conviction statement were charged with violating the Discipline of our Church. In fact, in light of Bishop Carcaño’s comparison, it is somewhat ironic that we were trying desperately to support the Discipline, not disregard it. The witness against racism in our Discipline was as clear then as the Church’s present witness against same sex marriage and the ordination of professed practicing homosexual persons. We Mississippi 28 were not violating the covenant of our ordination; we were upholding it.
Personally, the covenant of ordination and the witness of Scripture reinforced one another, and strengthened those of us who signed the statement. We knew we were keeping our ordination vows, and we knew we were acting in keeping with the witness of Scripture. I believe my ministry since has confirmed that same dynamic. When I left Mississippi, I became the founding pastor of a Methodist Church in San Clemente. My commitment was the same. So close to the border of Mexico, our congregation needed to welcome “the stranger” and that was our witness. We expressed it by teaching English as a second language and being sensitive to the suffering of people in Tijuana. Later, we, my wife particularly, expressed it through work with “fair housing” in Anaheim.
Today, in Memphis, I’m seeking to live in the same fashion. I believe public education is the civil rights issue of this 21st century. With the local church of which I am a part, we are investing time, energy, money, and influence seeking to make the case that a child’s zip code should not determine the quality of that child’s educational opportunity. Interestingly, one of the major points of the Born of Conviction statement was our affirmation of the public school system and our opposition to the closing of public schools or the diversion of tax funds to support private or sectarian schools.
The same commitment to Scripture and to the covenant of my ordination that have formed me and guided me in the past, guides me now in my support of the Church’s position on marriage and ordination.
It seems odd to me that Bishop Carcaño would equate her action to that of Bishop Kennedy. None of the people welcomed by Bishop Kennedy had broken their covenant of ordination and the majority of the people welcomed by him had been pressured to leave in large part through the experience of violence or threat of violence. Those circumstances do not seem to resemble the case of Mr. Schaefer.
I have a deeper concern however, than a bishop using the coincidence of geography for political gain. My concern is that at a time when our Church is already strained to the breaking point, a bishop of the Church would make a statement such as Bishop Carcaño made, flippantly dismissing the Book of Discipline as “an imperfect book of human law that violates the very spirit of Jesus the Christ.”
It is no secret that Bishop Carcaño and I hold opposing views on the issue of same sex marriage and the ordination of professed, practicing homosexuals. However, we are both elders in the United Methodist Church, and as elders we willingly made covenant both with our Church and its Discipline, and with each other. Bishop Carcaño then made an additional vow at her consecration as bishop: to uphold the Discipline she claims violates the spirit of Jesus Christ. In light of that, how can we continue to talk about “connection” or “covenant” with any integrity?
Click the title to read the full Born of Conviction statement.