This week, the United Methodist world has been up in arms at the treatment of Ginny Mikita. Mikita, a lay woman from a church in Michigan, has been summarily removed from church membership by her annual conference authorities, because she obtained an online ordination for the purpose of presiding at the same sex wedding of a friend.
She has made it clear that she did so in order to “protect” United Methodist clergy friends, from the allegation that they performed a same sex wedding.
I should say from the start, as an ordained Elder myself, that I don’t have a lot of love for online ordinations. As somebody who went to seminary for five years, and an ordination process of seven (start to finish), I take that process seriously. And I’ve always found the whole idea of online ordinations somewhat demeaning of the serious process, and life-commitment, that so many people make.
I say this at the start, so that you understand my natural inclination to not support folks running out and getting “paper” ordinations for the purposes of doing weddings. The State takes those credentials seriously.
But I don’t have to like online ordinations to be deeply troubled by how Ginny Mikita was treated, to suggest that her actions are, ironically, profoundly Wesleyan and Methodist, and to further suggest that she’s really still a United Methodist in good standing, no matter what the authorities said.
Ginny Mikita is John Wesley’s Daughter
Lest we forget, the founder of our denomination, John Wesley, ordained ministers to serve in the United States. He did so late in life, and despite his own reservations about the entire practice. He did so, not to insult the ministry of Anglican Priests, or because he was an egomaniac, bent on creating a new “church.”
Wesley ordained ministers because he recognized the deep need for clergy to minister to people…people whom circumstances and church-law had left without pastoral leadership.
That, friends, is precisely why Ginny Mikita did what she did. She was trying her best to protect other clergy. She was trying her best to be available to those who needed, but could not receive, the pastoral ministry of the church.
This is perhaps a good time to recall that, in our current environment, marriage is the only rite of the church not available to a specific set of faithful church members. And the only rite that duly qualified members (gay and lesbian persons) cannot receive from the church.
In his day, Wesley recognized the lack of pastoral care and supervision for the church in America. In his famous letter “The Brethren in America,” he makes it clear:
“Here [in England] there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: in America there are none, neither any parish ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord’s Supper.”
Given that lack of available pastoral ministry, Wesley finally chose to ordain persons to serve in America:
“Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man’s right by appointing and sending labourers into the harvest.”
Friends, that is precisely the situation in the modern United Methodist Church. Our polity intentionally leaves good and faithful United Methodists without a key pastoral ministry of the church (marriage). This is why Ginny Mikita did what she did. And in this sense, quite directly, she is John Wesley’s spiritual daughter.
Ginny Mikita is Still a United Methodist
At least, if she was a member of my church, she would be. That is my assertion, and I’d like to speak to it now…
Let us not forget two important points. Under our polity, two things govern whether or not somebody is a member:
Can they affirm the membership vow, and
Does the pastor want to admit them as a member?
The second point first…
You will recall some years back that the Judicial Council made it quite plain that a local church pastor has sole discretion as to whether or someone may join the church. No other body in a local church has that power. Ironically, this ruling was also about the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. (It makes your head explode, doesn’t it?)
In that case, the Judicial Council was ruling on whether a pastor could deny somebody membership. But their ruling made clear that it cuts both ways. Pastors get to deny membership if they want…and pastors get to extend membership if they want. That’s the way it works.
So, then, back to the first point. Let’s remember the membership vow. The key lines that every United Methodist must be able to affirm:
“As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?”
“Will you participate in the ministries of this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”
As Ginny’s pastor (the only person with sole authority to admit or deny her membership to a United Methodist congregation)
I would ask the following questions:
Is she attempting to strengthen the ministries of the United Methodist Church and be loyal to it?
By accounts, she was/is is in that she was attempting to support clergy colleagues, and an LGBTQ friend who was getting married. She was absolutely attempting to extend the pastoral ministry of the United Methodist Church.
Is there evidence that she is participating in the ministries of that local church? Is she attending worship? Giving financially? Praying with congregation? Participating in its ministries and mission?
From what I have read, she most definitely was (and perhaps still is) doing all these things.
Were I her pastor, I would see no reason whatsoever to exclude her from membership. And, it seems to me, that if her current pastor (or she herself) would seek to press this issue, they would have very strong case for her being reinstated.
Update! Since publishing this blog this morning, I found a helpful quote from Ginny herself, as to how she sees the issue of her church membership:
“Membership, as we stress in The UMC, is not simply about signing up and calling one’s self a member. It has meaning. My membership in The UMC represented my sacred and holy commitment, made by public profession of faith during worship, to remain loyal to Christ through The UMC and to do all in my power to strengthen its ministries by my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. My commitment has not changed.”
Given this explanation on her part, were I here pastor, I would see the situation as a “slam dunk.” She would remain a member of my church. Remember, friends: The Judicial Council has rule that a pastor-in-charge, and only a pastor-in-charge, can choose to admit, or not admit, somebody into local church membership.
Therefore, I call on United Methodists pastors everywhere to prayerfully consider how this might apply to persons in their congregations. I call pastors to exercise their right to continue such persons as members, especially if these members appear to be living up to the membership vow.
You have the right to rule that they are members is good standing. The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has given you that discretion.
But this leads me to a final, sad point about where we are now…
Those Who Live By the “Jot and Tittle” Will Die by the “Jot and Tittle”
The final observation is that we are in a time of excessive legalism and law-following. Ginny felt forced into an online ordination, in an attempt to follow the UM rules regarding same sex marriage. The three clergy who complained about this also believe, apparently, that they were doing their best to uphold United Methodist polity and doctrine, by filing a complaint against her. I should be clear to say: I profoundly disagree with them doing this.
The advice I have just given, in the above paragraph, to local church pastors, on how to continue members who might be in the same position as Ginny, is also an attempt to “follow the rules.”
So, don’t miss the point: Everybody in this situation is trying, in some way or another, to “follow the rules.”
But Jesus had a lot to say about this. So did St. Paul. Neither of them had patience with people who played “gotcha” with the rules. Jesus himself called excessive-rule-followers hypocrites and vipers.
Jesus deftly defend himself against those who tried to play “gotcha” with the rules, time and time again. Paul suggested that those who try to live by the rules will die by the rules.
But that’s exactly what we are ALL doing in the United Methodist Church right now. Our current polity is forcing people on all sides into gymnastic contortions. Not because they don’t respect our polity, but precisely because they do.
All the more reason why our polity must change, and fast. All the more reason why those in church leadership must, far more publicly than they have up until now, commit themselves to a church future that opens these possibilities.
As I said some months ago, we especially need moderates in the church to get off the fence and speak up. To express their support for a fully inclusive church. To talk about ways of changing the Discipline in the future, and ways of allowing the Church to be fully in ministry with all its members now.
Failure to do this will only insure more of these kinds of events.
Until our polity changes, we should expect much more of this kind of gymnastic-like attempts to follow the rules.
And nobody gets to pretend to be surprised when they happen.
It’s time for leaders in the church to lead…to lead us beyond the rules, and back to our heritage of people who affirm the unbearably graceful love of God for the world.