Methodist Discipline, Gay Rights, and Church History

Religion in American History

My blog this month focused on a case in which a gay choir director had to resign from a UMC congregation. I discuss how the Methodist Discipline and culture adapts over time in this post.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

“Discipline” sounds so ugly. I pride myself in being a bit of a rebel, and I just don’t like the word. It brings forth images of rulers smacking knuckles or a New Year’s diet routine. If only you had more discipline, you could resist that Frappuccino and make it to the gym today. But for Methodists, Discipline is what holds everything together. Since the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Discipline has served as the unifying document of rules and regulations that keep the clergy and congregations in step—they must abide by the same moral code or face correction by the church. I’m not sure of the last time you walked into a Methodist church and heard a sermon on this very technical piece of denominational policy, but I’m betting it happens with the same regularity that you resist those Frappuccinos. This week, however, the Methodist Discipline received way more attention than it has in a long time and I can’t help but see some historical parallels to a current controversy facing the church.

Adam Fraley resigned from his position at United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Indiana. Until recently, he had served as choir director of the small congregation but a new pastor forced changes in the church and altered Fraley’s work environment. Fraley is gay and the change in pastor indicated a shift in attitude towards his serving in a leadership position. Although he is not openly homosexual, his partner did attend services with him. According to interviews, Fraley resigned because “of a heavy workload and his own personal discomfort with the new leadership.” The new minister did not approve of Fraley holding the choir director position (which he had been in for six years), and the situation culminated in a need for the young man to resign.

What’s interesting is that the current Discipline does not stipulate that Fraley cannot be choir director because of his sexual orientation. The 2012 edition includes statements that reflect the “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” motto of the UMC: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth.” Everyone is welcome to attend, worship, be baptized, receive sacraments, no matter what they look like, where they live, who they love. The limitations on homosexuals in the UMC really have to do with ordination and marriage. The church will not ordain or marry gay men or women. Fraley did not ask for either of these things, but he also wasn’t corrected or condemned by the UMC. Instead, a local minister personally fought his serving in church leadership. It’s one of those ambiguous cases where a person is “disciplined” but not formally so the denomination is not directly involved. If the Discipline stated that all persons could not be discriminated against in the church, we may have seen a different scenario unfold.

Methodist Discipline and culture are malleable things. They shift and move with the larger social demands and adapt to the needs of church members and ministers alike. In my work on nineteenth-century Methodist ministers, I see a lot of cases where the norm for the clergy changed over time. The two areas that were particularly controversial were slavery and marriage. Slavery is the obvious one, and created a schism between northern and southern ministers. Marriage, however, turned out to be a real struggle for many clergymen because the church forbade the kinds of things that nudge men into matrimony. No frolicking, socializing, dancing, flirting—none of those frivolous activities that would actually land a person a wife. The early Methodist church in America did not ban the marriage of ministers (they did have to consult with their brethren before taking a wife), but it did make it very difficult for them to find and keep a partner.  Financially, ministers found it very difficult to support a family and had to rely on the charity of others. The Discipline noted that “the impossibility of our enriching ourselves by our ministry, is another great preservation of its purity. The lovers of this world will not long continue travelling preachers.” Today, most ministers are married and single pastors actually have a rough go of it. A while back, I wrote about the perils of being an unmarried pastor in today’s ministerial marketplace. But the church’s embrace of pastoral marriage represents a change since the early-nineteenth century brethren sported dusty black coats and froze to death on their circuits. Early ministers did not make enough money to have a family and, if they did, that family usually experienced many hardships. The shift to encouraging and actually desiring married ministers happened over time and because of social pressures and an expansion of church resources.

With their relatively new message of inclusion, the UMC has made great strides to grow its evangelical reach by extending its membership and services to everyone, without restriction. If you put the 1798 Discipline of the MEC and the 2012 Discipline of the UMC next to each other to scan for similarities, it’s astounding to see how Methodism has adapted over time. In the case of Fraley and homosexuality in the church, it will be interesting to see where things go from here. According to many reports, eighty percent of the members left the congregation after the choir director resigned. “We have a lot of people,” the church’s lay leader explained, “especially a lot of elderly people who are lonesome for their church, but will not feel comfortable to come back with a minister who will not accept a man who we really liked as our choir director.” This case is a test of the power of the congregation and of American culture to affect church policies and practices. If the past is any indicator, that power is greater than any Discipline or ministerial prejudice.