Empty Robes on Empty Seats
There were sixteen empty seats in Branscomb Auditorium on Saturday. They were the seats in which this year’s class of Provisional Elders and Deacons should have been sitting. There was an empty robe on each seat and the card with their name along with the words the Bishop would have said as they knelt for commissioning.
These are the same seats in which I sat 52 years ago when I was received into what was then called Probationary status. It’s an important step in the multi-year process that leads to ordination in The United Methodist Church.
By the time candidates reach this point they have received the approval of their local congregation, the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, and the Board of Ordained Ministry of Florida Conference. They have completed the academic requirements and have submitted sermons, personal information, and written responses to questions about theology, church polity. Their sense of God’s call to ministry has been affirmed by each of those bodies. But they aren’t done yet! Provisional means they continue to be supervised by these same bodies, will be engaged in on-the-job training through the Residence in Ministry program, and will demonstrate their abilities as they serve in ministry prior to being ordained and received into full membership in the Annual Conference.
The Clergy Session of the Annual Conference must vote by a 3/4 majority for them to be commissioned. But when the vote was taken (by secret ballot) last week, 72.7% were in favor, seven votes short of the required majority, because two of the candidates had identified themselves as being LGBTQ. The result was that the entire group was not commissioned. That’s why there were empty seats in the auditorium.
Two days later the entire Conference (clergy and laity) approved a resolution that apologized for the harm that was done and supported these candidates as they continue in the process. You can read a full account of the event here.
The Journey Goes On
The United Methodist debate about homosexuality officially began in 1972 , the year I graduated from seminary and received my first pastoral appointment. I understand and respect why some faithful colleagues could not affirm these two candidates. For many years I would have voted with them.
But like Peter in his relationship with Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), I’ve come to know too many faithful followers of Christ, some of whom have been called to and gifted for ministry, who also happen to be gay. With Peter, I have to say, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I ? Could I stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
When Bishop Ken Carter came to the place in the service where the commissioning would have been, he said to the Board of Ordained Ministry and these candidates:
“I grieve the harm you have experienced.
I am committed to the support of your callings …
I would have gladly commissioned each of you, and gladly appointed each of you …
“And in this moment I want to say that the body of Christ is beautiful, even in its brokenness.“
Robert Frost memorably said, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” While some of my friends and colleagues will choose a different road, the 72% who voted for these candidates confirm that The United Methodist Church will go on toward becoming a more inclusive community. One day the empty seats will be filled. And one day, by God’s grace, the roads we follow will find their way into the wholeness of God’s Kingdom and love.
Grace and peace,