Apply Wesleyan lens to clergy-session controversy

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Key points

  • This is not the time for accusations or recriminations regarding the Florida Conference clergy session’s June 9 vote not to approve 16 candidates for provisional membership.
  • John Wesley and Methodism’s heritage generally offer examples of “ecclesial disobedience.”
  • The Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is diverse by design and merits trust for its work in vetting clergy candidates.

The Rev. Paul W. Chilcote. Photo courtesy of the author. 
The Rev. Paul W. Chilcote.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Commentaries

UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

I am still attempting to digest the events of June 9 related to the Florida Conference clergy session vote on the class of 16 provisional candidates who would have been commissioned had they been approved. I was not in the session. But as a former Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry member and an LGBTQIA+ ally, I lament the actions of that day. I grieve for all those candidates who, anticipating a celebration, experienced deep trauma. Regardless, I am hopeful, and that hope springs primarily from the stories of Kipp and Erin and Anna, and others of the 16 candidates who are teaching us all the virtues of patience and perseverance. 

There is a time for everything, but I do not believe this is a time for accusations or recriminations. That leads to neither mutual understanding nor potential healing for everyone. Neither, I believe, is it a time to rehearse the details of that day. I have always considered the clergy session, as well as the board of ordained ministry deliberations, to be private meetings with public outcomes.

Rather, I think we are called to take a deep breath, pause and reflect. And I want to reflect, as a self-defined progressive Wesleyan, on what we can learn from our heritage for a time such as this.    

Methodism emerged as a movement of spiritual renewal through acts of “ecclesial disobedience.” John Wesley frequently demonstrated his unwillingness to live within his church’s institutional boundaries. One of his most famous statements, in fact, came in response to a colleague’s criticism of his radical methods and his failure to abide by established rules: 

I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, [it is my] duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that his blessing attends it. Great encouragement have I, therefore, to be faithful in fulfilling the work he hath given me to do. 

Wesley’s advocacy of women preachers also illustrates his penchant for breaking the rules and shattering social expectations. Having based his original objections to these women on biblical grounds, his discernment of the gifts, graces and fruit of their ministry led him to re-evaluate the traditional interpretation of Scripture in this regard. He changed his mind about texts he once thought to be abundantly clear.

One young woman struggled with God’s call to preach because she feared her critics. Sarah Crosby, the first woman preacher of Methodism, wrote to her with this advice: 

When we know we have the Lord’s approbation, we should stand, like the beaten anvil to the stroke; or lie in his hands, as clay in the hands of the potter. Through evil report, and good, we pass, but all things worketh together for good, to them that love God. Speak and act, as the spirit gives liberty, and utterance; fear not the face of man, but with humble confidence, trust in the Lord.

In 1803, the British Methodist Conference prohibited women preachers. Similarly, the United Brethren reversed their long-standing advocacy, women becoming the sacrificial lambs to union with the Evangelical Association in 1946. But in both cases women continued to respond to God’s call in direct defiance of church law.  

How does this shed light on our current situation? I know some things with certainty. All 16 of the provisional candidates were thoroughly vetted by their local congregations, their district boards of ministry and the conference board of ordained ministry. The conference board determined that they all possessed the gifts, graces and fruit so as to continue their journey towards ordination by being commissioned. The Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is extremely diverse by design. I am confident all voices are welcomed and heard respectfully, and every action is bathed in prayer. 

The board of ordained ministry seeks to be fair and just and to keep the vision of beloved community ever before us. It provides a safe space in which to weep with candidates, celebrate their amazing spiritual growth, pray with, mentor and rejoice with those whose calling has been affirmed. Those entrusted with this important responsibility take it seriously and view every aspect of the process as a sacred calling. While none of us can read the hearts of these particular board of ordained ministry members, I can only imagine that the vast majority sought to align their decisions, first and foremost, with Christ’s law of love.

The 16 were to have been commissioned on the Feast of St. Barnabas — Son of Encouragement. He dedicated his life to a ministry of breaking down barriers, just as John Wesley would do centuries later. Barnabas envisaged an inclusive church that viewed Gentiles — goyim — as siblings just like other Jews. This undoubtedly included his affirmation of God's call upon the lives of Gentiles to serve in positions of leadership in the early church when others rejected them. Thank God he helped enact this vision in his age. The following adaptation of the traditional prayer for St. Barnabas Day seems particularly appropriate for a time such as this:

Bountiful God, giver of all good gifts,
who has poured out your Spirit upon all flesh:
help us to be generous in our judgements
and unselfish in our service;
to be kind, gracious and loving
in all our thoughts and actions;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Chilcote is a retired Indiana Conference elder who served on the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Strategic Leader Team from 2017-2021, at Bishop Kenneth Carter’s request and as an affiliate Florida Conference member. Chilcote currently directs the Centre for Global Wesleyan Theology at Wesley House, in Cambridge, England. He’s the author of many books, including the recent “Sheltering with the Psalms.”


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