"Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.": The Discipline, Gay Rights, and Methodist History

Charity R. Carney

“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.


Christopher said…
I've spent most of this morning going over Methodist debates on slavery and related changes in the Discipline in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so this is a timely post. Thanks, Charity.
cg said…
Came to add my affirmation that discipline was indeed malleable in the 19th century and change could come from lay popular opinion or clerical mandate (or both) The disciplinary transformations I studied regarded alcohol manufacture and consumption, and the Christian responsibility of church members to their enslaved people in 1840s and 1850s North Carolina.
Unknown said…
The Bible has considered homosexuality sin for hundreds of year. That sin like all sin need to be repented of just as any other sin.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Interesting. For accuracy's sake: a gay website notes

Methodist doctrine does allow for the LGBT community to attend services, but prohibits openly-gay people from "serving" the church.

There is the dimension that "choir director" is indeed a church post, and putting an obviously coupled-up LBGT person* in that post could be fairly read as approval, not simply "inclusion"/tolerance per the church's “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors” motto.

BTW, even if its rhetoric is not, the precision of the article is praiseworthy


Former Lay Leader David Steele has come forward to claim that 80 percent of parishioners have left the church due to Mantor's homophobia.

IOW, the 80% figure may not be the exact truth, for further reference. It may be an accurate figure, but at the moment it's a "claim" by an interested party.

As for how "malleable" Methodist discipline is, it's an interesting question. However, for clarity's sake, that "choir director" is a position of "service" in the church is at least arguable. How "malleable" Methodist "canon law" is by the local congregations is also of interest.

[As we know, LGBT issues have been the source of schism and litigation throughout the Protestant mainline, where local congregations--pro or con] ask, whose church is it anyway?]

*ibid.: "'Raw Story' reports:

Fraley, who took the job at the behest of David’s wife, Nancy Steele, six years ago, said he was not openly gay while working at the church. But his partner attended services with him and the Steele family said it was “obvious” Fraley was gay."
Tom Van Dyke said…

Dan Gangler, spokesman for the UMC Indiana Conference, told The Christian Post that First United Methodist Church of Alexandria had other reasons for not re-hiring Adam Fraley.

"The position was not open. Mr. Fraley had resigned earlier in the year and the pastor did not think it wise to re-hire him since he already have once resigned from the position," said Gangler. "This was a personnel decision. The position was the church's position in the first place. The church has the option to fill or not fill a particular position."

First UMC also reportedly suffered a steep decline in its worship attendance, with several online news sources claiming that as many as 80 percent of the congregation had opted to worship elsewhere.

News of the large exodus from First UMC made the rounds at various LGBT websites, including Towleroad, The Advocate, and the "Gay Voices" section of The Huffington Post.

"The laws for the United Methodist Church say that gay men and women are welcomed and are allowed to be members of the church; however, they are forbidden from having any sort of leadership position," wrote Christian Walters of Towleroad. "This was the rationale used when the United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Indiana chose to not re-hire choral director Adam Fraley, who was driven from his position by a new minister after six years of service to the church."

Gangler told CP that the 80 percent number was "not true", noting that church records indicated that the small congregation continued to have normal levels of attendance for worship.

"The Rev. Michelle Cobb, who is the North Central District Superintendent who oversees the churches in this region of Indiana, reported to me that attendance has been maintained at an average level of around 35 worshippers per Sunday," said Gangler.

more: http://www.christianpost.com/news/united-methodist-official-denies-that-ind-church-fired-gay-choir-director-over-sexual-orientation-112796/

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