For several decades now, the liberal formula for forcing through unpopular changes in the mainline churches has been to deliberately break the rules of the targeted denomination, and then daring the authorities to enforce discipline. This practice was spectacularly successful in the Episcopal Church, where women’s ordination became a reality after this kind of blackmail. It now looks like liberal United Methodist clergy have decided that this approach might force the denomination to accept same-sex marriage. According to Pamela Lightsey, Dean of Students at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary (Rosemary Reuther’s old haunt):

Across the country, clergy members in the United Methodist Church are now being faced with the stark reality that public policy is far more prophetic and just than our current church polity as they witness the increasing passing of laws that support marriage rights and civil unions of LGBTQ persons. What are loving clergy to say to those persons whom they have had the honor of watching grow as faithful members of our church when asked to officiate and bless them in a ceremony (whether it be marriage, civil union, or commitment) that honors their desire to be in lifelong relationships with loving partners?

Last week, 70 United Methodist Clergy in Minnesota pledged to defy church polity against performing such ceremonies. This week, as of Thursday, 134 clergy in the Northern Illinois Conference have pledged the same. If they follow through with their pledge, they face the possibility of losing their clergy orders. It should be noted that losing one’s credentials is not simply losing the ability to continue your called vocation as clergy but with it, takes away their authorization to preside over the sacred rituals of baptism and Holy Eucharist. I should also mention, it includes a host of practical entitlements such as health benefits, clergy housing allowance (a tax benefit), parsonages, and fellowship within several clergy peer groups. Sufficeth to say, their commitment is a boldly courageous posture….

What we are doing is in fact challenging our church to keep its word and be an “open,” inclusive and loving member of the body of Christ. We are committed to this risk-taking ministry. I trust our Episcopal leaders will know that we are praying for them and that this action is our faithful witness “to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

The Northern Illinois Conference Board of Ordained Ministry has also taken another bold step by passing the following resolution at their 2011 Clergy Session. Though it may ultimately be repealed by legislative action it is a remarkable vote of solidarity.

“Be it resolved that any Northern Illinois Clergy member who, in his/her best judgment, feels called to officiate at a Civil Union and then subsequently faces charges, and after due Disciplinary process is tried and convicted for such offense, that a suggested maximum penalty to assign would be the suspension of said convicted minister from the exercise of pastoral office for a period of 24 consecutive hours.”

Gee, that’s clever.

I don’t know how many of the brave souls who have signed on to this revolt against the denomination would actually follow through on it (the loss of a career can be a serious deterrent to doing so), or how widespread it will turn out to be, but this textbook move out of the liberal playbook is nothing but bad news for the church. When entire annual conferences declare, in essence, that they no longer consider themselves bound by the Book of Discipline, that’s a recipe for the kind of chaos that is in the process of destroying the other mainline churches. (United Methodism has lost millions of members in the last 45 years, but has not seen the defection of congregations and even whole regions that others have.)

Given the increasing numbers of Methodists from overseas who sit in the General Conference (taking place next year), there’s really no chance that liberals can pass their agenda democratically. It sounds as if, having recognized that, they’ve decided to play Samson, and pull the whole structure down, rather than not get what they want.