The Wisconsin Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church declared its independence from the denomination yesterday.

Just kidding. What it actually did, via the penalty phase of the trial of lesbian minister and same sex union blesser Amy DeLong was declare that the Book of Discipline, and by extension the world-wide church that passes it every four years, is in reality a Book of Suggestions. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

A United Methodist minister acquitted Wednesday on a church charge of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual,”was sentenced Thursday to a 20-day suspension for presiding at a holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple in 2009.

As part of the penalty, the Rev. Amy DeLong must work with Wisconsin church officials to craft a document that will help resolve future disputes in a more collaborative way in an effort to avoid trials.

Both sides heralded the penalty and split verdict as just.

“I feel good about what the church has done. I think we’ve sent a message that the United Methodist Church will not throw out its gay and lesbian people, and that it has opened the doors for a more inclusive church,” said DeLong, who has long acknowledged to church officials that she is a lesbian in a committed relationship.

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht, a Wisconsin elder who served as church counsel in the trial, said the penalty recognizes that DeLong harmed the clergy covenant and that there are consequences for such actions.

“I think the suspension is just the first step,” said Lambrecht, who had asked the jury to suspend DeLong indefinitely until she agreed not to officiate at same-sex unions in the future. “What’s important is Rev. DeLong’s written work that will look at ways we can resolve issues without creating that adversarial spirit and doing harm to the clergy covenant.”

This is a joke. In answer to Rev. Lambrecht’s questions, DeLong indicated that she has no intention of abiding by the prohibition in the Discipline against conducting same-sex unions. The reason she was convicted of this charge (as opposed to the absurd acquittal she received for violating the prohibition against homosexual activity on the part of clergy) is because it is 1) public and 2) either/or–either it happens or it doesn’t. There’s no need to “resolve future disputes in a more collaborative way”–just don’t do the ceremonies. Which is to say, abide by the mind of the church as expressed in the Book of Discipline. That is what DeLong has made clear she will not do, and she has the support of hundreds of clergy across the denomination.

What’s going on here is that the annual conference (which in the person of the bishop appointed DeLong to her position as director of Kairos CoMotion, an advocacy group that among other things seeks–surprise!–to repeal the prohibitions on gay clergy and same-sex unions) is looking for and even begun a process that will, in effect, tell the rest of the denomination that it will not enforce the parts of the Discipline that it doesn’t like. I expect that others will soon follow. If this is not stopped–and I don’t know what recourse the rest of the denomination might have to do so–the collapse of the United Methodist Church as an even vaguely unified body is not far off.