United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

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When the United Methodist Church ordains ministers, the rite includes the kind of vow that religious groups have long used to underline the ties that bind.

In this case, the candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The candidate replies: "I will, with the help of God."

These vows may create problems for some clergy -- as noted in a remarkably blunt letter published recently by the independent Methodist Federation for Social Action. The context was the U.S. Supreme Court debate about a Health and Human Services mandate that requires most religious institutions to offer employees health insurance covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Currently, actual churches and denominations are exempt. And there's the rub, for the letter's anonymous author.

"I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergywoman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination," she wrote.

"Luckily, we don't have an insurance plan that requires the church to sign off on the prescriptions that my doctor writes. … However, because I value my job, I have to remain anonymous in writing this. It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules. I'm very grateful that … I don't have to justify my prescriptions to my Bishop. I don't think it is any of his business. I hope the US government agrees."

Meanwhile, the UMC Book Of Discipline remains clear on premarital sex, requiring clergy to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness."

The letter -- no surprise -- drew strong comments in social media, with United Methodists defending or attacking their church's teachings.

"You body, your sexuality, and your safety are your decisions and I applaud you for your willingness to share, even anonymously," stated one writer, with a "Future UMC Rev." identification. "My fiancé and I (he's going to be a Rev. too) started having sex a couple of years ago and were thrilled with our decision, and it wasn't one we made lightly. … As for the promises of ordination -- perhaps it's time to take a second look at those."

In a typical orthodox response, one UMC employee replied: "I agree, one woman to another, that your body is your business. Your sexual choices are your business." However, she added: "Your 'job,' or part of it, as pastor -- as leader -- is to set an example for your congregation. … If you choose the path of ordination you have to follow the rules set forth in the Discipline. You made a choice to do that. But if that has changed and you are now at conflict with your vows then it may be time for you to reassess your career choice."

This isn't the first time a United Methodist pastor has posted this kind of critique.

A few years ago, the denomination's official General Board of Church and Society published a letter arguing that the church was confused by "years of theological tradition and imaginative biblical reflections on: the 'perpetual' virginity of Mary, a supposedly celibate Jesus. … Imagine a Church without the attitude that a wedding or a hymen is the dividing line between moral and immoral."

These doctrinal debates have been raging for decades, noted John Lomperis, United Methodist Action director for the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. However, it's "rare to see someone be this blatant when supporting premarital sex," he said. "There has been a kind of understanding that when people openly support an 'anything goes' ethos, it doesn't make their lives any easier."

Thus, he added, "many bishops use a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach at the local level. … But every now and then people say what they actually believe. It's important to pay attention when that happens."