Bishops: ‘Not of one mind’

My bishop e-mailed our conference this statement coming out of the Council of Bishop’s meeting.

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

What’s after the crossroads?

What happens when the Council of Bishops does not act?

That was my first question upon reading the Methodist Crossroads web site with its call for for the following actions at and after the Council of Bishops’ fall meeting:

  • The Council’s commitment to promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman;
  •  A commitment from all active bishops that they will fully enforce the Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same sex services;
  •  A strongly worded directive to all annual conferences and jurisdictions not to circumvent the Discipline’s teachings regarding same sex services or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals;
  •  A public statement noting that those bishops who have stated they will use their influence to prevent trials as a means of just resolution for clergy who preside at same sex services have been censured by the council; and,
  •  A commitment from all bishops that when trials occur they will appoint as counsel for the church individuals fully supportive of the church’s teachings and the necessity for organizational accountability.

Given the membership of the Council of Bishops, I cannot imagine the body will satisfy the desires of those who wrote and endorse the Integrity and Unity statement.

In the FAQ on the website, the authors propose the following if the Council of Bishops fails to act on its request:

If the Council is not able to restore unity with integrity, then we believe the healthy and mature response is to admit we are so deeply divided we are no longer one church. And the church would do well to seriously explore the option of amicable separation. Again, we hope it does not come to this. But no one believes it would be productive to continue an unresolvable debate that hurts feelings, damages persons made in the image of God, and fosters cynicism throughout the church. It would be better for us to honestly admit we are no longer united. Remaining together would only sow confusion and undermine our witness and ministry to the world.

Lambrecht: We have seen the future

Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the United Methodist renewal group Good News, argues that the places where United Methodism is dying the fastest are precisely those places at the forefront in disobedience to church discipline and doctrine regarding sex. This, he writes, gives us a glimpse of the future that progressives would create for the denomination.

Since the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Annual Conference appears to be at the forefront of advocating new moral teachings by the church, according to the hypothesis that this represents the Methodism of the future, the conference should be showing remarkable growth and vitality.  Instead, we see a stunning drop in membership and worship attendance.

In 2003, the PNW reported 60,495 members.  Ten years later in 2013, they report 46,209, a decrease of over 23%.  The membership loss in 2013 was 2,465 alone, nearly double the yearly average over the last ten years.  So the membership loss is getting worse, not better, even in light of the church’s permissive stance regarding sexuality.

Worship attendance was even worse.  In 2003, the PNW reported 26,421 in average worship attendance.  Now that number is 18,505, a decline of 30%.  In 2013 alone, worship attendance declined 1,663, an 8.2% drop!  The decrease in worship attendance in 2013 alone was more than double the average annual decrease over the last ten years, so again, the loss is getting worse.

This kind of argument, of course, does not address the justice arguments made by United Methodists in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the connection. Also, I think a fair reading of the progressive argument is that the denomination is doomed to lose younger generations if it maintains its historic doctrine, so it would be interesting to see if there is any evidence to support that claim. Eroding membership in progressive conferences and jurisdictions may be older generations, which while nothing to cheer does not directly address what I take to be the progressive argument.

Nonetheless, the numbers Lambrecht reports are sobering and certainly give us cause to wonder about the best road forward for a denomination that strives to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We already have a local option

One of the things that rang most true to me in reading Adam Hamilton’s explanation of the document he helped draft, A Way Forward, was his observation that we already do many of the things the document calls for.

Cabinets already make appointments to churches based on the fit between congregations and pastors on theological issues. We already ordain clergy regardless of whether they observe the standards of sexual practice we set for them. We already have clergy conducting wedding services that violate the language of the Book of Discipline. Depending on who you are, where you live, and who your cabinet is we have different sets of rules, norms, and practices that more and more turn a blind eye to the words of our Discipline.

This truth was underscored for me this week when I read of the appointment of Amy DeLong to a church in Wisconsin and the upcoming celebration at the church to welcome Rev. DeLong and her partner Val Zellmer to their new parsonage home.

We already have a local option.

The question is whether we want to endorse and ratify it as Hamilton suggests or try to roll it back. Given those to options, I understand why some are talking about leaving.

 

On proposals to split the denomination

Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrong, some divorces right. But it must also be understood, I think, that the possibility of breaking a vow can tell us nothing of what is meant by making and keeping one. Divorce is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its proposed results.

– Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage”

I’ve been waiting for Ben Witherinton III to finish his four-part response to retired Bishop Richard Sano’s call for what he and others in the United Methodist Church call biblical obedience.

Here are Witherington’s responses.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

In the last part, Witherington makes his case for a split in the UMC. He ends his final post this way:

So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue. The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.

In the piece, Witherington uses the analogy of marriage and divorce, and in all these controversies I do find myself reflecting on the nature of marriage vows. I ask myself in grief how people can break their vows of covenant while presiding over the vows of marriage.

But I also hear myself talking about the way marriage is treated in our country and culture. Marriage, we are told by the courts of law, is a contract entered into for mutual benefit and terminated at the whim of those who entered into it. That may be the secular meaning of marriage, but that definition of marriage has nothing to do with God.

Christian marriage is a lifelong bond that is not intended to be ever broken. The vow to love until death does not include small print that says “unless we get sick of each other.” Yes, Christians divorce, but only because we are fallen and hard-hearted people. It is always a tragedy. Divorce, Wendell Berry wrote, is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its possible outcomes.

And so, I find myself unable to suggest divorce as a solution to our crisis in the United Methodist Church. Not over this question. Even though we’ve had — and likely will have — some fights that damage the walls and break lamps.

I am sick of the fighting. I am outraged by the politics of it all. I am heart sick over the name calling and the distrust that runs deep in our connection. I believe some of my brothers and sisters are teaching doctrines that imperil the happiness and salvation of souls. That for many is a reason to break fellowship. I understand why people feel this way, and I worry that perhaps there is some hypocrisy in me that I am not ready to join the ones calling for a split.

I don’t have a good response to that charge. I guess, in the end, I hope and trust that God will overcome the mistakes of human beings. In end, I am too aware of my own flaws and failures to eliminate the possibility that I am wrong. In the end, I am holding out hope that there is a coherent, biblical response that neither denigrates scripture nor forgets that mercy triumphs over judgement.

I pray that God makes right what I have done wrong in my ministry and has mercy on my mistakes and my failures. If I pray that God will do that for me, then I feel I must pray he will do the same for those with whom I disagree on these questions.

There are lines I could not cross. There are matters that amount to theological adultery. If the UMC became Unitarian Universalist, I would leave. But when I read Witherington’s call for a split, I find I am not ready to go where he summons. Maybe that is cowardice. Maybe it is hope. I cannot say. All I can report is this:

I’m not ready for divorce.