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.

Are we queering the Body of Christ?

Dialogue and conversation about sexual ethics is the order of the day, according to United Methodist Bishop Martin McLee.

So, please help me understand a couple things I’ve been reading in recent weeks. And I am asking this as a legitimate question. Imagine, for a moment, that I’m a member of your congregation who came in after reading some of this online. I am confused by it and want your pastoral help in understanding how it fits with the things I’m hearing in United Methodist publications, web sites, and blogs.

To give you a sense of the challenge here, I grew up at a time when the word “queer” was considered offensive and certainly not one you would use to describe someone else. So consider me one of those ancient members of the congregation who does not understand why we can’t read Psalm 23 in the King James translation.

I’ve come into your office. I’ve shared some things I’ve read. I don’t understand them and want to know if the church is teaching these things now.

Here are the tattered pages I pull out of the folder I brought with me.

First, there was this exchange in Tony Jones’ blog comment section.

Jones wrote a blog post praising the decision of his local newspaper to run a picture of two men kissing on its front page. His post centered on his 9-year-old son’s response to the picture as no big deal. He declared it a sign of progress as a new normal emerges in our culture.

One of his commenters was not so enthusiastic. (I’ve inserted links to some of the meanings of the terms for those who are not familiar with them.)

Queer sexuality is far, far from culturally normative. It remains heavily marginalised while a sanitized homonormativity is both pushed by advocacy groups controlled by the privileged within the queer community (primarily white cis gay men but, to a lesser extent, white cis lesbians) and appropriated (not to mention exploited) by non-queer media (like this newspaper, using a ‘provocative’ image of two white men kissing to sell papers). Queers who cannot or will not conform to homonormativity, such as bisexuals, queers of colours, and trans* individuals, continue to be marginalised and oppressed, the nonchalance of 9-year-olds at homonormativity notwithstanding. Homonormativity being all-but-synonymous with assimilationism, its victory is a victory for queers whose bodies and lifestyles conforms to heterosexist norms. Your sons response represents progress for the queer community, not the end of our structural marginalisation and not cultural normativity for the lived experience of the majority of queers.

The person who wrote the comment on Tony Jones’ blog appears to be arguing that no line can be drawn when it comes to sexual ethics. To argue on behalf of lifelong, committed relationships between two men is — in this eyes of this commenter and apparently some others — to advocate for an oppressive homonormativity that is little better than the Christian doctrine that people are trying to dismantle.

Jones for his part sought to reassure his commenter that more progress would be made:

Matthew, of course I’m not saying that all is now well for the progressive vision of our cultural future, nor am I saying that no one is marginalized, nor am I saying that all of our problems are solved, nor am I saying that we should stop fighting for equality. I am simply saying that we’ve come a long way, and this newpaper is a cultural touchstone.

To which, the commenter replied:

I’m not denying the progress, just seeking to add that it’s relative. There’s been more progress for those whose queerness can conform to homonormative norms, white, cisgender gay men and women in monogamous, two-persons, (upper) middle class relationships, than those who queerness does or cannot. For those of us in the latter category, seeing acceptance of homonormativity touted as victories for us all reinforces our own peripheral or even outsider status in the mainstream LGBT movement and community.

So, this leaves me confused.

What I hear argued in our denomination is that we should not discriminate against loving, committed, monogamous relationships. So is that the final point in this process of evolving doctrine, or do we go to the next step demanded by this person on Jones’ blog? If not, why not?

These questions continued yesterday when I started getting posts on my Twitter feed out of a Progressive Youth Ministry conference. I went searching the hashtag #pym14 and found some of the following tweets from conference attendees. (Please note: I am not offering these as a representative sample, but as ones that confused me or raised questions that I do not know how to answer.)

Since I do not understand what queer theology is, I did what every 21st century person does. I Googled it. Here are the top responses: Wikipedia, a dedicated web site complete with queer lectionary reflections, what looks like an undergraduate paper on the topic, a book called Radical Love, and a Huffington Post article tag.

I did not buy the book, but did read much of the other material. I have a better understanding of what queer theology is, but I am not clear whether it is informing our debates in the UMC.

So, again, help me out. In this process of dialogue in our denomination, are people trying to move us toward a “queering” of the body of Christ? Or is there some other end point? And what does it mean to queer the Body of Christ? Specifically what are people arguing on behalf of? And if they are not arguing for that, why not? What are the doctrinal and theological resources that argue for some movement in this direction but not total movement? Or is what people are arguing for not indebted to queer theology? What is the shape of our teaching on sexual ethics that advocates for change envision? And what is the basis for that revised doctrine?

I’ve e-mailed Bishop Talbert and others about these questions in the past. So far, I’ve gotten little help in understanding these things that confuse me.

Hauerwas on marriage and homosexuality

Stanley Hauerwas writes in an essay called “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” that the people of the United Methodist Church don’t have any idea how to talk or think about homosexuality.

They do not know how to think about homosexuality because they do not know how to think about marriage and divorce. The churches have generally underwritten romantic accounts of marriage — that is, you fall in love and get married so that sex is an expression of your love. Such accounts not only destroy any understanding of marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity but also make unintelligible the prohibition against same-sex relations. After all, the latter are often exemplifications of a loving relation.

Hauerwas’ overarching point in the essay is that we as a church have capitulated to the idea of marriage as an easily voidable contractual relationship that is only valid so long as those in the contract deem it in their interests to remain so. Such an understanding leaves out questions about the purpose of marriage as an institution ordained by God, and reduces it only to an expression of our choices. Hauerwas writes that when that is the meaning of marriage, our conversations about homosexuality and same-sex relations make no sense. He argues that we first have to recover the concept of marriage from liberal capitalism before we can hope to talk coherently about any of the related questions — promiscuity, fornication, adultery, polygamy, divorce, homosexuality.

Hauerwas offers us a list of provocative questions, particularly for those who support the United Methodist teaching on sexuality:

Do they think that a marriage is no longer a marriage simply because the people in the marriage no longer love one another? Do they think people who have been divorced can remarry after they have found someone else to love? How should people be examined to discern whether they are capable of making the promises we still ask people to make when the church witnesses their marriage? Should people who have been divorced bear a greater burden of proof if they wish to be remarried?

These are tough questions, but I find persuasive Hauerwas’s insistence that our answers to these questions should inform our answers to other questions. For Hauerwas our discussions about what some call “the clobber verses” of Scripture should be done in the light of the scriptural witness regarding singleness and marriage, letting our discernment about those matters shape our reading of other parts of Scripture. Of course, as Hauerwas notes in his essay, when he offered his arguments as part of a General Conference appointed task force he was ignored by both sides of our ongoing debate.

For what it is worth, though, I find his proposal more appealing than slinging slogans and scripture at each other, and I do think theological questions about sex and sexuality are best understood as secondary to our theological understanding of what marriage is and why people do or do not enter into it. Put into question form, we need an answer to the question “Why should people get married?” before we can have a coherent answer to the question “Why is sex outside of marriage bad?”

I don’t think either question ignores Scripture. Rather, I think they force us to read Scripture and wrestle with its witness to us.