Opinion

Why United Methodists’ chaos on sexuality issues will continue (COMMENTARY)

Supporters of LGBTQ rights in the United Methodist Church rally around the central Communion table at the close of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Mike DuBose, courtesy of UMNS

(RNS) While many evangelical church bodies have reiterated their “no” to homosexuality — and most mainline Protestant traditions have said “yes” — the United Methodist Church, which concluded its quadrennial meeting last week, remains as divided and muddled as ever.

This is fairly predictable, given Methodism’s roots as an evangelical revival movement.

Two key factors contribute to the United Methodists’ ongoing indecision:

1. Unlike other mainline U.S. denominations, the UMC is a global church.

When Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian denominations affirmed gay marriage or LGBT clergy, co-religionists in other parts of the world could not stop them. (Though it is worth noting that the Episcopal Church’s affirming stance has created serious challenges in its relationship to the global Anglican Communion.)

Forty percent of the delegates to the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference were from outside the U.S. As Methodism declines in the U.S. and grows in other places, particularly Africa, where traditional Christian attitudes about sexuality remain strong, conservatives are guaranteed to be a majority for many years into the future.

Church leaders celebrate the commissioning of new missionaries May 19 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference

Church leaders celebrate the commissioning of new missionaries May 19 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. From left are: the Rev. Mande Muyombo, Thomas Kemper of the denomination’s Board of Global Ministries and Bishops Hee-Soo Jung and Hope Morgan Ward. Photo by Mike DuBose courtesy of UMNS

2. Church rules allow enough wiggle room for progressives to ignore its anti-gay stance.

The denomination’s Book of Discipline says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and that same-sex marriages “shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”

But the Discipline also affirms that LGBT people are individuals of sacred worth and that the church should be in ministry for and with all persons.

Last week, the denomination decided not to vote on proposed legislation that would affirm LGBT Methodists. Those proposals would have failed, anyway.

Instead, delegates implored the church’s bishops to lead in the midst of passionate disagreement. Never mind that the bishops’ uncertain commitment to the Discipline and uneven enforcement of violations have led directly to the present ecclesial chaos.

So the bishops proposed appointing a commission to revisit all church teaching on human sexuality and to investigate new forms of church organization that might allow the denomination to remain united in the midst of disagreement. Delegates narrowly approved the proposal. Supposedly, the commission will convene later in 2016, work for about two years, and report its recommendations to a specially called General Conference in 2018 or 2019.

Thus both sides claimed victory. Traditionalists celebrated that the church did not follow other denominations in liberalizing on gay issues. Progressives cheered the commission as a chance to have their inclusive views legitimated by the whole church.

In reality, the bishops did not lead.

Schism may be impractical or prohibitively expensive, but it’s more likely than not. There is no reason to delay the inevitable discussions about how, if at all, each side can remain connected to the other after some definitive split takes place.

One wonders how many bishops will retire and begin to draw on their pensions before their successors finally do what needs to be done. Yet it may be the case that the clergy pension fund is all that holds the church together.

While most other Protestant groups will face their manifold challenges with some degree of certainty about where they stand on human sexuality, United Methodist chaos will continue.

Instead of beginning serious deliberations now about who will leave, who will stay, and who will pay for the fallout, the United Methodists await a commission report.

The denomination’s unsustainable ecclesial disunity will continue unabated: Many LGBT clergy are coming out of the closet, many more will disobey church teaching, and some will face expensive and divisive church trials.

United Methodists had a chance to confront reality and begin to chart a way forward. Instead, they ratified the status quo, appointed a committee, and kicked the can down the road. In other words, they did the most Methodist thing ever.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

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Jacob Lupfer

14 Comments

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  • Well, they wouldn’t lead, they wouldn’t follow, and they wouldn’t get out of the way. They just decided to continue the vapidity of the highly paid religious class.

  • One thing to be noted is that not ALL overseas delegates would be homophobic. The Philippines actually has a much higher acceptance rate of homosexuality than do Africans, and even higher than the United States. There is even a Reconciling Community, as well as an affirming Bishop there. The problem is is that there are far fewer Filipino than there are African United Methodists. Most European United Methodists would most probably accept gays as human beings as well. Most areas of the rest of the world have a fairly high acceptance rate of homosexuality. The main exceptions are Africa, the Islamic world and Russia.

  • Au contraire, Jacob. The bishops DID lead.

    And they led in a way consistent with their consecration vows. The heart of those vows is to work for the unity of the church, to be shepherds to and among the whole of the flock.

    Your article imagines only one possible outcome of our current situation: split, or schism.

    In reality there are multiple possible outcomes.

    Unity under a different form of political relationships is among them.

    Because that is the case, it would not have been good episcopal leadership for our bishops to jump to what it “split” or “schism” scenarios would look like. Indeed, that would have been the opposite of good episcopal leadership.

    Good episcopal leadership remains open to finding unity in new ways of ordering our relationships. Bishop Ough said this plainly in his address to the General Conference. And it underlies the recommendations the Council brought back to the body. None of us knows yet what this may look like. It is folly if not hubris to suggest any of us does. Good episcopal leadership, or even good organizational leadership during a time of significant transition or metamorphosis, admits this. Rather than pretending to chart some allegedly known way forward, good episcopal leaders admit the limits of their knowledge, and seek to listen to a build trust among the flock so that however we all arrive at what may be an unknown destination, we arrive as one people, one flock.

    May the Spirit continue to lead among our bishops, and may we continue to follow together the voice of the One who calls us and leads us all.

  • Except it pretty much describes the position well. Anti gay types look for new and interesting ways to justify attacks and demeaning rhetoric towards gays. It’s all about denying basic courtesy to them afforded to anyone else.

  • Did you know the New York Times and the Associated Press ban the use of the epithet, “h*m*sexual,” except when used in a direct quote, and only once?

    “George P. Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at the way the term is used by those who try to portray gays and lesbians as deviant. What is most telling about substituting it for gay or lesbian are the images that homosexual tends to activate in the brain, he said.

    “Gay doesn’t use the word sex,” he said. “Lesbian doesn’t use the word sex. Homosexual does.”

    “It also contains ‘homo,’ which is an old derogatory,” he added. “They want to have that idea there. They want to say this is not normal sex, this is not normal family, it’s going against God.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/fashion/gays-lesbians-the-term-homosexual.html?_r=1

  • Mr. Wagle, did you know the New York Times and the Associated Press ban the use of the epithet, “h*m*sexual,” except when used in a direct quote, and only once?

    “George P. Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at the way the term is used by those who try to portray gays and lesbians as deviant. What is most telling about substituting it for gay or lesbian are the images that homosexual tends to activate in the brain, he said.

    “Gay doesn’t use the word sex,” he said. “Lesbian doesn’t use the word sex. Homosexual does.”

    “It also contains ‘homo,’ which is an old derogatory,” he added. “They want to have that idea there. They want to say this is not normal sex, this is not normal family, it’s going against God.”

    http://www dot nytimes dot com/2014/03/23/fashion/gays-lesbians-the-term-homosexual dot html?_r=1

  • Anti-gays also routinely claim “everyone” shares their overarching hatred and fear of LGBT Americans.

  • “Unity under a different form of political relationships”
    I truly admire this Orwellian optimism you and the bishops seem to share.

  • I am gay myself. In rereading my post, I think I referred to persons as “gay” but homosexuality is not the person but the larger phenomena. HOMO in Greek just means “same,” just as HETERO means “other.” I don’t see “homosexuality” as referring to the same sex love as being any more pejorative than “queer.” I usually refer to myself as being gay and other persons as being gay or lesbian, transgendered or bisexual. I never say a person is “homosexual,” but I do use the term “homosexuality.”

  • Let me guess. I bet you support Bernie Sanders. I support Hillary. I spoke with one gay supporter of Bernie online who was upset that Hillary didn’t support gay marriage 30 years ago. I wasn’t offended because she always supported SOME gay relationship, such as Civil Unions. Look at the Republicans, as well as the United Methodist “Good News” caucus. They still not only oppose gay marriage, but still oppose ANY gay relationship, even domestic partnership. I believe in going for what is possible at the time, esp if the person has to be elected by the voters. Groups, such as RMN and the Human Rights Campaign can push for what is more improbable at the time. These caucuses are not answerable to the voters as politicians are.

  • I support Clinton. Sanders is a GOP Dirty Trick®. My husband and I registered as domestic partners when that was all that was available to us.

  • So many questions surrounding the Christian take on sexuality stem from what I believe is a misreading of Jesus’ attitudes towards sex. A recent book by renowned NT scholar, Father John Meier, is a case in point. Meier’s newest work, “A Marginal Jew,” Volume V, covers the parables of Jesus. What is germane to our conversation here is Meier’s belief throughout the entire series that Jesus was celibate. Webster’s defines celibacy as: “The state of being unmarried; single life, esp. that of a bachelor, or of one bound by vows not to marry.” In an earlier volume, Meier notes that the “New Testament is simply silent on the question” of Jesus’ marital/celibate status, yet he spends many pages throughout this series constructing a hypothetical case for why Jesus must have been celibate. I have no issue if, by celibate, he means that Jesus was unmarried during his ministry. That seems to line up with the few facts we have. One would assume that since the Gospel writers discuss other disciple’s wives, they would certainly mention a Mrs. Jesus if there was one. However I believe Meier is on far shakier historical ground if he means (and I think this is exactly what he means) that Jesus was never married because he took a “vow” to abstain from marriage. The closest he comes to NT confirmation for his belief of Jesus as a sworn celibate is his reading of the strange and singly attested eunuch story found in Matthew. Far more prevalent in the NT, I believe, are stories hinting at a Jesus who was very pro-marriage and would have had a negative opinion of celibacy. My reasons are: 1) Jesus came from a large family. He saw his mother pregnant often and, in the cramped household living of
    1st Century Palestine, may have seen a whole lot more. Sex and its results must have been well known
    to Jesus. If it bothered him, it was never recorded; 2) Jesus is very clear that marriage is sacred and divorce is out of the question. A curious take, one might note, coming from a man sworn to celibacy; 3) It is multiply attested that groups of women, apparently without their husbands, follow and support
    Jesus. An odd addition to a group whose leader has sworn off relations with women; and 4) While schooling the Corinthians on marital sexual relations, Paul had a perfect opportunity to promote his celibate beliefs by quoting the teachings of a celibate Jesus, but does not. In fact, he goes so far as to
    say his theories on celibacy come from him and NOT the Lord. Why? Please note that this is not some Da Vinci Code conspiracy. I am not saying that any of the four points I make are proof of a married or sexually active Jesus. I merely wish to point out that the NT is friendlier to the idea of a non-celibate or perhaps previously married Jesus than Father Meier would concede. After that long buildup, I would very much appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.

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