On Saturday, November 22, 2014 the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church held “A Day of Holy Conversation on Sexuality in the United Methodist Church.” Facilitated by the Common Table for Church Vitality, we discussed this question: “In light of concerns being expressed in different areas of the connection of The United Methodist Church and in society as a whole regarding human sexuality, how can we move forward in mission and ministry together?” The Common Table invited representatives to speak from three key perspectives in the church: progressive, traditionalist, and centrist. No doubt these labels are questionable and far too simplistic but they each represent a sizable and vocal constituency. Without going into a detailed description of the proceedings, I want to offer a critique of the centrist “solution” and give more definition to a progressive “solution” that I hope will also appeal centrists and some conservatives. The speakers representing the centrist position suggested something like the solution proposed in the document “A Way Forward.” This document has been signed by over by over 2600 United Methodists. As I read the document I found much to affirm, but there are serious flaws that I think would exacerbate divisions in our church. Let me begin with what I affirm.
First of all, I’m grateful to the writers and signers of “A Way Forward” for rejecting a proposal for an “amicable separation” of the denomination and for offering an alternative. The authors and signers speak up for the vast majority of United Methodists who reject schism. Second, the authors affirm that the local church is the primary place of mission and ministry—I do too. Third, I appreciate the humility of the authors. They recognize that the “proposal is, at this point, merely conceptual. There are many questions that must be answered and many details to be worked out.” Lastly, I affirm the last section about what unites us as United Methodists.
Now I want to highlight what I think are the key flaws in the proposal. I thought I was going to have to write a lengthy analysis but I found that others have done that better than I could. Blogs written by David F. Watson, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio and Bill T. Arnold, Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary show clearly how the proposal undermines the connectional structure that has been a hallmark of United Methodism. I think they also effectively show that “A Way Forward” ironically makes schism more likely. David F. Watson writes: “It’s not at all clear that this proposal will actually preserve our unity. Dividing up between annual conferences and congregations that accept gay and lesbian marriage and ordination and those that do not seems to be a step toward division, rather than away from it.” Rather than quote them at length, I encourage you to read both blogs—they are not very long.
Besides making schism more likely, there is another key problem with “A Way Forward”: it maintains the derogatory language and discriminatory policies in the Book of Discipline. For a local congregation to override these statements, it would require “request from the senior pastor and a supermajority vote of the members of the congregation after a process of prayer, study and discernment.” This is a high bar indeed. Suppose the congregation no longer wants to discriminate against same-sex couples but the pastor does: too bad. Or it could be the other way around. These negotiations would once again push the battles of general conference back into the local church. And, there is no mechanism in “A Way Forward” for pastors to offer their pastoral services to same-sex couples unless their congregation has agreed to change the policy. This will lead to more costly and counterproductive trials as increasing numbers of clergy refuse to discriminate.
As I believe “A Way Forward” is in actuality a path toward schism, what am I proposing as an alternative? I believe our sister church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, provides a good model for us.
First of all, their statement is grounded in their theology. It is 37 pages long, not counting the addendums. It openly acknowledges differences among them on same-sex relationships but treats the different viewpoints respectfully. On page 20, it outlines four different positions on same-sex relationships. Each one begins with this phrase “On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced . . . .” What a wonderful way to show respect for other positions. We recognize that those with other convictions are operating in good faith and good conscience. Lastly, there are no derogatory statements about same-sex relationships and no discriminatory and punitive policies. So, what I am proposing is 1) a recognition that we are divided in our beliefs, 2) a commitment to respect the beliefs of others recognizing that they are “conscience-bound beliefs” and 3) we remove from The Book of Discipline the derogatory “incompatibility” statement, the discriminatory policies regarding ordination and marriage, and affirm that pastors are free (but not required) to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Finally, I think those who identify as “liberals/progressives,” as “moderates/centrists,” and as “conservatives/traditonalists,” all need to repent. We are all complicit in an institution that has hurt and alienated LGBTQ persons, that has denied and rejected their gifts and graces, and that has slowed the progress of their civil rights. There is no room for gloating—all are complicit by action and inaction. The way forward will be a way of repentance and will look a lot more like the “Truth and Reconciliation” process that is being used in the Michigan Area than allowing congregations and conferences to “do their own thing” as proposed in “A Way Forward.” The “Truth and Reconciliation” process would bring hope for genuine repentance as we listen to the stories of LGBTQ persons and hear how our church’s statements and policies have affected them.
So, what are the strengths of this “solution”?
1) It promotes unity. Local congregations and conferences will not need to take sides or vote in what would be deeply divisive decisions. Clergy and laity are free to hold and express different views on same-sex relationships as long as they show respect for other positions. Pastors are free to determine whether they can, in good conscience, officiate at same-sex marriages. I would hope that pastors with conscience-bound convictions against same-sex marriage could refer same-sex couples to pastors with conscience-bound convictions that affirm same-sex marriages, but that would be their decision.
2) It is simple. Rather than kicking the can farther down the road with piecemeal changes to The Book of Discipline, it simply removes the derogatory “incompatibility” statement and the discriminatory policies regarding ordination and marriage. In many ways The Book of Discipline would be silent on these issues like it was before we added the hurtful language and policies in 1972. But, it does require us to acknowledge that we are divided in our beliefs regarding same-sex relationships and to respect the convictions of others.
3) This proposal will eliminate the divisive, costly, embarrassing, and counterproductive trials of clergy officiating at same-sex marriages. Our church’s attitudes and policies toward LGBTQ persons have hampered its ministry to and with young adults. “Research conducted by the pro-Christian Barna Group in 2007 on Americans age 16-29 found that “anti-homosexual” was the dominant perception of modern Christians. Ninety-one percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of Christians in this group used this word to describe Christians.” Trials of clergy who provide pastoral services to same-sex couples makes the church look vindictive and punitive. These trials directly undermine our public relations campaign of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: the people of the United Methodist Church.”
4) There are no winners or losers. When I signed on to “An Altar for All,” along with many others, I made this confession: “We repent that it has taken us so long to act. We acknowledge our complicity in the church’s discriminatory policies that have tarnished the witness of the Church to the world. We value our covenant relationships and ask everyone to hold the divided community of The United Methodist Church in prayer.” We are all complicit—no one is without sin. Few of us share exactly the same position on these issues. If we are disciples we are constantly searching the scriptures and searching our hearts to hear how God is guiding us through the Holy Spirit. This “solution” does not require us to fit into some prescribed box or to adhere to one position. Let us show charity to one another and offer the hand of fellowship remembering Wesley’s words: “’If your heart is as my heart,’ if you love God and all [humankind], I ask no more: ‘give me your hand.’”
Like “A Way Forward,” I acknowledge that my “proposal is, at this point, merely conceptual. There are many questions that must be answered and many details to be worked out.” At the same time, I think it is much simpler and much more conducive to the unity that “A Way Forward” seeks.
I invite those readers who find this approach persuasive or helpful to sign the linked petition that will go to The Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops.
John D. Copenhaver, Jr.is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. He is a member of the Virginia Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org