The UMC’s One Church Plan: Pragmatic Grace

The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops recently released a report after the progress of the Commission on a Way Forward, detailing three potential plans for the United Methodist Church regarding sexuality issues and recommending that one of those plans be adopted.

If you’re not part of the UMC, you may not be aware of what all this means; I’ll summarize briefly, and you should feel free to skip down some if this is all old hat. The United Methodist Church polity is governed by the Book of Discipline–essentially our canon law. The BoD describes our core theological beliefs, our social principles and devotes a great amount of time and space to the labyrinthine workings of the Church as a whole, from the governance of churches at the local level to the election of bishops to the various conferences and the operation of the Judicial Council for handling complaints agaisnt clergy for violations of the Discipline.

Prior to 1972, the UMC Book of Discipline contained the phrase, “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.” The UMC General Conference of 1972 initiated an unfortunate period of oppression of and prejudice toward the LGBTQ community. (As an aside: I understand that the language about homosexuality in Book of Discipline does not truly address the full spectrum of persons, identities and orientations that are included within the LGBTQ moniker, but for practical purposes, I think that we can treat it as intending to do so). That conference saw the addition of the language, “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching…”

If that condemnation were not bad enough, in the 1976 General Conference, despite an attempt by some delegates to remove the 1972 language, the conference passed three measures to ban the use of church funds to “promote homosexuality,” whatever that means, and added to the Social Principles the statement, “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage.”

In 1980, conservative delegates attempted to add the language “no self-avowed practicing homosexual therefore shall be ordained or appointed in The United Methodist Church.” On a positive note, the language in the Social Principles regarding same-sex marriage was removed, but replaced by a statement that, “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant…between a man and a woman.”

Further insult and injury occurred at the 1984 General Conference, where the delegation passed a change adding language to the BoD that, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” Coincidentally, the 1984 General Conference also added language to show grace to divorced heterosexual persons, recognizing “divorce as regrettable” but also recognizing “the right of divorced persons to remarry.” Strange that there was a movement toward grace on one issue but not the other.

I think that it is more hurtful than helpful that th 1984 language allowed LGBTQ persons called to ministry in the Church to serve, but only if they renounced any chance for meaningful romantic relationship–a sacred gift from God to which all God’s children are entitled.

Since 1984, attempts have been made to remove, soften, or change the Book of Discipline’s statements about homosexuality. The history of the polity shows that, since 1972, there have been advocates for equal standing and treatment for homosexual persons (and the greater LGBTQ community) within the church–but they have remained a significant minority compared to conservatives.

As the Church remained mired in injust and ultimately unjustified traditions of the past, the world changed around us. As a matter of conscience, LGBTQ rights have become increasingly accepted in the world at large. C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” comes to mind here–when our conscience tells us that something is an injustice on a visceral level without the need for an application of logic, we might do well to consider that the movement of the Spirit within us (and for Lewis, this is evidence of God’s existence and active role in Creation).

Other churches (the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church) have already addressed the issue–though it has lead to much difficulty and even a congregational split in the Presbyterian polity.

The Northwest Conference of the (U.S. Jurisdiction of) the United Methodist Church elected an openly-gay Bishop in 2016, Karen Oliveto. Although the UMC Judicial Council ruled that her election was a violation of the Book of Disicpline, it wisely chose to allow her to remain in her episcopal seat.

Young Methodists who are informed of the Church’s official stance see it as backward and wrong, going so far as to wonder why it’s such a big deal in the first place. Many young pastors I know in the UMC are in favor of full inclusion within the Church, but many keep their feelings private either because they are commissioned but not yet fully-ordained or because they fear (perhaps rightly so) that being outspoken on this issue will hurt their future appointments or take away from their ability to minister to all of their congregants.

I also find that many of the conservative laypersons on this issue are generally conservative in their political and theological positions, often such that they would be extremely surprised and frustrated if they took the time to find out what the UMC’s official Social Principles say about things like immigration, the environment, and abortion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this issue has become (at least since I have been active as a delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, but most probably well before that) a proxy war for the larger theological issue of Biblical interpretation, with conservatives on the homosexuality issue generally having conservative theological positions that tout the phrase “authority of Scripture” as a buzzphrase for their more literal interpretation of the Bible while those who are more liberal on the homosexuality issue (myself included) tend to put forward arguments about the primacy of love in counterpoint to the conservative position.

Of course, nothing is so simple. The phrase “authority of Scripture” does not really mean anything without a lot of unpacking, and it’s grossly unfair to say that theological progressives have rejected the authority of Scripture, though their approach to its authority certainly differs from conservatives. Likewise, the question of what it means to “love your neighbor” as Christ commands is also so complex that it’s unfair to claim of conservatives that they do not have loving intentions in their position on homosexuality either (however misguided, ultimately wrong, and actually based in fear I may argue those intentions to be).

With respect to the issue of full inclusion (including the performance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons), the conflation of that argument with broader issues of theological hermeneutics is not helpful, but only further divides us.

We should certainly, I think, see the divisions on this issue as heavily influenced by the at-large divisiveness and demonization of those who disagree that currently grips this nation. As Christians, that’s exactly the sort of thing we should be rising above, but neither side of the debate has accomplished this.

This is the context into which the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced at the General Conference in 2016 that a Commission on a Way Forward would be formed to offer potential solutions to the divide in the UMC.

The amount of time that the Commission and the Council of Bishops have taken in preparing their recommendations, though absolutely justified given the gravity of the situation and the far-reaching consequences of any recommendation to the Church at large, has given the various interest groups time to maneuver without them. The Weslayan Covenant Association and its affiliates have prepared for an exodus from the Church if there is any change to the Book of Discipline except for stronger enforcement against LGBTQ persons and those ordained persons who do not fall into that category but who perform a same-sex marriage. Even since the Council of Bishops has released its summary of the three plans being sent to the special called General Conference in 2019, the WCA has threatened to “pick up its ball and go home” if it does not get its way (the “Traditional Model” included in the three plans).

While pushing all three plans to the delegates of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops has made clear that a majority of them support the One Church Model, even if they really would prefer a more conservative or progressive plan to be put in place.

Under the One Church Model, the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline–including the prohibitions on the performance of marriage for same-sex persons and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” would be removed. In its place, however, would be placed protections on those persons who, “as a matter of conscience” refuse to perform same-sex marriages or to ordain LGBTQ persons.

The idea of this model is to preserve unity wihin the UMC (to the extent possible) by allowing ministry to be conducted “contextually.” More simply put, it allows local congregations and pastors to decide their theological approach to issues of human sexuality and gender identity.

I am disappointed that this approach will–as I see it–allow discrimination to continue in the guise of “conscience.” When the Methodist Church changed the Book of Discipline to integrate people of color into the Church, or to allow for the ordination of women, this was done in the name of social justice and did not give room for certain parties to claim “conscience” and continue to discriminate. I believe that the current issue is more analagous to those than different.

However, I recognize that, at least in a limited sense (without making this a broader issue of proper Biblical interpretation or the practice of love), issues of human sexuality and gender identity are not core aspects of our faith–no particular position on the issue is required to be “a Christian.” That being the case, I would rather remain in communion with those with whom I disagree (where we can continue to share ideas in hopes of better aligining our doctrines and dogmas with God’s desires) than to divide from them. If this compromise is necessary to do that, I’m happy to make that compromise.

I do believe that the progressive side of this issue will win out and that, eventually, there will need be no more arguments about whether Christianity is “compatible” with homosexuality. I also think that this proposal, while not the giant leap I’d really prefer to see, helps to move us in that direction. Most of all, I think that the One Church Model demonstrates the kind of “pragmatic grace” that puts people ahead of ideologies, an approach Jesus Himself employed: we can tell one another to “go and sin no more,” but we’ll love one another regardless.

The other two plans (the Traditional Model and the Connectional-Conference Plan) will lead to a schism in the Church. I don’t believe that that is good for our witness or for our congregations. Only the One Church Plan allows for grace to be shown one side for the other in a way that actually does move us forward. And the world definitely needs more grace right now.

 

 

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