With all the nonsensical schism talk in the United Methodist Church, in the run-up to Annual Conference season – and an Annual Conference season when many Conferences are choosing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2016 – there has been a whole lot of push back against the Anonymous 80 and their silly claim that our United Methodist Covenant is already “broken” and therefore we should part “amicably”. Joel Watts has proposed what he calls “A Rough Plan for Anti-UMC Schism”. A poll commissioned by United Methodist Communications finds the issue of sexual minorities far down the list of concerns of the church members (I wrote about it here). The most publicized counter-proposal is called “A Way Forward”, and is endorsed by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two of our mega-star pastors. Good News has responded.
All the statements, proposals, counter-proposals, and what-not root themselves not in Scripture, or an accurate readings of our traditions and theological task, or experience as a denomination. Instead, all these proposals come from individuals and groups who have no official standing within the church, beyond those who are clergy in a relationship to an Annual Conference. Even then, they represent their congregations. There has been far too much talk about an alleged “middle”, to the point that one commentator is still looking for it. I think my favorite discussion of this issue, however, is by someone trying desperately to read political tea leaves in a way that makes him sound insightful. While I agree that we as a denomination are, indeed, being played yet again, with the Sword of Damocles called Schism held over our collective heads, there are other factors that make the threat far less real. Less a sword and more a butter knife, there are realities that make the demand for the .status quo untenable as well as schism neither an attractive option nor practically workable for most congregations. Leaving these realities out of the equation makes me wonder, again, about the alleged middle I keep reading about yet never actually see.
First, same-sex marriage is here to stay, spreading across the land state by state. More than half the population of the United States now live in jurisdictions where it is legal. Part of the reason for this is that most Americans just don’t care about sexual orientation. Oh, sure, there are pundits and preachers aplenty willing to make all sorts of horrid statements about sexual minorities (including our own Book of Discipline, that calls “homosexual activity . . . incompatible with Christian teaching.”). By and large, though, the majority of Americans just don’t care. The acceptance of sexual difference, like same-sex marriage, is also here to stay.
These two realities combine, in our particular case, with the public declaration of over 1,000 United Methodist clergy to defy church law and officiate at same-sex marriages (you can find this at the linked article, “By The Numbers”, above). And more and more clergy are coming forward publicly. Now, my good friend Joel Watts in particular is a stickler for clergy obeying church law. And that’s all well and good. Until that law becomes unenforceable. For example, our Bishop here in the Northern Illinois Conference, Sally Dyck, has made it clear there will be no trials of any clergy accused of officiating at a same-sex wedding. Rather, it will be handled administratively, much as the case in the New York Conference was handled. As a practical matter, the desire of the folks at Good News to toss out all the clergy even on record as willing to perform as same-sex marriage in untenable.
It also reflects broader social and cultural trends that the church needs to recognize, in its law and practice of ministry. None of these things are new, of course. I’ve written about them before. My point here, however, is the allegation that there are two extremes pushing opposing viewpoints that ignore some “middle” that is never actually identified, and certainly not represented, say, in the poll linked above and discussed earlier. The main concern of the United Methodist Church is being the church it is called to be. To reach out to new, particularly young, people; to do our mission and ministry as we are called to do. Worrying about the sexual status either of clergy or those to whom clergy minister isn’t a priority. The “middle”, then, is pretty clear.
As Annual Conference season draws to a close, the sheer number of affirmations of support for change demonstrates that this mythical “middle” just doesn’t exist. More important, these statements coming from across the connection are actual official statements, rather than anonymous declarations or proposals by pastors of large churches, or even the public declarations of thousands of clergy. The “middle”, in our church as in American politics, doesn’t exist, not because there aren’t those who vocalize some point-of-view that exists between two declared extremes. Rather, the middle doesn’t exist because it is both untenable and unworkable in practice. Either we are going to be a church for all, ministering to all, including all in the full life of the church, or we are going to allow a small and ever-shrinking minority insist we continue to discriminate against sexual minorities, against the express wishes of Annual Conferences, pastors, and the members of church congregations represented by the poll.