A Different Conversation
So the Council of Bishops have called for a special session of General Conference for 2019. The reason for the session will be to receive the report of the Committee On The Way Forward and act on its recommendations. Of course, we all know the matter of the future of the United Methodist Church as a coherent denomination will hang in the balance. All over the matter of human sexuality. Precisely because we as a people called Methodist have no idea how even to begin doing a theology of human sexuality, we have been trapped for 45 years discussing a couple sentences in our Book of Discipline, which manage to reduce human sexuality to acts of sexual contact, rejecting some while implicitly accepting others. That these sentences contradict the assertion of human sexuality as a good gift from a good God should be clear enough; absent any clear understanding of what, precisely, human sexuality is, what it entails, and how it fits in the larger order of salvation, we have gone around and around this particular dog track so many times and for so long the runners have disappeared into the deep hole we have all helped dig.
It’s no secret what I stand on this matter. So I found myself in the uncomfortable position last year, watching proceedings on the floor of General Conference via live stream, agreeing in principle with those most vocal in their insistence that the language be removed, some sort of apology offered to those effected by the language, and we move forward affirming all persons and their place in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, however, I was also quite tired of their speech-making, their constant demands to be heard, their attempts to bully whoever might be the presiding Bishop, and their smug assurance that their own righteousness and the correctness of their position (with which I wholeheartedly agree!) would be enough to sway people voting on legislation. It was clear, however, from the very start this relatively small yet loud group had not done the one thing necessary in a political climate: they had organized no groups to side with them. In politics it is never about being right. It is always about power. In this case, what were these folks bringing to the table other than their sense of moral correctness?
They didn’t bring anything at all.
Meanwhile, the far right of the denomination was well-organized, working with delegations from African Conferences and others to block any attempt not only to change the language of the Discipline, but to alter the procedural method by which the Conference could arrive at some kind of consensus. Many people (including me) found it far too close to overstepping certain ethical boundaries, that Good News should not have been hosting these delegates, offering only a singular perspective on these important matters. All the same, it showed that while Good News, the Confessing Movement, and other such groups affiliated with our Church might well be bad at theology, they are most excellent at organizing. Looking at the final vote tallies regarding matters surrounding the removal of the questionable language from the Discipline, had General Conference only been an American affair, the language would have been removed. By wooing the delegates from the African Conferences, however, Good News managed to block any such change.
So, perhaps, rather than ask the same question – Should the language regarding the incompatibility of “the practice of homosexuality” and Christian teaching be removed from the Discipline? – perhaps because we know what the answer’s going to be, we should be asking a completely different question. That question should center on the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church; on the Biblical and Wesleyan mandate to preach, to baptize, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to work for the transformation of the world. Since we have never settled on the matter of what, exactly, constitutes “homosexual practice”, how it does or does not violate Christian teaching, or anything else pertaining to the place of human sexuality in the life of the disciple, we perhaps should be asking about how we move forward together, differing in our opinions regarding matters of human sexuality, yet unified in our mission to transform the world through making disciples. Perhaps we should accept the reality that we shall never, indeed, be of one mind regarding questions of human sexuality, and that as such they should be set to one side while we focus on moving forward together.
My experience as a United Methodist, particularly as a clergy spouse, is the matter is far less urgent among our church members. By and large matters of human sexuality in general and matters surrounding sexual minorities in particular are difficult ones about which to speak. I have heard from more than one lay person in more than one area of the country voice the opinion they would far rather the issues just go away. They don’t see it directly impacting their faith lives or the mission and ministry of their local church. Now many would put this down to a preference to avoid difficult matters for those about which discussion and consensus are far easier; that such a preference is passive-aggressive, avoiding tough matters.
Perhaps, however, we should listen to these voices. People want to talk about how their church is fulfilling its mission, both locally and within the connection. People want to share their stories, not talk in the abstract about what other people do largely within the privacy of their lives outside the work of the church. Even when the question is less abstract, such as a congregation member answering a call to ministry, seeking the endorsement of the local church through the charge conference, and matters of sexuality suddenly intrude themselves into the process (as it now seems the Judicial Council demands we do), I believe most churches would insist that regardless of their feelings on the matter, the question of suitability, of the reality of the presence of a real call, their support of this or that individual would not rest upon matters of the person’s sexuality. Certainly if the person before the charge conference was otherwise morally reprobate, perhaps including abusing the gift of sexuality in ways that have nothing to do with whether than person is straight, gay or bisexual, these are matters that need to be addressed with seriousness. If, however, a persons seeks endorsement as a candidate for ordained ministry, their life and actions demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit, whether than person were or were not straight might well carry very little weight in the eyes of the local charge conference.
Which is why, I believe, it is important to change the conversation. There are those voices that are insistent, demanding, uncompromising, going around and around the language of the Discipline without regard to anything else the Church is supposed to be about. They shall always be with us. Which is precisely why we need to listen to other voices, ask other questions, and perhaps move forward together in one heart if not one mind. Our conversation long ago ceased to have any meaning, to exclude all but those most firmly committed to one extreme or another. That is why I think we might yet have the opportunity to salvage something from our current wreckage, becoming again the people called Methodist, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.