Well, it’s been an interesting few weeks in the United Methodist Church.
An all-out effort is in full force to draw attention to the desire of some within the church to change our long-held, oft-debated policies on same-sex marriage and inclusion of practicing homosexuals in the whole life of the church. Other Protestant Churches in our nation have changed their policies and so, the thinking is, the United Methodist Church should “evolve” in like manner.
Yet there is still a strong element within the church that refuses to budge on this contemporary plaint. The conservative viewpoint is often portrayed as fundamentalist or evangelical. In reality, this group is composed of a lot of people who could be described as “middle America.” They are often characterized as intellectually challenged and bigoted by their opponents, but the truth is they are people of faith who are trying to be faithful to how they see the world. And so far, they have the lead in the voting process (along with a powerful voting block from African continental churches).
As state after state has begun to legalize same-sex unions, and as the Supreme Court has ruled against governmental laws that have been pronounced “discriminatory,” the public opinion polls have leaned toward more acceptance of homosexual persons and relationships. This public pressure has had an important role in the “acts of disobedience” that have been staged in certain isolated areas of the United Methodist Church. A retired bishop and a retired seminary professor have very publically officiated at same-sex union ceremonies. Around 50 clergy co-officiated at such a ceremony in Pennsylvania, and a Church Trial is scheduled to begin Monday in that same area, for a pastor who officiated at his own son’s same-sex union.
These acts have done what they were designed to do, they’ve stirred the emotions of people on all sides of the debates, and drawn public ire upon the church and its leaders. But it has not changed the church’s policies. Those policies are changeable only at General Conference, and that global group meets only once in four years. The next one is scheduled for 2016.
The debate is seen as the Civil Rights issue of our time by proponents of change. They think it is the only fair and just way to show the homosexual population that the church understands them and that they are welcome to be included in the church’s life and ministry. Their complaint is centered on the way the prohibition against homosexuality is written in the discipline, which they call “exclusive.” The language reads: “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The offense taken at those words continues to fuel the response of “acts of disobedience” by the groups trying to change the church’s policy. They are buoyed by the leadership of retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who has actively suggested people who want change should act as though the denomination’s Book of Discipline already says what they want it to say. This has infuriated many within the church, and drawn the retired bishop into a formal complaint process by another bishop.
Proponents of the status quo hold the authority of scripture as their rallying cry, along with the discipline of the church as their fortress against change. For many of the traditionalists, the issue isn’t about homosexuality but about upholding the truth of the Bible as the primary source for policy and practice in the church. With the power of majority rule, as the church’s constitution defines it, traditionalists argue a version of “hate the sin but love the sinner.” They are carefully stating their love of people who are homosexual while trying to defend the sanctity of traditional, heterosexual marriage. Conservative groups within the church are actively lobbying for church officials to use the church’s complaint process to halt further efforts to erode what they believe is a faithful, biblically formed policy.
In the meanwhile, persons from both sides of the debate continue to emote and threaten to dismantle the church if anything doesn’t go their way. It seems if agreement isn’t reached or emotion doesn’t die down, a split is imminent.
It will be interesting to see how the church navigates these very turbulent waters, at a time when Christianity in the US is diminishing daily, and the United Methodist Church continues to head towards the “death tsunami” statisticians are declaring is coming. If you respect anything the United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have done since 1784, pray for the church now. Pray that the church will be faithful in this moment, and that there will be a way found to be true to God’s will while practicing God’s love. Pray that the mission of the church will be strengthened in spite of disagreement.
The Church of England has a prayer for Unity in the Church. After you read it, pray your own prayer for the United Methodist Church:
O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace:
give us grace seriously to lay to heart
the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.
Take away all hatred and prejudice,
and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord;
that, as there is but one body and one Spirit,
one hope of our calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of us all,
so we may henceforth be all of one heart and of one soul,
united in one holy bond of peace, of faith and charity,
and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Council of Bishops takes action following same-gender ceremony (bishopbillmcalilly.com)
- Daily Talker: Minister Faces Church Trial Over Gay Marriage Ceremony (boston.cbslocal.com)
- Methodist bishops asked to charge one of their own for performing gay wedding (religionnews.com)
- BREAKING: United Methodist Council of Bishops Calls for Charges Against Mel Talbert (juicyecumenism.com)
- Press Release: United Methodist Bishops Call for Charges against Bishop who Conducted Same-Sex Marriage (juicyecumenism.com)
- How Africans are saving the United Methodist Church (wolfsheep2.wordpress.com)
- Gay marriage debate threatens to splinter the United Methodist Church (pennlive.com)
- Eastern Pennsylvania UMC Evangelicals Respond to Mass Covenant Breaking (juicyecumenism.com)