The Raleigh Rant
Discern, Dialogue, Debate
The church has been discussing the issue of homosexuality for decades. This extended debate has caused some Protestant denominations to split, and the Methodists are struggling to prevent it. The 2016 General Conference enacted a special commission to seek "A Way Forward." The members of the commission recently were appointed and probably will meet in November about when the Council of Bishops will meet.
In a recent blog post for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt posted an opinion piece about "On LGBT issues, how can Christians disagree in a loving way?" He quotes from a book that summarizes a scientific study of the issue. The discussion was broader than just the theology of sin and same sex marriage in the church. Merritt is a frequent contributor to RNS and the Atlantic Magazine. The book he cites is only one of dozens on the subject. For more info on his blogging and books, see his web site: jonathanmerritt.com.
I also recently read a book "For the Sake of the Bride" by Steve Harper. He is a Methodist pastor who is still struggling with the issue in his own mind, and to me his book seemed weak in that his primary recommendation is to form a "roundtable" that sounds suspiciously similar to the commission. We've had a "Bishop's Unity Dialogue" in North Carolina for 14 years that has changed nothing in terms of policy and produced endless discussions with no compromise on either side. I have two more books in my Kindle list to read, but my intention here is not to provide a series of book reviews.
I raise the question of why the church, that is supposed to lead in loving kindness, has been so far behind business and government in reconciling the issue. Of course, several court cases had a lot to do with it. But they have moved on and discovered the benefits of banning discrimination in any form or category. It's bad for business, particularly in recruiting, and it's bad for government because it gets tied up in endless haggling over minor details and wording in laws and regulations.
The religious right sees it as an issue of defending church dogma based upon the interpretation of a few scriptures in the Bible, and the LGBT community sees it as an issue of social justice. If they can be legally married or safe in their apartment or job, why can't they be safe in church? For thousands of years, the church has been a place of refuge.
Well, LGBT people are welcome as long as you don't try to serve in any official capacity or agree to remain celibate. The most unfortunate consequence of this lengthy debate over dogma has been not only the hurt and pain it has caused for those LGBT folks excluded from full participation in the church, but the fact that many straight people consider the church irrelevant because it is preoccupied with internal issues rather than serving the world.
A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand
Lincoln used this phrase in a speech preceding the Civil War. We’re not quite to the point of a civil war, but our nation certainly is divided. I cannot recall a period when we have been so polarized over social, economic, environmental, religious, and political issues. We’ve been bombarded with political diatribes and ads for almost a year to where I’ve almost reached the point of mental and emotional exhaustion.
The United Methodist Church has been divided over one social issue for 40 years that is threatening to tear apart the denomination. In fact, some are suggesting a secession as the only solution. The arguments have become more than a distraction; the debate over dogma has created a climate of hostility that is as angry as our political debates. Some have called for compromise, but none have been able to define what that might be.
The election of a lesbian bishop recently will be a spark at the next meeting of the Council of Bishops that may blow up the whole debate and finally create an administrative division of the no-longer United Methodist Church. When, where, and how this new division may take place remains to be seen, but it appears to be increasingly inevitable. The calls for Christian Unity ring hollow as they simply cover up an attitude of maintaining the status quo, which is unacceptable to all sides.
Dialogue, discernment, and delay to many appear to be simply political stall tactics preventing any change either in attitude or beliefs. We are at a point where our differences seem irreconcilable. Now the discussion has moved on to how to divide the power, the properties, and the apportionments.
The issue of transgender and gender identity within the past year have reached a crisis point here in North Carolina that has had national repercussions. It may, or may not be resolved at the November election, but the debate already has had devastating consequences for the state. Let’s hope that the debate within the church over sexuality will not have similar consequences for the United Methodist Church. It is no longer an issue of interpretation of a few scriptures of the Bible nor about obedience to the covenant of the Book of Discipline. The church already has broken that covenant with the lie of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” We’re about as hostile and unwelcoming as it can get.
The United Methodist Church already is an outlier compared with other mainstream Protestant denominations, some of which have split. We may face the disaster of being perceived as irrelevant in the lives of most people. They simply are leaving any form of organized religion. We are a secular nation that professes to be Christian but does not practice the principles of Christianity.
Yes, we have some non-denominational mega-churches formed around the personality of a particular preacher, but we’ve seen what happened to that type of organization with the collapse of the Crystal Cathedral in recent years. Surely the churches will change in form and structure as society makes new demands for services, just as it has done with the schools. We must become in mission, not only to those in far-away lands. Faith, hope, and love are the answers to the problems we face if only we have to courage to live them out in our personal lives as well as within the structure we call the church. If we continue to focus only on that which divides us, we never will find solutions.
This term is used often to describe the U.S. Congress. Because of the divisive partisan politics, they have been unable to take action even on issues in which there is common agreement. The popular view of the Congress as dysfunctional has resulted in an attitude that all aspects of government are corrupt, inefficient, and stuck in the status quo to maintain access only by the privileged few. Recent controversial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have produced backlashes in state houses with reactive legislation, that in many cases have been over-ruled. As a result, the nation has become even more divided with protests, counter-protests, and random acts of violence.
Among the oldest protest movements was the Protestant Revolution. This “protest-ant” against the Roman Catholic Church challenged the status quo in which the clergy ruled with an iron hand, and the laity was shut out. In the centuries since then, the Protestants have splintered into dozens of denominations. Even the old mainline denominations: The Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians have divided over various issues. The Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery and took 80 years to re-unite. The United Methodist Church now threatens to divide again. A narrow majority want to maintain the status quo on doctrine as defined in The Book of Discipline. They have been arguing about one issue for more than 40 years.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
This spring The General Assembly of North Carolina passed a discriminatory law known as HB-2 that was directed at LGBT, especially transgender people. The rationale for the abrupt passage and signature, with no debate or discussion, was that it was a matter of public safety and quickly was tagged “the bathroom bill.” It was much broader than that and provoked not only demonstrations and condemnations across a broad spectrum of businesses, churches and organizations, but it also had an immediate and serious economic impact. Despite the fact that the reputation of the state had been severely damaged, the General Assembly refused to repeal the legislation so now it is headed into several lawsuits and countersuits.
Although the intent of the law clearly was to appeal to the radical right wing of the Republican Party in North Carolina that is largely rural, the effect of the law was to explode into a national debate on transgender issues. For an almost invisible minority even within the LGBT community, the mainstream media has devoted extensive coverage not only to the law but also to basic transgender issues. Of course, Caitlyn Jenner earlier had broken the silence with widespread coverage in the gossip magazines and cable channels, but that coverage was relatively limited in spite of her continuing self-promotion. Ordinary transgender people are news now, and profiles, features and human-interest stories appear in a wide variety of print and electronic media. Unwittingly, the General Assembly brought transgender issues out of the closet.
After the U.S. Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage last year, the backlash has taken the form of 100+ anti-LGBT laws in 22 states. Some are promoted as religious freedom, i.e. they allow people to ignore or opt out of anti-discrimination laws because of their religious beliefs. These state legislatures have taken a variety of approaches in passing laws that discriminate against LGBT people. A handful of US states and cities have passed laws or ordinances to protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. North Carolina was the first to focus on transgender people’s use of public bathrooms. That strategy came out of a successful referendum in Houston that overturned a protective ordinance. The North Carolina law is the subject of four lawsuits in federal court; two on each side. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against North Carolina for violation of the Civil Rights Act and has threatened to withhold federal funding until a decision is settled in court.
The Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would add sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity as protected classes to existing laws has been lingering in Congress for 20 years. It appears that protection for LGBT people against discrimination is going to end up in the courts and may eventually find its way to the Supreme Court. No one is speculating if that may move as quickly (about 5 years) as the same-sex marriage cases did.
The legislative body of the United Methodist Church, the General Conference, once again dodged LGBT issues, and this time established a special commission with the members to be appointed by the Council of Bishops. The rationale is that the Book of Discipline (official church doctrine) forbids same-sex practices even though it is written and approved by the General Conference. Therefore they have the power (but not the votes) to change it. Although same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, the General Conference has refused to allow it. Several other mainline Protestant Churches have accepted LGBT people to be ordained in the clergy, but the United Methodist Church either refuses to ordain them or brings them to trial if they publicly acknowledge their homosexuality. The trials are held at the discretion of the local bishop of the applicable Annual Conference and may result in withdrawing credentials (licenses) to preach. Therefore many Methodist ministers have left to join other denominations.
The United Methodist Church is bogged down in the political maneuvering over dogma the same way the politicians at both the federal and state level are choosing to use LGBT discrimination laws as a wedge issue for political pandering. Those who are non-affirming claim they only are protecting orthodox religious beliefs, but that also was true about slavery. Progress in civil rights in the U.S. has come slowly over a period of many decades, and that appears to be the case for many LGBT issues.
The following opinion piece appeared in the Toronto Star on June 22 about the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality:
The following 28-minute video appeared on the Facebook page of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is a summary report by the clergy and lay delegates to General Conference and offers a rationale for the recommendation by the Council of Bishops to form a study commission on homosexuality and to report to a special called session in 2018 of the General Conference.
The article and the video summarize the controversy in the Christian Church over the issue of homosexuality. Both point to the fact that both clergy and laypersons are challenging the traditional dogma and doctrine of the church. In the case of the United Methodist Church, our doctrine is spelled out in The Book of Discipline. This was changed in 1972, and wording was added to establish a position about homosexuality. We’ve been arguing about it at every General Conference since then (held every four years.) This long argument over doctrine has weakened the vitality of the church and has taken energy from its primary mission of spreading the good news.
The General Conference is the legislative body; the various commissions, secretariats and Council of Bishops make up the executive branch; and the Judicial Council serves as the final authority on legal matters.
The report from the delegates of the Virginia Conference offered an inside look from the General Conference. It categorized the differences into four positions on same-sex marriage and ordination and noted the decline in membership in the American church. The result of the meeting in Portland was the appointment of a commission to make recommendations on how to preserve the unity and the vision of the church. The journalist who reported for the online edition of The Atlantic predicted a schism: