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:
This may seem like a very long introduction to a blog post, but these provide the necessary background and the context. The United Methodist Church and The Catholic Church are not the only ones struggling with this issue. The Church of England and the Episcopal Church also have divided on this issue.
The essential question for many of these churches is whether they can retain organizational unity in the face of such wide diversity in beliefs that don’t conform to doctrine. These divisions are not going away anytime soon, and may in fact grow wider. The United Methodist Church has a philosophy of unity even within a very diverse population of differing ethnic, theological, and economic classes of a worldwide denomination.
In the United States, the Methodist Church split before the Civil War over the issue of slavery and was not reunited until 1939. In 1969 in the spirit of the ecumenical fervor of that age, the Methodist Church and the United Brethren Church merged to become the United Methodist Church. Over the course of 150 years several denominations have split off from the Methodist Church, such as the Church of the Nazarene. It is ironic that the Methodist Church in Britain (where we started) is not part of the worldwide communion. We’ve been through these battles before. The Northern and Southern Baptists Conventions never have reunited, but they are considered local congregational churches rather than unified churches with a clerical hierarchy.
The battle over homosexuality has increased the emphasis on doctrine, as specified in The Book of Discipline, as the most important covenant to some people. Within the Methodist Church the theological interpretation of the Bible varies as to whether it should be literal or not. The Methodist Church in the 18th Century grew via circuit-rider preachers who had no organized church. The 19th Century theology was very evangelical and grew through campground meetings in rural areas of the South rather than in churches. A lot of the preaching was about hellfire and damnation, but that has moderated in the 20th and 21st Centuries and some of the energy has been lost. If only we could regain some of that energy without the bluster and threats. Some within the church are still threatening the damnation of hell on the LGBT members, but the consequence of that has simply been to run them off. Most gays, lesbian, and transgender people I know are not part of any organized religion, but that is especially the case with the Methodist Church as other denominations have become more accepting.
The clash of the culture wars of the 1960’s has divided the nation as it has become more sectarian. The church risks becoming irrelevant to most people as we continue this internal bickering. If we have nothing to offer other than endless debates, then why join?
Those who proposed a third way suggest that we agree to disagree on some doctrinal issues for the sake of the unity and the life of the church. Some point to the growth of the Protestant Church is Africa and Asia and how those areas may soon have a majority of delegates. But when you start from close to zero, any incremental growth seems larger. Christianity is still a small minority in that part of the world with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism being the majority religions. Another issue is how to define the missional work of the church, where in many parts of the world Christianity is interpreted as a European religion that is not equal to their indigenous religions. The extreme poverty of much of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia requires as much effort in providing for basic human needs as much as converting souls. Much of that comes through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) but also through mission churches, schools, and hospitals funded by US churches.
The call for unity and/or compromise overlooks one significant fact. The call for acceptance of LGBT members is not just an issue of social justice. It is an issue of survival. Same-sex marriage and ordination are concerns of the church, but discrimination in employment, housing, public accomodations, and personal safety are concerns of the LGBT community that the church has ignored. Although most Methodists don’t call for the injury or murder of LGBT people as others do, the failure to acknowledge our complicity in those crimes by our silence doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility for the consequences of our inaction and judgment. Orlando was just the most egregious incident in a long parade of murders and suicides of LGBT people that occur every day in this country. Even a few more years of debate will only leave more blood on our hands.