A year ago, with input from others, I wrote a blog post called, A Way Forward for a United Methodism?. In it we offered suggestions for how the United Methodist Church might move forward as it relates to the divide over homosexuality. It was written in response to some who were discussing dividing the denomination. It was written in consultation with evangelicals, moderates and progressives across the country. Over 2,000 pastors and hundreds of laity signed the document that you can read here.
In the year since, there have been a host of other proposals that have surfaced as a way of moving our denomination beyond the impasse over same-gender relationships. I’ve been in dozens of conversations with various groups listening and looking for what might be a better way forward. I’ve yet to see a proposal that would seem to have a reasonable chance of passing at General Conference.
My assumptions about any proposed changes at General Conference include the following:
- The more complicated the change, the less likely it will pass.
- The more places in the Discipline that must be changed, the less likely it will pass.
- The more radical the change, the less likely that it will pass.
It also seems to me that conservatives are underestimating the number of evangelicals, including many pastors of our largest churches, who have come to see this issue differently in the last few years. Their changing understanding does not reflect a departure from theological orthodoxy or evangelical passion, nor does it reflect a reduced view of biblical authority. Instead these persons recognize the complexity of scripture and see the Bible’s teaching on same-gender relationships as similar to the Bible’s teaching on slavery, violence in the name of God, the role of women in the church and a host of other things found in the Bible but which we no longer believe reflect God’s will for us today.
It also seems to me that many of our progressives are underestimating the number of people in our denomination, and in most of our local churches, who are not ready to ordain persons in same-sex relationships, nor host same-sex marriages in their churches. In most United Methodist churches there are a significant number of people who lean conservative on this issue. For conservatives the question of same-sex relationships is not about justice, but about faithfulness to Scripture, as they understand it. To completely reverse the denomination’s position, even if progressives and moderates had the votes, would mean a significant loss of membership and vitality in many local churches, and across the denomination.
Finding a way forward means we must see this issue through the eyes of the other. Progressives must see the issue through the eyes of earnest, thoughtful conservatives. Conservatives must see the issue through the eyes of earnest, thoughtful centrists and progressives. Even the terms we use to describe our own position might need to change. It is possible to be conservative on this issue, and still love justice and inclusivity. It is also possible to be progressive on this issue and still be theologically orthodox and passionately evangelical.
I continue to believe that the best way forward is to allow United Methodist pastors to determine who they will and will not marry, while allowing local churches to determine their own wedding policies as it relates to the usage of their building. This is currently how things are done for heterosexual marriages. Pastors meet with couples and determine whether they will or will not officiate, and local churches develop wedding policies for the use of their buildings.
Under this scenario the current language of the Discipline regarding homosexuality and same-sex weddings would become the “historic position” of the United Methodist Church and the default policy of each local church regarding same-sex marriage. The Discipline would allow local churches to adopt a more permissive policy towards same-sex marriage. Only churches that felt compelled to change the default position would take a vote. Conservative churches would continue as they are. Moderates might spend several years in conversation before deciding whether to make a change to the default position. Progressives would vote right away to adopt a different policy. Likewise, while a pastor would be bound by the local church’s policies for weddings within the walls of the church, each pastor would determine who they would and would not marry outside of the walls of their local church.
I believe we can trust local churches to make this decision. Some have suggested that allowing local churches to make this decision will be the end of connectionalism and will signal that we have adopted a congregational polity. But it is not our position on homosexuality that makes us a connectional church; rather, it is our shared ministry, our shared doctrinal standards, our appointive process, our episcopacy, and our trust clause that are the hallmarks of our connectionalism.
If the General Conference (or under some proposals the Annual Conference) continues to adopt a one-size-fits-all policy forced upon local churches and pastors we can anticipate that this issue will continue to be our focus for the next twenty years, with continuing conflict year after year.
Regarding ordination, decisions are largely made at the Annual Conference level. Let’s let annual conferences make decisions regarding the ordination of married homosexual* candidates for ministry. Conservative conferences will not ordain married homosexuals. Progressive conferences will ordain such persons. Moderate conferences may come up with creative new solutions. These solutions are more likely to be developed at an annual conference than during the two weeks of General Conference meeting once every four years. Again, it seems that trying to create a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire denomination does not take into account the vast differences in different regions across the denomination.
We are a denomination divided over how we interpret the scriptures regarding same-sex relationships; most of our congregations are also divided. Any possible solution must allow room for differences of opinion. What seems clear to me is that a viable long-term strategy cannot be found in a one-sized-fits-all policy imposed upon every church in every region and nation by the 800 delegates to the next General Conference.
*I mention married homosexuals as opposed to “practicing” homosexuals as the Discipline calls for celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.