Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two respected United Methodist mega-church pastors, are the first two signatories on a proposal that suggests the way to neutralize an impending denominational split is to push the issue of homosexuality down to the congregational level. To be released this week, the statement (printed below) suggests that each local church, upon demand from the membership, enter into their own discernment process related to celebrating same-sex weddings. It is further recommended that each annual conference do the same with the question of whether practicing homosexuals be ordained. The proposal admits to being “merely conceptual” and leaving many questions to be answered, but it also claims to represent the best opportunity to address the challenges facing the church and preventing a split.
“A Way Forward” offers what is quickly becoming the standard cocktail of justifications for changing our current stance on homosexuality. The deleterious effects of schism are enumerated and combined with anxiety-eliciting warnings about our future. Young people will not be reached by a church, we are told, that adheres to the classic understanding of the New Testament teaching on human sexuality. It also cites the changing opinions in our nation about same-sex marriage.
Hamilton and Slaughter have worked together before to carve out what they see as middle ground on the denomination’s most divisive issue. During General Conference 2012, a proposal they put forth would have added language to The Discipline about the church “not being of one mind” on the issue. It was defeated and this latest proposal, I believe, is deserving of the same fate. Here are four reasons why:
- The proposal doesn’t solve anything. While admitting that “the question of homosexuality is virtually irresolvable at General Conference”, everything proposed would need to be enacted by General Conference if we are going to live together as a denomination. The proposal requires massive disciplinary changes. These revisions would need to pass through committees, be enacted by the body, reviewed by the Judicial Council, and, if constitutional questions are in play, be ratified by the annual conferences. It is difficult to see how this simplifies the road ahead.
- The proposal put the ball in the wrong court. The issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice in the church really evidences itself in the work of the clergy rather than their congregations. If a church votes to not allow same-sex unions, there is still nothing to prevent a clergy from conducting a service elsewhere. There is also nothing obligating their pastor to abide by congregational wishes. Elders are given carte blanche authority to preach, marry, bury, and celebrate the sacraments wherever they might be, as long they don’t interfere with the ministry of another elder. In all likelihood, there would be nothing to prevent a clergy from conducting a same-sex union even in the sanctuary of a local church that voted against it. Paragraph 2533 prevents local church Boards of Trustees from interfering in religious services that their pastor deems appropriate. If the restrictions are taken off the pastors from above, the local church will be helpless in preventing something they deem as incompatible with Christian teaching.
- The proposal divides the church into ill-defined rosters. Open Itinerancy is set aside. In appointment making, each church is to receive any pastor sent to it, trusting that all pastors have been reviewed for fitness by the Board of Ordained ministry and/or Cabinet (Par. 430). The proposal calls for cabinets to keep two lists of churches: those who will accept a gay pastor and accept same-sex weddings, and those who will not. It is not at all apparent that a church ready to allow a same-sex wedding would likewise accept an openly gay pastor. The number of lists needed quickly begins to multiply. If the cabinet is working from separate lists of clergy and churches in appointment-making, how can we say we have retained meaningful unity?
- It calls for unilateral disarmament of the opposition. The proposal is just another way of saying that, now, Boards of Ordained Ministry can ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals if they wish and pastors can conduct homosexual unions. I fail to see how this is any sort of compromise. Homosexual practice will be welcome in the church and those last pockets of resistance can be targeted for change. It goes without saying that unity can be achieved by one side offering unconditional surrender, but let’s not call that a compromise. We can more easily achieve unity by everyone abiding by the current language of The Discipline. In fact, I suggest we do that.
What, alternatively, is a way forward?
We need to first acknowledge that each side of the debate sees sin at work in the opposing view. The progressives feel that the traditionalists are embroiled in the sin of prejudice. The traditionalists feel that the progressives are accommodating to the sexual sin in our culture. To use the scriptural metaphor, sin is yeast that must be checked or it will work its way through the whole (Matthew 16, 1 Corinthians 5). Like slavery in the 19th Century, efforts at partially quarantining sin in an effort to retain unity are futile. One worldview is going to win, one is going to lose, or a division will take place. We should take Jesus seriously when he says that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
Second, when reading the subtext of “A Way Forward” it is clear that even those striving for unity admit we are going to end up with two types of churches and pastors: those that affirm homosexual practice as a gift and those who view it as a departure from God’s intended design. Since these two types are never going to be able to be in full connection with each other, why don’t we shift the conversation to how two connections can cooperate with each other on key issues like world missions and clergy support?
Third, we might look to the existing fault lines in our church to find a way to amicably divide. Anyone who thinks that the denomination became fully united in 1968 is no student of history. Jurisdictions were created to protect regional interests and insure that one section of the church did not elect all the bishops. Some in the South wanted assurances that no “Yankee bishops” would be sent their way. We might use vestiges of the present system to create two non-geographic U.S. Jurisdictions that would function in much the same way as our Central Conferences. We could begin to see ourselves as two U.S. connections of clergy and congregations that are confederated for the support of global missions and clergy benefits. Ordination standards and social principles could be pushed to the jurisdictional levels and new overlapping conference boundaries could be established.
Like “A Way Forward” and all other proposals being floated, mine is likewise preliminary, conceptual, and impossible to implement painlessly. I am an admitted novice to denominational politics, but I expected a more serious proposal from the elite group that added their signatures to the document below. What do you think?
A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church
We stand at a crossroads in the United Methodist Church. The ongoing debate over homosexuality continues to divide us. One side believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality are like scriptures related to the subordination of women, violence or the acceptance and regulation of slavery, reflecting the values of the times in which the scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.
Every four years United Methodists meet for General Conference, devoting much time and energy to the debate over homosexuality. We leave General Conference more divided than ever. Some, believing the current policies of our denomination regarding homosexuals are unjust and do not reflect God’s will, call for a reversal of the language in the Book of Discipline restricting the rights of gay and lesbian people to marry or be ordained. Others suggest that if this were ever to happen, they would have no choice but to leave the denomination.
Some, in frustration with the current impasse, are now violating the Discipline and officiating at weddings for homosexuals. Others, frustrated that the Discipline is being flouted, are now calling for the formal division of the United Methodist Church into two denominations: one that holds that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and which forbids the marriage of homosexual people and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. The other, presumably, would embrace homosexual marriage and ordination.
We, the undersigned, believe the division of the United Methodist Church over this issue would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to all of our churches, and not in keeping with God’s will.
While some on either side of this issue see only two sides in the debate, a vast majority of our churches are divided on this issue. United Methodists have gay and lesbian children, friends, co-workers and neighbors. A large number of our churches have gay and lesbian members. Our members, like the broader society, are not of one mind on the issue of ordination or marriage for gay and lesbian people, and many find themselves confused about bisexuality and those who are transgender. Most of our churches, regardless of the dominant view of the issue in their congregation, stand to lose members if The United Methodist Church divides into two churches over homosexuality.
We believe the decision to divide the church over homosexuality would be shortsighted. Views on this issue in our society are rapidly changing, yet are far from settled. The February 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 54% of Americans now favor the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, up from 31% just ten years ago. Among young adults, support for gay marriage is now at 66%.1 The church does not determine Christian ethics by looking at poll numbers. But, the poll numbers tell us that the people we are trying to reach, and the people in our pews, are divided and shifting on this issue. To form a new denomination primarily based upon opposition to homosexuality would
negatively impact that Church’s ministry with 54% of the population, and two-thirds of young adults. Further, a significant majority of young clergy in the United Methodist Church hold a more progressive view on homosexuality. A denomination formed largely due to its opposition to homosexuality may find its ministry to younger adults increasingly difficult in the decades ahead.
We believe that the question of homosexuality is virtually irresolvable at General Conference. Maintaining our current position will force progressives to continue to violate the Discipline as a matter of conscience. Reversing the position at General Conference would force hundreds of thousands of our conservative members to leave the denomination as a matter of conscience, with devastating consequences to many of our churches, and in turn, to our shared mission and ministry together. We believe there is a better way forward than the current impasse or the division of the United Methodist Church.
Paragraphs 201-204 of The Book of Discipline note that the local church is the “most significant arena through which disciple making occurs.” It is “primarily at the level of the local charge…that the church encounters the world,” and “the local church is a strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society.” Further, it states that, “Each local church shall have a definite evangelistic, nurture and witness responsibility for its members and the surrounding area…it shall be responsible for ministering to all its members.”
In recent years the General Conference, through the Discipline, has given increasing permission for local churches to organize in ways that are most helpful to the congregation. Further, local churches already determine their own strategies and plans for making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This leads us to the following suggestion for how we move forward as a denomination:
We propose that the United Methodist Church entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.
Under this plan the current position of the Discipline would become the position of each local church, but a local congregation, at the request of the senior pastor and with a supermajority vote of the members of the congregation and only after a process of prayer, study and discernment, could determine their own position. Churches could vote to adopt a more inclusive policy allowing for homosexuals to be married in their churches and welcoming gay and lesbian clergy. Conversely, they might take the position that their members are “not of one mind” on this issue and therefore postpone any decision until they gained greater clarity on the issue. Doing nothing would mean that they affirm the current disciplinary language. Traditionalist churches around the world would retain the current language in their local congregations. Strongly progressive churches could adopt more inclusive language and practices.
Regarding ordination, in keeping with the current provisions in the Book of Discipline empowering Boards of Ordained Ministry to review candidates for ordination, we suggest that annual conferences be permitted to determine whether they will or will not ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals while allowing local churches to determine if they would or would not be willing to receive gay and lesbian clergy. In conferences where the ordination of gay and lesbian people was allowed, they would be
held to the same standard heterosexual clergy are held to: fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.
This proposal is, at this point, merely conceptual. There are many questions that must be answered and many details to be worked out. A study team will be working on legislation required to implement this policy. But we believe this concept gives us the best opportunity to address one of the most challenging issues the church faces today, and to do so in a way that honors each local church and reduces the harm that will inevitably come from either dividing the United Methodist Church, or continuing to force all churches to conform to one interpretation of scripture regarding the issue of homosexuality.
What Unites Us as United Methodists
United Methodist congregations already hold different views on how to interpret the scriptures related to homosexuality. They also have different ways of being in ministry with gay and lesbian people. What makes us United Methodists is not our position on homosexuality, but a core set of theological, missional and ministry convictions.
To be United Methodist is to believe, follow and serve Jesus Christ. It is to hold together a passionate and personal evangelical gospel and a serious and sacrificial social gospel. It is to hold together a deep and wide understanding of grace and a call to holiness of heart and life. It is to hold together a faith that speaks to the intellect and a faith that warms the heart. To be United Methodist is to be a people who study and seek to live scripture and who read it with the help of tradition, experience and reason. To be United Methodist is to invite the Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives to the end that we might love God with all that is within us and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
United Methodists believe that God’s grace is available to all, not only a predestined “elect.” We believe that God brings good from evil, but we don’t believe that God causes evil. We believe that it’s okay to ask questions and that we’re not meant to check our brains at the door of the church. We find helpful those guidelines we call the General Rules: Refrain from evil, do all the good you can, and do those things which help you grow in love for God. The Covenant Prayer is for us a powerful reminder of what it means to call Jesus Christ Lord: “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what you will…”
United Methodists have at times been called people of the “radical center” or the “extreme center,” holding together the best of each side of the theological divide. It is this ability to hold together the important insights and perspectives of both the left and the right that is exemplified in a church that allows local congregations to hold varied scriptural interpretations on the issue of homosexuality.
We believe the world needs a vital United Methodist Church now more than ever. In an increasingly secular age, the world needs churches that can make an intellectually sound case for the gospel, proclaim a faith that touches the heart, and call Christians to action seeking to help our world look more like the kingdom of God. A vital United Methodism will remember its heritage and mission. It will be deeply devoted to Jesus Christ, and serious about its role as his body – in the world. If it will have a future, it must help gifted young adults to answer God’s call to full time Christian service. And it
must focus on both starting new congregations and working to revitalize existing congregations.
By moving the decision-making regarding homosexuality to the local church, we hope to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference. What we propose would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities. We will be bound together by what we share in common, rather than posturing to impose our will upon one another in areas where we are so deeply divided.
United Methodists have an approach to the gospel that 21st century people can and will respond to. Our hope is that United Methodists might be united around our common heritage and our theological and missional convictions, so that we might be used by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.