by Chris Ritter
Did you feel that? The conversation about sexuality in the United Methodist Church just shifted. Phrases like “openness”, “inclusion”, “diversity”, and “staying at the table together” are quickly giving way, in one sector of our church, to a stance of no-compromise with those who read the scriptures differently than their accepted fundamental view. And this shift is happening on the left. Those who will feel the squeeze, however, are those in the center. Simply put, the middle ground in our denomination is eroding before our eyes.
Two examples over the weekend illustrate this.
One was the public abandonment of the moderate position by Dr. Steve Harper, professor emeritus of Asbury Seminary. Harper was recently welcomed to the middle with great fanfare as Abingdon published For the Sake of the Bride. The book argued for the church staying at the same table, maintaining unity, being non-judgmental, and creating more room for clergy to follow their individual conscience on matters related to homosexuality. Harper opened the door to the possibility that, despite the traditional reading of the scriptures, new paradigms might be opening that would take time and much conversation to fully understand. Here was a figure associated with the traditionalist side of our denomination that moved to the middle in order to call the church to greater unity.
That didn’t last long.
On Saturday Harper was a featured speaker at Reconciling Ministry Network’s “Draw the Circle Wider” event in Orlando. During his 45-minute speech, he outlined his process of full conversion on homosexual practice in the church and threw down a gauntlet to those he might have agreed with only a couple years earlier. He strongly endorsed gay marriage in the church and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. He framed those of contrary opinion as on the wrong side of righteousness and promised to not be silent until the whole church changes.
Not only are people like Harper finding the middle ground untenable, but Progressives are actively seeking to expedite the centrist collapse. On Friday Jeremy Smith of Hacking Christianity likened those with a traditional view of scripture to those who deny the reality of climate change. They are no longer entitled to their opinions because they are negatively affecting the whole church and hurting others. They are “church betrayers.” Judases, if you will. The shift in language from Common Table to Crusade is hard to miss. Jeremy and those like him don’t want to be in a church with diverse opinions on the matters of homosexuality. They want to root out the Judases, enforce uniformity of thought, and heal the perceived damage caused by traditionalists.
Once it is allowed that there might be a legitimate reading of the Christian scriptures that somehow permits homosexual practices in the life of the church, there is tremendous pressure exerted by our culture and its chaplains to accept only that reading. Never mind that the hermeneutical gymnastics needed for such an interpretation require multiple contorted leaps from the starting point of an established agenda (the very definition of eisegesis). Never mind the two thousand years of unanimous Christian thought about those texts. The exotic reading of the text must become the exclusive reading and all else abandoned in light of the new orthodoxy. I sometimes think that the most stressed person in our denomination right now must be Adam Hamilton. He has opened a door for a reading of scripture that allows for legitimacy of homosexual practice while not yet stating whether he would perform a same-sex wedding if allowed to do so. He will only feel the tightrope narrow under his feet. The victim of absolutism is moderation.
You will perhaps forgive those of traditionalist leanings for seriously questioning their place in a denomination with such dynamics running rampant. If they feel targeted now while upholding the official positions of our denomination, what might happen if those standards collapse? It is not delusional to foresee a program of ecclesial cleansing where traditionalists are viewed as the contaminant. Features of our connectional covenant like the appointive system and open itineracy could be uniquely destructive if weaponized.
The landscape is indeed bleak for those of us who continue to champion an institutionally united church. We must start by honestly acknowledging that two incompatible worldviews are at work within our denomination. Progressives assume that a church that is not welcoming to all has no future in an ever-diversifying world. Conservatives assume that a church that has lost its grasp on the plain teaching of scripture can only further lose its distinctive message and dissolve into the wider culture. Remaining Moderates realize that this debate is poisoning the atmosphere with distrust and preventing us from working together meaningfully on weightier issues of mission and ministry.
The structural solutions I have authored are aimed at creating space for divergent visions of the UMC to move forward under a compartmentalized tent. By re-imagining our jurisdictional system, we can create space in our church for experimentation instead of wasting precious time on fruitless crusades to convert ourselves to a single way of thinking. This will not satisfy the extremes at either end of our denomination but could create new and compelling laboratories for ministry. If, a decade or so hence, it becomes apparent that one side was misguided, they can shift to the other side of the tent and I am sure their repentance would be accepted. We are United Methodists, after all.
Although we are only fourteen months away from General Conference 2016, The Jurisdictional Solution remains the only major proposal for church unity that has released legislative language. It is time to either get serious about the Jurisdictional Solution or publish legislation for a better idea. The no-compromise approach increasingly espoused by the left will only lead us to an irreparable break.