by Chris Ritter
Note: Response the first version of this post has been tremendous and for that I am humbled and grateful. The earlier version was a response to someone else’s blog. I offer this update which is designed to stand alone as a vision for the future of our beloved denomination. There is also some updated historical commentary. Thank you for reading and commenting.
A comparison is often made between the UMC’s present debate over the ordination and marriage of practicing homosexuals to earlier disputes in the church regarding the role of women and African Americans. Here we have, it is argued, another example of Moderates dragging their feet and Traditionalists their knuckles while passionate calls for social justice go unheeded. Should we not read the handwriting on the wall, skip the protracted period of delayed justice, and move now to fully include homosexual practice into the life of the church? As is often asked: “Why be on the wrong side of history?”
Before exploring the validity of the changes proposed, I would first take up the question of timing. This is not insignificant in a global body as large as The United Methodist Church. Quick changes are for people who travel alone, not together. Attempting to spin an aircraft carrier around at the same speed as a kayak would rip the hull Going from “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” to an open door for practicing homosexual clergy/bishops in a single General Conference would cause certain schism. One cannot simultaneously champion the institutional unity of the church and a complete reversal on our understanding of homosexual practice in 2016.
Another argument for a guarded pace is that Mainline Christianity has had more than its share of false visions and dead-end plans. Lewis Archer has documented how, in the early 20th Century, Methodist churches hosted events in support of eugenics, the idea that certain genetic traits should be selectively bred out of the human race. Bishop Francis McConnell, president of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, served on the Committee on the Cooperation with the Clergymen for the American Eugenics Society. The Methodist Review published “Eugenics: A Lay Sermon” by George Huntington Donaldson in 1929 in which it was argued that “the strongest and the best are selected for the task of propagating the likeness of God and carrying on his work of improving the race.” It was not until Adolph Hitler demonstrated the political ramifications of eugenics that its Methodist supporters realized they were on the wrong side of history.
Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s, there were a significant number of Mainliners who thought Communism was the preferred political future and desired to hitch the church’s wagon securely to it. They were on the wrong side of history. Some are old enough to remember when theological education, in response to perceived growing secularism, shifted to mold all future clergy into caregivers. Becoming semi-spiritual psychologists was to give us pastors a continued (if diminished) foothold in our society. All the while, an explosion of spirituality was hitting our culture for which our clergy and churches were ill prepared to notice, much less seize upon. Our seminaries were on the wrong side of history.
In the 1990’s, I can remember one of my instructors issuing the smallest vision for the church of Jesus Christ I have ever heard: “If all we accomplish in our generation is removing gender-specific language about God from our churches, we will have done enough.” While some still dutifully answer the whistle of the pronoun police, most have realized that gender-neutral language has little to do with making disciples of Jesus Christ. It now seems this was merely the preoccupation of an inwardly-focused church coached by bored theological academics on the wrong side of history. We would do well to beware those who want us to store all our eggs in their shiny new basket.
Of course, there are those of us who do not accept the premise that race and gender are issues equivalent to the present debate over homosexuality. After all, we are not arguing over whether to accept people, but a behavior. There are plenty of same-sex attracted people among our laity, clergy, and (I presume) our episcopacy. What we disagree on is whether same sex attraction is something a fully devoted follower of Jesus should act upon. Four thousand years of Judeo-Christian teaching says a decided “no”.
When the church ventured out into the Roman world, it encountered a culture that was accepting of a variety of same-sex physical pairings. As Christianity gained influence, this became decidedly less the case. The church is now being told we cannot expect to be relevant if we insist upon celibacy in singleness and fidelity in a marriage between a man and woman. The truth is that we will never be able to amend the list of acceptable practices enough to bless all that falls under the headings of genuine desire and mutual consent.
If the Christian scriptures as read and interpreted for two thousand years are not an adequate standard for human sexual expression, how will the church ever be able to find our way to any lasting sexual norm? When sex is allowed to steer the bus we are not going to like the destination. A Christianity that is not strong enough to rein in sexual urges is likewise too feeble to impact a culture. Simply put, personal sexual fulfillment is not a Gospel value.
Some of us have a vision of a hardier, holier United Methodist Church with the fortitude to lift up the cross, not just lay down the welcome mat. We invite people to join the passionate ranks of the sexually restrained. The goal is to mold a generation that is “dead unto sin but alive unto God” (Wesley). Being radically counter-cultural, we expect hardship and persecution instead universal applause.
As we often hear concern over our ability to reach the rising generation, I suggest that a laboratory for the future of our denomination might be found in our campus ministries. Today, many of our Wesley Foundations are struggling numerically in spite of being financially underwritten and totally “inclusive”. The extra-wide welcome mat remains pristine because so few tread upon it. Young people evidently don’t need to come to a UM campus ministry to hear that their sexuality is OK. In contrast, there are ministries (some UMC affiliated and some not) where Jesus is preached along with a call to lay down one’s life, including one’s sexuality. Young people respond, Christianity is practiced, and lives are changed (even when the “inclusive” campus hierarchy threatens to remove the group from campus). I am reminded that the very name “Methodist” was coined derogatorily on a university campus.
Yes, contrast our broad-minded and (in many places) dying campus ministries with the early Methodists who were about as morally exclusive as any movement imaginable. Our General Rules conclude:
If there be any among us who observe [not our rules], who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season, but then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
For all the exclusionary language they inherited, early American Methodists were uniquely effective in their mandate to “reform a nation and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” A whole generation of young, single adults answered the call to go into the mission field. The average life expectancy of a circuit-riding preacher was a mere thirty-three years. They evangelized all and called all to complete sanctification. Throughout much of the 19th Century they were establishing, on average, a new church every day. The clergy of the established churches who sat on the East Coast playing chaplain to the culture were on the wrong side of history. We might say that the Circuit Riders were busy making history while others were debating on which side of history to be.
Of course, human history cannot be our guide to morality. Likewise, solving the UMC’s divisions is not as simple as deciding who is right and wrong. The reality of our deeply entrenched denominational politics must be faced. For this reason I have authored two proposals for the future of the UMC. Both allow a limited, but national, experiment into a progressive understanding of human sexuality for those clergy and churches that are immovably committed to it. The goal is to get past the current trench warfare by allowing different moral visions to play out without compromising the whole. Those outside this limited experiment will be held accountable to our positions and remain in step with the global church. I expect, in a generation or two, we will all know the verdict of history. Join me in prayer that we all may stand the verdict of the ultimate Judge.