by Chris Ritter
When confronted by posts with which I viscerally disagree I usually only mumble something to myself and move on. This is what I did with a recent post that suggested that the UMC “sold its soul” when it named “making disciples of Jesus Christ” as the mission of the church. I simply paused, took a deep breath, and pretended that I hadn’t seen it.
I was not as successful at ignoring the compelling commentary by Dr. Thomas E. Frank’s in UM Reporter entitled, “Why Excluding People Makes Bad Church Law.” A noted scholar and the son of a United Methodist bishop, Dr. Frank is no obscure voice in the UMC. He literally wrote the textbook on United Methodist polity. His articles have appeared in the gold-standard reference works on American religion. Any list of experts on United Methodism would be incomplete without his name.
Dr. Frank chronicles the messy 44-year battle over language in our Book of Discipline related to homosexuality. As I make my own attempt to state an alternative perspective, it is with the hope that others more qualified than myself will add their voices to this very important discussion. Hearing and responding to one another is important as we move toward General Conference next month in Portland.
I agree with Dr. Frank that what the Book of Discipline says about homosexuality is something of a patchwork. As he says, the language arose from the floor of General Conference and not from official study commissions, boards, and agencies of the church. Like messages written in the heat of battle, our statements on homosexuality are something less than poetry.
General Conference is a body of the people. It is democratically populated with delegates from our annual conferences around the globe. There has been a longstanding division in our denomination between the people in our congregations and the lofty institutions that serve us. Our elites are substantially more progressive than the those who provide their positions. General Conference is one of the places where our ivory towers are answerable to our grassroots.
I imagine Dr. Frank’s somewhat dismissive comments about things that come from “the floor” of General Conference as akin to how one might speak of French fries found on the floor. We are supposed to wrinkle our noses and step away a bit. The plenary session of General Conference, however, is the only group that is authorized to speak for our denomination, and spoken they have. In spite of the concerted, heated, and repeated attempts to alter the language about homosexuality, our statements have been routinely strengthened in response to challenges.
OUR PAINFUL HISTORY
As our fledging denomination worked on drafting a set of Social Principles to be considered by the 1972 General Conference, language was proposed by the high-profile study commission naming homosexuals as people of sacred worth, welcome in the fellowship of the church, and persons whose rights should be protected. This was all well and good. An issue quickly arose, however, about what the statement didn’t say. The lack of moral guidance about sexual activity between two people of the same gender was difficult to miss. The larger statement on human sexuality did affirm, after all, that sex between a man and a woman was only appropriate within the bond of marriage. What about sex between people of the same gender? As the influence of the Sexual Revolution were already being witnessed in our church institutions, some suspected that the statement was intentionally skirting an obvious question.
Charged with reviewing the commission’s recommendations, The Christian Social Concerns Legislative Committee invited testimony from Rev. Gene Leggett, an openly gay clergy who had earlier been removed from ministry in the East Texas Conference. Leggett suggested additional language about homosexuals needing “the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment.” This language was accepted by the committee. Attempts to reference the scriptural witness about homosexuality were, however, rebuffed.
Once on “the floor,” the paragraph on human sexuality proved highly contentious. After two hours of plenary debate, an amendment was suggested by attorney Don Hand from Texas. The committee’s language was retained but a period was changed to a comma and the following words were added at the end: “, though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” With this amendment, our statement on human sexuality was approved by a clear majority. But, as we know, this was only the beginning. The balance of the 1970’s witnessed a tug of war between our institutions and the voice of General Conference which resulted in a disciplinary ban on church funds going to “gay caucus groups” or being used to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
When new language came to General Conference in 1980 about qualifications for ordained ministry, homosexual relationships were not listed along with marital infidelity as a disqualification for clergy candidates. This was a noticeable as cases related to homosexuality and the clergy were much in church news. When the omission was questioned from the floor, delegates were assured such language was pointless because of our statements elsewhere that “scripture is the primary source” and candidates “are expected to make a complete dedication of themselves to the highest ideals of the Christian life.” One only needed to reference what the Social Principles had to say about marriage and human sexuality. Specific prohibitions were to be avoided, it was said, because they would become endless. “In our covenant, we are called to trust one another.” (Journal of the 1980 General Conference, p. 1091) We came out of General Conference 1980 with this good faith approach. Let’s call this the Golden Era of Trust.
The Golden Era of Trust lasted all of 22 months. At the 1982 session of the Rocky Mountain Conference, someone asked the bishop if it was proper that one of the probationary candidates for ministry was openly gay. In spite of the fact that the moral vision of the church related to human sexuality was not difficult to discern, the bishop ruled that there was no specific language in the Book of Discipline to disqualify a candidate on this basis. The Judicial Council (Decision 513) upheld the bishop, saying that evaluation of candidates is carried out by the Board of Ordained Ministry based on the specific requirements of the Discipline, and “These requirements do not refer to sexual orientation.”
[Discussions about the 1980’s must reference the fear and ignorance around the AIDS crisis. Little did our denomination know at the time that the President of the Council of Bishops in 1982 was living a very promiscuous life with other men in violation of his marriage vows and sometimes with pastors under his episcopal supervision. Bishop Finis Alonzo Crutchfield died of AIDS in 1987 having maintained from the time of his diagnosis that he contracted HIV through casual contact during routine pastoral visitation in hospitals. Although Crutchfield had offered some notable support to the gay community during his episcopal ministry, this lie contributed to the environment of fear in the church. Gene Leggett, mentioned above as adding language to our human sexuality statement, also tragically died from AIDS after years of showing up at ordination services to kneel, gagged with a handkerchief, in protest of his expulsion. There are countless such tragic tales from this era of our story.]
In response to the 1982 Judicial Council decision, nearly a thousand petitions came to General Conference 1984 requesting that the specific language about homosexuality be added to our ministry standards. Thirty of these came endorsed by annual conferences. When the legislative committee failed to recommend the strengthening of the language, a minority report came to the floor. It proposed additions to our chargeable offenses that stated “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” were not to be received as candidates for ministry or ordained.
The language was carefully measured. “Self-avowed” was intended to avoid witch-hunts the likes of which that Jerry Falwell was making infamous. “Practicing” was meant to preclude prejudice in the ordination process against sexual orientation alone. The prohibition was to be about sexual practice (something within ones control) and not about sexual preference (something outside ones control). The minority report was defeated initially but passed during reconsideration.
Fast forward to 1993. The Oregon-Idaho A.C. Clergy Session brought a lesbian probationer off leave of absence after she landed there following a failed attempt by the cabinet to appoint her to a church. When the matter came before the Judicial Council, they ruled that definitions must be provided of “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” to see if it conflicted with the protections around “status” in our constitution. General Conference 1996 provided this definition: “‘Self-avowed practicing homosexual’ is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual.” Written by a team of lawyers, this was found not to conflict with the constitutional protection of “status.”
In 1997 a case against Rev. Jimmy Creech for officiating at a same sex wedding was dismissed because it was argued the Social Principles forbidding such ceremonies did not have the force of law. This went to the Judicial Council in 1998 and they confirmed that General Conference intended the language to be binding. GC2000 underscored this point by repeating the prohibition in another area of the Discipline. (Creech was later defrocked for another same sex wedding). When, in 2002, an annual conference funded a ministry promoting the acceptance of homosexual practice, GC2004 extended to the annual conferences the earlier prohibition against funding such causes. In 2004, Karen Damman was found “not guilty” because of an exotic interpretation of the word “declare” and a counsel for the church that actually wanted to lose his case (according to his statement following the trial). The language that allowed the acquittal was altered by General Conference 2004 in response.
LANGUAGE AND LOVE
Each quadrennium between general conferences has witnessed fresh attempts to circumvent our disciplinary language. Conflict recently reached a new level when same sex marriage became legal throughout the United States by a Supreme Court ruling. Even prior to this, two whole jurisdictional conferences had voted to act as if the Discipline doesn’t say what it says about sex. The makeup of General Conference becoming somewhat more conservative, all appearances indicate we are now turning the corner toward a new fight over enforcement. I wonder if this is how we want to spend the next forty-four years.
Does our protracted legislative warfare represent church at its best? I agree with Dr. Frank that it does not. I, too, wince a little when I read our book. Both sides are more than a little embarrassed by the other. An unnamed casualty of our intramural conflict is our loss of opportunity to talk meaningfully together about how to minister to the widely varied LGBQT community in light of all that our doctrine has to say about the human condition. There is a tremendous amount of ministry that needs to happen in the very complex and rapidly-changing landscape of Western culture’s sexual melting pot. Precious people are at stake who would benefit from the clear, loving voice of the church. We disagree so much over what to say that we end up talking mostly at each other instead of with each other and to the world we are called to serve.
But the reason our language on homosexuality is so painfully specific is because challenges have necessitated that it be so in order to maintain in our church the 4,000 year old understanding of marriage and human sexuality from our Judeo-Christian tradition. Our official stance is the same view held by the churches representing 95% of Christians worldwide, and a clear majority of United Methodists. Like adding multiple patches on a worn inner tube, the delegates who are the official voice of United Methodism have been repeatedly forced to scramble to maintain the standards by which we have always lived, and without much help from our institutions.
It is puzzling why Dr. Frank refers to our language on homosexuality as “unconstitutional.” When reading through the Discipline, I watch for sections that have a lot of footnotes. This denotes language that has been judicially tested or otherwise ruled upon. Our language on homosexuality is perhaps the most constitutionally verified words in our book. If there is one thing we know, it is that the language, however lacking a poetic and systematic quality, is constitutional. When the Judicial Council has pointed out problems or inconsistencies with the language, changes have been made at the subsequent General Conference to strengthen them. They have now nearly reached the point where the only way around them is open defiance.
Dr. Frank’s main point is a forceful argument about legislative language being used to exclude. The church, he says, is at its worst when it is excluding people and at its best when it is including people. He notes “a native openness” in our Methodist history, exemplified by the words in our General Rules: “do no harm.” I am happy to be part of a generously open-minded denomination that stands in a deep stream of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is when open-mindedness is used as an excuse to wade out of this stream that I have difficulty. It is here that we cease to be Wesleyan in our approach.
We need to use the whole sentence when we quote our General Rules: Do no harm by avoiding evil of every kind. The statement goes on to name sixteen behaviors that should be excluded from the Christian life. We are, at our roots, a movement of warm-hearted, experiential, holiness reformation. The 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.
Wesley wanted desperately to include people, but not in just anything. He wanted to welcome them into the life of scriptural holiness. To that end, he required his Methodists to give a quarterly account of their serious pursuit of holiness before they were allowed into meetings of the society. Those without a quarterly ticket did not get in the door. Preachers who sought to be in “connexion” with him faced even greater scrutiny with regards to lifestyle. When people were excluded, it was assumed they were excluding themselves due to their own priorities. Any talk about the “native openness” of Methodism should acknowledge that grace and truth were never framed by our founder as opponents.
For all the exclusionary language early American Methodists inherited, they were uniquely effective in their mandate to “reform a nation and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” A whole generation of young, fiery, and mostly 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. (I strongly suspect that most of these young people to whom we are so indebted remained somewhat sexually unfulfilled in their chosen lifestyle of frontier evangelism). They included all by calling all to complete sanctification. Throughout much of the 19th Century they were establishing, on average, a new church every day. It is ironic that we are regularly closing the churches they started all while celebrating our inclusiveness.
Our current debate is over the continued challenges posed by the Sexual Revolution and whether the Church should, in response, pivot to view sexual desires as something akin to race and gender that are received without qualification as gifts from the Creator. No doubt there are currently 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.” This is the view ensconced in our Discipline since 1972, the first year we had any statement on human sexuality. Every clergy ordained since has vowed they have studied our rules, found them to be in harmony with scripture, and would uphold and defend them. There are many people throughout our church who have accepted this scriptural teaching in spite of the fact that it means personal sacrifice for them. No one ever seems to talk about them.
When the church first ventured out into the Roman world, it encountered a culture that was accepting of a variety of same-sex physical pairings. As Christianity gained ascendancy, this became decidedly less the case. I have never heard anyone challenge this objective historical fact. The church is now being told we cannot expect to be culturally 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 bless all that falls under the headings of genuine desire and mutual consent.
Anyone who claims you can follow Jesus and be sexually fulfilled at all times is promulgating a lie very much akin to the Prosperity Gospel. Stated simply, personal sexual fulfillment is not a Gospel value. Like all God’s good gifts, sexuality is prone to abuse and idolatry. The call to responsible self-control through celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage requires self-denial for all but leads to deep Gospel freedom.
In spite of claims to the contrary, we are not seeing evidence that those who want to include homosexual practice in the church by widening the definition of marriage are otherwise willing to submit to the standards of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. There is strong indication that the entirety of the Christian sexual ethic is being jettisoned to the trash heap right before our eyes.
The clergywoman in Kansas who “came out” to her congregation earlier this year is co-habituating with someone who could, by U.S. law, be her wife. Although she is married in the eyes of neither the church nor the state, her board of ordained ministry refused to suspend her from ministry as requested by her bishop. This is an attack on celibacy in singleness before we even arrive at questions around homosexuality. The Methodist Federation on Social Action recently published a post from an anonymous single clergywoman who expressed thankfulness for access to birth control because she had no intention of being abstinent. Several clergy and seminarians who commented on the article echoed their amens. Anyone who thinks this debate is just about people in committed, life-long relationships is not paying attention. Opening the door to homosexual practice would require an admission on the part of the church that the entire scriptural sexual ethic is untenable. Some are becoming so bold as to say this out loud.
As we prepare for perhaps the most contentious General Conference since 1844, we cannot help but ask what the future holds. Will we reach a “draw” and have four more years of escalation to the ecclesial defiance we have witnessed over the last four? Will we put new measures in place to enforce our rules, triggering the resurgence of clergy trials, which (for the most part) have been placed on hold? As we scan our uncertain horizon, we have the benefit of watching other Mainline denominations who have taken the plunge to become sexually inclusive as a replacement for being sexually disciplined. Not only are their institutions downsizing, they are rapidly becoming older, smaller, more racially homogeneous, and less sustainable. The salt has lost its savor.
Since Dr. Frank ended his commentary by referencing Wesley’s famous “dead sect” statement, I will quote that statement here in its context:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. What was their fundamental doctrine? That the Bible is the whole and sole rule both of Christian faith and practice.
Societal pressures aside, what should the United Methodist Church say about human sexuality if John Wesley was right about scripture being the “whole and sole” rule of the Christian life? Some of us from the grassroots will again be “on the floor” at General Conference maintaining 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 seek to be a church that invites all people to join the path of Christian discipleship. Among many other things, this means joining the passionate ranks of the sexually restrained… “dead unto sin but alive unto God” as Wesley was fond of saying. Being radically counter-cultural, we don’t expect universal applause. But the church has always been most effective when it is least cozy with the empire.
I have proposed several structural solutions to help us manage our differences in the UMC, end this prolonged conflict, and grant freedoms to those who must take another path. I don’t want to see further schism if it can be avoided. If we can find a way to get off this painful quadrennial merry-go-round, we should take it. But I will also be working to retain our current, hard-fought language about human sexuality; not because it is elegant or popular, but because it is true. Truth, however messy and unpopular, still sets free.