by Bob Phillips
Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics and Sexuality (Nashville, New Room Books, 2019), by Ashley Boggan Dreff, currently Director of United Methodist studies at Hood Seminary, offers a ‘best of times-worst of times’ approach in her research, reporting and interpretation. Revised from her PhD dissertation at Drew, she walks the reader through the multiple adventures of Methodism in its dealings with numerous sexuality issues, ranging from contraception and abortion through gay marriage.
Her work is the best of times in some ways. Hers currently is the only scholarly (and readable) show in town in providing historical background, context and personal stories relative to the sweep of sexuality issues that have affected the denomination. She tracks arguments used and the voices heard (or ignored) in setting the evolving church standards, especially regarding birth control, abortion and gay marriage-ordination of sexually active LGBT clergy. She reminds us there was a Glide Church prior to Cecil Williams that was on the bow wave of calls for change regarding understanding and acceptance of homosexuals and other religiously unconventional forms of sexual expression, courtesy of Rev. John V. Moore among others.
Dreff’s greatest contribution is to place the reader in the center of the worldview of progressive advocates for change regarding aspects of human sexuality. Conservative-traditional readers can benefit greatly from getting a clear sense of how and why progressive United Methodists think and feel about contested issues, and the historical antecedents of such views. Conservatives may see many of these views at wide variance from their understanding of historic Christian teaching but if one understands the assumptions behind such progressive advocacy, lights go on and ‘aha’ moments of empathy can happen for traditional believers. It is worth it for advocates of traditional Christian sexual ethics to engage in a ‘suspension of indignation’ over some statements and assumptions in her writing for the sake of such empathy and clarity insofar as how the ‘others’ view contentious issues. There is no constructive response to the church’s current struggles apart from such empathy, going both ways.
Dreff’s work also reflect aspect of the worst of times. In her introduction we learn the rejection of same-sex acts is a modern invention originating in a mistranslation of relevant texts in the 1946 RSV Bible; that angry white conservative males, upset that sexual questions are challenging their authority, are lashing back at those who would compete for their power. We learn that Queer Theory is the vital frame of reference and world view through which to engage the debates and challenges over sexuality, for the understanding and practices(s) of sex in each generation offers the best insight into the culture, economics and values of every age. We learn that evangelical Methodists are “anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage and against the ordination of LGBTQ persons,” while Progressive Methodists “tend to be pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage and advocates for the ordination of LGBTQ persons,” offering readers a choice between a version of “anti” or “pro” Christianity.
We learn that rule-based values of the traditionalists compete with the way of intellectual growth, personal integrity and the willingness to trust the moral judgments of mature adults, even if the rule-based (i.e., legalists) object; Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics promised the way forward, affirmed by ethicist Elwyn Smith with the comment that “Rules are for the weak, emancipation is for the strong.” To reduce the traditional-conservative perspective on issues surrounding human sexuality to simply ‘rules-based morality’ is as nuanced and as fair as reducing the struggle for marriage equality to gaining affirmation for male anal sex. Both do injustice to their respective advocates. And all this just part of the 18-page introduction.
Confirmation bias and advocacy-based scholarship are evident in her work. Whereas the progressive/liberal perspective repeatedly is discussed with sensitivity and affirmation, serious critiques are nowhere to be found of liberal views. Agenda-based progressive scholars are amply quoted (such as Heather White and Jane Ellen Nickell) but no serious evangelical scholar receives similar treatment. A non-professional popular work by conservative pastor Riley Case is referenced, including complaints about Case’s lack of documentation of certain points (p 141), but other than an unpublished 1994 PhD Johns Hopkins dissertation by Glen Spann on Methodist evangelicals, academic published works by scholars such as William Abraham are ignored.
Dreff gives proper attention to various clergy who lost their status over conducting same-gender weddings or acknowledging they were sexually active gay or lesbian clergy. There is no reference to the de facto marginalization and exclusion of traditional clergy from the Western Jurisdiction or the loss of 13 evangelical pastors and over 4,000 church members in the late 1990’s when Bishop Melvin Talbert of the California-Nevada conference moved firmly against clergy who protested dismissal of complaints against 68 clergy who presided at a public Holy Union ceremony. The actions of the 68 are recounted by Dreff (p. 259).
Dreff recounts the election and consecration of partnered lesbian Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, citing support from another WJ bishop that she was “the best person” for the job and that membership at Glide church had risen to over 12,000 under her tenure. Actually, reported membership rose past 13,000 during her time at Glide, while attendance dropped 45-70%, depending on UMDATA.ORG statistics. It later became clear that under Oliveto Glide excluded holy communion and Christian baptism from Sunday services, deactivated the disciplinary standing committees (Staff Parish, Finance, Trustees), stopped having required annual charge conferences and specifically eliminated any reference to Jesus Christ from their extensive church website. Her successor refused to remain when he saw these policies in play and when he was denied access to church financial records…or keys to the building. Today (2019) Glide and Cal-Nevada are locked into a lawsuit over the property and Bishop Carcano has refused to appoint any clergy to the church, while a congregation that technically has 20% of the entire conference membership is on the cusp of formally departing the denomination. Dreff mentions none of this. All of this begs the declaration that Oliveto was the best qualified United Methodist pastor in that jurisdiction to promote to bishop (p. 264).
Two corrections requires attention. On p. 42 Dreff refers to ‘Henry Paul Sloan’ as an early leader in 20thcentury conservative Methodism. Retired UM Bishop Bill Lewis, who completed his PhD at Vanderbilt on Harold Paul Sloan, probably would pick up that name goof, though she does state his name correctly on the following page. On p 142 Dreff talks about a 1970 Good News convocation that offered a very public jumpstart for the future of that traditional lobby group. He mentions that among prominent attendees was the “non-Methodist evangelical E. Stanley Jones.” Indeed, E. Stanley Jones was not a Methodist. He was the Methodist for 20th century missions and evangelism, the kind of Methodist the denomination desperately needs today.
I conclude with several items that marry concern with contribution. Dreff personalizes the issues surrounding homosexuality with stories of the impact of church teaching on real people. Traditional folks can lose sight of such realities in their passion to defend truth. On the other hand, Dreff occasionally is very selective in what is shared in those stories. She mentions Gene Leggett losing his clergy credentials as an openly gay pastor in Texas in 1971 but overlooks his actively promiscuous lifestyle that also destroyed his marriage and left his wife and three small sons on the edges of poverty (p 231, 236). Had that been shared, the later-in-life reconciliation with family and personal relational healing that preceded his premature death also could have found human expression. Dreff gives major attention to John Moore’s sermons on sexuality in the 1960’s, that called for a shift from external to internal and personal authority in discerning moral questions (pgs. 217-221). Two of his daughters and a young grandson would die in the Jonestown suicides as followers of Jim Jones. Moore’s subsequent sensitive writings on the tragedy provide powerful insights and clarification on the promise and limits of devaluing external authority in creating a personal moral life. The key point is that the debate is about people, not simply policies, in settings always filled with complications and nuance that inconvenience hardcore advocates of any side.
Second, General Conference 1980 was the watershed moment for future battles over church discipline. Dreff insightfully records that GC determined that the will of the general church regarding the ordination of sexually active gay and lesbian clergy was clear and delegates, weary with bickering over the issue, accepted assurances that the matter was resolved (p. 243-44). Then Bishop Melvin Wheatley of the Rocky Mountain Conference ordained open lesbian Joanne Carson Brown and appointed openly gay elder Julian Rush, defending his actions on the grounds that nothing in the Disciplinesaid he couldn’t. He was right, and the Judicial Council backed his decision. It is not unfair nor inaccurate to say that all subsequent struggles over adding specific language to the Disciplineto clarify and confirm specifics on this issue have been an ongoing and continuous reaction to what was not done at GC1980. The spin of omission used by Wheatley with the Discipline to trump the spirit of the larger church’s convictions kicked off a process that reached its legalese crescendo with the adoption of the Traditional Plan by GC2019…that none might doubt what the Discipline says.
Third, the deep divide over the nature, authority and consequent interpretation of scripture is profound. Dreff cites John Boswell’s study of homosexuality in the church as fixed truth confirming the opposition to same gender behaviors is a relatively recent development (p 257), unaware of the overwhelming critique of what even many friends came to see as agenda-driven conclusions unwarranted by the data, reflected in rebuttals at the time by such as Hays (Duke), Wilken (Virginia) and Wright (Edinburgh). Dreff offers a summary of the differences between evangelical and progressive Methodists on p 261, recognizing the chasm between these views. Many evangelicals remain wary of the absolute nature invested with appeals to flexibility on ‘interpretation,’ recalling the 2003 NCJ College of Bishops’ defense of Bishop Sprague of Northern Illinois who affirmed his belief in the gospel but ‘interpreted’ this belief in ways that specifically rejected the bodily resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, miracles, Jesus’ self-awareness as the Son of God, salvation through Christ alone or any literal understanding of the Second Coming. Dreff alludes to the emergences of such views in Methodism (p 11). For conservatives this type of hermeneutical shift is similar to arguing that an open marriage is a traditional marriage, just with a different interpretation. No church can theologically cohere with such wildly divergent definitions of the boundaries of ‘interpretation’ of scripture.
Fourth, the use of ‘evangelical’ has become a very mixed blessing. Dreff casually appears to buy the assumptions of the rabidly partisan and methodologically skewed 1978 “Apostles of Reaction” attack on the Good News movement as fixed truth on the right-wing marriage of politics and religion that undergirds the existence of that movement and the more evangelical wing of the denomination (pp. 242-3). She cites progressive UM pastor and activist blogger Jeremy Smith for similar critiques of the recently formed Wesleyan Covenant Association (p. 265), with no interpretative context or grid for her approving citations. Beyond the decidedly slanted perspective she offers on such renewal-lobby groups there is the fact that indeed “evangelical’ has become damaged goods in public discourse for many, and not just ‘ranting liberals.’ The Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, where I had some activity while on the campus of Princeton University, changed its name last year after half a century of that title to remove ‘evangelical’ because of the perceived (and often real) uncritical marriage of right-wing politics and one political party over commitment to the Jesus who embraces and critiques all political parties and views. Complaining that progressive religion and politics also are joined at the hip is beside the point. Conservative-traditional-orthodox-evangelical folks have work to do to rediscover and reclaim a Christ who cannot be bought, or rented, by any partisan political side.
Finally, Dreff offers a game-changing comment in passing, that can point the denomination through and beyond its ongoing kerfuffle over sexuality. In describing the evangelical character of American Methodism until the close of the 19th century, she includes this intriguing comment regarding the vision and mission behind the organization of the denomination: “The Methodist connection, with its hierarchical system of class, bands, societies, itinerant preachers, district superintendents, and bishops was established to maintain social and personal accountability and to maximize conversions” (p 10). No one today seriously argues that the existing system for the American United Methodist Church is organized to maximize conversions. A sustained 50-year decline in membership and attendance speaks its own version of blunt truth to denominational power. No one argues that the main reason for such a decline rests in the church’s position(s) on any aspect of sexuality. A constellation of challenges not yet addressed or partially addressed have combined to create the sustained and increasing decline of this American expression of Wesleyan Christianity. If the discord and debate over sexuality provides the spark to nudge (or blow) the existing denomination into a Wesleyan mitosis or multiplied and renewed expressions of Methodism for the balance of the 21stcentury, the struggle by all parties will have been worth the cost. If the arguments over sexuality are allowed to set the parameters for forward movement, ignoring trust deficits, miscommunications, demographics, theological-biblical confusion, organizational ineffectiveness and obsolescence, etc., the institution may retain a form of religion but not the power (2 Timothy 3:5). Other Christian movements out of sympathy with Wesleyan ways will continue to eat our lunch and claim the spiritual birthright of passionate disciple-making that we are tempted to sell for a mess of single-issue pottage without so much as a burp of gratitude for our retreat from the field.
Progressives will love Dreff’s book and use large portions to announce, “I told you so.” Traditionalists will find a lot not to like in Dreff’s book and retort, “That’s what she says.” As a self-avowed practicing evangelical United Methodist I found it well worth the read.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)