Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A True Middle Way for the UMC

What if there was a solution to the division in the United Methodist Church that could allow each annual conference to choose their path on human sexuality like the Jurisdictional Solution without creating all of the problems? There is. The starting point is to take seriously the words in the preamble of the Social Principles, "[W]e pledge to continue to be in respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons, and to tell the truth about our divisions as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things." With that in mind, let's look paragraph by paragraph at each place in the Book of Discipline where homosexuality is mentioned. For dramatic effect we'll go in reverse order.

Paragraph 2702.1 

Includes "immorality including but not limited to..." as a chargeable offense. The immorality clause includes "being celibate in singleness or not faithful in heterosexual marriage...being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies..." and about a dozen other items. The key phrase here is "including but not limited to." What if the statements about homosexuality were not included (and they were only added in 2004)? I suspect not much would change. A pastor could still be charged with immorality for any of the above language if the person bringing charges interprets homosexuality as immoral. A jury would find the person guilty or not guilty based on their view, likely shaped by the Annual Conference that they are part of. It is clear that this is how we are already functioning. Bishops and juries are already finding ways around the language. In fact, the Jurisdictional Solution does this very thing, only for just one jurisdiction. In other words, as regards 2702.1, the effect of simply removing the language quoted above would be identical to the effect of the Jurisdictional Solution.

Paragraph 806.9

This paragraph charges GCFA with ensuring that funds aren't used to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality." As this pertains to a general agency I don't think the Jurisdictional Solution would affect it. Although I disagree with this paragraph for the sake of the church as a whole would not advocate for changing it.

Paragraph 613.19 

Essentially, this is the same as 806.9 but applies to the Conference Council on Finance and Administration. This would be one of the areas that the Jurisdictional Solution would allow flexibility. But what would happen if we just remove the paragraph from the BoD right now? Conferences that are opposed to homosexuality are not going to begin funding gay rights. A Conference that would support a move to the progressive jurisdiction may be willing to give financially to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality" and a conference in the traditionalist jurisdiction would not. As with 2702.1 above, simply eliminating the language would have the same practical effect as creating two jurisdictions.

Paragraph 341.6 

This is the paragraph that prohibits "homosexual unions" from taking place on United Methodist property. Again, this paragraph could be adjusted by a progressive jurisdiction. If it were eliminated completely right now I suppose some would be concerned that a pastor or church could then be forced to allow "homosexual unions." As a religious ceremony, however, a pastor has the responsibility for the integrity of a marriage ceremony (paragraph 340.2). So, in fact, as the BoD is currently worded I could marry a couple who freely admits to serial long as they aren't gay. I would never do that because I am obligated to protect the sanctity of marriage, but if I chose to I could. Removing the language here would restore the full rights and responsibilities of pastors. However, since one could still argue that it would violate the morality clause in 2702, a pastor in a traditionalist conference would most likely not take the chance. Thus removing the language in 341.6 would have the same affect as the Jurisdictional Solution. Pastors in progressive areas would be able to perform weddings on church property and pastors in traditional areas would not take the chance.

Paragraph 310.2d 

Prohibits candidates for ministry from "the practice of homosexuality" as part of a footnote that is four pages long. Yes, the footnote covers portions of four pages. It's the same footnote, by the way, that says "the burden of proof would be upon all users [of tobacco and alcohol] to show that their action is consistent with the ideals of excellence of mind, purity of body, and responsible social behavior." In my years on the Board of Ordained Ministry I never remember that coming up. What if we deleted most of the footnote except for the line that currently reads "We affirm our trust in the covenant community and the process by which we ordain ministers."? Like we've seen before, a given conference would set its own rules for what qualifies as moral behavior. No conference would be forced to ordain "practicing homosexuals" and the rules for transferring from one conference to another would allow a bishop opposed to homosexuality from allowing a pastor to transfer to the conference he/she serves. The stakes in episcopal assignment would be higher than they currently are, but if a conference has a like-minded bishop there would be no issue. The difference between eliminating language and creating two jurisdictions would be minimal.

Paragraph 304.3

Does the same thing as the footnote above without going into the same ridiculous length. I would treat it the same way as the footnote - allow the conferences to fulfill their responsibility as they see fit.

Paragraph 161F

This is the Social Principles paragraph that calls homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." And this is where I may lose my audience on the left. Here's the thing - as the preamble to the Social Principles says, I think we should be honest. The honest truth is we are divided. It is also honest to say that those of us working towards change are working at something different than the large majority of Christians today and a larger majority of Christians historically would affirm. I'm OK with acknowledging that truth. I also understand that, hypothetically, if the suggestions above were to come to fruition we would be asking our friends on the right to move beyond their comfort zone. I think those of us on the left can do the same thing. There is one important difference between what I have suggested so far and the Jurisdictional Solution. The Jurisdictional Solution leaves our anti-gay position as the normative position. The progressive jurisdiction could change that normative position, but officially the UMC would still be opposed to homosexuality. Deleting all or most language on sexuality would mean we would take no official position and the media and average church goer would understand that change to be a de facto change to support of homosexuality. I understand the fear from some delegates overseas that they may even be physically in danger if our position changes and from some regions of the U.S. there is concern about a mass exodus.

Considering all of this, I would advocate to change the relevant portion of 161F to "A significant majority of United Methodists continue to hold to the long-standing belief that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. While we acknowledge differences in opinion on sexuality, this remains the official position of the UMC."

Summing Up

Reaffirming our official position prevents those of us on the progressive side from gloating about a victory. It would acknowledge all that many of us want - that we are divided - while also assuring traditionalists that they are the majority opinion. Changing the other paragraphs would restore pastoral and annual conference authority in ways that are consistent and appropriate but we would not be accepting the wholesale change of position that has caused such turmoil in other denominations. Finally, specifically for those who endorse the Jurisdictional Solution, it upholds every point that the Jurisdictional Solution hopes to address without any of the shortcomings.

This proposal would require no constitutional amendments. It would require only a majority vote at General Conference. In other words, it could pass. And, I believe, it could bring us back together.

The Jurisdictional Solution Isn't

I want it to work. I want to have a clean solution to the division in the United Methodist Church that already has some momentum behind it. The Jurisdiction Solution has some of those aspects to it. But it can't work.

For those unfamiliar with it, the basic approach of the Jurisdictional Solution is to divide the United States into two Jurisdictions, each with the ability to adapt the Book of Discipline. There would be one "traditional' jurisdiction and one "progressive" jurisdiction and each annual conference would take a one time vote to decide which jurisdiction to be part of. The proponents have put in a tremendous amount of work and should be commended for that work. You can read the full treatment of the proposal at

But for all of its positive attributes, and there are many, it just won't work. Here's why:

It Can't Pass

The Jurisdictional Solution requires constitutional amendments. That means it would take a 2/3 vote at General Conference and a majority of United Methodists voting at annual conferences the following year to actually pass. As contentious as the debate around human sexuality has been it's difficult to believe that any proposal will get agreement from 2/3 of General Conference. If it did pass then we would have a full year of politicking to get a majority vote in annual conferences. We tried this in 2008 when a series of constitutional amendments were passed at General Conference and failed at the annual conferences. Those proposals failed largely because it was feared that they would be used to accomplish what the Jurisdictional Solution is now trying to implement - a more localized decision on sexuality.

The timing is unhelpful

If approved by General Conference and annual conferences the constitutional amendments would still not be ratified by the Council of Bishops until 2018. That means we have two more years after General Conference before we would even know if we're going to have new jurisdictions. Then more politicking in conferences where the debate will be a close one. If everything runs perfectly it would be 2019 before the new jurisdictions are at all functional. That's a long time to argue with high stakes before having a final decision.

It will lead to radicalization

The Jurisdictional Solution neatly divides us in half with one liberal and one conservative jurisdiction...and one significant group is left out. The entire middle. Human sexuality has become a litmus test that unfairly divides us. A person's stance on human sexuality does not define that person's view on the authority of Scripture, sin, and any number of social issues. It just doesn't. But if those of us caught in the theological middle are divided between two jurisdictions...we'll be divided. The fringe in both jurisdictions will become more dominant. I don't want to be in a jurisdiction that questions the divinity of Christ. I also don't want to be part of a jurisdiction that questions the practice of infant baptism. Both of these issues and many more may well be up for debate if the middle becomes a minority voting block in either jurisdiction.

It's a prelude to schism

Because of the radicalization that will occur we will simply grow further apart until in the near future it simply makes no sense to stay one church. The logistics of schism will also become much more straightforward when we can simply excise a single jurisdiction from the denomination.

There is another way

If there was a way of achieving the benefits of the Jurisdictional Solution without these significant problems I'd be all for it. I want a plan that can be passed, that can give freedom to annual conferences to make the decisions they feel appropriate, and that holds us together instead of threatens to divide us further. I think there is such a solution; it just hasn't been seriously explored yet. In my next post you'll see a proposal that stacks up very favorably to the Jurisdictional Solution.