Friday, January 6, 2017

Going Back to Look Forward

In the spirit of the Way Forward Commission and continuing conversation I've been reading Bishop Scott Jones' 2008 book Staying at the Table. The book begins with an essay by Bishop Jones and is followed by responses from several different prominent United Methodists. Bishop Jones' approach is not a surprise for those who know him, trying to chart an "extreme center" course that he believes would hold the denomination together and be faithful both to Scripture and our tradition. I disagree with his conclusion, but his approach is fair-handed.

Then I read the first response, from Dr. William Abraham. It was fascinating. As a prominent voice for the conservative wing of the United Methodist Church, Dr. Abraham's voice is important and his reputation is first rate. After a handful of criticisms of Bishop Jones' essay, most of which I agree with but none of which strike to the core of the issue, Dr. Abraham states as his major concern that Bishop Jones is willing to compromise on the morality of church members. He says, "The obvious compromise is to split the difference by not permitting homosexual practice for clergy but allowing it in the case of membership. I do not know if Bishop Jones is indirectly proposing this or not, but there are hints that he might be happy with such a way forward," and then goes on to tell us why such a compromise would be harmful.

Let me say it more clearly: In 2008, one of the most significant voices for traditionalist Methodists said that it would be a mistake to allow "practicing homosexual"* to be members of a United Methodist Church.

To put some context around this, Dr. Abraham's words came not long after a United Methodist pastor refused membership to a person who identified as gay. This was very controversial at the time and ultimately the pastor's decision was upheld by the Judicial Council because the pastor has sole authority to determine a person's readiness for membership. But Dr. Abraham clearly has a different rationale in mind. There is no other way to read his words. Bishop Jones goes too far because he would allow "practicing homosexuals" to join churches as members. 

Dr. Abraham is one of the founders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the new right-wing coalition pushing for retaining our denominational bans on LGBT clergy and weddings. Many of us have argued that despite their public statements a WCA led church would actually push us backwards. Dr. Abraham's statement confirms that fear. The status quo will not hold. A church that refuses to move to the left will not remain the same. It will move further to the right. As a centrist, one of the critical reasons that I believe the United Methodist Church should chart a true middle way is that we need both the theological liberals and conservatives to keep us generally focused in the best direction. For my friends who find themselves theologically right-of-center, please consider this. Would you prefer a denomination that allows but does not require conferences to ordain LGBT clergy and allows but does not require clergy to perform same-sex marriage OR would you prefer a denomination that drifts to the right, questioning whether LGBT individuals can even be church members? 

One of the most difficult challenges members of the Way Forward Commission and then the 2019 special General Conference will have to face is the potential of voting AGAINST their own personal beliefs for the sake of voting FOR a denomination that is bigger than themselves. The large majority of those who believe in ordination and marriage for LGBT persons are willing to vote for a permissive church that does not mandate agreement (a pastor could choose whether or not to perform same-sex weddings while a pastor could not make that choice about a multiracial marriage, for example.) The group that will determine whether we stay united are those in the center-right - those who would choose not to perform a wedding but would be willing to remain in a church with those who think and practice differently. If we divide, I'm afraid these same people will find themselves without a home as two new denominations inevitably drift further to the right and left.

*I reject the language of "practicing homosexual" because it implies that one can cease practicing a sexual orientation. I use this phrase only because it is the language we have in the Book of Discipline.