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The Worldly Politics of the United Methodist Church

united methodist church

John Wesley once wrote that “Unity and holiness are the two things I want most among Methodists.”   The Church’s fights over homosexuality are robbing Methodism of both.

The United Methodist Church has been in the news recently, and will be again soon, because of the Church trials of the Rev. Frank Schaefer and Bishop Melvin Talbert, two United Methodist Clergy who have officiated at same-sex wedding ceremonies.  The trials have been the focus of a great deal of attention within the Church, as pundits and activists have debated the charges, the shape of the trial, and the sentence for Rev. Schaefer (who was given thirty days to promise that he will not officiate at another homosexual wedding, or lose his license).

Despite the intrinsic significance of these events, I want to raise some broader issues by focusing on the pundits and activists themselves, and how they have participated in this political process.  I focus here because ultimately, how we behave within the covenant community of the Church when we disagree often tells us more about ourselves than the particular things on which we disagree.

Before getting into the sordid details, however, it is useful to provide some context.  While it is organized into regional Annual Conferences which are overseen by assigned Bishops, the United Methodist Church as a whole is governed by a council of representatives, the General Conference, which gathers once every four years for two weeks in order, among other things, to revise The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (which, in addition to serving other purposes, promulgates Church law).  The most recent of these conferences was held in 2012.  Since 1972, when the statements were originally crafted, every General Conference has witnessed efforts to revise the statements in The Book of Discipline about homosexuality.  More recently these efforts have also focused on same-sex marriages.  This same period has also witnessed occasional acts of ecclesial disobedience where ministers have acted in defiance of the statements in the Discipline.  Despite these efforts, the language has remained the same.  The Book of Discipline states that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman (although, it elsewhere also endorses equal rights regardless of sexual orientation).

In the 2012 General Conference, the most viable effort to change The Book of Discipline was offered by a resolution which would have replaced the claim about “incompatibility” with language that acknowledged that United Methodists do not agree on issues surrounding homosexuality.  The suggested change was defeated.

 

LBGT Advocacy and Ecclesial Disobedience 

Despite this legislative defeat, pro-LGBT advocates lost no time in challenging the Church’s stance in practice.  Bishop Sally Dyck issued a statement supporting civil manifestations of same-sex marriage, and Bishop Talbert began actively encouraging United Methodist Clergy to participate in ecclesial disobedience by performing same-sex wedding services.

The Good News organization, an institutional wing of the conservative Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church, reacted quickly in criticizing such maneuvers, issuing a statement claiming that, by advocating “a minority position that is at odds with the stated position of the church” Bishop Dyck was fostering “disunity” and deepening “the sense of disconnect felt by many United Methodist members.”  The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the Vice President of Good News, echoed this theme in his own comments when he claimed that Bishops Dyck and Talbert were “engaging in activities that tend to undermine the unity of the United Methodist Church.”

Such arguments did little or nothing to deter those who sought to test the will of the Church on same-sex marriage. Talbert, in explicit defiance of The Book of Discipline performed a same-sex wedding ceremony on October 26th, 2013.

At this point, attention shifted to the Council of Bishops, the members of which have the responsibility for bringing charges for violation of the Discipline, and the whole of which would be responsible for bringing charges against Bishop Talbert. On Nov. 13th, in anticipation of the meeting of the Council, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Franks, an expert on United Methodist polity, shared an open letter to the Bishops.  In this letter he argued that the Bishops had it within their power to refuse “to refer complaints to counsel for the church and subsequent trial.”  He further argued that the divisive effects of Church trials stood as a present threat to the United Methodist Church as a whole, and thus justified such refusal to refer complaints from the Bishops’ particular Annual Conferences.

Good News again responded, plausibly claiming that “Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage.”  Citing The Book of Discipline on the role of Church trials, Good News’ statement noted the “holy covenant that exists within the membership and organization of The United Methodist Church” (Discipline, ¶363.1 and 362.2).

That “holy covenant” includes not only the clergy in a given annual conference, but all clergy and laity of the global United Methodist connection.  As members of one body, we are members of one another.  As such, there can be no such thing as “interference” from United Methodists “outside the annual conference.”  What affects one of us, affects us all.

It is hard to deny the strength of these claims. Regardless of the validity of Franks’ argument for the de jure power of the Bishops, it is hard not to see such an argument as an attempt to evade the spirit of the language endorsed by the General Conference.   Further, given the disagreement amongst particular bishops, the result of following Franks’ suggestion would most likely be each Annual Conference enforcing its own policy. As such, it is hard to see how this would actually maintain the unity of the Church in any robust way.

In the end, the Council of Bishops did not follow Franks’ suggestion.  Rather, the Council referred charges against Bishop Talbert, and Schaefer’s trial for officiating at his gay son’s wedding in 2007 followed days behind.

The outcome of the first trial has, if anything, only ratcheted up the conflict in the Church.  Within days of Schaefer’s verdict in mid-November, Love Prevails, a pro-LGBT group, disrupted the meeting of the Connectional Table, an administrative body for the United Methodist Church.  Lambrecht, of Good News, chastised this activity, stating that: “There is a difference between convincing people and intimidating people by force to attempt to change their minds.”  He advocated that the leaders of the Church stand up to such “bullying tactics” from Love Prevails, so as to avoid being “held hostage to an ideological agenda that is a distortion of the Gospel.”

 

Coercive Politics and Good News

Throughout this recent debate, Good News has represented itself as vouchsafing two central United Methodist values: (1) the unity of the tradition, and (2) the outcome of the established process of discernment in the General Conference.  This position has strengthened Good News’ rhetorical strength against those who are currently participating in ecclesial disobedience.   However, Good News’ professions to hold these values as central deserves further scrutiny.

Every General Conference is surrounded by political maneuvering, and Good News has been a major player in this maneuvering around homosexuality.  As it turns out, one of Good News’ most consistent moves is to warn that its constituents are likely to leave the United Methodist Church, or bring the denomination to schism if the General Conference changes the language in The Book of Discipline about homosexuality.

Take, for instance, the following examples: In preparation for General Conference in 2000, Good News sent delegates a video, warning of “a church split or substantial defection of members, churches and clergy” over issues related to homosexuality.  In 2004, calls for splitting the denomination at a meeting of the Charismatic Movement at the General Conference became so disruptive, that it was necessary for the General Conference to hold a vote affirming the unity of the church.  Before the 2012 General Conference, on a blog at Good News, Lambrecht quoted Wolfhart Pannenberg: “Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism.”

Such statements ought not to be read only as descriptions of the situation, or as mere reactions to progressive acts of ecclesial disobedience.  These are political claims, intended to influence the process of discernment in the General Conference itself.  This is all to say that Good News, which has been positioning itself as the patron of Church unity and the Church’s deliberative process, influenced that process by warning that its constituency is willing to give up on the Church’s unity and walk away from the outcomes of the Church’s deliberative process if those outcomes were not in line with its position on homosexuality.

 

In Necessariis Unitas

If the kind of maneuvering outlined above sounds familiar, it should.  One needs look no further than the evening news to see state and federal government embroiled in partisan political struggles that bear a remarkable parallels to what is happening in the United Methodist Church.  In the midst of these struggles, manipulating the process of discernment itself has become a viable means in achieving our goals, and we have lost our ability to speak truthfully to one another in the midst of discernment.  Despite the Methodist language of “grace upon grace” we have fallen into a definitively graceless brawl where our unity is constantly threatened, and our holiness is cast out the window for any sign of advantage in the fight.  The Church is imitating the world.

What then shall be done?  Here, it is useful to return to the Augustinian dictum: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  While there are no issues which would warrant the kind of political doublespeak we have seen recently in the United Methodist Church, there are issues in the Church which warrant division, or rather, which warrant a refusal to accept compromise for the sake of social harmony.  These issues are the essential teachings of the Church.  Unfortunately, the United Methodist Church seems recently to be confused about which issues fall into this category.  As the Rev. Dr. David Watson, Dean and Vice President at United Theological Seminary, recently wrote: “We argue vociferously about sexuality; rarely do we become as animated about the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Many members of the United Methodist Church have come to believe that the Church’s position vis-à-vis homosexuality is an essential (and for some it appears to be the essential) issue of the faith, such that it is worth breaking the unity of the Church if the Church does not embrace their view of the issue in toto.  This confusion is at the root of our current struggle.  It has led to unnecessary strife within the Body of Christ and has hindered the Church’s witness to the world by sidetracking our energy from proclaiming the gospel and fulfilling our mission on more central social issues, such as ministering to the poor.

If we are concerned about unity and we value the ability of our Church to speak truth, we ought to have the courage to admit the truth that the General Conference of 2012 would not: that we find ourselves in deep disagreement on this issue and that it is not essential to our unity in the Body of Christ.  This would have allowed United Methodist ministers the liberty that is appropriate in nonessential issues.  Unfortunately, we have another three years before we have the opportunity to find out of the Church has gained the courage to correct our priorities and speak this truth.  In the mean time, I pray that the Holy Spirit holds us together through the trials that will come until then.

One Comment

  1. The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads between what they know as biblical truth or the distorted “truth” of the LGBT and liberal factions within the organization. The basic premise of scripture is to define truth and illustrate the struggles we face in order to conform to that truth. The Church, and we, are continually tested and challenged to follow God’s teachings, or not. This is a defining moment for the Church, are you going to be steadfast and follow Christ’s teachings or succumb to the challenge? It’s as simple as that. We, who are members of the UMC community, expect the Church to lead the way in holding fast to biblical teachings, even though it may not be popular with some and may conflict with the way in which the liberal left factions within the Church, want to change the Church to be more like their distorted picture of what they want it to look like. If the Church decides to cave, it will send a loud signal to it’s members, that it no longer follows Christian Doctrine or Scripture, and has given in to a distorted reality. If that happens, an unprecedented exodus will occur and the Church will be in ruin. This is an opportunity for Church leaders to stand up and declare their full support of God’s teachings loudly and boldly.

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