Archive for the ‘UMC’ Category

Yes, it’s a very bland and almost tedious title, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

Recently I explained my problems with taking one side or the other in the UMC’s ongoing response to General Conference 2019 (GC2019).  As I described with more detail, I don’t feel that either side–conservative/traditionalist or progressive/liberal/inclusivist–has made sufficient theological arguments based on critical exegesis of the Bible, which we claim as our primary authority.  I recently bumped into an article by on William B. Lawrence that effectively makes my point and raises an issue that deserves some exploration.

Lawrence argues that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” distorts and otherwise violates the UMC’s theology and doctrinal standards.  The “incompatible…” phrase refers to “the practice of homosexuality,” which by the letter of the current (2019) Discipline prohibits those engaged in “the practice of homosexuality” from entering the ordination process.  Moreover, same-gender marriage is prohibited.  Because Methodism never developed a single doctrinal statement, it synthesizes its doctrine from a variety of sources, which include its Articles of Religion (adapted from those of the Church of England and the Evangelical United Brethren Church), and a particularly revered collection of John Wesley’s sermons plus some of his journals and his notes on the New Testament (forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two).  Even with this rather chaotic framework for its doctrine, Methodism has a structure for theological reflection that is called the Quadrilateral, with its four vertices being church tradition (teaching), reason, experience, and in the preeminent position, the Bible.

But that stuff isn’t what Lawrence leans on.  Instead, he argues his position for doing away with “incompatible with Christian teaching” because it violates the General Rules of Our Methodist Societies (so called by John Wesley).  The General Rules are a trinity of ethical statements:
(1)  Do no harm.
(2)  Do all the good you can.
(3)  Attend to the ordinances of God (I.E. do those things that maintain one’s relationship with God).

The problem Lawrence strays into is that, while he asserts that “incompatible with Christian teaching” has harmed LGBT persons, he maintains that this ethical violation is also a violation of our theology and doctrine, but he never substantiates this claim.  Instead, he seems to conflate ethics, theology, and doctrine.

While I accept his assertion that LGBT persons are experiencing the harm that comes from exclusion and discrimination based upon the current polity of the UMC, I am unwilling to use that ethical valuation to make claims about the UMC’s theological and doctrinal understandings.  Doing no harm is not an ethical position unique to Methodism.  Lawrence, like many (all?) of his progressive colleagues, needs to address what scripture and a few thousand years of church teaching say about homosexuality, as hostile as they may be.  They cannot simply be ignored because people are experiencing changed realities within our current societal culture.  Nor can we impose a generic ethic on the church and declare it doctrine without demonstrating how its roots dig down into scripture and church teaching.

None of this is to say that our ethical sense in these matters is invalid.  It may be that our ethics has gotten ahead of our theological and doctrinal formulations.  After all, the church has changed its doctrine and dogma over the centuries and our understanding of theology, even Biblical theology, isn’t entirely fixed.  However, acknowledging such change hardly gives license to avoiding the hard work of constructive, competent, and critical exegesis and theological reflection.

As someone occupying middle ground between conservatives/traditionalists and progressives/liberals in the UMC, I have been pushed to reflect on GC2019 and its aftermath. This piece comprises my observations regarding about the conference’s debate (if we can call it that) and the One Church Plan.

Point of disclosure: I was once both disaffected by the church and an Atheist, and can still look into the church from the outside. I am also the Peter Abelard of the UMC in that I question everything.

The following are issues and a question raised by GC2019 that are based on the following observation:

Neither the Commission on the Way Forward (CWF), progressives (Progs), nor the traditionalists (Trads) effectively argued their positions. The Progs and Trads simply presented their long-held and hardened positions and the CWF laid out its plan without any underlying justification based on our Wesleyan (or any) theological process.

ISSUE: There was a failure to look at the conflict over human sexuality, specifically how to approach non-cisgendered persons and the new realities they present the church, from an outside perspective. The conflict remained internecine with positions on all sides being presented but not adequately defended. It was a significant error to not give serious consideration to the perspective of NONES, the unchurched, those disaffected by the church, and Atheists, all of which are persons we are called to reach out to by The Great Commission. Had these perspectives been considered, I believe there might have been far more work put into establishing the positions that were taken rather than simply putting them forward. It was most disappointing that the CWF presented their One-Church Plan with the implicit assumption that no one outside the UMC would be interested in the denomination’s debate, thus they failed to include critical arguments regarding the Bible, church tradition, current understandings of sociological and psychological issues, and the dynamics of lived experience.

QUESTION: What is the exegetical, ecclesial, and pastoral position of Trads and Progs that takes into account the best biblical scholarship and exegetical practices, the historical scope of church teaching from a wide perspective (I.E. not just about human sexuality), sociological and psychological understandings, and the lived experience of real people (both cisgendered and LGBT)?

Both Trads and Progs needed to present critical, detailed arguments to support their positions. Neither did this.

Trads simply claimed homosexuality a sin, marriage as comprising a man and woman, and biblical authority as if they owned the Bible and its exegesis yet they did not make the case for why they believe they are right (more specifically, they did not make the case to someone who does not hold the same perspective and presuppositions). They also leaned on church teaching as if it never changes. If that were so then the Bible would still be in Latin and withheld from laity, and we might still be burning witches following trial by the Inquisition.

On the surface, it seems that Trads look at experience and reason somewhat abstractly rather than as integral parts of who we are as humans created in God’s image. If we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a rubric for theological reflection, then what I have observed is that Trads address Bible and tradition while ignoring reason and experience (or they look upon them with skepticism).

Progs were just as presumptuous, claiming that because LGBT persons suffer exclusion and disaffection due to language in the Discipline, then that language needs to be removed. They claim a felt need for inclusion in a church that has failed to keep up with changes in society, but they have not addressed how changing the position of the church is not mere cultural accommodation. If the church means to be the counter-cultural reflection of the kingdom of God, then more needs to be said by Progs as to how their position comports with almost 2,000 years of biblical exegesis and church teaching. They need to address what the Bible says about human sexuality (specifically homosexuality) and the composition of marriage as we claim the Bible as our primary authority. They need to address the church’s historical positions on these matters as well.

ISSUE: During GC2019 debates, an number of Trads argued Jesus’ teaching on marriage from what I consider to be a manipulated eisegetical viewpoint. Over and over, Matthew 19.4-6 was cited as the argument that Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and woman, thus same-gendered marriage is wrong. I believe this interpretation reads too much into the text and does so in order to support the Trads’ position on marriage. A close and more extensive read shows that the context is a question about divorce, not about the composition of marriage. In his answer, Jesus was reciting the traditional rubric about marriage found in Genesis 1.27 and 2.24 in order to set up his argument against divorce in Matthew 19.6-9. In other words, Jesus was not teaching about the composition of marriage, which no one in his audience would have questioned, but about commitment to the marriage covenant. Trads needed to work a lot harder to establish their claim that Jesus taught heterosexual marriage.

Let us in The United Methodist Church stop calling ourselves, or even aspiring to be, countercultural.  We have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are thoroughly accommodated and inured to our 21st century American culture.

Lest you think I am adding my voice to those of conservatives who decry the an accommodation to society’s cultural mores regarding human sexuality by progressive UMs and conferences such as the Michigan Area Conference, such is not what I have in mind.  Instead, I am taking a much broader view and seeing a UM church comprised of conservatives/traditionalists/evangelicals and progressives/liberals that looks like the greater culture in which it lives.

I had hoped, at the start of General Conference 2019 and again at the start of the Michigan Annual Conference 2019 that its delegates would do what we have forgotten how to do in our society’s public discourse: hold constructive conversations that present the issues of the day in depth so that opposing views (and opposing sides) might be understood and considered.  I had hoped that there would be substantive theological and ecclesial debate in which both conservative and progressive view would be compellingly defended.

Instead, from GC2019 through MAC2019, the pattern of presentation (the word debate is inappropriate) was like that in our national discourse.  Each side raised their flag, stated their position without defending it, labeled the other, and assumed the other performed political maneuvering to undercut the other.

Conservatives claimed adherence to orthodox biblical authority and church tradition regarding homosexuality without arguing why their position remains the necessary one today after so much in the church has evolved in the last two millennia (for example, we no longer attribute mental illness to demon possession, withhold the bible from the laity, or treat divorce as a sin leading to excommunication).  Nor did they address the suffering caused to LGBTQIA+ by their position, nor current scientific understanding of sexuality and sexual identity beyond calling anything other than cis-gendered heterosexuality a sin.

Progressives appealed to the pain LGBTQIA+ feel when confronted with language such as “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibitions against ordination and same-sex marriage without dealing with almost two millennia of church tradition regarding human sexuality, and, more importantly, the passages in the Bible that speak quite forcefully about homosexuality.  They did not defend their position in a way the church, with the Bible as its primary source for theology and authority, could embrace let alone understand.

I realize that what I wanted to see—thoughtful, constructive, and critical debate—would have been hard work.  Unfortunately, without that debate all that was accomplished was the further separation and solidification of the opposing positions with an unhealthy dash of suspicion and distrust thrown in.

We had a chance to be countercultural and we wasted it.  We call each other names (using labels), raise our flags of “orthodoxy” and “inclusive love”, and eye each other warily across the ever widening divide.  How is this different than the world around us?