Maybe it’s because I covered religion in Colorado during the 1980s, but I find it so, so amusing that people are writing about the conflicts in the United Methodist Church as if they are brand new, or that the current uptick in ecclesiastical hostilities is unprecedented.
People, people, the United Methodists have been caught up in a doctrinal civil war, to one degree or another, ever since the Rev. Julian Rush of Denver came out of the closet in about 1982. A story that doesn’t include the larger time element is simply incomplete.
This is not hard to do. The activists on both sides know the history. Consider this chunk of a recent Associated Press report:
Since 2011, Methodist advocates for gay marriage have been recruiting clergy to openly officiate at same-sex ceremonies in protest of church policy. In response, theological conservatives have sought formal complaints against the defiant clergy, which could lead to church trials. One scholar has warned that Methodists are “retreating into our various camps” instead of seeking a resolution over an issue the church has formally debated since the 1970s.
“At this point, we have kind of come to the place where we know what the brute facts are,” said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for gay and lesbian Methodists. “Most folks, after 40 years of trying legislative solutions, realize they won’t work. The way forward is to claim what we know to be true. And we’re going to continue doing it in an aggressive way.”
Note the embedded “40 years” reference. Also, later in the story, there is this crucial reference to time:
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has called same-gender relationships “incompatible with Christian teaching” and has banned clergy from taking actions contrary to that position. … The church has also declared itself “dedicated to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientations” and has committed to supporting “certain basic human rights and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Theological conservatives see no inconsistencies among those positions. Advocates for gays and lesbians do. They have debated at every national legislative meeting, or General Conference, for four decades with the same result: the “incompatible” language — and the related prohibitions — have stayed.
This story also does a solid job of explaining the the regional and global angles of this conflict, which has affected the outcome. The growing segments of the American church are in the Sunbelt and more theologically conservative. The more liberal elements of the church, in the far West, the upper Midwest and the Northeast, are in statistical decline.
Meanwhile, more conservative churches in Africa and the Global South are experiencing rapid growth and, thus, their power in the United Methodist system is on the rise. This is a truly global church and that is a key element of the story.
So what is missing?
The key is hidden in a passage quoted earlier:
Theological conservatives see no inconsistencies among those positions. Advocates for gays and lesbians do.
It’s not enough to call the other side of the debate “advocates for gays and lesbians,” because that is not the only issue that is up for debate. There are so many other issues be debated that it’s accurate to say that the entire concept of a denomination built on a shared approach to doctrine and church law is up for grabs. As sociologists noted back in the 1980s, there are six or seven different United Methodist bodies in the larger whole, defined by region and by theological approach.
From the viewpoint of the doctrinal left, the fight is over justice and equality for homosexuals. That’s an essential point of view.
From the viewpoint of the doctrinal right, the primary fight is over biblical authority and a wide range of issues that flow out of that subject, issues linked to Christology, salvation, etc.
Both of these perspectives need to be covered in a balanced, accurate story about the schism that is slowly but surely splitting this major denomination. To frame the conflict as a fight over gay rights, alone, is to frame the entire story in the point of view of activists on one side. That is too simplistic.
You end up with language such as this:
Thomas Frank, a Wake Forest University professor who specializes in Methodist history and governance, wrote an open letter to the church’s bishops, urging them to end the trials. He warned that Methodists have been “retreating into our various camps” and were in desperate need of an open conversation.
“The continuation of church trials is a disgrace to our heritage,” Frank wrote. “It is divisive, bringing interference from interest groups outside the annual conference and introducing the language of `prosecution’ `defense team,’ `conviction,’ `judge,’ and `jury’ to our church as if we were all players in `Law and Order.’ We are not considering criminal acts; we are deliberating about pastoral judgment.”
So where is the other half of the story? Might I suggest, again, that journalists consider asking a wider range of questions. Take, for example, the “tmatt trio.”
(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
Ask the questions. Listen to the information, and the nuances, in the answers. The bottom line: Try to see the bigger story, the story that includes the gay-rights debate, but impacts other issues as well.