United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate

United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate June 8, 2014

Amid talk of a possible schism over homosexuality, the United Methodist Church is back in the news.

On the heels of an exceedingly positive profile of Methodist gay-rights advocate Frank Schaefer, the Washington Post reported this weekend:

Hundreds of American pastors from the United Methodist Church have signed a proposal released Friday that aims to keep the global denomination of 12.5 million members from splitting over the issue of homosexuality.

It offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on issues like affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal, titled “A Way Forward,” includes some prominent pastors, including Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The gist of the proposal, as described by the Post:

“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.

“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”

The response from those opposed to budging on homosexuality? More from the Post:

It wasn’t possible to get immediate comment from the leaders of the traditional wing of the church, but the proposal came a few weeks after a group of conservative pastors issued a call of their own for “a way forward” that sounded more like a request to split.

It wasn’t possible? Seriously, what does that mean? Would the traditional leaders not answer their phones? Did the Post get the story too close to deadline? (But give the Post credit for including after that paragraph the most recent statements from the denomination’s traditional wing.)

In most of the reporting on debates such as this, you have one side pushing for something — such as compromise on the issue of homosexuality — and another side opposing it. To a large extent, that’s the nature of news. At the same time, these debates — in real life — often are marked by as much gray as black and white.

With that in my mind, I found a Florida Today story this weekend refreshing in that it reflected the complexity of the discussion among many Methodists:

The Rev. John Hill would rather talk about anything else: Jesus, feeding the poor, helping someone in need.

But in recent weeks, Hill and other United Methodist pastors across the Space Coast and the nation are hearing more challenging conversations re-igniting heated passions over the future of his denomination.

“It’s distressing to me that we’re still focusing on minor issues, same-sex, homosexuality,” said Hill, senior pastor of the 2,700-member Suntree United Methodist Church in Melbourne, one of the largest Methodist congregations on the Space Coast.

Hill is also one of several hundred Methodist pastors who signed a statement Friday calling for the church to remain unified and respectful of differences over the issue.

“Others may feel different, but the real issues that Jesus called us to confront are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and not necessarily this issue. It’s maybe important but not essential.”

“What I signed calls for us to stay united and seeks to allow for more individuality among the congregations,” he said.

This big chunk of the story allows for a variety of nuanced perspectives:

Today, the Book of Discipline says homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching in the denomination, a guideline that for now forbids weddings or ceremonies celebrating same-sex unions. The Rev. Joe Jursa of Satellite Beach United Methodist Church, says that regardless of the discussion, he simply wants to focus on nurturing his congregation spiritually.

“My bottom line is that the Book of Discipline has not changed in the 38 years I’ve been doing this, and I’m pretty comfortable with where it is,” he said. “You do have people who get involved with politics or who have their own ideas. I’m worrying more about marrying and burying my folks, not people with strange ideas.”

Others agree. A new poll shows that more than 90 percent of the denomination’s members believe the church should not split over questions or concerns about human sexuality, according to the survey conducted by the Greensboro, N.C.-based Corporate Research and Research Now of Dallas. Another 63 percent of those surveyed said the controversy over same-sex marriage was diverting the church from other more important issues including poverty, falling membership and engaging youth.

Members like Mac McInnis, 76-year-old lifelong Methodist who leads the Saturday morning Bible study sessions at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Indialantic, feels that whatever same-sex couples “do out of the church, I wouldn’t have a problem with.” But the self-described conservative said that he would not approve of the church sanctioning or performing wedding vows for such couples.

“If they had a ceremony in the church, I wouldn’t go for it. I don’t believe in same-sex marriage. If the church did that, then I’m not sure I would want to stay. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but that’s what I believe.”

Look for more coverage nationally as the debate proceeds.

As much as some might like to focus on other issues, this one doesn’t seem likely to go away.

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15 responses to “United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate”

  1. I think Florida Today does a better job than the Washington Post on this topic, which shows — in what is becoming increasingly common — that journalists affiliated with national newspapers are often not doing as well at their craft as those underappreciated and underpaid writers at smaller papers. But of these two groups who gets the national attention? And more importantly, which journalists are writing the pieces that get picked up by the national wire services? The ones that are doing a worse job or the ones that are doing a better job?

    The Washington Post writer seems to be following the narrative presented by gay marriage advocates within the church, which is: why are conservatives getting upset over gay marriage when there are more important things the church ought to be concerning herself with, like poverty? Whereas the Florida Today writer at least allows the reader to hear conservatives who are saying: with so many problems like poverty that the church ought to be tackling, why do progressives continue to bring up gay marriage?

    It’s two ways of seeing the process that’s going on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by progressives that traditionalists in the church are the problem because they are obsessed with fighting against gay marriage. It never occurs to progressives that they might be the problem because they are obsessed with fighting for gay marriage.

    One way to check how the journalist is telling the story is to see how he or she describes the move towards secession: is it the conservatives who want to leave the denomination, or is it the progressives who want to leave the denomination?

    Journalists have an obligation to question the common narratives that are floating around, and make sure that proponents on all sides of this issue are given column space to voice their opinions.

    • You raise great points. I’ve worked as a local reporter and a national reporter. I think there has always been a lot of great journalism at the local level, often better than that at the national level.

      Whereas the Florida Today writer at least allows the reader to hear conservatives who are saying: with so many problems like poverty that the church ought to be tackling, why do progressives continue to bring up gay marriage?

      The pastor quoted in the lede would probably be seen as more of a “liberal,” right? He’s wanting to give churches the option of allowing same-sex ceremonies. I think what Florida Today does is allow more nuance on both sides.

      • (I still haven’t figured out how to add a quote with the fancy grey line in the margin)

        You said: “The pastor quoted in the lede would probably be seen as more of a ‘liberal,’ right? He’s wanting to give churches the option of allowing same-sex ceremonies. I think what Florida Today does is allow more nuance on both sides.”

        Yes. Good point. In my opinion, a nuanced approach to a controversial subject is a better journalistic technique.

        Regarding the pastor in the lede, his statement illustrates a narrative variation of what I was trying to point out: (paraphrased) “with problems like poverty all around us, why are traditionalists trying to prevent gay people from marrying? Why are they getting upset about gay marriage and not poverty?”

    • Could it be that the Post is used to talking to factional leaders often based in Washington, whereas a local paper often talks to the pastor (and Sunday school teacher) down the street; the local pastor is typically more apolitical. Also, the Post will lean towards casting things in a political rather than pastoral light compared to a local paper.

  2. I find it a bit disconcerting that you praised the Florida account which doesn’t have any quotes from the progressive wing, while criticizing the Post article that didn’t have any quotes from the traditionalist wing. Is it okay if it happens for one slant but not for the other?

    • The Florida story leads with a pastor who signed Friday’s proposal, which leads me to believe that he would fall into the progressive wing.

      On the Post article, the story did include quotes from the traditional wing – just not fresh ones. The question I raised concerned the “it wasn’t possible” wording.

  3. We hear so much about various Protestant churches and gay issues. How about something in the media about what is going on in Orthodox Christian circles on gay issues. Are Orthodox more likely to accept what liberal Protestants are saying about how wrong Christianity has been for 2,00 years??? Likewise, do they also ridicule the Bible as out of date or mistranslated???
    After all there are more Orthodox Christians in America than there are in any of the tiny Protestant churches in America (such as, I believe, Episcopalians.)

    • Are you saying orthodox or Eastern Orthodox? If so, there are not more Big-O Orthodox than the oldline liberal Prots.

      • I was thinking of all the Eastern Orthodox combined as compared to some of the individual smaller liberal churches that seem to get plenty of press. And who was that 4th man in black helping to plant a peace tree in the Vatican?? Was the Patriarch of Constantinople there or not ??? I only saw him mentioned once in the coverage of the prayer meeting and planting. Yet the Pope and the Patriarch working together may be the real big story going into the future.

  4. My essential question is this: Does this proposal essentially say that Methodists are tossing out their system of church government on this issue, becoming either congregational at the local level or somehow more regional/Presbyterian in approach. Why local option on this issue and not others? Is anyone asking that?

    • Even we Presbyterians know better than to try to decide such a momentous topic as this at the regional level. On both sides of this topic, every U.S. Presbyterian body has a national policy. The EPC has tried a similar approach on women ministers, and it hasn’t gone well.

  5. Have any of these news reports mentioned the fact that the UMC contains a strong non-U.S. contingent that greatly bolsters its traditionalist wing? Surely the proposal to decide this topic on a regional level is a recipe for allowing the pro-same-sex side to prevail throughout the U.S., because it renders the non-U.S. Methodists unable to contribute to the debate affecting U.S. churches. It seems rather important to note that this is not just a values-neutral proposal for peace.

    • Yes, here is a certain Chamberlain-esque quality to the “A Way Forward” proposal.

      “Peace in our time”? Right.

      If I were covering this issue as a journalist I would ask UMC proponents of gay marriage what they plan to do next if “A Way Forward” passes or doesn’t pass. Then I’d ask the UMC opponents of gay marriage the same question. I’d be really curious to know the long-term goals of each faction.

    • In response to your question, Matt …

      From the WPost story:

      Like many other religious denominations in the West, the United Methodist Church has been roiled in recent years over different views of human sexuality. Methodism, unlike some other denominations, is global and is seeing its more conservative branches in Africa and Asia become bigger and more influential.

      The proposal had no signers from outside the United States.

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