Cross-Talk in the UMC

Cross-Talk in the UMC April 23, 2017

UMC Core ValuesWith the United Methodist Judicial Council meeting next week to consider several cases related to human sexuality the interwebs are abuzz with debate, particularly about Bishop Oliveto, who was an acting leader and was consecrated as bishop while married to another woman.

As I read the various blogs and multiple responses one thing becomes clear. United Methodist discussions about human sexuality, while polarized into pro-LGBTQ marriage and ordination and anti-LBGTQ marriage and ordination, involve so many and varied appeals to authority and types or arguments that trying to delineate them might give a little clarity.

  1. Biblical Arguments. Differences in interpretation seem inevitable because similar historical/critical methods are deployed but on the basis of fundamentally different assumptions about the relationship of Jesus to the Bible. For some United Methodists Jesus is the author of inclusion, challenging the excluding religious teaching of his time. Others see Jesus as the one who restores through grace a fallen creation in part by calling his disciples back into God’s natural order. These aren’t mutually exclusive positions until one seeks a criterion to distinguish between ancient religious norms and God’s natural order. Is that criterion the inclusive core of Jesus teaching? Or is it the difference between unchanging moral law and laws of ritual and identity confined to Israel?
  2. Arguments from the early church. Here the word “orthodoxy” can create confusion. To some it simply means the theological affirmations of the ecumenical creeds and the apostles creed. To others it means the entire teaching and practice of the church for which the creeds are normative theological statements. So both pro and anti sides in the debate can claim to be upholding orthodoxy, depending on the limits they place on its meaning.
  3. Arguments from Wesley and the distinctly Methodist tradition. As with arguments from scripture, arguments from Wesley’s writings and the larger Methodist tradition can look at the same documents and come to different interpretations. The pro people tend to interpret the Methodist tradition in light of Wesley’s strong emphasis on God’s love understood as radically inclusive. The anti people don’t deny the emphasis on God’s love, but don’t see it implying an every widening realm of inclusion of what Wesley, following Christian tradition, regarded as sin.
  4. Arguments from God’s providence at work in history. Here the pro people argue that God has providentially led humans generally and Christians specifically to better understandings of both gender and sexual relations that open the door for a greater variety of morally good sexual relationships. The anti people typically argue that God has providentially provided the church as a bulwark resisting the rebellion against God’s order that modernity calls social progress. Typically the pro people deny that they antinomian, and on the contrary argue that they are open to learning dimensions of God’s order lost in pre-modern worldviews. Typically the anti people deny that they they are legalists or embrace a pre-modern worldview and insist that discipline to an order is an essential manifestation of God’s grace and serving Christ.
  5. Arguments about the basis of valid ministry. Typically the pro people argue that the ultimate basis on which the validity of an ordained ministry must be judged is it fruits, and that ministry by LGBTQ persons living in committed relations or marriages is as fruitful as ministry by straight people. Typically the anti people argue that the basis on which the validity of and ordained ministry must be judged is its place within the order of the church, and this in turn relates to the legality of the ordination process.
  6. Legal arguments. Tedious and possibly tendencious arguments are being made on all sides. I have no expertise to judge or even characterize them. I’ll simply note that successive General Conferences appear to have rejected decisively both same-sex marriage and ordination of those living in such a relationship. Whether that rejection has been adequately translated into church law so as to comprehensively exclude all possible ways to circumvent the will of the General Conference is for the Judicial Council to decide.

One theme runs through these arguments and in some ways shows their relationship to similar debates in other religions. On one side are those who argue that Christianity is about certain essential principles that must be enacted in different ways in different times. For them the Bible and all successive Christian tradition is a contextual document, telling us how those principles were to be enacted in a particular places and times. The combination of general principles and specific instances of their realization over time helps us clearly understand the principles, but doesn’t force us to accept those enactments as precedents that must be followed.

On the other side are those who argue that Christianity is precisely about fidelity to the precedents set by Christ, his apostles, and the apostolic church. The principles of Christianity are not mere abstractions, but specific structures, laws, and actions commanded by Christ that must be upheld in all cultural and historical contexts.

A second theme, also common to other religions, relates to whether sexuality is an essential part of human identity that must be enacted for a person to live as a full human being. The pro side tends to regard sexuality as something that must have the potential for being enacted if a person to live as a full human being, with that fulfillment limited by and fully realized within any relationship of genuine consent and mutual fidelity. The anti side may or may not regard sexuality as essential to human personhood, but rejects the idea that it must be enacted for a person to live as a full human being. For some sexuality can be enacted in male-female relationship taking place in one or a series of consensual exclusive relationships. For others sexuality will find fulfillment in abstinence.

As I look over this short list of both arguments and the ways in which they are deployed, not to mention the actual blogs, Facebook posts, news articles, and public debates between the two sides, I can only conclude that we no longer have dialogue. We have cross-talk. While both sides talk about scripture, tradition, Wesley, God’s providence, discipline, and humanity these words mean different things to them.

Given that I know fine and faithful people on both sides of the debate I can only conclude that these two different approaches are rooted in two different experiences of the God’s Spirit. At this time those different experiences have created incompatible responses of faith and action, even as a response in faith and action is absolutely necessary to being a follower of Christ.

The Body of Christ has been through this before. What one might hope is that in the midst of inevitable separation into two different polities (because if we cannot act together we must act apart) we might at least accept one another as Christians, and indeed as Christians bound within the Wesleyan tradition.

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