Archives for April 2015

Does Process Matter?

therefore-go-umc-gc2016The Commission on General Conference recently announced a new process for handling sexuality-related (and perhaps other) legislation at the 2016 General Conference.  The new process, patterned after one used by the United Church of Australia, gives an opportunity for more thorough discussion by all the delegates.  Breaking up into small groups of about 15, delegates will discuss the legislative proposals and channel feedback to a Facilitators group.  The Facilitators group will then compile the feedback, report to General Conference what it heard, and submit revised legislation based on the feedback.

This new process would provide more opportunity for all the delegates to speak with one another about the sensitive and emotional concerns we all have regarding sexuality and marriage.  The conversation in the small groups would not be directed toward a parliamentary process, but toward expressing opinions within a small group.  If properly implemented, this conversational approach holds promise for defusing the rancor that often besets our dealings about the church’s ministry with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.

There are a number of concerns, however.  Just as at the 2012 General Conference, if not properly implemented, these conversations could prove to be a waste of time or even harmful to participants.  There are many logistical challenges, such as providing translation for over 50 small groups.

Most problematic is giving a group of six Facilitators the task of revising legislation that is usually carried out by a legislative committee of 60-80 delegates.  Even when carried out with the best of intentions, the process has the potential to distort the feedback of the small groups and unfairly influence the form the legislation takes as a result.  We listen and prioritize what we hear through our own theological and experiential filters, and that can have a dramatic effect upon what is heard and given importance.  The Facilitators group is supposed to consist of “impartial” delegates nominated by the Council of Bishops.  I wonder if there are any such delegates out there.

Once the listening and revising is finished, we will return to Roberts’ Rules of Order and deal with the revised legislation in the normal (adversarial?) manner.  After having had the conversations, will the atmosphere be different?  Perhaps.  This experiment is an effort to find out.

What the new process will not and cannot change is the underlying division within our church body.  There are committed people of conscience with various perspectives who will not be able to compromise on their principles.  At the end of the day, the General Conference will still need to deal with the ongoing tearing apart of our covenant through acts of disobedience.  It will still need to deal with the deep theological disagreements over marriage and sexuality, overlaying even deeper disagreements over our theology of church, the meaning, interpretation, and authority of Scripture, and even the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The General Conference will still need to make a decision: will we allow pastors to perform same-sex weddings or not?  Will we ordain persons to ministry who are active in a same-sex relationship or not?  There will still be persons of deep conscience who will not be able to abide by the decision of General Conference, no matter which way it goes.  How will General Conference provide for the dissenters?

The new process being proposed may help provide more talk time for the delegates, perhaps increase understanding and a feeling of participating in the decision.  On the other hand, it could end up causing harm or slanting the results.  Either way, however, no process (new or old) can be a “magic wand” that will somehow enable us all to give up our disagreements and sing “Kum Ba Yah.”  We can only prayerfully seek God’s will to the best of our ability as aided by the Holy Spirit and with an attitude of humility and love.  Hopefully, that will be enough to help guide our church to a faithful future.

Looking at the UM Church from Different Angles

river-through-a-magnifying-glass-photography-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080-2545The press release from the Methodist Federation for Social Action about a closed door meeting with the Commission on the General Conference provides an interesting way to compare how progressives and evangelicals view the current situation in our church.  Good News president Rob Renfroe and I, along with Confessing Movement representatives Maxie Dunnam and Kim Reisman, also attended this meeting and shared in the conversation with the Commission and the LGBTQ representatives.  It was good that the Commission wanted to hear from different parts of the church, as the Commission works to perfect the process to be used at the 2016 General Conference.  Good News was glad to be part of that conversation.

The MFSA press release begins, “The issue of whether the United Methodist Church will continue to discriminate against LGBTQ people is of paramount importance to the future and viability of the church.”  The LGBTQ narrative continues to be around the issues of “rights” and “discrimination” in the church.  That narrative assumes that the sexual practices of LGBTQ persons are inherently morally neutral or even to be affirmed.  If that were so, of course LGBTQ persons ought to be treated as if those sexual practices did not matter to the question of whether they could be married to same-gender persons in the church or be ordained to serve in ministry.

Traditionalists and evangelicals, however, do not agree with the basic premise – we believe, as the church teaches, that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.  For Methodism, the narrative has always been about holiness and living in obedience to Christ’s commands, while at the same time supporting civil rights and opposing legal discrimination.  The essence of Methodism is to “spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  One aspect of that mission is to bring all of our sexual practices (whether we are same-sex attracted or opposite-sex attracted) into conformity with God’s will.  The church therefore expressly supports sexual relations only within monogamous heterosexual marriage.

That LGBTQ activists declare this “issue” to be “of paramount importance to the future and viability of the church” is surprising, given that UM Communications’ recent survey put issues of homosexuality in eighth place on the list of important issues as seen by church members.  Traditionalists and evangelicals are often accused of singling out homosexuality as the one issue of importance to the church, but it is in fact those advocating for change who have elevated this discussion to “paramount importance.”

For traditionalists and evangelicals, the crisis in the church is not caused by disagreements over homosexuality, but by the refusal of parts of the church to live by the covenant that governs the body or respect the discernment of the General Conference – the one body authorized to speak for the whole church.  We would be perfectly willing to continue studying, discussing, and debating the church’s stance of ministry with LGBTQ persons indefinitely, seeking a consensus around God’s will on this question.  But the inability of the church to command the loyalty of its leaders and members to the long-time policies of the church threatens to break apart the church body.

There are a couple things that traditionalists and evangelicals can agree on with LGBTQ activists.

  • Preventing harm from occurring to LGBTQ people – there is no justification for demonizing LGBTQ people, calling them derogatory names, or otherwise verbally assaulting them.  We are all human beings together, and all ought to be treated with dignity and respect.
  • We agree that consideration, debate, and action on proposals around homosexuality should take place toward the beginning of the plenary week as a way of helping the General Conference deal with this question and move forward in a well-considered and positive way, not unduly constrained by the pressure of a fast-approaching deadline.

The MFSA statement insists that “in the context of discrimination and oppression true dialogue can never occur.  Genuine dialogue requires equality, and in the UMC that equality does not exist.”  We must prayerfully strive to recognize that all persons are inherently of equal and sacred worth.  (For example, 85 percent of the language in the Social Principles paragraph on homosexuality is positive and affirming of the equal worth of LGBTQ persons.)

However, this complaint about the lack of equality making true dialogue impossible seems to be a way to “stack the deck” against the church’s teaching on homosexuality.  It implies that true dialogue can only take place if the church changes its position and grants the demands of LGBTQ activists as a pre-condition for dialogue.  Such a requirement makes no sense.  It is perfectly possible for two groups to strive to understand each other and respect each other’s points of view, even if there is inequality in the relationship.

Finally, I was troubled by the MFSA statement’s announcement that its goal is “ending the oppression of queer people by the United Methodist Church.”  It is difficult to know what the LGBTQ activists mean by “queer people.”  Is this a blanket term to refer to all LGBT persons?  Is it a general term for a variety of sexual inclinations and practices going beyond even LGBT?  It seems the scope of LGBTQ activism keeps expanding, and the church needs to take care that we are not co-opted into endorsing all manner of sexual inclinations and practices under the guise of “ending oppression.”

It is hard for traditionalists and evangelicals to credit the notion that “queer people” are “oppressed” by the church.  The church’s approach to sin is to teach biblical truth, call all persons to repentance and amendment of life, and offer mercy, forgiveness, and support in overcoming sin in one’s life.  Regardless of the sin, that is the approach the church should take, recognizing that we are all guilty of sin and fall short of God’s standard – no one is better than anyone else in this regard.  And it is perfectly legitimate for the church to expect that its members and leaders abide by church teaching in the carrying out of their ministry.

It is evident that LGBTQ activists see the current situation of the church very differently than do traditionalists and evangelicals.  We can and should learn from each other’s perspectives.  In the final analysis, however, it remains to be seen whether these two widely divergent world views can be reconciled within one church body.

More Bad News about Cohabitation

boxesIn all the discussion about same-sex marriage, what must not be lost is that heterosexual marriage is at grave risk, and the biggest risk factor is cohabitation before or instead of marriage.  Viewed by many as a “trial marriage” or a stepping stone to a healthy marriage, cohabitation is instead a living arrangement that increases the risk of all sorts of physical and psychological ills – for both the cohabitants and their children.

An recent article by Dr. Patricia Lee June, a physician and board member of the American College of Pediatricians lists the surprisingly many adverse consequences of cohabitation as a prelude or substitute for marriage.  Some of the more prominent adverse effects include:

  • Marriages preceded by cohabitation are 50 percent more likely to end in divorce
  • Women are more than nine times more likely to be killed by a cohabiting partner than by their husband
  • Severe violence is four times as common among cohabiting couples
  • Men who cohabit without marrying in 5 to 10 years have more than double the rate of alcohol abuse as married men; women have four to seven times the rate of alcohol abuse
  • Cohabiters have more than triple the rate of infidelity as married spouses
  • Cohabiting women are 10 times more likely to have an abortion; 89 percent of women who have had abortions have at one time cohabited; 40 percent of women who have had abortions have lived with three or more men
  • One-fourth of teens and 19 percent of cohabiting women overall become pregnant within six months of cohabiting
  • Children living with a parent and an unmarried partner have 20 times the risk of sexual abuse and eight times the risk of all maltreatment
  • While 62 percent of children of married parents were still living with them at age 15, only 37 percent of children born of cohabiting parents were still living with both biological parents at that age
  • Children whose parents lived together, whether before or after their birth, are at increased risk for living in poverty and experiencing school failure from first grade through college
  • Cohabitation increases the risk of broken relationships/divorce for the children involved, perpetuating the cycle

The complete report of the American College of Pediatricians is available HERE.

We in the church ought not to be ashamed or reluctant to promote biblical values regarding marriage and sexuality.  Not only does fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness coincide with God’s original design for human relationships, but (not surprisingly) it yields the healthiest outcomes for adults and their children alike.

While the bad news is that more young people are now first cohabiting than are marrying without cohabitation, the good news is that the church can offer hope through Jesus Christ.  Even bad choices can be redeemed and forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The power of the Holy Spirit, along with a positive Christian community that provides love and support, can reverse the effects of poor and sinful choices.  And we can continue to teach our people – from children through adults – biblical values around marriage and sexuality, encouraging healthy and godly choices.

As Dr. June puts it, “The institution of marriage is one of the best and most cost effective public health tools society has. Adolescents and young adults should be encouraged to save sexual relationships for marriage to achieve optimal health for themselves, their children and society at large.”  The Lord knew what he was talking about when he lifted up his plan for our human relationships.