Archives for April 2018

New Social Principles: A First Look

The 2012 General Conference commissioned the Board of Church and Society to do a total rewrite of the United Methodist Social Principles. The project is moving toward completion with the publication of the first draft of the proposed new principles.

The aims in drafting the new principles were to make them:

  • More succinct
  • More theologically grounded
  • More globally relevant

Since their introduction in 1972, the Social Principles have been added to and elaborated on. It has grown from 42 paragraphs in 1980 to 76 paragraphs in 2016. In 1980, the Social Principles took up 18 pages in the Discipline, and in 2016 they took up 40 pages using smaller type! And there is no disputing that the perspective on social issues is extremely U.S. centric and often not applicable to countries in other parts of the world where 40 percent of United Methodists live.

In general, the new Social Principles accomplish the goals set for them. They are more succinct, scaling back to 60 paragraphs instead of 76 and substantially shortening some of the paragraphs. However, they were only able to pare back from 2016’s 15,000 words to now 14,000 words, with two paragraphs left to add. At first read, it still seems like there are some areas of overlap and duplication that could be consolidated, and there could be further shortening to reduce the overall length.

There has been an effort to incorporate more Scripture references into the principles and to set a theological context for many of the topics, which is helpful. Unfortunately, the effort to provide Scriptural background sometimes results in the twisting or misapplication of a given passage. For example, the section on military service uses Jesus’ exclamation from Luke 19:42, “If you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” as an argument for peacemaking. In fact, Jesus is talking here mainly about peace with God through accepting Jesus as the Messiah, rather than human efforts at resolving conflict in non-military ways.

The attempt to make the Social Principles more globally relevant has resulted in far less specificity in the principles. Rather than addressing specific concrete dilemmas, they speak in broad generalities. This does enable the principles to translate better into a variety of global contexts. On the other hand, they tend to be much blander and not as helpful in addressing the real ethical and moral issues underlying the statement.

Many of the principles tend to address the topic in a more superficial way without wrestling with the competing values that often are the source of controversy. For example, the principles on migration, immigration, and refugees extol the value of welcoming the stranger and providing radical hospitality, but fail to mention the need to preserve national boundaries and protect a nation’s citizens. All these values are important and supported in Scripture, and the difficult moral reasoning is seeking how to balance them.

Distressingly, some of the more controversial areas saw a decided swing toward a more progressive approach. This is especially true in the principle on abortion, where all the nuanced language added in the last 20 years has been jettisoned in favor of the eerily unqualified statement, “We support legal access to abortion.” There is no examination of any parameters to legal abortion or any hint that abortion should be restricted in any way or that abortion is the tragic loss of a life. It is treated as a neutral decision, and the focus of the principle is on preventing unintended pregnancy.

Similarly, the principle on marriage and divorce fails to set forth any kind of theological understanding of marriage, other than to say it is one form of human relationship in which we ought to treat one another with humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Marriage is not defined, skirting the challenges of polygamy or same-sex marriage. Much more space is given to situations when marriage has gone wrong (abuse, exploitation, divorce, child marriage) than in setting forth what can be done to strengthen marriages or why marriage is important.

On the other hand, the principle on “Military Service” is well balanced, affirming both the pacifist perspective and the “just war” perspective (although it is not named such in the principle). The parallel principles on “War and Peace” and “Peacebuilding” emphasize peacemaking without acknowledging situations where armed conflict may be unavoidable. This is one instance where combining the three principles could yield a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of the issues involved.

The hot-button paragraphs on “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities” were not included, pending the 2019 General Conference’s decisions on these issues. However, the principle on “Gender Equality” implies the acceptance of multiple genders beyond male and female and plainly states, “Discrimination based on gender identity is a sin.” This is obviously beyond where many United Methodists are prepared to go.

The Board of Church and Society is looking for feedback on this initial draft of the Social Principles. Comments can be entered on this web link. I would encourage you to read the proposed principles and give your feedback to help influence the second draft. The final product will come to the 2020 General Conference for approval. As they stand now, there is a lot of room for improvement.


Bishops Request Judicial Council Decision

The Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is asking the JudicialCouncil for a declaratory decision on what petitions can be submitted to the denomination’s Special Session of General Conference called for February 2019. The Council of Bishops announced their request in a statement issued this week.

“The intent is to resolve the question of whether additional petitions, beyond the report of the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, can be submitted to the Special 2019 General Conference prior to the convening of the Special General Conference,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops.

A faction of the Council of Bishops is arguing that the special called General Conference ought to only consider whatever the bishops propose as a way forward for the church in resolving disagreements over our understanding of marriage and same-sex practices. There is a powerful push to adopt the “Uniting Model” that would allow annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals and clergy to decide whether or not to marry same-sex couples. A heavy-handed attempt by some bishops to prevent consideration of other options does not speak well of their leadership, but may indicate a level of panic, striving at any cost to keep the church “united.”

We applaud the Council of Bishops for requesting this decision in order to bring certainty to the process. Based on previous Judicial Council decisions, the Judicial Council should allow other relevant proposals to be submitted to General Conference. (Even if Judicial Council rules they cannot be submitted as part of the regular process, there is nothing preventing other proposals from being introduced on the floor of General Conference as a substitute for the bishops’ proposal.) Allowing proposals to be submitted as part of the regular process is critical to enable those alternative proposals to be properly evaluated prior to being considered by General Conference.

The General Conference delegates ought to be allowed to consider any and all proposals for a faithful way forward for our church. It is their decision that will determine the future course we take, after all. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward and the proposal(s) submitted by the bishops are important, but they do not define the final outcome. Only the General Conference can speak for the whole church in determining how we will proceed.

Baltimore-Washington Defies Judicial Council

In response to six different annual conference boards of ordained ministry voting in 2016 not to comply with the Book of Discipline’s qualifications for ministry in evaluating candidates, the Judicial Council ruled that “The Board’s examination must include all paragraphs relevant to election of pastoral ministry, including those provisions set forth in paragraphs that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, integrity, indebtedness, etc. ¶¶ 304.2, 305, 306, 310.” In other words, the board of ordained ministry cannot ignore requirements it disagrees with.

The Judicial Council further ruled, “The Board can only legally recommend to the Clergy Session a candidate for whom they have conducted a thorough examination and who has met the disciplinary standards for fitness.”

Now, one of those six original non-compliant annual conference boards has voted to adopt a policy that intentionally disobeys not only the Book of Discipline, but the Judicial Council ruling. Rather than await the outcome of the 2019 special called General Conference, Baltimore-Washington is conducting itself as a break-off annual conference from the rest of the global United Methodist Church.

In a statement issued last week, the board announced that it had adopted the policy recommendation last October and used it to evaluate its current crop of candidates for ministry.

The policy states, “We will not consider or evaluate sexual orientation or gender identity nor see them to be sufficient reasons to deny a candidate’s ability to live up to our United Methodist standards. We will utilize our denomination’s expectation of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness within our examination and expect not only high moral standards but also a strong sense of self-awareness about one’s relational life.” (One wonders what exactly those “high moral standards” are, if Baltimore-Washington no longer operates by the moral standards set by General Conference in obedience to Scripture.)

Despite the fact that Baltimore-Washington has jettisoned the denomination’s ordination standards, it is noteworthy that the board still wants to maintain the standard of “faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” However, since same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, the refusal to consider sexual orientation or gender identity means that persons in a same-sex marriage would be eligible for ordained ministry in the board’s eyes. Transgender candidates would also be welcome under these standards. Given the Judicial Council rulings, this policy calls into question whether any of the candidates recommended by the board at the upcoming annual conference can legally be considered or voted on.

The board acknowledges that it is knowingly violating the provisions of the Discipline and the Judicial Council rulings. Their statement reads, “We write in response to these rulings’ specific mandate to not ignore in the inquiry a candidate’s self-disclosure of sexual orientation. We respectfully disagree with these rulings, acknowledging that the following policy is not compliant with the Book of Discipline.”

This action points once again to the primary problem that is causing the crisis within United Methodism today. That problem is the unwillingness of members, clergy, and bishops to live within the boundaries set by General Conference for the whole church. This intentional defiance has torn the covenant that binds United Methodists together and generates mistrust and cynicism toward the institutional church.

The Rev. Amy McCullough, who co-chaired the board task force that developed the policy, is quoted as saying, “My hope is that this feels respectful. We all want the best for this Church that we love.” However, this policy does feel disrespectful. It disrespects the collegial work of the General Conference, the only body that has the authority to speak for the whole United Methodist Church. And it disrespects the clear and reasonable decisions of the Judicial Council in upholding what the Discipline requires. It also disrespects all of us who took vows to live by our Discipline and have been faithful to those vows, even when we disagree with some of its requirements.

A church that fails to live by its covenants is no longer an authentic church. It has become factions that live by their own lights and disregard the health of the whole body for the sake of advancing their views.

It has become painfully obvious since 2016 that those promoting the affirmation of LGBT practices are not willing to live together in a church that disallows those practices. Rather than take the route of integrity and withdraw from a church they cannot adhere to, they tear apart the unity of the church by their continuing and escalating disobedience.

The only faithful way forward is some form of separation that acknowledges that reality and allows the different factions to go their own way. We gain nothing by continuing to try to hold together members and congregations that cannot live in the same church by the same understandings of faith and moral teachings. In their zeal to force the church to change, many progressives have instead sealed the fate of The United Methodist Church to no longer be a “united” body, but destined for separation.