Archives for July 2019

British Methodists Take Steps Toward Progressive Sexual Ethic

Methodist Central Hall in London

In an action taken July 3, the British Methodist Conference voted 247-48 to approve a report titled God in Love Unites Us. The report marks a “watershed moment in the life of the Methodist Church in Britain,” according to Methodist Evangelicals Together, the British Methodist renewal group.

The report includes these proposals:

  • Allow same-sex couples to marry in British Methodist churches, changing the definition of marriage to “two people” from “one man and one woman”
  • Celebrate civil partnerships of the same sex or opposite sex with church liturgies and prayers
  • Profess understanding for couples who cohabit without marriage, providing prayers for blessing their relationships, thereby abandoning Christian teaching that the sexual relationship is to be reserved only for marriage

Regional district conferences will now discuss these proposals and the full report before final approval would be enacted at the 2020 British Methodist conference. Anticipating that final approval, a task group is already at work developing the requisite prayers and liturgies.

The conference’s action is not a surprise, given that the report notes, “the Conference has already decided that there is no reason why any member, ordained or lay, may not enter into a (same-sex) civil partnership or same-sex marriage.” So married or partnered lesbians or gays can already serve as clergy in British Methodism.

How this action creates a “watershed” is in its change of the definition of marriage and its change in the formal understanding of human sexuality no longer being reserved for marriage. These changes have caused the Anglican Church of Britain to slow down plans for mutual recognition of ministry and eventual reunion between the Anglicans and Methodists in Britain.

The British Methodist proposal also envisions the possibility of “hold[ing] together in practice as a Christ-centred community of equal persons who hold differing convictions about relationships and marriage.” This idea is very similar to the One Church Plan approach rejected by the 2019 United Methodist General Conference.

The evangelical critique of the British Methodist proposal calls the report “unbalanced” and faults it for:

  • Failing to fully account for Scriptural teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to recognize two millennia of consistent Church teaching about marriage and sexuality
  • Failing to attend to the voices of Methodists and other Christians around the world today, placing the British proposal outside the mainstream of global Christian teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who choose a life of celibacy in obedience to the church’s teaching
  • Neglecting the testimony of same-sex attracted Christians who “have entered into traditional marriages and found God’s call to them there”
  • Ignoring the experience of Jesus, a single, celibate Jewish rabbi, and of the apostle Paul, who also lived a single, celibate life

The evangelical critique responds, “The notion that sexual ethics can be an area of legitimate disagreement within the Church is one that needs to be challenged. For Paul, as for all the early Christians, the call to holiness involves the call to sexual purity. Indeed, ‘sexual immorality’ – sex outside the bond of marriage – is consistently included within the lists of sins from which Christians need to flee.”

The critique echoes the same objections that Good News leveled against the One Church Plan. “Even if they would not be required to marry same-sex couples, Methodist ministers will be asked to commit to a new teaching on marriage that contradicts their convictions. Many will find it impossible to do so. Methodist local preachers and other lay people will also find it difficult to teach the biblical view of marriage, and their desire to appoint ministers who continue to hold the traditional view could be dismissed as homophobic. The Church would adopt a teaching on marriage that many would deem is unfaithful.”

The critique continues, “If the Methodist Church adopts a centrally authorised liturgy that offers marriage to same-sex couples or affirms God’s blessing on cohabiting partners, then it is difficult to deny that this is what the Church believes and affirms. Even if individual members dissent from using this liturgy, they will be part of a church that has significantly changed its teaching on sexuality and relationships, and ultimately on holiness. A ‘mixed economy’ model will not work. The Church is not called to accommodate two different approaches to holiness in its midst, but must rather remain faithful to the biblical teaching on marriage.”

“Far from offering a way forward for the Church, God In Love Unites Us threatens to separate Methodism from its biblical foundations. The report fails to help Methodists live more faithfully before God, and hinders the calling of the Church to ‘spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.'”

The critique concludes, “Any move away from the [current church teaching] will deliberately fracture the unity of the Church and place a number of those who have entered, in good faith, into a covenant relationship with the Church in an untenable position. It is inevitable that changes within society will pose new questions which the Church must seek to answer. However, rather than changing its teaching to fit those developments, the task of the Church is to interpret the developments in the light of its historic, biblical teaching, and thus preserve its unity.”

Our British Methodist cousins are engaged in the same struggle in which we United Methodists are currently involved. The changes proposed by their conference are even more far-reaching than those proposed in our church. We continue to pray for our British cousins as they work through the next year of discernment. We encourage them to know they are not alone in wrestling with these difficult issues. It remains to be seen how the Brits will move forward, but they may find themselves with the same fracturing we are currently experiencing.

Our trust is in God, and our hope and prayer is that out of the fracturing will come more robust and effective expressions of global Methodism.

 

 

 

The Consent of the Governed

It is a concept entrenched in modern Western culture that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence, United States). To be governed without our consent is the definition of what the Declaration calls tyranny, or in modern terms we would call dictatorship (by either an individual or a powerful group).

While the church is a completely unique entity compared to a national government, this understanding applies to our denomination, as well. Clergy voluntarily assent to submit to the government of the church by taking vows of ordination. Laity voluntarily submit to the government of the church by affirming the vows of baptism and church membership.

It has become strikingly evident over the past several months that a significant part of The United Methodist Church no longer gives its consent to be governed by the church, despite those vows. German and Scandinavian church leaders have declared they will investigate becoming autonomous churches rather than submit to the decisions of the St. Louis General Conference. Several bishops in the U.S. have announced that they will ignore what the General Conference enacted and operate their annual conferences as if the One Church Plan had passed. Up to a half-dozen practicing homosexuals have been ordained or commissioned in U.S. annual conferences in defiance of the longstanding prohibition in our Book of Discipline. Over a dozen U.S. annual conferences have passed resolutions rejecting the decisions made by the St. Louis General Conference.

Influential mega-church pastor, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, has stated, “We are going to live and be the kind of church we want to be, regardless what the denominational rules says [sic].” How exactly does that play out when thousands of local United Methodist congregations say the exact same thing, withholding apportionments and resisting pastoral appointments?

How can The United Methodist Church continue without the consent of its bishops, annual conferences, clergy, and members?

In the colonial era, the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that, when a form of government no longer has the consent of the governed or becomes destructive to the purposes for which that government was established, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” That was the justification for the American Revolution.

This spring, in response to the General Conference decisions, the moderate and progressive wings of the church in the U.S. and parts of Europe have decided to revolt against the government of the church and to establish a different foundation on principles amenable to the majority of church members in those parts of the church. We see this in the examples of disobedience cited above and calls to “resist.” In addition, those favoring same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing LGBT persons are determined to reverse the outcome of St. Louis through the perfectly acceptable means of electing more progressive General Conference delegates in some annual conferences.

Yet were the progressive/moderate coalition able to undo what General Conference decided, either explicitly or implicitly allowing same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination, the traditional wing of the church in the U.S., Africa, the Philippines, and parts of Europe would no longer be able to grant the church their consent to be governed by a policy that they see as a direct contradiction of Scripture. The current situation would simply be reversed, with a different group withholding consent.

Even if the 2020 General Conference continues to affirm the traditional definition of marriage and sexual ethics, progressives have stated they will refuse to abide by the church’s policies. Based on apparent success in electing progressive and moderate delegates to the Jurisdictional Conferences, they believe they will have the votes to elect at least a dozen bishops who will refuse to enforce the church’s standards and will carry on the revolution.

Our church is now unquestionably in a constitutional crisis, where our ecclesiastical framework appears to be unable to resolve the conflict. We have two irreconcilable positions, and one faction is willfully choosing to violate the constitutionally established processes of the church. “Resist” is the mantra of the moment, but this will lead to long-term ecclesiastical paralysis, loss of legitimacy, and eventual collapse.

We have one part of the church government (some bishops and annual conferences) choosing to willfully violate church law established by another part of the church government (General Conference) operating under its constitutional authority. This after the law was affirmed by a third part of church government (Judicial Council). So we have different parts of church government operating against each other. What makes this a crisis is that there appears to be no mechanism for resolving the dispute, since some no longer accept the authority of General Conference and see it as “illegitimate.”

There is a safety valve for the church to deal with irreconcilable conflict, in that the church is a voluntary association of like-minded people. When people are no longer of like mind, they can choose not to associate (or can disassociate). Many tens of thousands of United Methodist lay members have chosen over the past 25 years to disassociate from a church they no longer agree with. Many have left because the church has become too progressive, while others have left because the church has remained committed to a traditional reading of Scripture.

Since the current church government has lost the consent of a large group in the church, it cannot continue the way it is. One group will not consent to a church government that does not allow same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination. Another group will not consent to a church government that does allow those things. So that means at least two new church governments will need to be established – one for progressives and one for conservatives. Whether either group will need to split into more factions is yet to be determined.

It is difficult for many to accept that we have reached this point. However, by their actions and statements, many progressives and moderates have established that they can no longer bear with the traditional position that has been consistently affirmed by our General Conference for 47 years. They are unwilling to allow the church to insist that its bishops and clergy function according to the General Conference’s reading of Scripture and under the General Conference’s authority.

There is no way to force people to accept a church government that they cannot in good conscience support. Nor would it be at all desirable to do so. Therefore, we must accept the fact that a separation must occur in our church. That separation can be done amicably or it can be done contentiously. One way or another, however, it must happen. We can no longer think that unity under a single church government is possible.