Since spring of 2011, The United Methodist Church has witnessed a concerted campaign by activists supported by much of the leadership of our denomination to change the church’s position on marriage and sexuality. Looking back, one can see the progression and discern the behind-the-scenes collusion that must have fostered this campaign.
Openly homosexual clergy have discovered that, if they refuse to identify themselves verbally as “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” they cannot be removed from ministry, even though they are “married” or are living in a partnered relationship with a person of the same gender. The Discipline has essentially become unenforceable in prohibiting the ordination or appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy.
In at least 16 annual conferences, bishops have found that they can “resolve” complaints against clergy who officiate at same-sex marriages simply by agreeing to a structured “conversation” in the annual conference about the issue of homosexuality. The offending clergy are not required to acknowledge violating the Discipline, repent of that violation, or commit not to repeat that violation. They suffer no consequences for breaking the Discipline. In these annual conferences, the Discipline has essentially become unenforceable in prohibiting clergy from presiding at same-sex unions or weddings.
Bishops are now sending out letters to their clergy instructing them as to what actions they can do to support the same-sex marriages of their parishioners without running afoul of the Discipline. These permissible actions include participating in the service itself, as long as they do not administer the vows or sign the marriage license. These bishops are essentially undercutting the teaching of the church regarding same-sex marriage by finding ways to communicate the church’s support for a relationship that the church at the same time prohibits and finds contrary to Christian teaching. Even bishops in the “Bible belt” are beginning to call on their clergy to change the position of the church.
The Connectional Table, United Methodism’s missional coordinating agency, allowed its agenda to be hijacked by activists who disrupted their meeting. Besides granting extensive time for dialogue in that meeting with activists (without any representation of those upholding the church’s position), the CT committed to hosting three forums on the issue. These forums have taken place, and there was almost no representation from those who advocate for the church’s position. The only outspoken advocate for the church’s current position was an African, making it seem like only Africans support the church’s position. The forums that were supposed to be an opportunity for fair “conversation” instead were grossly unbalanced in favor of only one point of view.
After only one of the three forums, the Connectional Table already decided that it wants to submit legislation to General Conference removing all prohibitions against homosexual behavior from the Discipline. At its February meeting in Mozambique, the CT refined their strategy to a so-called “third way” approach that legalizes same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the church for those who want such, while acknowledging that the church’s current biblical position is “historical” (meaning no longer relevant for today). This group does not fairly represent the global nature of United Methodism.
Since the “Denver 15” in 1996, groups of progressive bishops have spoken publicly to advocate overturning the church’s position on homosexuality. They continued to do so as recently as 2012. Yet no group of conservative bishops has ever spoken out in defense of the church’s biblical position. At its November 2014 meeting, the Council of Bishops declined to even publicly acknowledge that they had received a call from over 8,500 United Methodists representing prominent large churches and respected theologians to defend the church’s position. The Council of Bishops does not fairly represent or lead the global United Methodist Church on this divisive issue. Instead, it has been diverted to champion a progressive agenda.
The latest example of this concerted push by our denominational leaders to affirm the practice of homosexuality comes in the form of the spring edition of the Circuit Rider magazine. The issue is entitled “Sacred Trust and the Divide over Same-Gender Marriage.” Unfortunately, of the nine articles that address this issue, none defends the church’s position. More than half the articles are written by advocates for same-gender marriage, while the rest portray a “neutral” position that advocates for unity and the ability of everyone to live by their conscience (a position adopted in Adam Hamilton’s “Way Forward” and embraced by the Connectional Table in their latest legislative proposal). Again, there is a one-sided message being communicated.
Interestingly, in his Circuit Rider article the late Bishop Reuben Job advocates that we “immediately stop the propaganda.” Propaganda is defined as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” It is natural that advocates on both sides of the homosexuality debate will speak to further their cause. What I find disheartening is that our general church leaders have seemingly come to the point where they are also unashamed advocates for affirming same-sex behavior. And this advocacy directly contradicts the consistent teaching of the church as adopted by ten General Conferences over forty years. The body that sets official policy for The United Methodist Church has become powerless to expect its leaders to advocate for and enforce that policy.
What makes this particularly galling is that, in midst of propagandizing for the acceptance of same-sex behavior, our leaders are simultaneously calling for “more conversation.” But conversation is not what they are facilitating. They want to set up “conversations” so that they can give us their propaganda and convince us that we are wrong. There is no sense that they want to listen and learn from us or are open to changing their mind about homosexuality. Conversation has become a strategy to push forward their agenda.
Evangelicals have always been willing to engage in conversation. What we will not support is the open propaganda by leaders of our church that is contrary to our church’s teaching.
If our leaders believe they must advocate for the progressive “side” in this debate, and if they are unwilling to provide an equal playing field for those who represent 2,000 years of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality to voice our views, then we call upon them to provide a way for conservatives and evangelicals to live by our consciences. Whether this way involves the creation of a jurisdictional separation or the ability of congregations to leave the denomination with their property, some such way must be found. I am afraid, however, that many will consider evangelical consciences much less worthy of protection than progressive ones.