Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!
Most of us remember learning this saying and using it as a defense against the taunting and mocking (what we now call “bullying”) that was all too common on our elementary school playground. We have recently begun to acknowledge that words do hurt, because words have the power to convey ideas, thoughts, and feelings that impact others.
The power of words became evident during the Jurisdictional Conference meetings in July. These once-every-four-years gatherings of representatives from annual conferences meet in geographical regions to elect and assign bishops to the annual conferences in that region (among other things). Two of those Jurisdictional Conferences (Western and Northeastern) took the opportunity to pass resolutions on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex unions. These resolutions were an attempt to give hope to those who were discouraged by the failure of the 2012 General Conference to allow same-sex unions or marriages or to end the denomination’s prohibition on the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
In one of several actions to promote the acceptance of homosexuality, the Western Jurisdiction passed a resolution entitled, “A Statement of Gospel Obedience.” The statement reads:“In response to our common belief that God’s grace and love is [sic] available to all persons, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church states our belief that the United Methodist Church is in error on the subject of ‘homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching.’”“We commend to our bishops, clergy, local churches and ministry settings, the challenge to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F does not exist, creating a church where all people are truly welcome.”This resolution on “Gospel Obedience” is to be forwarded to jurisdictional bishops, each annual conference, and the chairperson of each annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry for discussion and implementation.
The Western Jurisdiction took a second action to begin implementing the promotion of homosexuality by resolving to write letters to the editor of major newspapers in each annual conference “apologiz[ing] for the actions of the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church which perpetuated marginalization of LGBTQIA persons and continues to both dehumanize and demonize our LGBTQIA sisters and brothers.” It is sad that the Western Jurisdiction feels compelled to apologize for Biblical truth.
Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert was asked to oversee a task force that would seek to make churches and annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction more welcoming to LGBTQIA persons. As reported in UM News Service, the jurisdiction “also suggested the penalty of a suspension for 24 consecutive hours from the exercise of episcopal office for any bishop charged, tried and convicted of ordaining or appointing a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual.’” This last action is clearly illegal under church law, given that the Judicial Council in fall 2011 declared a similar action by the Northern Illinois Annual Conference “null, void, and of no effect.”
“The clear meaning of the Discipline is that only a trial court has the power to set a penalty in a Church trial which results in a conviction and that the full legislated range of options must be available to a trial court in its penalty phase” (Judicial Council decision 1201). The bishop presiding over this session of the Western Jurisdictional Conference was remiss in not declaring this petition out of order.
Living into Rebellion?
Taken together, these actions of the Western Jurisdiction constitute the stated intention of disobeying the Discipline of The United Methodist Church. If carried forward, these actions would constitute an active rebellion against the church by the Western Jurisdiction. As such, these words are hurtful to the unity and Biblical integrity of the entire United Methodist Church.
In light of that fact, however, it is important to take a closer look at these statements.
1. The statements are based on false premises. The “Statement of Gospel Obedience” refers to “our common belief that God’s grace and love is available to all persons” as the basis for declaring that the UM Church is “in error” about homosexuality. Orthodox United Methodists also believe that God’s grace and love are available to all, despite how we are often portrayed by those who disagree with us. Where we differ with the Western Jurisdiction, however, is that we do not see God’s grace and love for homosexual persons as an endorsement of same-sex behavior. God loves all of us and extends grace to every person on earth, but God does not approve of our sinful behavior.
The “Statement of Gospel Obedience” goes on to say that the church is in error “on the subject of ‘homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching.’” The UM Church does not say that. We say that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Para. 161F) Having same-sex attractions does not make a person incompatible with Christian teaching. In fact, persons are not incompatible with Christian teaching, only actions. Having attractions toward something sinful (aka temptation) is not sinful. It is only when we act on such attractions that we have committed an act that is incompatible with Christian teaching. The Western Jurisdiction’s words are a misrepresentation of the United Methodist position on human sexuality. They are therefore inadequate to form the basis for rejecting that position. And they do a disservice to the church by polarizing the debate and deepening the division.
2. The statement is meaningless in terms of its practical application. Para. 161F is found in the Social Principles portion of our Book of Discipline. But there are other paragraphs in the Discipline that specifically regulate the church’s actions regarding the practice of homosexuality. Para. 304.3, 311.2d, 324.9o, 330.5a6, 335a6, and 2702.1a and 2701.1b all prohibit the candidacy, ordination, or appointment of selfavowed practicing homosexuals to ordained ministry. Para. 341.6 and 2702.1b prohibit same-sex unions or marriages. Para. 613.20 and 806.9 prohibit the spending of apportionment money to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. In order for the “Statement of Gospel Obedience” to be practically applicable, it would have to instruct the Western Jurisdiction’s churches and leaders to function as if all of these paragraphs do not exist. Disagreeing with Para. 161F is not unusual; United Methodists disagree with statements in the Social Principles all the time (they are usually not binding as church law). But the “Statement” does not say that the Western Jurisdiction is going to ignore all these other paragraphs regarding the practice of homosexuality.
While the words of the Western Jurisdiction’s statements are hurtful to church unity, what really matters is the actions that individuals in the Western Jurisdiction will take. Will pastors begin freely performing samesex unions in violation of the Discipline? Will boards of ordained ministry, clergy sessions, and bishops begin ordaining and appointing self-avowed practicing homosexuals in violation of the Discipline? Will church trial courts fail to meaningfully discipline clergy or bishops for violating the Discipline? Will annual conferences begin funneling apportionment money to programs and activities that promote the acceptance of homosexuality in violation of the Discipline? One might argue that sending letters of apology using jurisdictional funds crosses that line.
Any or all of these actions will create a situation of schism in The United Methodist Church. When one part of the church declines to abide by the church’s polity and membership covenant, it has separated itself from the church. At that point, the marriage is broken. All that remains is the formality of divorce to recognize that fact.
The Northeastern Statement
The Northeastern Jurisdiction, meeting at the same time in July, passed its own “Statement of Principle” regarding the issue of homosexuality. The Northeast “declares its passionate opposition to continued distinctions of church law that restrict the rights and privileges of LGBT people in The United Methodist Church.” Such “passionate opposition” is acceptable in the church, as we struggle together to discern the will of God in contemporary circumstances.
However, the Northeastern statement (like the West’s) distorts the church’s position by seeing a “grave pastoral crisis facing the church at all levels” occasioned by “institutional discrimination that inhibits equal access to the means of grace for all persons.” The statement resolves that the Northeastern Jurisdiction “may feel bound by conscience to offer the ministries and sacraments of the church to all persons on an equal basis.” Most orthodox United Methodists would agree that the sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion) and the ministries of the church ought to be available to all persons on an equal basis. When persons are able to conscientiously undertake the vows required, all the ministries of the church are available to all equally.
The only “ministry” that the church does not recognize or offer to anyone is same-sex marriage or union. If the inability to offer this particular ministry is the “grave pastoral crisis” perceived by the Northeast, then its statement should have said so explicitly, without making an overbroad generalization that makes it sound like the whole church is preventing LGBT persons from receiving baptism or communion or participating in worship or Bible studies.
The Northeastern statement also calls the church’s position on homosexuality “unjust laws, policies and procedures.” The statement allows for the possibility that annual conference leaders, “while bound to the Book of Discipline, are also bound to exercise their consciences and are bound by Jesus’ commandment to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed in our midst.” In veiled language, the statement is saying that one’s own conscience and interpretation of Jesus’ commandments trumps the church’s interpretation. Such a highly individualistic understanding of Christianity is a recipe for anarchy in the church and ultimately the disintegration of the Body of Christ. Normally, when one has a conscientious objection that will not allow them to comply with the will of the body, the person leaves that body and finds another with which they can agree. To simply stay in the body while refusing to abide by that body’s policies is disingenuous and destructive.
Finally, the Northeastern statement warns “individuals who take punitive actions against others for offering the sacraments and rituals of the church” (read: same-sex unions or marriages) that they “do so contrary to the highest ideals of the United Methodist Church” and that they are “at risk of causing grave harm to LGBT persons, their loved ones, their sisters and brothers in Christ, faithful clergy and the United Methodist Church itself.” (It seems like in the Northeastern view, everyone is being harmed by the church’s faithfulness to Scripture.)
This is a blatant attempt to discourage persons from upholding the Book of Discipline by filing complaints against those who disobey or by finding the disobedient guilty in a church trial if necessary. The Northeast is saying it no longer wants to hold persons accountable to the covenants of membership or ordination in The United Methodist Church.
A Northeastern Rebellion?
Again, while these words are destructive and eat away at the unity and integrity of The United Methodist Church, what counts is the actions that result from these words. Will pastors begin freely performing same-sex unions in violation of the Discipline? Will those loyal to The United Methodist Church be punished or otherwise intimidated from filing complaints against such pastors? Will bishops and committees on investigation refuse to process complaints in such a way as to enforce the Discipline? Will church trial courts (juries) refuse to find persons guilty of violating the Discipline or levy only symbolic punishments for such violations?
Any or all of these actions will tear at what is left of the fragile fabric of our church’s unity. Our church will devolve into chaos and a situation where everyone does what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). Such actions will themselves harm “their sisters and brothers in Christ, faithful clergy and the United Methodist Church itself.”
It is important to note that the views reflected in the statements by the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions were not unanimous. There are strong, faithful, committed orthodox United Methodists in both those regions. In the West, orthodox UM’s make up probably ten percent of the membership and are overwhelmingly outvoted. In the Northeast, the vote for the “Statement of Principle” carried by 61–39 percent. In both these jurisdictions, as in the North Central Jurisdiction, there are many traditional United Methodists who support the current position of the church and want to see it maintained. However, they are consistently outvoted at denominational gatherings in these regions by those pushing to change the church’s position.
Our church appears to be at another turning point. Those pushing for the acceptance of homosexuality by The United Methodist Church seem determined to lead the church into irreparable harm, deeper conflict, and, ultimately, separation. Yet there is still time to pull back from the precipice. As hurtful as the words from the West and Northeast are, they have not yet been implemented by actions that create schism. During this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I am struck by the parallels. In 1861, it was the passionate “hotheads” that led the Southern states to follow incendiary words with incendiary actions, tearing apart our country and causing unimagined death and destruction. None of those who precipitated the crisis thought that it would end up the way it did. There is always the law of unintended consequences.
There is still time for us to avoid precipitating a crisis within the church.
It is time to back down from the rhetoric of rebellion and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us forward as a body, rather than as disparate groups. The future of The United Methodist Church depends upon it.
Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.