Last week, we began examining how the therapeutic conflict-resolution process based on family systems theory can inform our understanding of the conflict within Methodism today. Steps one and two are:
1. Engage in conversation, seek to find the understandable part in the other’s perspective, and make room for their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.
2. If the partner does not make room for your perspective, stand up and engage with them more forcefully.
This week, we will look at steps three and four in the process.
1. If the partner still does not make room for your perspective, fire a “friendly warning shot.” This step is obviously not referring to a violent confrontation, but to a strong and direct statement that the partner’s perspective is not being heeded. Here again, the pro-gay partner has made some very strong statements through demonstrations at General Conference and at other events to attract attention to their perspective. The problem is that such demonstrations are not aimed at gaining the inclusion of the pro-gay perspective in the church, but the elimination of the traditional sexuality perspective.
The traditional sexuality perspective has been better in this area than in other areas. When the pro-gay partner has sought to force their views on the whole church by exploiting “loopholes” in the Book of Discipline, the General Conference has responded by closing those loopholes and ensuring that the traditional sexuality perspective is maintained. Sometimes, however, even these friendly warning shots made room for the pro-gay perspective. For example, the statements in ¶613.19 and ¶806.9 prohibiting the use of church funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality also include language to prevent the use of church funds “to violate the expressed commitment of The UMC ‘not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.’”
The best example of a traditional sexuality friendly warning shot was Bishop Scott Jones’ answer when asked how he would handle the situation if 100 of his annual conference clergy performed same-sex unions. He responded that there would be 100 suspensions during the investigative process and 100 trials. Such a statement goes a long way to maintain equal regard for the church’s teaching on sexuality. Unfortunately, very few other bishops have so far responded in a similar manner. Instead, most have promised to “uphold the Discipline,” while at the same time failing to take meaningful actions to do so.
2. The last resort in conflict resolution when the partner still does not make room for your perspective is to cease cooperating with them. The goal of this step, as in steps 2 & 3, is not to break up the relationship, but to get the partner to make room for your perspective. Even though the traditional sexuality partner has made much room for the pro-gay perspective, it is the pro-gay partner who has finally resorted to non-cooperation. The several hundred same-sex services that have been performed in violation of the Discipline, the failure in some instances to enforce the Discipline’s prohibition of such services, and the stated intent of areas of the church to live as if those provisions “do not exist,” are all vivid examples of non-cooperation. Here, the goal, however, is not to gain equal regard for the pro-gay perspective, but to overwhelm the traditional sexuality perspective to the point where we surrender and agree to function under the pro-gay perspective.
The time is fast approaching when the traditional sexuality partner will also see the need to engage in non-cooperation with parts of the church that are failing to give equal regard to our perspective. Such non-cooperation could include the redirection of apportionments, refusal to participate in annual conference programs and priorities, or other steps that would weaken the institutions of the church.
I hope this analysis has been helpful in seeing how there has been an unbalanced way of attempting to resolve the conflict within the UM Church over homosexuality. Because the traditional sexuality partner has, at times, failed to fully engage in the process to maintain equal regard for our perspective (especially by the gatekeepers of the system) and has instead kept on trying to make accommodations for the pro-gay partner, the traditional partner is being forced to go along with the pro-gay perspective.
Sometimes, in the course of following the conflict resolution process above, a couple will discover that their two perspectives are not compatible with each other. Despite all attempts at compromise and making room for each other, there is no way to continue living together in a common relationship of love and commitment. There are very few issues that would ultimately pose such a threat to a marriage. One example might be the infidelity of one of the partners.
I believe United Methodism has encountered one of those incompatibility issues. The church’s teaching on homosexuality has become a zero-sum game. Neither partner can give the other what it wants to keep the “marriage” of the church functioning without abandoning one of its foundational values. The pro-gay partner cannot allow the church to regard homosexual behavior as sinful, and the traditional sexuality partner cannot come to regard homosexual behavior as not sinful. Each bases their position on a certain reading of Scripture, informed by tradition, reason, and experience. And each believes that it cannot give ground on this issue.
Despite the best efforts of our “counselor,” we may have reached an impasse in Methodism. As both partners move farther into the non-cooperation mode, the only foreseeable outcome may be divorce. What do you think?