Over last weekend, the Detroit Annual Conference passed a resolution that endorses a failure to uphold the Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The resolution encourages all members and structures of the annual conference to do three things:
- Support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lay members who marry and refrain from filing complaints against pastors who perform same-sex marriages
- Refrain from using church resources to investigate or enforce the same-sex marriage “ban,” or for trials, or for otherwise disciplining clergy who perform same-sex marriages
- Refrain from “investigating” the gender or sexual orientation of a minister or candidate for ministry and refrain from enforcing the “ban” on certification or ordination of LGBT persons for ministry.
This action has been challenged by a question of law addressed to Bishop Kiesey and will be reviewed by the Judicial Council at its November meeting. However, if the conference is willing to pass a resolution that commands the ignoring of the Discipline, how can we expect that the conference will abide by a Judicial Council ruling? (I have since learned that other annual conferences may be acting on a similar resolution in the coming days and weeks.)
The Detroit Conference’s action indicates an unwillingness of that annual conference (in general) to live by our agreed way of discipleship and order. As such, it represents a further fragmentation of the church. It leaves evangelicals and traditionalists in that conference at odds with their church, despite the fact that the General Conference is supposedly the only body that can speak for the denomination.
The resolution’s diagnosis of the problem is right on target. The church continues to be divided, as it has for over 40 years. (Some are trotting out supposedly “new” arguments from Scripture purporting to justify the acceptance of homosexual behavior, although these arguments date back to at least the late 1970’s. These arguments have been effectively refuted by prominent ethicists and biblical scholars.) But the church remains divided, as in the resolution’s words, “has created a divergence of thoughtful theological and reasoned opinions among United Methodists as to whether ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.’”
Furthermore, the resolution goes on, “this disagreement regarding homosexuality has become one of the defining public images of United Methodism in the US, has hampered reaching new disciples, particularly young people and even created an exodus of members, discouraged talented candidates from following God’s call to ministry, and drained resources away from the traditional Methodist focus on fighting such evils as poverty, malnutrition, and promoting education while spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.” I would just point out that many evangelicals and traditionalists have left the church (including young families) because of this conflict, not just those who want the church’s position to change. The resolution concludes its rationale by saying “it is time for the UMC to move beyond the harm done.
I couldn’t agree more with the diagnosis, but I totally disagree with the proposed solution. Since there is this deep disagreement, the annual conference proposes, we should just let everyone do what they believe to be right. This means we would no longer operate as one church, but as two churches living within one body. Some parts of the church would affirm the practice of homosexuality, perform same-sex weddings, and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. Other parts of the church would oppose those affirmations.
If allowed to stand, the Detroit Conference action would legalize disobedience to the order and discipline of the church and promote anarchy. If it is acceptable to disregard the Discipline on some issues, why not on others? Why not disregard other requirements for clergy? Why not ignore the prohibition on rebaptism? Why not redirect apportionments to causes that a local church agrees with?
I keep coming back to Jesus’ words, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). If we have two mutually exclusive views in our church concerning sexual morality, and there is no longer an agreement to live by denominational policies and standards, how can we continue to stand together and live together in one body? Would we not be much better off graciously parting from one another and allowing each body to live out the church’s mission and ministry as they conceive of it?
The intense effort to keep the church together despite our division is partly an attempt to “wait out” evangelicals and traditionalists, who are supposedly a dying breed. Eventually, the story goes, the younger generation will change the church’s teaching. However, as people mature, their opinions often change. According to surveys, even those who once favored same-sex marriage can and do become opposed to it “after further review.” Evangelicals and traditionalists may have been willing to hold together despite our disagreements, if only those promoting LGBT affirmation would continue to honor and abide by the decisions of General Conference. Absent that compliance, however, evangelicals and traditionalists will not long support a body that cannot or will not uphold its own policies and procedures.