The Myth of Neutrality

United Methodists celebrate the denomination’s removal of its ban on the ordination of clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — a prohibition that dates to 1984, during the 2024 United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

By Thomas Lambrecht

As observers continue to unpack the significance of actions taken by the United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, one myth continues to float around the blogosphere: the General Conference merely returned the UM Church to a “neutral position” on issues of marriage and sexuality. The language is back to what it was before 1972, when homosexuality wasn’t mentioned at all. This means liberals and traditionalists can live together in harmony under this “neutral” umbrella that gives space for all perspectives.

Taking a closer look at what was actually enacted in Charlotte, one can see that the UM Church is not neutral on marriage and sexuality. Instead, there is a definite tilt toward the affirmation of same-sex relationships, transgenderism, and a major shift in moral standards.

Same-Sex Marriage

The most neutral aspect of what took place in Charlotte was the reversal of the church’s long-standing prohibition on performing gay weddings. No longer are pastors prohibited from performing such weddings. At the same time, most pastors are not forced to perform them. The decision is up to the pastor’s conscience.

Explicit language was added to protect clergy conscience. “No clergy at any time may be required or compelled to perform, or prohibited from performing, any marriage, union, or blessing of any couple, including same-sex couples. All clergy have the right to exercise and preserve their conscience when requested to perform any marriage, union, or blessing of any couple.”

This language is to be applauded. However, it may have limited impact when it comes to clergy serving as military chaplains or in some other roles outside the local church. Previously, chaplains could point to the prohibition against performing same-sex weddings as the reason why they could not perform them in the military. Now that the prohibition is gone, military chaplains may be expected to perform same-sex weddings without the ability to fall back on conscience objections. Given the current progressive climate, the military may well demand all chaplains to offer equal services regardless of the sexual orientation of the service members they minister to. This non-discrimination policy can trump the conscience of the chaplain, putting them in the position of being required to perform same-sex weddings even if they oppose them. Since this provision took effect immediately on May 4, there has been no time for chaplains to sort out the implications of this change.

Definition of Marriage

The new definition of marriage found in the Social Principles is the most confusing change made by the General Conference. The new definition reads, “Within the church, we affirm marriage as a sacred lifelong covenant that brings two people of faith, an adult man and woman of consenting age, or two adult persons of consenting age into union with one another.” According to this definition, marriage can be between a man and a woman or between two adult persons, presumably of the same or non-binary gender.

It is unmistakable that this definition delineates the union of two people of the same gender as a sacred marriage. Very few delegates in 1968 would have endorsed such a definition, even though the church did not formally define marriage until 1972. This new definition is not a return to neutrality but a definite step to accommodate a progressive understanding of marriage.

What complicates this definition is that it is part of the Social Principles, which are set for the whole denomination, not able to be adapted by different regions. Although not binding, the Social Principles state the church’s consensus teaching on social issues, upon which the church bases its policies. The change in the definition of marriage is the root of why all the other prohibitions related to homosexuality became untenable. If same-sex marriage is now considered Christian marriage, there is no basis for preventing people in such relationships from full participation in all levels of the life of the church.

Another newly adopted provision gives regions the ability “to set the standards and policy for rites and ceremonies for the solemnization of marriage, taking into consideration the laws of the country or countries within its jurisdiction.” Even so, under the Social Principles, those regions that define marriage differently are still part of a denomination that explicitly affirms same-gender marriage. This is not “neutral,” nor does it restore the situation of 1968.

Funding Issues

Previously, both the general church and the annual conference were prohibited from spending apportionment money “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”  While sometimes ignored, this provision prevented the church from promoting a position contrary to its stated teachings.

Now, that prohibition is removed. Since the church’s teaching has changed, it can now spend church money to promote that teaching, namely “the acceptance of homosexuality.” At the General Conference it was announced that the General Commission on Archives and History intends to establish a “Center for LGBTQ+ United Methodist Heritage” at Drew University.

In addition, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) was given the new responsibility to “Provide training, resources, and consultation for and with all levels of the global church to actively resist intersecting structures of white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism, patriarchy, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, colonialism and classism” (emphasis added). This means that GBGM will be promoting the acceptance of homosexuality (resisting heterosexism) and transgenderism (resisting transphobia), in addition to a number of other far left causes at all levels of the global church. This is not restricted to those countries whose laws allow the practice of homosexuality but includes even Africa and the Philippines. This is not neutrality, but advocacy for a progressive agenda.

Using apportionment dollars to promote the acceptance of homosexuality is not “neutral.” One should not imagine that apportionment dollars will also be spent to promote a traditional position that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to biblical teaching.

African and Filipino apportionments will be used to promote the acceptance of homosexuality, despite their opposition to the practice. Central conferences outside the U.S. pay apportionments to the General Administration Fund, which supports the Commission on Archives and History and its future LGBTQ+ Center. This is not “neutral” and may well represent a violation of the consciences of United Methodist members that makes them less willing to pay apportionments.

Receiving a Gay Pastor

Bishops are going out of their way to reassure congregations that a gay or lesbian pastor will not be appointed to their congregation unless it is willing to receive such a pastor. This may well be true in the short run. The supply of gay and lesbian pastors is not expected to surpass the demand of congregations open to such a pastor in the near future.

However, a new requirement adds “sexual orientation” to the list of qualities that may NOT be considered by bishops when making pastoral appointments. “Open itineracy means appointments are made without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, color, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or age, except for the provisions of mandatory retirement. Annual conferences shall, in their training of staff-parish relations committees, emphasize the open nature of itineracy and prepare congregations to receive the gifts and graces of appointed clergy without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, color, disability, marital status, economic condition, sexual orientation, or age” (emphasis added).

The fact that pastoral appointments are to be made “without regard to … sexual orientation” means that factor cannot be considered in the making of an appointment. In addition, annual conferences are responsible for training congregations and their leaders to be willing to accept “the gifts and graces of appointed clergy without regard to … sexual orientation” (emphasis added). These changes put sexual orientation on the same level as race, gender, and age when combatting discrimination. Congregations will be trained in their need to accept gay and lesbian pastors, meaning that down the line, they can expect to receive such a pastor. That is not “neutrality,” but an attempt to change minds and hearts away from a traditional position based on eliminating discrimination.

Beyond Homosexuality

Other changes made in the Book of Discipline send a message that the church is dismantling clear lines of accountability around all forms and expressions of human sexuality.

Previously, those seeking ordination as clergy in the UM Church were required to “make a complete dedication of themselves to the highest ideals of the Christian life.” This included “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” This is a clear standard that is easily understood and enforced.

Now, the language has been changed to require “faithful sexual intimacy expressed through fidelity, monogamy, commitment, mutual affection and respect, careful and honest communication, mutual consent, and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.” No longer are sexual relations clearly prohibited for single clergy. Instead, the emphasis is on respect, communication, and consent.

Previously, the “chargeable offenses,” which list the specific violations under which clergy can be held accountable, included “immorality, including … not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage” and “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.”

In Charlotte, not only was the second offense covering homosexuality eliminated, the first was mostly deleted, as well. There is some confusion about whether the simple offense of “immorality” was deleted. The online record of the conference shows that it was. If so, there is no chargeable offense related to adultery or other forms of sexual unfaithfulness. It could fit under the offense of “sexual misconduct,” but church authorities will be hard-pressed to justify behavior between consenting adults as being “misconduct.” Even if immorality was left in, there is no definition of what that means. Undefined offenses are much more difficult to enforce. This change greatly weakens accountability for clergy, particularly when sexual abuse by clergy has gained new prominence in the public eye.

Previously, the Social Principles said, “Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with[in] the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.” Again, a clear standard that upholds biblical teaching.

Now, however, the Social Principles have been changed to read, “Human sexuality is a healthy and natural part of life that is expressed in wonderfully diverse ways from birth to death. … We support the rights of all people to exercise personal consent in sexual relationships, to make decisions about their own bodies and be supported in those decisions …” This new language takes away the standard and seems to “support” every expression of human sexuality, as long as it is characterized by personal consent and decision.

One could conclude from these examples that United Methodist standards and expectations have shifted to “neutrality” in a bad way. That is, our church has become neutral about what the right or wrong avenues of sexual expression are. We are open to whatever individuals decide about their own sexual morality. There are no clear boundaries set for sexual behavior for clergy, for laity, or for society in general, other than “mutual respect” and “consent.” In a culture characterized by extreme licentiousness with regard to sexual relationships, the lack of those boundaries and expectations is harmful to persons not warned away from sin and unhealthy behaviors, as well as being unfaithful to our biblical convictions.

This survey of changes made in Charlotte demonstrates that United Methodist neutrality is a myth. The church is not neutral, but an active proponent of the acceptance, indeed affirmation, of homosexuality, transgenderism, and even a libertine sexual ethic. While in Charlotte, we read and heard repeatedly that these changes are only the first step of where progressive United Methodists intend to lead the church. What used to be proscribed became accepted, what was accepted is becoming promoted, and what is promoted usually becomes eventually required.

The desire of people who support this approach to Christianity to remain United Methodist is to be supported and encouraged. However, no one should remain United Methodist under the mistaken idea that the church is now neutral regarding specifically LGBTQ+ persons or sexual ethics in general. The tide has turned, and the church is moving in a decidedly progressive direction. ​​​​​

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