When the Committee on a Way Forward was first established, I floated a way of categorizing various perspectives regarding United Methodism’s view of marriage and sexuality. In these categories, “traditional incompatibilists” and “progressive incompatibilists” could not live in a denomination that allowed practices they disagree with. On the other hand, “traditional compatibilists” and “progressive compatibilists,” while still holding their perspectives, could see themselves living in a denomination with the practices of both perspectives allowed.
There were those who later would emerge as “moderate compatibilists” who could live with either perspective as long as there was institutional unity.
Recent statements from the “moderate compatibilists” demonstrate that they may well have jumped categories – proving to be neither moderates nor compatibilists.
Good News president Rob Renfroe has described UM moderates as progressives who simply want to move more slowly to change the church. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, for example, has stated that he believes the controversy over same-sex marriage and gay clergy will be a non-issue in twenty years because the church will have become fully affirming of same-sex relationships. In the meantime, he has been willing to tolerate the presence of a theologically conservative voice within the UM Church, believing that it will eventually fade away.
Prior to General Conference 2019, many moderates declined to take a position on whether or not they themselves would perform same-sex marriages. However, the decision of GC 2019 to reaffirm the church’s long-standing teaching that all persons are of sacred worth and that, simultaneously, the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching appears to have radicalized many moderate leaders.
With uncharacteristic hyperbole in the aftermath of St. Louis, Hamilton wrote, “The policy … passed at General Conference treats gay and lesbian Christians as second class. ‘You are people of sacred worth, but so long as you wish to share your life and love with another, you are living in sin.’ … How long will our people continue to feel it is okay to treat their LGBTQ friends this way?” In an open meeting with members of his church and livestreamed on the internet, he said, “I cannot pastor a church in a denomination that treats LGBTQ persons as second class citizens.”
The Rev. Tom Berlin, a Virginia pastor who submitted the One Church Plan to General Conference, told his congregation, “Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ.” He instituted a special committee in his church to come up with a six-month plan to be more intentionally inclusive of LGBTQ persons in the congregation.
Neither of these prominent moderate leaders have publicly said so, but their statements seem to imply their willingness to perform same-sex weddings if allowed by the denomination to do so. Of course, many other more progressive clergy have already signed statements indicating they are willing to perform same-sex weddings now in defiance of our church’s teaching.
The point is that many moderates no longer seem to be on the fence. They are no longer trying to hold a middle ground between theological conservatives and progressives. They appear to have joined the progressive advocacy for same-sex marriage and gay clergy.
At the same time that these moderates seem to have become radicalized, they have also become incompatibilists. Prior to St. Louis, they all waxed eloquently about how maintaining the unity of the church was the most important value. They asserted repeatedly that there is room in The United Methodist Church for people with all different views and practices regarding LGBTQ ministry.
Now, however, some of these same leaders have decided it may be time to leave the church or to work toward some form of separation. Hamilton wrote in his blog, “I’ve never seriously thought about leaving the UMC, until now.” He is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for [centrist churches].”
According to the Post article, the Rev. James Howell, a nationally known moderate leader and pastor of a 5,000-member church in Charlotte, North Carolina, has come to the same conclusion. “Right after the conference, people were saying, ‘Are we going to leave? Is there going to be a new denomination?’ Not today. There’s millions of people involved. You can’t form a new denomination by Thursday,” said. Howell. “I don’t know anybody who thinks we can continue to stay together with what we have now. I was someone who dreamed of that for a long time…. It’s sad, but it’s just not viable.”
“We’ve either got to figure out how we go together [with same-sex marriage], or how we separate,” declared North Georgia’s Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson in the Post article.
Compatibilists in the past have given the impression that they can get along with a variety of perspectives and practices. It appears that this only holds true if progressive practices are allowed. In other words, they are happy to stay in one church with different viewpoints as long as they get to do what they want to do. If the church says no, as it did in St. Louis, they become an incompatibilist and cannot remain in the church.
This is actually an encouraging development, as it means that at least some progressives and moderates are coming to the conclusion that we have irreconcilable differences in the church that make it impossible for both groups to live together in one structural body.
It was striking to read both Hamilton and Berlin say that many of their people felt that the way the church or traditional delegates characterized LGBTQ persons was hurtful or offensive. I do not recall any comments made by traditional delegates at General Conference that maligned the character of LGBTQ persons. What this means is that the traditional message that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are contrary to God’s will and therefore sinful is a message that a significant group in the church finds hurtful and offensive. At the same time, it certainly is hurtful and offensive for traditionalists to be called hateful, bigoted, and backward.
If the basic message of each perspective is that harmful to those of a different perspective, how is it the best decision to stay together in one church? It appears that more moderates and progressives may be coming to the same realization. Our only hope of not repeating the battle of St. Louis in Minneapolis is to come to a negotiated agreement on separate ways forward. Hopefully, enough leaders across the theological spectrum will come to that realization to work together toward a positive future for Methodism in America and around the world.