Friday, March 11, 2016

Unity and Disunity in the United Methodist Church

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
I Corinthians 10:16-17

According to Saint Paul, unity is a central part of our theology.

We may disagree on many things, but we are still one in Christ because we break the one loaf and share the same cup.

By comparison to the disagreements in Corinth, our disagreements within the United Methodist Church are minor. 

For us, it is about a few short paragraphs in our Book of Discipline.

In a recent post about the question of unity or schism at our coming General Conference, Steve Harper argued that it basically comes down to a simple question of whether or not we value unity. He summarizes it this way:

“If the delegates at General Conference believe unity is a higher value than schism, then we can anticipate some plan for remaining together. If not, we will see some plan for separation. In either case, theological language will be used to justify the ideological and institutional manifestation. But however it is worded, the preference for unity or schism will reflect the deeper and final influence of will.”

Taking the opposite point of view, Drew McIntyre argues that, “We are not faced with a choice between the desire for unity or for schism. The true issue is a conflict between covenant fidelity and celebrated infidelity.”

Seriously, those are the choices?

We are choosing between “covenant fidelity” and “celebrated infidelity.”

Not just infidelity. Celebrated infidelity.

My guess is that most of us are in favor of covenant fidelity, but that’s not the issue. It’s not about the covenant. It’s about whether LGBTQ persons are excluded or included in the life of the church and it comes down to a few sentences in a book that is many hundreds of pages long.

We should be clear that when those in favor of exclusion talk about covenant, they are not talking about the biblical covenants, they are talking about the “clergy covenant” in which United Methodist clergy promise to uphold the Book of Discipline as part of their ordination vows.

So let’s look at the Discipline.

This is what it says under “Qualifications for Ordination:”

“While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

I think the wording is important. It says, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Not Christian faith, or Christian theology, or Christian ethics.

The statement is descriptive rather than normative. It says that this is what (some) Christians have taught and continue to teach. It is a description of what is rather than a declaration of what ought to be.

The descriptive nature of the statement is clearer in the Social Principles:

“We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”

It is an offensive statement. It is hurtful and insulting and basically unchristian. But again, it is descriptive rather than normative. This is what we have done. Sadly, it is also what some of us are still doing. But we know that Christian teaching changes and evolves. This is not forever. It is an observation of what is, rather than a declaration of what ought to be.

Some of us believe that in order for the United Methodist Church to become what we ought to be, we need to ignore that one sentence about incompatibility. We believe that in order to fully affirm the rest of that paragraph, and to be faithful to Gospel, we need to ignore the offending sentence. 

My Old Testament Professor, Dr. Harrell Beck, liked to say that “change is inevitable, but growth is possible.” In this case, I would prefer growth, but I will settle for change. And the change is inevitable.

It is sad that on this critical issue the United Methodist Church lags behind the secular culture. But change is coming and we need to hold together as we trust God to lead us into the future. Dr. Beck loved the verse from the Prophet Habakkuk: 

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will say to answer my prayer.
Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Habakkuk 2:1-3

No comments:

Post a Comment