To split or not to split

A recent poll of United Methodists found that more than 90 percent of respondents don’t think the church should split over the question of homosexuality. Moreover, “[c]reating disciples of Christ, spiritual growth and youth involvement” were named as higher priorities than debates over sexuality.

The congregation I belong to is firmly in the “open and affirming” camp, and yet our pastor and leadership are strongly committed to the view that the church can and should include people of divergent views on this, as well as on other matters.

Now, in practice, I’m not sure how this is going to work, since as a matter of policy the church will have to come down on one “side” or another. Maybe the best we can hope for is some kind of “local option,” similar to what my former church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been moving toward. I’m of two minds about this because, on the one hand, I do consider full equality of LGBT persons to be a matter of justice and not simply personal preference. But at the same time, there are good Christian people who have not come around on this, and I’m not convinced that it would be healthy to continue the already-pronounced Protestant tendency toward schism by splitting the church further.

Two additional considerations incline me against a split: first, since we believe in grace and the Spirit, Christians shouldn’t regard anyone as beyond having a change of heart. And second, we shouldn’t think that we (for any value of “we”) possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even in positions we regard as fundamentally wrong, there may be elements of overlooked truth. Staying in communion and conversation with people we disagree with can be a check on smug self-certainty.

I don’t think that there’s any neat and clean solution here, and any course of action is likely to result in pain and loss. And we should be particularly alert to the effect any choice will have on those who’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination for so long. Straight Christians like myself are only too prone to discount how toxic church environments can be for LGBT people.

Probably many churches will muddle through for some time yet without coming to a decisive resolution. But I do think it’s still worth trying to find ways to muddle through together.

 

 

 

Can Methodists consistently oppose homosexuality?

The Book of Discipline is, in effect, the constitution of the United Methodist Church. It contains the law and doctrine of the church, specifies how it is organized, and enunciates the church’s stance on various social issues, among other things.

Notoriously, the BoD states that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and this is a major obstacle to the church blessing same-sex unions or ordaining non-celibate gay people.

But Heath Bradley, who is the UMC campus minister at Vanderbilt University, had an interesting post recently asking if the rejection of same-sex relationships is consistent with other statements about marriage made in the BoD. He points out that it rejects several of the major rationales used to deny the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. In particular, the BoD denies “male headship,” or the view that men should have authority over women; complementarity, understood as the view that men and women are, apart from each other, inherently incomplete; and “procreationism,” or the view that marriage is essentially or primarliy for the sake of having children.

How, then, he asks, can the UMC justify its position against same-sex relationships if it denies these underpinnings of “traditionalist” views on marriage?

And yet, after all this we still assert in the BOD that gay marriage is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (161 F). In light of this, I think a fair and modest proposal to our sisters and brothers on the traditional side would be to explain to us how we can continue to hold this view while denying the main lines of support that have traditionally gone into this negative judgment. If we reject patriarchy, complimentarity, and procreationism, as we officially do in the BOD, then on what basis do we continue to make this judgment about gay marriage? If the fundamental goods of marriage are ” love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity” (161 B),  then why exactly does a marriage have to include a male and female partner? Hasn’t experience clearly taught us that same-sex couples can exemplify all of these virtues?

Rev. Bradley notes that traditionalists could still appeal to the (apparent) biblical prohibitions of homosexual acts; but he points out that Methodists generally interpret individual biblical passages in the light of larger ethical “frameworks.” So if the UMC denies the frameworks that underpin most defenses of “traditional” marriage, then on what basis does it continue to proscribe same-sex relationships?

When is schism justified (or required)?

Emergent blogger Tony Jones calls for a “schism” regarding women in the (evangelical) church:

That means:

  • If you attend a church that does not let women preach or hold positions of ecclesial authority, you need to leave that church.

  • If you work for a ministry that does not affirm women in ecclesial leadership, you need to leave that ministry.

  • If you write for a publishing house that also prints books by “complementarians,” you need to take your books to another publishing house.

  • If you speak at conferences, you need to withdraw from all events that do not affirm women as speakers, teachers, and leaders.

I agree with Jones that this should be a non-negotiable position in the church. Of course, that’s easy for me to say because I belong to a church that has ordained women since 1956.*

Some of Jones’s commenters contend that it would be more gracious and Christ-like for supporters of women’s equality to remain in fellowship with those they disagree with. While this has a certain ring of plausibility, it ignores the reality of institutional power and structural inequality. A church can contain disagreement over women’s equality, but at an institutional level it has to decide for or against it. Either you ordain women or you don’t. To advocate remaining in a church that doesn’t ordain women is not, therefore, a policy of even-handed neutrality. If one stays in such a church, it is at the cost of sacrificing the equality of women. “Let’s agree to disagree” tends to skirt the question of structural inequality and provide cover for the status quo.

Now, mainline Protestants shouldn’t feel too smug about this, not least because true, substantive equality is still an aspiration in many of our churches. Women pastors continue to face hurdles that don’t affect their male colleagues, and we are still far from where we should be. Moreover, Christians whose churches (like the UMC) that have yet to enact policies of equality for their LGBT members face an analogous dilemma. If women’s equality is non-negotiable, is it OK to stay in fellowship with people who oppose LGBT equality under the conditions of structural inequality? If so, what is different about this case that makes it OK?

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*To be more exact, the Methodist Church, which was the largest of the bodies that merged to form the United Methodist Church in 1968, had been ordaining women since 1956.

Inerrancy versus sufficiency

In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.

He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:

[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.

It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.

This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.

It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.

Lutherans, Methodists, and open communion

On paper I’m still an ELCA Lutheran, but I’ve been attending a United Methodist congregation for the last couple of years, so this news from the ELCA’s recent church-wide assembly is of interest to me. A resolution was passed during the assembly to initiate a process looking at the church’s practices of administering communion, particularly with regard to the unbaptized. This seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the fact that while the ELCA’s official position is that only baptized Christians should partake of communion, other churches with which it is in full communion practice “open communion.” That is, anyone who is so moved is invited to partake of the sacrament, whether or not they’re a baptized Christian.

This is, in fact, the practice of the United Methodist Church, with which the ELCA has a full communion agreement. The UMC’s official rationale for practicing open communion (a.k.a. communion without baptism) is this:

The table of Holy Communion is Christ’s table, not the table of The United Methodist Church or of the local congregation.  The table is open to anyone who seeks to respond to Christ’s love and seeks to lead a new life of peace and love, as the invitation to the table says.

The United Methodist Book of Worship says, “All who intend to lead a Christian life, together with their children, are invited to receive the bread and cup. We have no tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive” (page 29). This statement means that in practice there are few, if any, circumstances in which a United Methodist pastor would refuse to serve the elements of Holy Communion to a person who comes forward to receive.

By Water and the Spirit affirms: “Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”

I’ve worried before that the practice of open communion can sometimes be more “about the appearance of inclusion for inclusion’s sake than about inviting people to partake of the Eucharist understood specifically as the sacrament of Christ’s presence.” But understood along the lines described here, I think it can be a faithful practice.* As a practical matter, apart from a pro forma statement in the bulletin, even churches that don’t officially practice open communion are unlikely to turn anyone away from the table (I find it almost unimaginable that this would occur in an ELCA church). In my view, the main emphasis should be on the sacrament as the sign of Christ’s presence, love, and grace, and the invitation should be for people to respond to it as such.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the UMC certainly doesn’t intend for communion without baptism to be the norm. The statement on baptism referred to above says this immediately after the quoted section:

Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.

And the church’s statement on communion adds this:

Invitation to partake of Holy Communion offers an evangelical opportunity to bring people into a fuller living relationship with the body of Christ. As means of God’s unmerited grace, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are to be seen not as barriers but as pathways. Pastors and congregations must strive for a balance of welcome that is open and gracious and teaching that is clear and faithful to the fullness of discipleship.

Nonbaptized people who respond in faith to the invitation in our liturgy will be welcomed to the Table. They should receive teaching about Holy Baptism as the sacrament of entrance into the community of faith—needed only once by each individual—and Holy Communion as the sacrament of sustenance for the journey of faith and growth in holiness—needed and received frequently.

This seems to me to strike a good balance.

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*I’ve also become more comfortable with the idea of open communion after reading Charles Hefling’s recent essay, which draws on John Wesley’s notion of communion as a “converting ordinance,” as well as this paper from Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann, written 30 years ago.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

Methodism, homosexuality, and me

This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.

Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.

This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.

So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?

The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.

Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.