Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


About the Cal-Nevada Conference, Defining Status, and Blogging

I have been involved in two extended discussions about the resolution passed by the California-Nevada Conference defining sexual orientation as a status.

One conversation has been happening here at Untied Methodist in the comment section of my post reporting on the passing of the resolution. John Wilks of A Preacher's Journey and I have been having a spirited discussion about whether the California-Nevada Conference was defying General Conference (as he argues) or taking an appropriate action (as I believe).

Another long conversation has been happening at Locusts and Honey between myself, John the Methodist of Locusts and Honey, and Chris Morgan of Assembled Reflections.

Jay Voorhees of Only Wonder Understands and Methoblog also discussed this issue at some length on his Methocast # 10. (If you have not been listening to Methocast, I recommend it.)

I want to express a word of appreciation to those participating in these discussions, especially those who disagree with my viewpoint. I sense a weariness about this discussion among those who support the church's current position or see no way past it.

If I hear some voices on the Methodist blogosphere correctly, there is a sense that this issue has been debated at General Conference after General Conference. General Conference has consistently voted not to permit self-avowed practicing gay men nor lesbian women to be ordained or to be appointed to serve in our churches.

The efforts of those of us advocating the inclusion of lesbian and gay people in ordained ministry is seen as an expression of rebellion against the clear and consistent position taken by General Conference. Many who agree with General Conference's decision, or who think the church has spoken and we ought to listen, feel we are attempting to defy and undermine the authority of the church, and do not understand why we cannot accept what General Conference has decided. Enough already is the message.

So I am grateful for all of those who have continued to engage, to share and to listen, to wrestle with the issue. Where else but on the Methodist blogosphere has this conversation been taking place? Mostly we are hunkered down in our different camps talking with others who agree with us.

The dialogues here and at Locusts and Honey have helped me understand better the concerns of those who agree with General Conference's position or are tired of us opposing it. They have also helped me to realize that there are aspects of United Methodist's system of governance that some of them do not understand. (It is admittedly not easy; United Methodist polity keeps surprising me, and I have been working at understanding it a long time.) Then, there are some things about which we may never agree.

Let me give you some examples in case you don't want to plow through the 23 comments at Locusts and Honey and here at Untied Methodist.

Here is a concern I now better understand: Actions like the California-Nevada Conference resolution defining sexual orientation as a status can seem gamey to some observers.

Here is a powerful quote from a comment by Chris Morgan:

"... the whole thing seems like another act in a protracted game to me. Move: A prohibitory statement is placed in the Social Principles. Counter-move: It is declared that statements in the Social Principles are non-binding. Move: The prohibition is placed elsewhere. Counter-move: It is declared that the terms are insufficiently defined. Move: Definitions are offered. Counter-move: It is claimed that such statements represent doctrinal standards and were not appropriately arrived-at. Counter-move #2: It is suggested that the whole discussion to this point may violate the very constitution of the church, for after all we're talking about 'status.' And we must wait for the next move. "

Well, I happen to believe that the church's legislative and judicial processes are there to be used, and that using them is an affirmation of the church's order, not a game.

Yet, I can understand how it might seem that we are defiantly refusing to accept the decision of General Conference and looking for loopholes and tricks to avoid what seems to many to be the clear intent of General Conference.

I also think that the strong opponents of gays and lesbians in ordained ministry have been trickier (and more successful) than we have been. They have rewritten formulas to make sure their jurisdictions are better represented at General Conference than ours are. They have wooed central conference delegations and even sent teams to Africa to "train" central conference delegates on how to make speeches and vote at General Conference. They are trying to establish control over the general church agencies. They have tried to stack the Judicial Council in their favor. Our using Disciplinary legislative and judicial processes to challenge para. 304.3 seems tame compared to this.

Still, some of our efforts to challenge the position passed by General Conference may look to others as if we are grasping at straws or majoring in the minors. We need to explain ourselves better. We need to articulate that these are real issues we are raising--as I believe they are-- and not just attempts to irritate, confuse, or undermine.

Then, here is an example of United Methodist polity I have learned some United Methodists do not understand: General Conference cannot do anything it wants to do no matter how badly it wants to do it. General Conference cannot pass legislation that violates the core commitments and foundational principles laid out in the Constitution of the United Methodist Church. At least it cannot do this without expecting such legislation to be challenged and overturned by the church's judicial system.

When we argue that para. 304.3, which says that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve...," may be unconstitutional, we keep hearing that General Conference passed it with a clear majority and that it could not be clearer that General Conference's intent is to not ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

Well, General Conference delegates cannot pass unconstitutional legislation even if they want to really, really, really badly. If they want to pass such legislation, they have to either change the
Constitution first or expect that it will be challenged in the judicial system when attempts are made to enforce it. The Constitution can only be changed by a two-thirds vote of General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all annual conference delegates. General Conference delegates cannot change the Constitution by themselves, and they cannot violate it no matter how much they want to or how strongly they feel about it.

It may yet be determined that para. 304.3 is not unconstitutional, but it is totally proper and appropriate for us to raise the question. No one should criticize us for raising it on the grounds that the majority of General Conference delegates voted for it and really, really, really wanted it. A majority of General Conference delegates is not the final word within United Methodism. The Constitution is.

Finally, there are those things we may never agree about. An example is the disagreement between myself and John the Methodist at Locusts and Honey about how to interpret the Constitution. He thinks the guiding principle of interpretation is what those who passed the Constitution had in mind when they passed it. I think we have to decide how to apply it based on the knowledge and information we have today, not on the basis of the knowledge and information they had back then.

In our discussion about whether the constitutional prohibition against discrimination based on status applies to sexual orientation, John keeps asking whether those who voted to pass this part of the Constitution thought sexual orientation was a status and, thus, meant to include it. I keep saying that this is not the right question. I keep arguing that the question we need to ask is, given what we know today, do we think it is a status. The Constitution establishes the principle; we are responsibile for applying the principle to the circumstance as we understand it. The framers of the Constitution might well have established a principle that has deeper implications than they realized at the time.

I know no way to get past this difference of opinion, but I am glad that John is willing to discuss it, and I am thankful for all of the Methodist bloggers who are willing to explore our differing perspectives honestly and openly. May the church learn from you.


Blogger John said...

Thank you, Dean. I've enjoyed the discussion as well.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...

Thank you for continuing the discussion of process in the UMC, especially at the General Conference level.

Two elements of the UM process around the issue of homosexuality have disturbed me for quite some time, and I haven't seen any discussion of them in the reading I have done. The first is the way the “incompatibility clause” was adopted into the Social Principles and the subsequent implications of that clause for LGBT persons in the UMC. The second is the failure of the membership of the UMC to commit resources to study the issue (as revealed in sales statistics of denominational materials produced to facilitate such study), thus casting a slothful vote for the unjust status quo and failing to respond in compassion to the sufferings of LGBT persons in our midst as well as failing to make full use of the gifts LGBT persons offer to the greater ministry of Jesus Christ. Let me say a bit more.

As the Social Principles were being voted upon in the first General Conference of the newly-formed United Methodist Church, a committee that had worked long and hard on the statement on human sexuality proposed as part of that statement a paragraph addressing homosexual persons, their "sacred worth," and their need for the ministries of the church. What is now known as the "incompatibility clause" was proposed as a motion from the floor and was passed by majority vote to be included in the statement.

It would be 16 years before the UMC authorized a study of homosexuality, 20 years before it received a report on the subject, and 22 years before it produced study materials for the local churches. And now, 33 years after the first statement on homosexuality was adopted, including the incompatibility clause, and 13 years since the publication of the study materials, fewer than 30,000 student books of the UM materials have been sold in a denomination of over 8 million members in the US.

In 1972 I believe the primary knowledge most people in the UMC had about homosexuality was shaped by the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the subsequent Gay Rights movement that was energized by that event. The sexual and other personal behavior of those who were at Stonewall and those who took leadership in the movement was taken by many in the Church as stereotypical of the behavior not only of all gay people but of the behavior all gay people wished to have accepted by society and, in the case of Christians, by the Church.

In light of that, it is not surprising that the UMC felt the need to say something about "the practice of homosexuality" it its statement on that subject in the Social Principles. Even so, I suggest that the "practice" to which they were referring - and objecting - was not simply same-sex sexual relations, though that was certainly not excluded from the definition of "practice," but it was the entire "homosexual lifestyle" as defined by the cross-dressing, jock-strap wearing, multi-partnered flauters of societal convention that had been the victims of police harassment and that finally "came out" into the streets for several days in 1969 to make the point that such abuse - even of those considered morally corrupt - would no longer be tolerated. And public policy was changed as a result. The New York City police were told to cease such harassment. Yet when the "incompatibility clause" came before the UMC GC, the context of the riots and the subsequent rights movement doesn't seem to have been adequately represented, so that what I would call a "Christian alternative gay lifestyle" (to the degree there could be any such generalized “lifestyle” defined for any societal group) could be posited and even exemplified by gay and lesbian UMs to help shape a statement in the Social Principles that acknowledged the reality of LGBT persons for whom the Christian faith is also an essential element in their self-understandings and identities.

This failure was critical, because every significant move of the GC since then to alter the Book of Discipline on this subject has had this inadequately studied and supported statement as its foundation. Such moves have consistently worked against providing space in the UMC for gay Christians to practice the faith with joy and fullness of hope. In fact, I would suggest that the mere continuation of the controversy demonstrates the Spirit’s objection to the process followed within the UMC. Likewise the PCUSA. To the degree I have been following it, those who have shaped the process within the ELCA seem to be seeking to avoid such contentiousness through taking their time before making anything that sounds like a final pronouncement. The Episcopal Church and the UCC have made bold statements on the other side from those of the UMC, though it remains to be seen what the ecclesial implications will be of those moves. Nevertheless, I believe the effects on the attitudes of the American public of the formative incidents of the Gay Rights movement and of those who represented and continue to represent it have not been adequately considered within the Church, and that failure has contributed significantly to the ongoing failure to come to a consensus around the issue.

3:39 PM  
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