6 Questions for the #UMC Schismatics: Progressive Edition
My recent post questioning the conservative UMC schismatics garnered a wide range of responses, including many who called on me, in the name of fairness, to ask similar questions of those progressives in the UMC breaching covenant in various ways. Though I had at least hinted at the end that I saw their actions as equally schismatic, I did not have time and space to then go into my questions for the left in a similar fashion. So, in this follow-up, I offer some questions to my liberal UMC neighbors:
1. What ever happened to doctrine? Progressive Methodists excel at talking about and advocating for social justice, inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. These are wonderful things, of course. But often these terms are simply lifted from secular culture and deployed in progressive Christian circles with little to no theological content. There are strong theological voices for progressive Christians to draw on, in the sexuality debate and beyond. However, the seeming lack of interest that many progressives have in basic Christian orthodoxy gives moderates and conservatives concerns about the presence of foundational Christological and Trinitarian affirmations among our more left-leaning neighbors. A little doctrine and theology would go a long way, not just in building trust in the church but in making your own arguments more plausible. If you talk like a Unitarian Universalist, you can’t expect to be taken seriously in any discussion about church beliefs and structure.
2. When did celibacy become oppression? I believe that there are valid concerns that the sexuality clauses of the Book of Discipline (BOD) are unevenly and unfairly enforced against our LGBT members and clergy candidates (outside of answering one written question that was not discussed, sex was not brought up at all throughout my ordination process). It is fundamentally unjust to hold LGBT persons to the “celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage” clause (as marriage in the church is not, at present, an option) if we also do not take celibacy equally seriously among unmarried heterosexual Methodists. By so doing the church is, quite literally, placing “burdens too heavy to bear” upon our LGBT members and clergy candidates to which we are not willing or able to hold heterosexuals accountable (Acts 15:10).
That said, Christians have always – since Jesus and Paul – held that celibacy was a valid Christian vocation. No doubt, in a world that idolizes sex, we need to be much more proactive in providing resources and showing grace to persons called to a single life, but this should be viewed as a positive vocation with a long history among our monastics, clergy, martyrs, and saints. By itself, the Church’s call to celibacy in singleness is not oppression; our highest calling as a people dedicated to sanctification is not expression or intimacy but holiness. In that regard, the Church of the 21st century would do well to recover the witness of celibate persons and lift up singleness in all the possibilities that it offers. The debate over who should be celibate will and should go on, but celibacy as a valid calling for Christians should be unquestionable. We worship Jesus, after all, not Freud or Kinsey.
3. Have you counted the cost? Some folks did not like when I brought this up at the New York Annual Conference forum on Clergy Covenant and Human Sexuality, but it needs to be considered. The regions where progressives dominate the church are not the healthiest parts of our communion. There are more United Methodists in North Georgia than the whole of the Pacific Northwest. A member of the Connectional Table informed me that many Annual Conferences have pension funds that are unsustainable. Many others Annual Conferences can’t even pay the full bill for their episcopal leaders. Meanwhile, the churches that are leading the charge for a formal schism in reaction to breaches of covenant by progressive UMs are mostly within (and would likely draw many supporters from) the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions. These two jurisdictions alone “pay in” through apportionments a much larger percentage than their numbers represent – a rough estimate I’ve heard was that these regions represent 40% of the church numerically, but pay 70% of the apportionments. How much will your ministries of justice, peace, and mercy – not to mention all those boards and agencies that we fought so hard to keep intact in 2012 – suffer if some of our largest churches pull out? This is not to defend the tactic – even though it seems to be getting popular with progressives now, also – but simply to say: you may get what you want, but at what cost?
4. Can people of good will disagree with you? Part of the trouble with binaries like liberation/oppression and justice/injustice is that they create a very simple narrative world in which those on one side are righteous and those on the other side are evil, if not sub-human. I have seen traditionalists, the Book of Discipline, and even the UMC as a whole labelled “homophobic,” “ignorant,” “oppressive,” “hateful,” and the like by those on the left. At the Connectional Table dialogue last month, someone stated that “violence” had been done, presumably because one (fairly tepid) panelist kinda sorta defended the BOD. Violence? Hatred? Oppression? Those are a very broad brushes with which to paint.
I have many conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve sat down with some of the leading evangelical pastors in our denomination. These are not people who fear or loathe LGBT persons. You certainly won’t win them to your side by declaring that they do. But this rhetoric persists.
Now, of course, homophobia, discrimination, and hate speech should have no place at all among God’s people. Even Christians who do not see lesbian and gay relationships as valid expressions of God’s will should, in the name of Christian love, defend the persons in them from abuse. Likewise, I believe (and think it should be a no-brainer) that the church should support efforts to make sure that gay and lesbian partners be given civil and legal recognition in matters of inheritance, visitation, etc. on par with heterosexual couples. But on the matters of church discipline vis-a-vis marriage and ordination, I ask: is it possible to disagree with you about sexuality and still recognize each other as sisters and brothers in Christ?
5. What else is up for grabs? I sense a concern from moderates and traditionalists about deeper divisions among us than just matters of church discipline and sexual ethics (see #1). If whole conferences and jurisdictions feel justified, on principle, to ignore or disobey certain clearly defined parts of the BOD, what else can be ignored? Progressives will sometimes argue that their current breaches of covenant “do no harm” to the rest of the UMC, and so should be allowed to follow their own path. But if this persists – absent an agreement similar to Bishop Coyner’s recommendations – what else can be ignored, and how is the rest of the church to trust that this is the only area of the BOD that progressives will seek to pressure until it breaks? When even left-leaning bishops do not seem particularly interested in listening their peers, there seems to be a legitimate concern that progressive United Methodists have no concept of authority outside of personal conscience. A church full of self-appointed Luthers (of whatever ideological stripe) is going to find it difficult to live together and serve God’s redemptive and healing mission.
6. What is your end game? I believe the vast majority of UM progressives, like their conservative neighbors, sincerely love Jesus and feel caught between their personal convictions and their love for and commitment to the UMC. Those of us who disagree with their beliefs and/or actions should still be in prayer for them, as they are our beloved in Christ. So I ask you, my progressive friends, the same question I asked the conservatives: what is your end game? It seems pretty clear to most observers that, given the demographics, General Conference 2016 has little chance of removing the language related to marriage and ordination. So, barring that, what can you live with? Is an “agree to disagree” statement worth pursuing? Could you live with a United States Central Conference, that could have more flexibility (as all the other Central Conferences have presently) with what language to adopt around sexuality? I hope, for the sake of a church that I truly love and that still has much to offer the world, that there is something short of full victory (represented by a full excision of the LGBT clauses in the BOD) you are willing to accept – because continued “biblical obedience” may tear the church apart to such an extent that, like Humpty-Dumpty, it could not be put back together.
Ultimately, I don’t want to be in a church of only personal holiness or or only social justice. As Methodists in the lineage of John and Charles Wesley, I think we really are at our best when we strive to have our cake and eat it. And so in asking tough questions of the schismatics on both ends of the spectrum in the UMC, it is in the service of this goal: that we might be one.
The old song was wrong: breaking up is not hard, it’s easy. It’s what the rest of the Mainline has done.
I believe we can and should strive to do better.