A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, June 06, 2014

Sex and Schism #3: The Local Option Reconsidered

Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter have put forward a proposal entitled, "A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church." After I read the proposal, I posted something in brief form on it in opposition to the idea that the matters we face in reference to homosexuality be left to the individual churches, pastors, and conferences where authority is appropriate. But after reading comments by my friend, Steve Harper in an email conversation (Steve has signed the proposal), I am rethinking my initial reaction. (Steve gave me permission to quote him):
...none of us knows "how" this proposal can "save the day." But if we were willing to get together, might God not show us a way forward we have not yet seen? Jeremiah 32:27. I just cannot give that up, so I sign--not as one who buys the whole deal hook, line, and sinker--but as one who believes a broad coalition of UM's engaged in holy conferencing might be a group into whom the Spirit might blow like a Wind and descend like tongues of fire. But now, as then, we must be "all together in one place."

After that conversation I went back and read "A Way Forward" again and I am reconsidering my earlier comments. I agree with Steve completely on the opportunity that is before us with this proposal, so like Steve I am willing to consider what is being written for the sake of further discussion. However, unlike Steve I am still unable to put my name to it for the following reasons. I raise these concerns not as rebuttal, but to be part of the kind of holy conferencing on this issue that Steve hopes will happen as a result of this proposal.

First, I know that over the years the General Conference has given more latitude to individual congregations in reference to governing themselves, but I wonder if something as critical as human sexuality should be essentially categorized in the same way as a church's freedom in organizing itself. What kind of ecclesiology is involved in allowing for the local option on sexuality? We don't give the same leeway in reference the doctrine of the Trinity. Why are core Christian convictions about sexuality a "think and let think" matter? These are honest questions I ask the Way Forward folks.

Second, as I have said before, I highly doubt we can have a coherent theological discussion on homosexuality when we can't have a coherent theological discussion on marriage and sexuality in general. By this I mean engaging the discussion of homosexuality in the larger theological circle-- a theology of human sexuality, a theology of marriage, marriage and creation, marriage and redemption, the place of children in marriage (biological and adopted), marriage and celibacy as calling and vocation that bears witness to God's kingdom, et al. It seems to me that we have the theological resources available to us but it seems that one side just wants to quote Scripture while the other side simply wants to talk about loving relationships with an amorphous and squishy notion of inclusiveness. We are not using the wisdom of the ages. Why is human sexuality not connected to our "core set of theological, missional and ministry convictions," to quote the Way Forward proposal? The "Way Forward" proposal assumes that it is not. Can someone explain to me why it is not?

Third, I serious doubt that the Way Forward proposal will stop the debate and the protesting that goes on at General Conference every four years. Those on the side of keeping the Book of Discipline the same see this as a nonnegotiable issue in a way that will not allow them to accept the local option. Those who do not leave will continue to fight to change the Discipline back to the previous position on this matter. And there are those on the other side of this issue that will find the local option not acceptable because it does not go far enough-- nothing less than wholesale denominational affirmation of homosexual practice in the covenant of marriage will do.

Fourth, it seems to me that even if the local option is adopted and we painfully muddle through it, there will still remain strong tensions between churches on one side or the other, pastors on one side or the other, and between conferences (though I think the last one will be much less pronounced). It is my hunch that many on both sides feel so strongly about this issue that the "live and let live" option will be very hard to live with over time.

I offer these concerns as a way of starting a serious conversation. If "A Way Forward" provides us with a way to have that conversation between people who see things differently, and if it truly leads to a holy conferencing moment when the winds of the Spirit blow, then count me in as a supporter of "A Way Forward," albeit without my signature.


Jamie said...

It's interesting that I support the "amicable separation" proposal for much of the same reason Steve Harper supports the "Way Forward" proposal- to change the conversation and inspire new ideas. Einstein said, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Been there and done that for 42 years and it's only getting more intense. With Harper I , too, say, "none of us knows 'how' this proposal can 'save the day.' But if we were willing to get together (to talk about what it would mean to amicably separate), might God not show us a way forward we have not yet seen?" I have never believed the "amicable separation" proposal is "perfect" or is the "only" possible solution, but I did believe it would inspire all kinds of new conversations, which it has done.

RevDonnaH said...

One practical, legal issue I've wondered about and not seen discussed: If a pastor refuses to officiate at a same-gender wedding, and the denomination no longer holds a united position against it, then doesn't that weaken the pastor's legal defense? For instance, I come from a peace church tradition. Our young men could be granted exception from the draft, on conscious objector grounds, because it was known to be one of our denomination's earnestly-held beliefs.

Morgan Guyton said...

I absolutely agree that we need to be having safe, loving conversations in our congregations about sexuality as a holistic topic. We need to take the best representation from the various perspectives and use this as an opportunity to read the Bible in the intellectually rigorous way that the Wesleyan tradition always has rather than just parroting out regurgitated talking points. We have a resolution in the Virginia Conference to recommend a change to the Discipline's language in favor of LGBT inclusivity. I plan to propose in lieu of this resolution that the conference develop resources for all of our congregations to have these holistic prayerful conversations about sexuality.

I also think that pastors should always retain absolute discretion over who they marry. If I can't affirm with any degree of seriousness that a couple is going to make it in a marriage, I would refuse to officiate their wedding.

Jonathan Marlowe said...

Allan, you rightly identify that a part of the problem is that one side just wants to quote scripture while the other side just wants to talk about loving relationships in a vague, squishy way. We need to go deeper.

Another point that Jamie hinted at is this: "a way forward" is simply schism by another name. Just like amicable separation, it would essentially create two churches. -- a progressive church and a traditionalist church. I could be wrong about that, but if so I would like someone to explain why.

Another weakness of a way forward is that it does indeed treat sexual morality as a "think and let think" matter, and in Acts 15, this is certainly not the case.

Despite these weaknesses, a way forward might be better than the alternatives.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You make a good point. A Way Forward does indeed create a functional schism.

Craig L. Adams said...

Matt O'Reilly makes a good point (I think) when he argues that the Way Forward allows for something the UM Discipline now prohibits. In order for the Way Forward to be allowable, the controversial provisions of the Discipline would need to be changed.

Allan R. Bevere said...


That is right. That's one of the reasons I do not think it would settle the dispute.

Is it possible to imagine delegates from the Central Conferences, particularly Africa, voting for this?

That doesn't mean it doesn't merit serious consideration, of course, but unless something happens that I cannot foresee, anyway, I think this proposal will be dead on arrival, though I can always hope for a miracle of the Spirit that will see us through.

Anonymous said...

Allan, I'm wondering if there's a comparable conflict in our tradition from which we can learn? Also, isn't this debate affected by the fact that we are in an post-Christian age? In other words, how far shall we go to be relevant and/or be the alternative consciousness?

Allan R. Bevere said...


My reading of church history tells me that comparable conflicts among Protestants end in division.

Yes, the fact that we are in a "post-Christendom" age (I prefer that term) is significant at least in regard to marriage and the state. Unlike some I want to separate the issue of legal "marriage" from the true institution of marriage administered by the church. In other words, I am much less interested in what the state does, and far more interested as to how the church handles this matter.