Since 1972, whenever the General Conference of the United Methodist Church convenes for their quadrennial gathering, the issue of homosexuality has taken a quite visible, central place. We live in a strong tension between those who press our our church to fully recognize and bless gay and lesbian relationships and those who believe that homosexuality is not in keeping with a biblical understanding of love and marriage. Equally pressing is the debate over whether or not openly gay and lesbian people can serve as pastors and if pastors and congregations can conduct and host same-sex weddings.
For the past 40 years, the United Methodist Church has maintained these basic standards in our Book of Discipline:
- All people are of sacred worth and that we must not reject or exclude gay and lesbian people. Nevertheless…
- …the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
- Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained or accepted as candidates for ordained ministry.
- Pastors are prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings, and churches cannot host them. These are chargeable offenses.
Just this week, the General Conference voted to maintain our current denominational stances for at least another four years. But that wasn’t without lots of demonstration, advocacy, an attempt at dialogue and numerous petitions to change the UMC’s stances and policies.
I have heard church leaders predict that the General Conference’s decision could very well lead to a split in the UMC or to the exodus of deeply disappointed laity and clergy. Only time will tell, of course. This issue has certainly created similar schisms in other Christian traditions.
Now, I don’t want to use this post to debate the issues. I have already laid out my thoughts and reflections on homosexuality in previous posts. But in the confines of a nutshell, I hold a carefully considered, nuanced understanding that homosexual relationships are outside of God’s will and intent for human sexuality. I derive this from my reading of Scripture as God’s Word, informed by tradition, reason, and experience. I believe this while also passionately including gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, family members, and church members.
So you might easily assume that I am overjoyed and relieved by the General Conference’s decision to maintain our current language and policies on homosexuality. You would assume wrongly.
You might assume that I want gay and lesbian people and and others who want to change our church’s position to cease and desist– to shut up and conform, or get out. Again, you would assume wrongly.
By now, my conservative brothers and sisters might be assuming that I’ve “caved in to a liberal, pro-gay” point of view. Once again, they would assume wrongly.
However, as I stated yesterday in a Facebook update, I am deeply torn by the General Conference’s handling of this issue. I wasn’t there, but from what I gather, all of this was handled quite badly by “both sides” of the homosexuality debate. Once again, the same debate played out like a bad rerun. One side passionately battled to move our church away from current stances and policies. The other kept their ground, fighting to further solidify the church’s current position. At their core, both sides operate out of an all-or-nothing approach. Each side is highly reluctant to fairly and openly understand the convictions of the other or to even slightly concede that perhaps there is a degree of credibility and integrity with both positions that might lead to an alternative way forward which upholds both Scriptural teaching on sexuality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people.
From what I can see, several things went wrong this year.
First, just as in years past, there were several gay and lesbian advocacy groups on hand to demonstrate, hand out literature, and in general to be a visible proponent for change. As delegates went in and out of General Conference sessions, they had to move through groups of people singing, praying, and donning signs, clothing, and stoles advocating change. They were by no means violent or invasive. But they were quite vocal and at times purposefully disruptive to the sessions. At one point yesterday all non-delegates were asked to leave because of all the disruptions. In years past, there have even been arrests when protesters refused to abide by Conference rules.
I believe these folks have a right to be there– to be heard and seen. They stood for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot ignore them or their message. They sought to do no harm to anyone.
However, while their presence posed no threat, their approach was not at all helpful. Let’s face it, most people’s hearts and minds are not changed by loud, forceful demonstrations. For folks who don’t hold a strong opinion, approaches like that can come across as intimidating and overly-zealous. For people who do hold a strong opposing belief, these demonstrations only calcify their position.
Earlier in the week, there was an attempt at “holy conversation” on homosexuality between people of opposing views. All delegates were divided into large groups presided over by a bishop and were encouraged to dialogue. I very much applaud the effort. But I also know from hard experience that genuine, sincere dialogue is an extraordinarily delicate form of remedial communication. It doesn’t happen easily. If dialogue is forced, rushed, or if folks insist on using the dialogue table as a subtle form of advocacy, then dialogue quickly falls apart.
And fell apart it did… badly. These holy conversation sessions were delayed and shortened because preceding legislative sessions went longer than anticipated. I also suspect that participants were not adequately prepared for how to dialogue and what to expect. As a result, some groups’ dialogue devolved into debate. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that both sides say hurtful, unfair things. As a result, these “holy conversations” left many participants feeling wounded.
Then through the legislative process there were some high profile attempts to change or add to the language on homosexuality by stating that as a denomination, we are divided on our understanding of homosexuality and that we agree to disagree. No one seriously doubts that reality! But for various reasons, that was also voted down by the Conference.
So, in the end nothing was changed. In the coming years, we’ll see what was lost or gained.
But I am torn by the fact that nothing was offered to guide our church through this great divide on human sexuality. We badly need that! I grieve for those who feel hurt and betrayed by the General Conference’s decisions, even if I cannot fully embrace their positions. I grieve that as denomination we are no closer to building unity on this issue, even in our diversity. That is everyone’s responsibility, not one side or the other.
I am dismayed that once again battle-hardened positions on homosexuality yielded very little wiggle room for other, more subtle ways to approach this very complex issue of homosexuality. Bumper sticker slogans and one or two sentence policy positions don’t cut it. This is going to take extensive, open conversation and a willingness to embrace perhaps an entirely new paradigm of thinking concerning homosexuality that takes into account the primacy of the Bible and the very real experiences of gay and lesbian Christians. We need both, not one or the other.
I just pray that it’s not too late, that God hasn’t already left us to our own vices of division and mutual exclusion. But until we know that for sure, let the peacemakers do their work with urgency and grace…