November 14, 2013

Is #UMC Conversation Still Possible?

Prominent United Methodist polity expert Dr. Thomas E. Frank has called upon the Council of Bishops to put a stop to church trials for clergy who disobey The Book of Discipline by blessing same-sex unions. Frank would prefer to see the Bishops lead the Church in "open conversation" with the aim of preserving the unity of the Church, which he believes is in peril if the trials continue to be prosecuted. I offered a response to Dr. Frank yesterday, and since then I've been thinking more about the call for conversation and the deep divide over human sexuality in the UMC. Here are a couple of reasons for why I wonder whether further fruitful conversation is a real possibility. 

We've already done it
The call for open conversation about human sexuality seems to imply that this is a new route aimed at solving our problem. However, we've been having this conversation for over forty years. The conversation has taken place in our local churches, on the floors of our Annual Conferences, in our seminaries, in social media, blogs, and denominational publications. At the last General Conference, Adam Hamilton, Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, and others stood and engaged in open conversation. Like previous General Conferences, the variety of perspectives were put on the table. Suggestions for compromise were made. And, in the end, the authoritative body made a decision. The decision is not satisfying to all, but it is, nevertheless, a decision. And it is a decision not made without conversation. Frankly, it's been a very, very long conversation. Given our history, do we really think that further "open conversation" is going to produce something that four decades of dialogue has not already produced? 

Conversation is for non-essentials
One of the things we've learned in our extended dialogue over human sexuality is that both sides take their own view to be essential to their identity as followers of Christ. Advocates of changing the UMC incompatibility language are convinced their view is the faithful view; proponents of keeping the language think their view is the faithful view. Regardless of where we stand on the issue of human sexuality, surely we can agree that the both sides think their conviction is not only right but essential. In light of that we need to understand and agree that conversation is for secondary and peripheral matters, not essentials. If both sides think their view is essential to faithful ministry, further attempts to engage in dialogue are likely to lead only to more frustration, hurt, and damage to the people and the mission of the United Methodist Church. We need to be discerning and mature enough to recognize and admit when we come to an impasse. 

Not an end in itself
Finally, we need to recognize that conversation serves the purpose of finding direction and making decisions. Once we have listened to the other side and articulated our own view, it's time to decide how to move forward. Conversation is not an end in itself. It is a tool, an instrument, a means to the end of discerning what to do next. We've had the conversation. Our authoritative body has made decision after decision. Some are persuaded that those decisions are wrong and unjust. So, what do we do next? Do we expect further conversation to bring real results that will satisfy all the concerned parties? Or will further conversation be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on the deep, deep wound of division in the UMC?

Let me conclude by saying that I'm all for fruitful conversation. If we can find a way to engage one another and authentically preserve the unity of the United Methodist Church, then, by all means, let's do that. The problem is that I find it difficult to imagine both sides coming to the table and working out a mutually satisfying arrangement, because preserving authentic unity means that one side will have to yield what they take to be essential. 

What do you think? Is there a way for forward for the United Methodist Church? Can we have a fruitful dialogue at this point? 


3 comments:

David Trawick said...

Amen! Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree with your conclusions, with an additional reason why I don't think more "conversation" will get us anywhere: Our fundamental differences are not about the issue of sexuality, but the deeper and more profound question of the inspiration, dependability, and authority of Scripture. Some on the left begin with the idea that the Bible is simply human expressions of human ideas about God, with no divine element involved in the production of those writings. Therefore, it is fallible in all aspects and can be ignored on most any point one might choose if it's not saying what we want. Others of us are convinced that in some significant way the Bible is divinely inspired, dependable, and authoritative over our lives. Unless and until we find a way to bridge that gaping chasm between us, "conversation" about human sexuality will only mean we're talking past each other.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Thanks for this post. I would agree with your comments here and also with the comment above that we have some deep issues:

There are (as the comment above) points out, some who are not committed to the idea that The Bible is the Word of the Lord to which we must submit. Thus my NT professor at seminary said "you cannot 'interpret' what Paul says in Romans to be compatible with homosexuality...what we have to do is say that Paul is simply wrong." Thus in this view, it is Paul, and not the Holy Spirit, whose authority is behind the word.

A second, but related issue is the issue of Hermeneutics. We do have an "official" process for Scriptural interpretation in the 4-fold way of using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to gain clarity on the meaning of Scripture (we do not simply take some Biblical words out of these contexts). Yet there are some who say that (unlike my NT professor) they ARE committed to the Bible as God's word but "interpret" it so as to make, say, 1 Cor. 6:9-11 mean the opposite of what it says (I believe this is now Rev. Hamilton's approach, though I may be wrong on that). SO we need to be more careful about how good hermeneutics work (it is all spelled out right there in The Discipline and in Wesley's writings if we are honest with ourselves - intellectual honesty is another issues going on here).

Because these issues really are essential (even more so than sexual morality itself though that is VERY important for the health of society) I do not see how we can disagree on these issues and remain in unity. If we take the approach of my NT professor, we have given up the Protestant principle of Scriptural authority altogether, which would represent a radical departure from our Methodist identity. I have no plans to leave since the church teaches what I believe to be true on these issues.

I often say that our polity has a great advantage over Anglicanism because we actually have a mechanism (GC) that can make authoritative decisions. The downside is that people see this authority as only lasting for 4 years. After that, political maneuvers or culture shifts or whatever can (on any issue) overturn what every GC has said since 1784, just like that. This lack of a "hermeneutic of continuity" is a real problem, I think, because it gives the sense that not a single one of our beliefs are really "settled" (this gets back to your point that conversation is for non-essentials).

Good post!

James W Lung said...


As I read the two posts and the comments, it occurred to me that the "unity" that exists in the UMC is like the unity that exists in a marriage that long ago ceased to be a marriage, in which the two parties go their separate ways, but tacitly agree that neither will seek a divorce. The de jure structure still exists and there is a legal unity of sorts, but the life that once engendered a unity of persons long ago left.

This is the "unity" that our Bishops, bless their hearts, are trying to prop up. When we are honest with ourselves, negative images of beating a dead horse, or painting a face on a corpse seem to capture our true state.

The unity our Bishops seem to seek is a sort of civic unity of the sort that is needed for a state or country to exist. In our democratic society, we must of necessity agree to live and let live for the good of the wider society. We come up with slogans ("Make Disciples and Transform the World") that are really no more than meaningless words that allow each of us to read our "Mission" statement according to our protestant polity (every man his own Pope and Professor of Ethics). And so we drift on, our sails shredded by the vicissitudes of the times, our keel long ago sheered off from our encounter with the reef of modernity.

Now, I write from the point of view of a lay person who has been an armchair soldier in the struggle for the soul of the UMC since 1981, when as a hapless cafeteria christian I bumped into an information table of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights with stack upon stack of bumper stickers proclaiming "The (UMC) Supports Save, Legal Abortion.

A Church cannot be a Church when it struggles to maintain some sort of "civic" unity in the face of irreducible disagreements regarding the nature and meaning human life in a universe created and ruled by the one true God.

Real discussion needs to get behind deconstructing "sexuality" and begin at the beginning. The homosexuality impasse is fundamentally a question of anthropology: What and who is man?