United Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck of Chicago has generated a brouhaha by announcing to her Northern Illinois Conference her support for legalizing same sex marriage, which is currently before the Illinois legislature. She admits that United Methodist clergy may not conduct same sex unions, which their church law prohibits. And she admits her church officially disapproves of homosexual practice. Then she asserts The United Methodist Church also “holds the teaching and a long tradition (albeit a struggle every inch of the way) of civil rights.” And she claims: “Marriage equality is a civil rights issue; it provides for all what is afforded to some.”
Here’s what Bishop Dyck omitted. The United Methodist Church has an official position on marriage in civil law, not just within the church. And that position, which the 2004 General Conference ratified by 77 percent, declares: “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
If Bishop Dyck is publicly speaking about marriage in civil society, shouldn’t she, as a bishop charged with faithfully transmitting her church’s teachings, at least acknowledge what the official stance is, instead of pretending it doesn’t exist? Of course, she is not alone among the bishops in pretending United Methodism has no position on same sex marriage in law. Bishop Grant Hagiya of Seattle actively campaigned for legalizing same sex marriage in Washington state without reference to his church’s teaching. Recently he blogged:
Personally, I celebrate the signing into law of the legalization of same-sex marriage for our state. It is an historic moment for the people of this geographic region, and it marks a secular turning point in the liberation of those who have too long been oppressed in our current times. I celebrate with those who will be free to enjoy equal health and security benefits through the state institution of marriage.
Bishop Hagiya did write: “I also personally grieve over our United Methodist Church polity that will not recognize same-sex marriage.” So like Dyck, he grudgingly admits his church won’t celebrate same sex unions. But he never references what United Methodism says to society about marriage in law. Last year Bishops Larry Goodpaster and Al Guinn publicly opposed North Carolina’s marriage amendment defining the union as man and woman.
The whole Council of Bishops has maintained radio silence over their church’s stance on marriage in civil law. I cannot recollect a single bishop who has publicly acknowledged it. It’s the stance that dares not speak its name. The bishops pretend that Christianity and United Methodism have consensus views about U.S. foreign and military policies, or immigration law, but has nothing to say decisively about marriage.
United Methodism’s marriage stance is not the only ignored official church stance. The 2000 General Conference declared that most Christians believe war is preferable to tyranny, aggression or genocide. But the bishops collectively refused to cite this stance in their response a year later to 9-11, despite good faith efforts by Bishop Joe Pennel. (Bishop Tim Whitaker did cite it in an essay or two.) The bishops, with the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), continue to pretend that United Methodism is pacifist.
The same is true on abortion. In 2000 the General Conference opposed partial birth abortion and has subsequently urged other limits. Excepting Bishop Whitaker and one or two others, the bishops are serenely silent, as is GBCS. Occasionally over the years General Conference has spoken about global religious liberty and persecution of Christians. But the bishops have on that topic been quiet as church mice.
United Methodist bishops in the U.S. collectively, and with few exceptions individually, when speaking to public issues, merely and banally echo secular conventional wisdom as found in liberal newspapers, liberal academia, or among liberal advocacy groups. There is no drawing upon the rich resources of our Christian moral tradition. This sad habit for our bishops dates back for most of 50 years or more. As United Methodism becomes more global, I’m hopeful for a day when more bishops will sound like bishops rather than echo chambers of secular American culture.
Meanwhile, for an intellectual defense of marriage that official United Methodism is currently unable or unwilling to offer, check out the new book “What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense,” by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T Anderson, and IRD emeritus board member Robert P George. It is endorsed by Pastor Rick Warren and Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Let’s pray for a time when a United Methodist bishop also will defend marriage.