This Wednesday, on the morning of the Washington March for Life in protest of the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter preached at Lifewatch’s annual Service of Worship in Capital Hill’s storied United Methodist Building. Bishop Carter, who presides over the Florida Area, articulated his vision for a consistent and coherent United Methodist social teaching that defends the unborn along with all children of God.
As in past years, the service was led by Pennsylvania pastor Rev. Paul Crikelair. Bishop Carter’s sermon was preceded by comments from Lifewatch editor Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth, who praised Bishop Carter’s abilities as a bishop and as a minister within the Church. “We welcome you to this hall.” the Reverend intoned, “Please serve the Gospel.”
Bishop Carter began by reflecting on the rich doctrinal and theological history Methodists have to draw upon. “This rich and deep theological tradition is profoundly biblical,” Bishop Carter said, comparing it to what theologian Hans Frei termed ‘generous orthodoxy.’ “Our present ecclesiastical crisis,” he noted, “is rooted in the reality that our theology, what we teach, what we preach, what we believe, is often neither ‘generous’ nor ‘orthodox’. Our current incoherent social teaching is the result of this theological chaos.”
Bishop Carter that there appeared to be two strains of thought competing in modern United Methodism. The first he said, was a focus on prevenient grace and social holiness which “in its extreme form” rejects almost any boundaries. Some observers, he cautioned, believe it is this strain that was “killing the mainline churches.” The other more evangelical strain was focused on “repentance, justifying grace, and personal holiness,” which Bishop Carter argued failed to account for “the necessary social and contextual realities that shape us.” Both camps, which he noted conveniently fell along existing political lines, ultimately failed to capture the full Wesleyan theological tradition.
“We are in desperate need of a coherent social teaching,” the Bishop argued, saying that such an ethic would look something like the Roman Catholic tradition of a consistent ethic of life. He hoped that United Methodism would set aside the partisan bickering in order to join the evangelical and Catholic consensus on life issues. “In our heritage,” Bishop Carter noted, “we are in fact a movement that holds together evangelical and Catholic sensibilities.”
Bishop Carter envisioned an ethic of life that went far beyond what is typically thought of as pro-life issues, but stood up for “unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems on which we depend.”
“A consistent ethic of life moves cuts across our political proclivities.” The Bishop preached, “…[T]he Gospel always stands in judgment of our tribal affiliations. Because our God is not a tribal God.”
He reflected upon the calls within the United Methodist Church to be more hospitable and inclusive to gay and lesbian individuals and to immigrants, wondering why the unborn were not included in these discussions. “Would not a rhetoric of inclusiveness be more coherent? Possess more integrity? Become more cruciform if we were to include all of the strangers? …A consistent ethic of hospitality would call us to welcome the unborn as the stranger.”
Bishop Carter did note that this new rhetoric must take note of the historical discrimination and violence faced by women, and how “calling women to be agents of hospitality” is difficult in light of these facts. He argues that these contexts are more important and relevant than we’d often care to admit: “The needed conversation about advocacy for the unborn must take this context into account.”
The context of why women seek abortions “must be addressed systematically… as long as our cultural and sexual ethic is so libertine, as long as our social safety net is so fragile, as long as the relationships between men and women are so tenuous, as long as poverty and helplessness continue to unfold, in at least half the population the demand for abortion will be high.”
Bishop Carter is the fourth bishop to address the Lifewatch Service of Worship. Lifewatch is a publication of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion & Sexuality (TUMAS), founded in 1987 “to work to create in the church and society esteem for human life at its most vulnerable, specifically for the unborn child and for the woman who contemplates abortion.”