On Tuesday, April 29, the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church hosted its first public dialogue on homosexuality.
It began with Bishop Jim Dorff of Southwest Texas leading a Bible study on Christ’s high priestly prayer of John 17. The bishop stressed unity, while noting that Jesus made clear that Christian unity was for the specific purpose of helping non-Christians to believe.
Retired Bishop Daniel Arichea of the Philippines shared about how the coming out of his gay son prompted him to rethink the matter and conclude that “many parts of Scripture are not timeless but time-bound and cannot be understood except within time, within the context of the whole canon, and even sometimes using the tools of modern scholarship and science.” In one of the event’s more memorable lines, the bishop derided the UMC’s using parliamentary standards (Robert’s Rule of Order) for its deliberations, quipping, “[t]he Philippines has been very influenced by America. We have become more American than you are; you have corrupted us!” But it was not clear if he had in mind any realistic alternative for the consensus-oriented decision-making he wanted. Nor did the Connectional Table’s liberal majority faction ultimately express any interest in building consensus with those who disagreed with them.
Rev. Dr. Mark Teasdale, an evangelism professor at the UMC’s Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in suburban Chicago, shared his own experience of pastoring a conservative congregation that was able to lovingly welcome a gay couple without abandoning their moral disapproval of homosexual practice. He noted the pain on both sides of the UMC’s internal divisions over the issue.
Teasdale also helpfully outlined how the UMC is powerfully influenced by two sometimes overlapping but increasingly conflicting traditions: the American tradition of progressively expanded rights of individual self-determination and the Wesleyan tradition. While those more shaped by the former argue the UMC “risks standing on wrong side of history,” those more shaped by the latter argue the UMC “risks standing on the wrong side of holiness.” He cited Wesley’s own landmark description of “The Character of a Methodist” of Methodist identity being centered on pleasing God by keeping ALL of His commandments. “Given the clear prohibition of homosexual practice in scripture,” and Wesley’s inclusion of “sodomites” in a list of different types of sinners in one of his sermons, Wesley would say same-sex-attracted people could still become Methodist, but “would have to subvert those desires to the desire to please God.” It seems to Teasdale that things that “we have come to a point of irreducible differences” and so “will need to be formed in different ways.”
Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey of the UMC’s Boston University School of Theology, whose academic interests include queer theology and feminist theology, spoke as a self-described “out queer lesbian and ordained elder” apparently not committed to the ethic of celibacy outside of man-woman marriage. She called the denomination’s policies “wicked oppression.” Also, “as a child of the civil rights movement who has known the bitter taste of hate,” she expressed hope that the church would embrace Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a “non-canonical gospel.” While she did not favor reconciliation for the sake of reconciliation, she highlighted her personal friendship and past ministry partnership with Bishop James Swanson of Mississippi (who disagrees with her on sexual morality) and also declared “[w]hatever our outcome, our actions must be nonviolent.”
During the question-and-answer session, Teasdale noted the dangers of being “not clear enough on what we mean by the word love and the word grace,” as “[t]oo often United Methodists use that to mean license,” though “[t]hat’s not a notion of grace that Wesley or the Bible know.
To her credit, Bishop Ward selected as the first online-submitted question one from me, in which I asked each panelist about ways those who agreed with them could better show love to those with whom they disagreed, and what unhelpful tactics of those they agree with the panelists would challenge. In response, Teasdale urged against reducing a person to one term and a most negative view of that label. Bishop Arichea reported telling students, “You will be judged not by how you treat your friends, but how you treat those who disagree with you.” Lightsey said she “take[s] issue with any tactic that does not lend itself to peace or to reconciliation.”
Bisho Minerva Carcaño challenged Teasdale’s dichotomizing of the American and Wesleyan traditions, noting the history of Methodist involvement in progressive political movements, highlighting, among other things, Nancy Pelosi’s famous shout out to the UMC lobby office’s lobbying for President Obama’s health-care plan.
Lesbian activist Sue Laurie took to the microphone to declare that “There has been violence done to GLBT people today,” apparently by allowing one person who openly disagreed with Ms. Laurie to speak.
Professional protestor Amy DeLong also took to the microphone, declaring that “unity” is one of “a whole list of churchy words” that she has “come to hate” because of how it has been cited in arguments against her sexually liberal agenda.