Choppy Waters Ahead: A Discussion with a UMC Bishop

on July 16, 2014

The waters look rough in the near future for the United Methodist Church. Increasing pressure from within and outside sources to address issues of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons have set the stage for a heated debate leading up to the next General Conference meeting.

In an interview for Ministry Matters, J. Michael Lowry, resident bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), joined Paul Franklyn, associate publisher and project director for the Common English Bible in Nashville, TN, to discuss the current state of UMC affairs, especially how the denomination will move forward with regards to homosexuality. The Central Texas Conference (CTC) only passed one resolution about homosexuality this year, agreeing to create space for what Bishop Lowry called “holy conferencing.” He clarified, “We did not vote on any specific resolution taking a stance on an issue.”

Bishop Lowry’s role, in which he has served for six years, has not necessitated his presiding over a trial for a clergy person for any reason. Trials rarely occur in the UMC and serve as last resorts when parties cannot agree upon resolutions or compromises to the issues at hand. Bishop Lowry also said there are currently no active complaints to his office regarding issues of same-sex marriage or other similar topics.

Bishop Lowry has also recently contributed a chapter on order to Finding Our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Churchin which he discusses civil disobedience. Bishop Lowry does not understand the growing tendency for Christians, especially clergy, to expect no repercussions for deliberate defiance of church law: “The long Christian tradition of civil disobedience goes hand-in-hand with the willingness to pay the penalty. A part of what we face in the United Methodist Church is a fair number of people who want to engage in civil disobedience with no penalty or no negative consequences.” Lowry’s chief concern with such a view of civil disobedience involves the nature of discipline; he believes an unwillingness to suffer due punishment for civil disobedience undermines both the nature of church order and the nature of a covenant relationship.

Several Christian authors have corroborated Bishop Lowry’s assertions, including Walter Wink, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Ashburn Theological Seminary and ordained United Methodist minister. In his noted work, The Powers That Be, Wink writes, “God wills that there be political order and not chaos. Human life is unlivable apart from the rule of law. This means that one must always engage in civil disobedience with deep respect for the law. Indeed, it is voluntary submission to the due penalty of the law that discourages frivolous violations.”

Franklyn then asked Bishop Lowry about the future of the statements about homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline. Bishop Lowry does not see the statements changing at the next General Conference meeting in Portland in 2016 due to the increasing number of votes allotted to churches outside the United States. International church growth is one of the UMC’s biggest strengths as a denomination, but it could hinder the more progressive American representatives from making changes to the Book of Discipline favoring same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons. Bishop Lowry also says issues surrounding homosexuality in the UMC will never be solved legislatively. “The dilemma we face is we need a legislative solution to live with each other, yet the very nature of the passions this issue evokes and the core convictions it engages for everybody, all across the spectrum, are such that legislation alone won’t do it.”

Franklyn then brought up the recent potential resolution made by Adam Hamilton and others about allowing local congregations to make their own decisions on issues of homosexual practice. Bishop Lowry affirms the effort to come up with alternative solutions, saying, “We owe a debt to [Hamilton] and to others that have presented the local option.” However, he ultimately sees the “Way Forward” as a negative way to move ahead. He says the resolution does not solve problems or debates surrounding homosexuality, it just moves where they are fought to the local level. His other major concerns include the increasing complication of the guaranteed appointment process and the potential for continued conflict caused by resistant factions within particular congregations. He summarized by saying, “There is a depth…of complexity that I think moving to the local level just does not solve.”

Franklyn then posed an interesting question citing the “polarizing wings” of the church, “one confessing and one affirming.” Franklyn acknowledging the fact that these two “wings” do not represent the majority of UMC members, then asked, “Do you think the center in between those wings can hold?” Bishop Lowry responded frankly, “No I do not.” He attributes the inevitable demise of the center, not a new thought for Bishop Lowry, to “mutually incompatible core convictions…founded on deep biblical and theological foundations.” He continued, “I think the vast middle of our conference is saying to me, ‘Could you make this issue go away?’…This issue [of same-gender marriage and ordination] is just not going to go away. Most of my congregations I find have actually worked their own solution which tends to be some version of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I think ultimately that’s not a solution.”

Bishop Lowry proceeded to list some opportunities and challenges facing the bishops leading up to the 2016 General Conference meeting apart from ensuring that these issues surrounding homosexuality enter discussions about UMC Mission, ensuring that the UMC “[Speaks] to a whole segment of the population in a way that has integrity and faithfulness, that is both biblical and respectful, if you will, hospitable as part of the engagement.” He then cited the challenges facing the UMC in building vital congregations and the crisis facing church leadership with the impending retirement of a generation of baby boomers and the relative lack of young replacement leadership. He continued, “I think there is a third issue that underlies all of that…recovering the notion that the United Methodist Church is meant to be a movement for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and the making of disciples.”

After complaining about the amount of time he has to spend dealing with complaints, Bishop Lowry chastised the complaint system, saying, “We have way overwritten the rules and technicalities of fair process…so as a conference we are spending more and more money on our chancellor and on those kind of engagement issues…I’m mindful that every dime you spend there you don’t spend feeding a hungry child, leading a person to Christ who doesn’t know Christ, engaging in a missional outreach opportunity…I’ll get pretty passionate about that. We have a process that is unworkable.”

Bishop Lowry has an admirably tremendous hope for the future of the UMC, but the future he sees does not lack potential dangers or inevitable conflicts.

Sail on.

Soli Deo Gloria

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