A revised draft of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church (UMC) that will come before General Conference 2020 includes changes to the church’s definition of marriage, setting the stage for significant pushback from the denomination’s orthodox majority.
The new language was developed by a task force within the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), the UMC’s agency that works on issues of social justice. The GBCS has been working since the 2012 General Conference on an ambitious project of comprehensively rewriting the denomination’s Social Principles, the core official UMC teaching on social issues, supposedly for the sake of making the Social Principles more globally oriented, biblically grounded, and succinct. But the proposed revision’s redefinition of marriage instead rebuffs the decisions made by the global church this year’s Special General Conference to uphold and affirm traditional biblical teaching on marriage and human sexuality.
This occurred despite GBCS intentionally waiting to finish working on the section on human sexuality after General Conference 2019 so that they could be informed by the decisions of the global legislative body. GBCS’ stated goal for the whole project was to make the Social Principles more succinct, more theologically grounded, and more globally relevant. However, the section on human sexuality disappointingly emphasizes the current American cultural context over a global one and two millennia of church history.
At the GBCS’ plenary meeting of all board members last Friday, April 26, the Rev. Dr. Chappell Temple, lead pastor of Christ Church Sugar Land in Sugar Land, Texas, raised concern with not following the lead of General Conference, the only body that can speak for the entire church. He felt that the Social Principles Task Force, of which he was a member, left their statements on marriage too ambiguous, and added that “it is the stated position of the UMC that marriage is between one man and one woman, and if our Social Principles do not reflect this… it will be reflected as an end-run by the GBCS.”
For this reason, Temple proposed an amendment that would return the definition of the covenant of marriage as being between “a man and a woman” instead of simply “two persons.”
Dr. Randall Miller of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, chair of the task force and vice-president of the entire board, gave the Social Principles Task Force report to the plenary and explained the rationale of the group’s choice to make those changes.
Speaking first for himself but also for the majority of the group that authored the changes, he said: “it just seemed at this difficult and conflictual time in the church, I wanted to speak into the healing of our church.” He also pointed to a desire to draw from the latest in biology, psychology, and other branches of science, as well as recently-changed laws on same-sex marriage and other topics of sexuality. He further expressed an aim of having the statements on marriage better fit the secular environment in the United States in which the church operates. He continued, “It didn’t seem in the moment we are in the church, wiser or wise or helpful to single out individuals or exclude individuals in the statement we would put forward. It’s not meant to offend people or exclude people.”
Temple’s amendment was voted on by acclamation and defeated by a vote of approximately sixty to seventy percent against, a clear but not overwhelming majority.
The application of these liberal, American values is disappointing but not surprising. As John Lomperis reported last year, of the 13 individuals on the team, 11 were Americans. Further, Miller is a longtime LGBTQ activist who was once Interim Executive Director of Reconciling Ministries Network, the main unofficial LGBTQ caucus in the denomination. Serving as chair of the editorial team is Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the Boston University School of Theology, who was a long-time leader in the ultra-liberal California-Pacific Annual Conference. Despite Africans constituting more than 42 percent of all United Methodists, they compose only three percent of the GBCS board with just two members. In their meetings last week, the board declined the opportunity to do justice to their African brothers and sisters in Christ by increasing their representation.
Bishop Sally Dyck, President of the Executive Committee, announced that the full transcript of the proposed new language for the Social Principles would not be made public until it is translated into all of the UMC’s official languages, a task she expects to be completed around July. A working draft that does not include the section on human sexuality that was released by GBCS in April 2018 can be viewed here.
Regardless of all the good work the GBCS may have done to make the Social Principles overall more clear, concise, or biblically grounded, the document born of this “mammoth task” of 7 years, as Miller described it, may be doomed and dead on arrival come General Conference 2020. With the passage of the Traditional Plan in St. Louis, the global orthodox majority is unlikely to support amending the Social Principles with compromised language similar to the so-called One Church Plan.