The United Methodist Church’s highest court has ruled that the consecration of its first openly gay bishop violated church law, compounding a bitter rift over homosexuality that has brought the 13-million-member denomination to the brink of schism.
In a 6-to-3 vote made public on Friday, the church’s Judicial Council found that a married lesbian bishop and those who consecrated her were in violation of their “commitment to abide by and uphold the church’s definition of marriage and stance on homosexuality.”
Still, the court ruled that the bishop, Karen P. Oliveto of Denver, “remains in good standing” pending further proceedings, offering her supporters a glimmer of hope. But it also raised the prospect of a suspension or forced retirement.
“Under the longstanding principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law,” the council ruled. “It is not lawful for the College of Bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.”
The Judicial Council also decided, in separate rulings, that the New York and Illinois regions must ask candidates for the ministry about their sexuality and rule out those who are gay “or in any other way violating the church’s standards on marriage and sexuality.”
The boards of ordained ministry in those regions announced last year that they would not discriminate against candidates based on sexuality or gender, but the Judicial Council ordered them to drop that practice.
“We won’t run back into the closet, and we won’t leave the church,” said the Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, who is openly gay and serves as senior pastor at New Milford United Methodist Church in Connecticut, part of the New York region. “The only way that I will leave this denomination is if I am dragged out.”
I confess that I am always surprised when the church left loses a ruling like this, given that it happens so rarely. But good for the Methodist judges, standing firm on the law. It is impossible to imagine the leftists being satisfied if they don’t get exactly what they want, though. When have they ever taken “no” for an answer when it comes to sexual matters? Either the conservatives will capitulate to avoid formal schism, or there will be a formal schism.
Given how the African Methodists have stiffened the spines of their conservative American colleagues, I’d bet that the conservatives of the UMC will choose principle over capitulation to the sexual left. I could be wrong. Methodist readers, talk to us about the prospects of schism. How likely is it? What form will it take? Will this be a PCA/PCUSA thing?
Last month, I was talking to a Methodist friend, an older man who is highly active in his church, both locally and nationally. He lamented the lack of formation for Methodist youth around questions of sexual behavior. “We are not making disciples,” he complained. When I asked him about the homosexuality question and how the institutional Methodist church was likely to settle it, he predicted that the UMC would accept and affirm homosexuality — and he was in favor of it. Looked forward to it, even.
I couldn’t figure this out until a theologian at the Q conference I attended this week explained it to me. Christians like my Methodist friend think that the standard Christian framework regarding sex and marriage can be offered to same-sex couples, and all will be well. So, if a gay Methodist is dating another gay Methodist, as long as the two avoid unchastity, the church can and should support their relationship. That’s the theory, the theologian told me (and he doesn’t believe that theory).
If so, that’s absurd. First, it is clearly anti-Biblical. Second, it reveals a nominalist view of sexuality and the human person, which is to say, a belief that the meaning of sexuality and our bodies is whatever we say it is. Third, and more broadly, it is an extremely impoverished way of thinking about the human person and the gift of sexuality. Fourth, and most practically, it will never work. All the labor necessary to overcome and overturn the traditional Biblical sexual model serves the purpose, however inadvertent, of vacating all Scriptural authority over sexual desire. This is a Rubicon, as I explained at length here.
To be fair, I think that gays and their allies within United Methodism are compelling the broader church, however unintentionally, to face the fact that it doesn’t take traditional Christian sexual teaching and obedience to it seriously. In this, I very much doubt the United Methodists are alone in this. As I have said before, when I converted to Catholicism as a single man in my twenties, I had zero help from the institutional church in living out the life of chastity to which all unmarried Catholics are called. It was a very difficult walk alone for me through the desert, until years later, when I married. God was merciful and gave me grace during that long struggle of repentance, but I was effectively alone.
Frankly, I’m pretty cynical about this stuff in all American churches, broadly speaking. So many people — pastors and lay leaders — just don’t want to touch the whole question of Christian sexual teaching. Too controversial. The mainstream culture knows what it believes about sex and sexuality, and it never misses an opportunity to catechize us vividly and emotionally. What do we in the church offer our people? Mostly, I think, an uncomfortable silence. Part of this is a failure to minister effectively to singles. Another part of it is a loss of nerve in talking about divorce, which is about as popular with churchgoing Christians as it is with everybody else in American society. Anyway, gay activists and allies within church bodies understand the weakness here, and are exploiting it. When I say “exploiting,” I don’t mean that they’re being cynical about it. In most cases, I would say, in charity, that they aren’t. I mean that they perceive the weakness and the double-mindedness, and are pressing their advantage to achieve something that they genuinely believe is good.
All of which is to say that if the Methodists to undergo a formal schism, then the conservatives will have to get a lot more serious about discipleship and formation on sexuality across the board. And not only the Methodists, but all Christian churches who do not want to be assimilated and to dissolve inside this erotomaniacal, post-Christian culture. It’s necessary to hold to an official teaching, but if it is not enforced or taught with conviction, such that it strikes others as persuasive, true, and binding, then it may as well be chucked, because it is going to go away in the hearts of the next generation.
The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions. Our more general misery is that, having broken with those institutionalized credibilities from which its moral energy derived, new credibilities are not yet operationally effective and, perhaps, cannot become so in a culture constantly probing its own unwitting part.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
I’m a Duke Div (Methodist seminary) alum from a couple years back who pursued ordination in the UMC up until my Commissioning interviews, when it became clear that my traditionalist attitudes towards gender and marriage meant that I was simply not what the North Georgia Conference was looking for anymore.
The gatekeepers in most (perhaps all?) of the conferences in the U.S. represent the progressive wing of the clergy and pursue their agenda.
There is a large gap between the views of the clergy and the views of the laity on this issue as well as several others, and that gap will only widen over time as the gatekeepers prevent the traditionalists from joining the order of elder in the UMC.
In my mind, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when’ the UMC in North America changes the Book of Discipline so that the church can ordain practicing homosexuals and celebrate gay marriages. I’m not sure how they will work that out with the global communion, but my understanding is that they will try to create a more “federalist” polity so to speak that allows them to pursue their progressive agenda and the Africans to pursue their traditional agenda. That is what I expect them to announce at the special session of General Conference in 2019, though I am not in the know.
Finally, I must say that I am frustrated with many of the established, traditionalist clergy in the UMC. Reiff’s diagnosis seems to me to apply to them. They are not willing to stake anything on the issue because they lack conviction. When preserving your pension is a higher priority than preserving the faithful witness of the church to Christ, it is tough to argue that you serve anything other than Mammon.