These are days of discontent and disruption (even despair) in United Methodism in the United States. Earlier this week, my friend Professor Ted Campbell speaking to a gathering of World Methodists said the following about the United Methodist denomination: “The question at this point is not whether we divide or not,” said Campbell, standing under a “One” sign that signified the unity theme of the conference. “That I fear is a given now.”[United Methodist News, 9-1-16]
As a “cradle Methodist,” one who has lived and loved this Wesleyan expression of the church for more than seven decades, I have watched our common story as it is shattered apart. As it unfolds I watch with the horrid fascination of someone who fears she is seeing a train wreck about to occur. “A given?” So says my friend. I pray and hope Ted is WRONG. Really, are we to divide over this? This?
Still, Professor Campbell’s comment has caused me to do much thinking about our denomination. If we are going to speak of “givens,” I have a few to add. Here are a few “givens” that have been firmly in place for too long and I would suggest have led to my friend’s stark assessment of our situation.
In his fine book Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe reflects on the cultural battles in our nation. He notes James Davison Hunter’s statement that culture wars consist of “competing utopian politics that will not rest until there is complete victory.” Wolfe continues regretfully, “The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase ‘culture wars’ is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.”
Gregory Wolfe summarizes further: “Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.” Borrowing from Wolfe, I would adapt his statement to read that somewhere in our denomination’s history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than theology –especially our understanding of the church. We stopped caring for the health of our institution and began to seek total victory through our politics. Humility took a back seat to triumph. Years ago, it became a given — raw politics replaced more generous theological discourse. Outside forces played a role. If “culture wars” are an oxymoron, shouldn’t theological wars be equally onerous? (More on this in future.)
So, there is the previous “given” of politics being more salient than respectful theological discourse. I would suggest two other “givens” that underpin this.
It is increasingly scientifically clear that there are biological, hereditary contributors to a person’s sexual orientation. Year by year, the science keeps mounting — this research is a “given.” It is not that United Methodists have been unaware. In the 1980s and 1990s biological scientists like Sally Geiss were encouraging a more scientifically based view of human genetics. However, by narrow majorities, the General Conference chose to ignore this work. This, my friends, is another “given” that should be set along side the one Professor Campbell mentions. We have been MADE by our creator to have differing sexual proclivities and desires. I believe this is a “given” that should inform our theological reflection and transcend the political and the theological divisiveness we face. I fear on this issue our denomination continues to operate with the ignorance of those who once believed the earth was flat, even in the face of solid scientific evidence to the contrary.
Finally, I suggest it is a “given” that the true disagreement among us, the issue that divides, isn’t primarily human sexuality but how we interpret scripture. For years I have asked my friends, who wish to exclude homosexual persons from full participation in the church, to share with me their hermeneutic of scripture. I ask on what basis they interpret the five or six passages of all of scripture that MIGHT refer to what we understand today as homosexuality? How is it that my colleagues, with whom I disagree on this one matter, find more space to interpret scripture in less literal ways when it comes to divorce, the role of women in the church, support for slavery, polygamy, the eating of pork or even being left-handed? How is there this latitude in interpretation on some important matters like divorce, slavery, the role of women and at the same time a restrictive interpretation of passages on homosexuality?
I believe it is a “given” that until we can sit down respectfully and reason together about our interpretive approaches and differences, we will live more by political strategies than by theological respect. As one wag recently confided in me, “I wonder if this increasingly openness to schism, to the dividing of the body of Christ first rests in an openness to divorce, even though Jesus spoke against it? Perhaps once you accept divorce as normal, you are more open to a dividing of the church!” Interesting and troubling thought, this — even as I find it slightly off key.
Another friend has said that there can be grace-filled endings of marriages, but there seem never to be grace-filled divisions of a congregation or denomination. In this I fully agree. Over the years I have watched the damage done by the exclusionary practices, theologies and splintering activities of the Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist denominations. It is clear that the seeking of some mythical purity has left both groups less focused on mission and imaginative ministry.
It is my belief that United Methodism has been shaped by too many “givens” already, without our easily accepting another, even if it is proposed by the good Professor Campbell. What if we worked on some other prior givens like: politics being more highly valued than theology, the scientific evidence we have at hand, or the inability to speak constructively about differing hermeneutical interpretations. What if folks in the emerging Wesley Covenant Association were to include all of these givens in their upcoming deliberations? What then?