Anticipating the report of the UMC human sexuality commission
By James Ellis Griffeth
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series on homosexuality and a way forward for The United Methodist Church, excerpted from Griffeth’s fuller paper, ”An Introduction to the Biblical Texts (Re. Homosexuality) with Insights from the Quadrilateral.” Part 1, here, talks about the context for such an exploration in light of the pending UMC Commission on Human Sexuality and the fear of a UMC split. Part 2 discusses specific Scripture as related to homosexuality. Part 3 discusses homosexuality and the UMC Quadrilateral. Read Griffeth’s full paper here, and read his paper on the Wesleyan quadrilateral here.
Can we talk? Better yet, can we listen? Specifically, can we intentionally decide to employ some good old Methodist “discipline” in order to listen, in the spirit of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, to people with whom we disagree?
Disciplined listening seems necessary if we are to find a faithful resolution to the self-contradictory statements on human sexuality in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. And we are aware of the concerns that the issue threatens to split our denomination. The 2016 General Conference deferred any immediate resolution to the issue by approving a commission to be appointed by the Council of Bishops. The commission will review all the statements regarding human sexuality in the UMC Book of Discipline and make recommendations for change. Their report will be made to the 2020 General Conference, or possibly to a specially called General Conference in 2018 or 2019. The UMC has not had a special General Conference since 1970; that one completed the details of the merger of the Methodist and EUB denominations to form the UMC in 1968.
I am among those who hope for a special General Conference prior to 2020 for two reasons: 1) A special General Conference would focus entirely on a setting a policy for this issue and take that pressure off the 2020 General Conference, which could then focus on the mission and future of the church without the sexuality issue looming over the whole 2020 conference. 2) If the 2020 United States presidential election year is as divisive and disrespectful as the 2016 campaign has been thus far, it would be well to separate our UMC struggles with a difficult issue from the rancorous mood of the general electorate.
One thing is almost a certainty: whatever emerges from the commission will not make everybody in the UMC happy. In fact, it may make almost everyone at least a little bit unhappy. Hard decisions made on controversial topics are almost always that way. On the other hand, Methodist style “conferencing” often results in decisions that seem quite wise once they have been lived with for a little while but, initially, various people are often unhappy with particular details of the decisions.
My observation is that the majority of United Methodist churches and United Methodist people of whom I have some knowledge have been anxiously silent as they awaited whatever General Conference 2016 would decide and whatever consequences might fall out of that decision. The approval of the commission now gives us several months in which we can talk with (and, better, listen to) fellow United Methodists who have different perspectives on the issue.
As a prelude to conversation, I would hope every congregation would prepare itself for dialogue by being introduced to the Wesleyan “quadrilateral,” a method for thinking theologically by utilizing scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It is helpful to understand the four elements of the “quadrilateral” as being in a dynamic relationship (maybe even dynamic tension) with each other — and with each one contributing to the other. Although we Methodists have always affirmed the primacy of Scripture, we are aided in approaching theology by evaluating every theological idea via Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
Once interested folks have achieved a basic grasp of how to utilize the quadrilateral, they can utilize it to guide their conversation in a room that includes people with various histories and various beliefs.
This will not be easy to do.
I know some people who want to stand by what they have been told Scripture says about homosexuality, with some of them a) admitting that they have not studied the passages that are in the Bible personally and b) admitting they do not know anything about the context in which the statements are made; but I know others who have studied the Scriptures afresh and seriously—some of them believe it is time for the church to be more welcoming.
I know some people who privilege tradition so much that they are not open to thinking about homosexuality in any way other than what they have always heard (and believed); but I know others who believe re-visiting the quadrilateral might teach us to endorse a new tradition regarding homosexuality.
I know some people who want to use their reason to “prove” homosexuality is sinful and to be condemned, but I know some others who use their reason to believe people are hardwired with their sexuality and should be free to “be who they are,” always guided by the precepts of Christian love.
I know some people whose experience with homosexual persons in their families, among their friends and as faithful members of their congregations cause them to long for the church to find a more welcoming policy toward them; but I know some others whose lives have been so disrupted because of homosexuality that they do not want any changes in church policy.
Talking— and listening— in Christian love will not be easy, but it can be done!
Can we talk? Better yet, can we listen? Specifically, can we willfully decide to employ some good old Methodist “discipline” in order to listen, in the spirit of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, to people with whom we disagree? If there is a better way to do it than the quadrilateral approach, I hope someone will bring it forward. I think we need to talk—and listen.
If we do so, we will experience something like what the commission will experience as it meets in coming months, and we will come to appreciate the hard work they will be doing. If we do so, we are less likely to be surprised at what the commission recommends, even if we are not happy with all of it. If we do so, we will have spent the coming months preparing ourselves for a different set of statements in the Discipline. Surely the commission will not recommend that the two seemingly contradictory statements in the current Discipline continue to be there. If we do so, it may be that the Spirit will visit us with guidance for a faithful way forward.
If we do not, we will spend the next several months doing what we have done for the last several months, i.e. nothing, except staying in our own cozy corners and dreading what may happen—and fretting over what we’ll do if the church splits.
Can we talk—and listen?
Griffeth is a retired member of the South Carolina Conference of the UMC.