By the Rev. Phil Thrailkill
I am indebted to my colleague the Rev. Dr. Tom Summers for several reasons, the first of which is his long history of pastoral care of the mentally ill, particularly at the State Hospital, where my aunt and her son spent nearly 60 years until they died.
I have great respect for pioneers like Summers, who reshaped the contours of pastoral ministry by incorporating the insights of modern psychology and systems theory in difficult and underfunded institutional settings. Because of their work, the discipline of clinical pastoral education is now an accepted part of pastoral training, and I draw on its insights whenever I walk into a hospital, nursing home, community meeting, jail or home. How to listen, how to observe, how to be present, how to be self-aware, how to bring grace and truth to bear on human pain, how to pay attention to process and feelings, how to live with unanswered and unanswerable questions: these are just a few of the gifts of the pastoral care movement, and for them I am grateful.
But here my colleague has taken up a different task as a church advocate and cultural historian making a case for a change in official church teaching, not in our official five doctrinal standards—Articles and Confession, Standard Sermons, Notes on the New Testament, and General Rules, which are much harder to change—but in the supportive church teaching found in the United Methodist Social Principles (Para. 167F) and in our qualifications for ordained ministry (Para. 304.3, 2702.1a-b).
As a long term and effective advocate for the left-out and marginalized, Summers now brings his keen sense of social justice to bear on another group of “faultless persons” (his term), the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, which is nearly daily increasing its list of letters necessary to welcome into its circle ever more troublesome variations of sexual preference and practice. An example is the new policy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which now offers LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM housing and a special “open house” for those whose proclivities do not match the current range of 15 possibilities claiming victim status and requiring special protections (National Review, Feb. 15, 2015).
What would Father John say to this piece of his disputed legacy? My recommendation is that the post-Christian school remove the name “Wesleyan” to be free of any noxious associations with a Christian holiness movement to which we are heirs.
At some point I’d like to know just how far Summers and company would be willing to extend the alphabet scramble. To remove the single burdensome and polarizing phrase that “the practice of homosexuality…. is incompatible with Christian teaching” does not even cover his own current LGBT designation, since bisexual and transgender are not mentioned in the Discipline and raise a whole set of concerns on their own. One suspects a larger agenda is lurking, and that is the gradual disassembling within the church of our current sex ethic as summarized in the slogan, “Celibacy in singleness and fidelity in heterosexual marriage” (Para. 2702a).
I was fascinated by Summers’ creative social history of the 1972 Atlanta General Conference. I was soon swept up in his lush description of the “springtime beauty of Atlanta” before we moved on to his marshaling of arguments that the “backlash” phrase about the “practice of homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching” was the unfortunate result of a generalized social anxiety brought about by the combination of racial change, the contentious debate on the Vietnam war, the maturing sexual revolution of the 1960s, the recent Roe v. Wade decision, the emerging claims for gay rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and our own United Methodist organizational uncertainties.
I submit that it is difficult enough to do a mental health diagnosis on individuals, much less on an entire culture or denomination. To imply that the restrictive statement he opposes was an unfortunate error induced by high anxiety and the inability to handle multiple challenges is a grand therapeutic overreach not backed by the history.
My opinion, also debatable, is that the 1972 General Conference got the racial issue right by getting rid of Central Conferences, the women’s issue right by expanding leadership, the sexuality issue right by drawing a boundary on homosexual practice as a faithful Christian option, but the abortion and quadrilateral issues wrong—but that is a debate for another day.
Summers’ inference that traditionalists hide their multiple ignorant bigotries behind “scriptural terms” demonstrates the core issue in dispute, and that is the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture for faith and practice and the consensus of church teaching that flows from it and is tested over time. It is not a clue that the radical reinterpretation of Scripture on these issues began only about 50 years ago with new pressures from the culture for the church to be a smiling and benevolent chaplain to its erotic social experiments as the new frontier in human liberation?
Behind his reconstructed history—that The United Methodist Church is like a troubled patient with an anxiety disorder in need of therapy in order to be more tolerant—is a fundamental theological claim to alternative divine revelation coming from the progressive agenda and its desire to see our church not fall behind the upward curve. Even biblical scholars and theologians who ethically disagree with our “incompatible” statement will often admit that both Scripture and tradition are on the side of the church’s historical position (e.g. Dr. Luke T. Johnson of Emory). And so, with others of conscience, they propose another source of divine guidance and prophecy to a benighted church.
This is typically the modern appeal to “experience,” which cobbles together personal stories of pain and discrimination, a highly selective appeal to psychological and sociological sciences, a rereading of Scripture, a commonsense appeal to American fairness, a generous dose of political correctness and a wet finger held high to see which way the cultural winds are blowing in elite circles. How utterly modern! But how empty as a substantive theological argument, since it amounts to nothing but a new version of “let’s go with the flow!”
And now for my own sweeping generalizations. The church lives and dies by its reception and appropriation of divine revelation, most clearly and conclusively revealed in Jesus Christ and as preserved in the writings of Holy Scripture as read through the lens of the Trinitarian faith and from time to time summarized in creeds, doctrines and ethical instruction. And when significant new challenges come, from within or outside its boundaries, the church responds out of a network of resources, including Ecumenical Councils, which for United Methodists—on a smaller scale—is the General Conference as our official teaching voice.
It truly matters what the General Conference decides, since only here can our doctrine and teaching be changed. Thus, it was the challenge of Marcion in the second century that led to an eventual clarification of the New Testament canon, and it was the challenge of Arius in the fourth that led to the clarification in the Nicene Creed that the Son was “of the same being” as the Father, and it is the implications of the 1960s sexual revolution that we are now dealing with in genuine ecclesial agony.
We are at a turning point as big as the church has ever faced. Shall we disassemble the creation categories of male and female marriage for who-knows-how many blessed alternatives? Do not the same logical arguments that work for homosexual marriage also work for polygamy and polyamory? Once you dismiss the idea that the pairing must be heterosexual and thus complementary at the basic biological level of design, why stop at a pair? Why not three or more in differing combinations and orientations? Shall we absolutize human sexual impulses so they may be expressed and fulfilled in any way imaginable and still called Christian? How does this affect us as a church that still claims to stand within the apostolic tradition of faith and ethics?
Others of our former sister denominations (Episcopal, ELCA, Presbyterian USA) have made their stance clear and moved away from the center of the tradition. But should we follow them? No. But why? Because we are a holiness body that holds to a doctrine of Christian perfection in love that promises not just relative but real changes; conversion and obedience are lifelong.
Summers has a proposal; I have another. I say we stick with and defend our teaching in face of the growing cultural winds against us, that we tighten up the accountability structures that are currently being so cavalierly ignored by progressive clergy and bishops, that we allow those who can no longer stomach our backwards ways to have a gracious, generous exit into a bright progressive future. Truth be told, we are currently two logically incompatible forms of Christian faith held together by a shared history, a common pension fund and a wobbly Council of Bishops who cannot decide whether to stay the course or make a major departure to please a few.
I am no prophet, but my best guess is that we traditionalists and our centrist friends will carry the votes and maintain our teaching largely because of our cultivation of African delegates as symbolized by the recent, courageous statement of their bishops to their wavering American colleagues. That there has yet been no substantive reply from that body tells me it hit the mark and that it stung, as intended. Our great-grandparents took them a Bible several generations ago, and now that we want to take it back, they say, “No!”
We will carry the votes, but it will be a blood bath. We will discover in May just how deep are our fundamental divides on the basic issues of the nature of divine revelation and the authority of Scripture and its consensual reading over time. Local options are no solution at all.
My approach to pastoral care is to recognize that Scripture says nothing good about sexual immorality, either gay or straight. Full genital sexual expression for faithful Christian disciples who understand God’s wisdom is limited to heterosexual marriage. Others may do as they please and experience the consequences (sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, sexual addictions, broken hearts, moms without husbands, children without fathers, a growing inability to be faithful to one), but we can defend for ourselves only this narrow range because it is the consistent teaching of the Book and the Lord that shows us the way to life. We pastors deal with casualties gently and with wisdom, but we do not change the teaching for ourselves or others.
In conversation, I often find sinners on both sides of the sexual divide making a simple form of appeal to the doctrine of Creation. To morally justify their actions, they say naive things like, “Since God gave me the feelings, should I not express them?” or, “Since I understand this to be my orientation and not something I chose, should I not act on it to be authentically who I am?”
The problem is that the argument presumes we still live in Eden before the Fall when everything was innocent and we functioned as designed. But none of us live in that sensual Paradise. We live East of Eden, after the great disruption of original and continuing sin that shattered the image of God in us all and affected all our human capacities.
The icon of God in us has been broken and defaced, and one of the symptoms of that deep damage is our unruly sexual appetites that are inflamed into lust and often directed towards the wrong party. There is no high ground here. All are sexually broken; all are in need of the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy coupled with wise teaching and the virtues of self-control and obedience. There can be no naive appeal to Creation to justify practices that go against Scripture. We don’t live there any longer.
It is not just homosexual acts that are “incompatible with Christian teaching” but all acts of sexual immorality and fornication. To draw the boundary line at the homosexual challenge, as the General Conference did in 1972, is only to demonstrate how compromised we Methodists already were by the cultural trends.
Progressives who ask why we have so long “winked” at heterosexual immorality only to balk at the homosexual variety are right on target. We are inconsistent hypocrites. Are we really as committed to biblical principles as we claim?
We are about to answer that question at the next General Conference, and so while I intend to work and give to uphold current teaching, I do it with a dose of repentance for our long compromise with a permissive social agenda that is not good for anyone, especially for those who claim to be the modern follows of the Lord Jesus. The true radicals are not those who want to loosen and broaden church teaching in a more inclusive direction, i.e. Summers and the progressives. The true radicals are those who want to teach the fullness of the church’s mind on these sensitive matters, then call the church to countercultural obedience.
“Incompatible” is a good word. Let’s keep it and use it!
Thrailkill pastors Main Street UMC, Greenwood.