Griffeth: Homosexuality and the UMC, Part 3
Homosexuality and the UMC Quadrilateral
By James Ellis Griffeth, retired
Editor’s note: This is Part 3 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 (September Advocate) talked 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 (October Advocate) discusses specific Scripture as related to homosexuality. Part 3, here, discusses homosexuality and the UMC Quadrilateral. Read Griffeth’s full paper here, and read his paper on the Wesleyan quadrilateral here.
Perhaps The United Methodist Church’s Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience) can be employed to rethink homosexuality.
Last month’s column sought to re-examine the Bible passages that speak directly to homosexuality. That column was excerpted from a longer paper; see the editor’s note for access to the longer paper. Last month’s column acknowledges the acceptance of Scripture (and faithful interpretation of Scripture) as the primary source in utilizing the Quadrilateral.
This column explores the three supporting components: tradition, reason and experience.
Clearly the long tradition of the church, until recent decades, has reflected an almost universal bias against homosexuality and homosexual activity. We have to accept that that is a long tradition as we consider whether to move in a new direction.
Still, moving in a new direction can be done. The early church took new directions with parts of the old Holiness Code, as illustrated in the examples of Peter with Gentiles, Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch and Paul in his ministry to Gentiles. And longstanding church tradition has, in recent decades and centuries, been re-examined and changed in regard to slavery, the role of women in church and society, “divorce and remarriage” and other issues when life experiences, use of reason and fresh interpretations of Scripture led the way.
What does reason tell us? Reason and science (including medicine) grew out of the fountainhead of the Age of Enlightenment, which was beginning to emerge around the time of the Protestant Reformation (early 1500s and following). It had a huge impact on thinking in the western world, especially from the mid-1600s to the late 1700s. The founding fathers/brothers of the United States were largely products of the Age of Enlightenment. And the Wesley brothers and other early Methodist leaders were informed by Enlightenment insights, as well.
While it has been traditionally believed that homosexuality is a choice and that homosexual identity can be converted to heterosexual identity, the consensus of modern medicine/science/reason is that homosexual identity is somehow genetically “hardwired” into the identity of some persons and that it cannot be changed by any means currently known.
For decades, the UMC Book of Discipline has included two statements that seem to many to be in contradiction to each other. Those statements are, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment” (2012 Discipline, Para. 161.F) and “The UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (2012 Discipline, Para. 162.F). That latter statement seems to have been based on traditional assumptions that have been significantly challenged by medicine/science/reason in more recent decades. Other paragraphs address the UMC’s present opposition to “practicing” homosexuals serving as UMC clergy; other rulings disallow UMC clergy from officiating at homosexual marriages or congregations allowing such in UMC worship spaces.
Meanwhile, there have been unsuccessful attempts to modify one or both statements above at every General Conference for four decades. When the 2016 General Conference seemed unlikely to reach agreement on the issue, “An Offering of a Way Forward” was approved. It states that the Council of Bishops will appoint a commission to examine all statements in the Book of Discipline related to human sexuality. The commission is charged with making recommendations related to the changes in the Book of Discipline. Those changes would be considered by the 2020 General Conference; the option of having a special General Conference in 2018 or 2019 to consider those matters before 2020 is also available.
The 2016 session of the South Carolina Annual Conference then voted to have “learning sessions” in each district regarding the scope of responsibility of the commission and the options that may come before the next General Conference.
It is my hope that these district “learning sessions” will happen and that additional “learning sessions” will be scheduled in other settings.
One question that could be discussed in a “learning session” is, “If God has created homosexual persons as they are, sexual identity and desires included, and if the church is to treat them as persons of sacred worth, and if these persons seek to be faithful Christians, then what behaviors are considered to be faithful to God and what behaviors are considered to be unfaithful to God?”
Perhaps the “learning sessions” could discuss whether Para. 162.F of the Discipline might be changed to read (at least in part), “The UMC does not condone the practices of sexual promiscuity, sexual coercion, sexual prostitution, predatory sexual behavior or sexual trafficking and considers such practices incompatible with Christian teaching.”
What might our experience contribute to the discussion? Many of us have family, friends and colleagues who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, or LGBT. Some of them are persons on whom we rely for medical, legal, financial or other forms of professional service. Many of them are quite dear to us. What does our experience with them contribute to the dialogue? I will venture to share some of my own observations.
In my 44 years as a UMC pastor and hospital chaplain in South Carolina, I have known many LGBT persons (most of them “L” or “G”), some as friends and some as persons for whom I have provided pastoral care and/or counseling. To the best of my knowledge, not one of them is a sexual predator or child abuser. I believe that some LGBT persons are predators and/or pedophiles, just as I believe that some heterosexuals are predators and/or pedophiles—sadly, I have known a few of those. I have known several LGBT persons (and several heterosexuals) who have been sexually promiscuous; some (in both groups) have repented of that behavior and are now faithful to their partners, but others (in both groups) are still promiscuous.
As I have listened to (sometimes in the context of counseling with) many LGBT persons, I have heard them ask questions for which I did not have answers:
- If God made me like this, why do God’s people hate me for it?
- Do people really think that I chose homosexuality? With the way our culture treats homosexual persons, I’d have to be crazy and/or masochistic to choose to be gay!
- Why do they think I can just change? They don’t know the ways I have tried to change. And I have always failed. I believe I will always fail to change, because this is just the way I was created to be.
- Why do people treat me like trash because of who I am? Don’t they know that their disdain discourages me from trying to be the best person I can be, even if I am gay?
I have also listened, sometimes with horror, to some of the desperate and self-harming (and self-demeaning) things that some LGBT persons have done to themselves, or gone through at the hands of others, in order to try to change. Then it was my task to try to help them with their shame and grief that, even with all that trauma, they have failed to change.
Additional note from a personal experience: Almost 40 years ago I was in a one-to-one mentoring conference with a chaplain student when he decided that it was time for him to “come out” and openly reveal his homosexuality—and to do so in that conference with me. I am grateful for his trust in me. And I am grateful for what he taught me about LGBT concerns in our following sessions. He had done many things to try change himself, including, in his college days, trying to make a bargain with God about what he would do for God if God would change him into a heterosexual. His bravery and faith were such that, even when that bargain failed to make him heterosexual, he still sought to be faithful to God by giving himself into a form of full-time Christian ministry.
As I sought to help him negotiate the complicated (and sometimes terrifying) issues of “coming out” to family, friends and colleagues, I watched and listened at close hand to his complicated struggles and excruciating pain. I became more sensitive to the burdens of LGBT persons, burdens that those of us who are heterosexual rarely have to bear.
My experience, noted above, teaches me that the UMC, at the level of the General Conference, will do well to rethink its stances and seek to define what Christian faithfulness might look like for LGBT persons. Clearly, some practices like coercion, promiscuity, predatory behavior and child abuse will be sin/wrong/unfaithful practice for anyone. But are there behaviors between consenting, committed homosexual partners that could be honored in the eyes of the church? Not only are LGBT persons “persons of sacred worth in need of the ministry of the church,” many of them presently are faithful Christian persons seeking to lead a life worthy of God’s love for them.
I think that the church is in need of what those Christians have to offer.
Griffeth is a retired member of the South Carolina Conference of the UMC.