By the Rev. Phil Thrailkill
I’ve always found myself impressed with people who work well in multiple disciplines.
Over the years, I’ve known several pastors who were also physicians and several attorneys who were also clergy. In dealing with them, I quickly became aware of the depth of their analysis and experience. The more angles from which an issue is illumined, the better the change of a rich and deep understanding.
It is for this reason that I appreciate Dr. Tom Summers’ research on the 1968, 1972 and subsequent General Conferences on the contested issues of homosexuality in church teaching and discipline. As a pastor, mental health professional, pastoral counselor, social justice advocate and now historian, Summers has much to offer from his deep sympathies. We still await a full treatment from a professional historian, but the fact remains that Summers—so far as I know—is the first to actually dig through the historical archives at Drew University and offer us a possible narrative, and so we are in his debt since he is a pioneer in this neglected arena.
I especially appreciate Summers’ careful attention to the timeline and to the motions and countermotions that finally led to the insertion of the fateful statement that we (The United Methodist Church speaking through the General Conference) “do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Though stated with care and reserve, this was a very clear “no” and a boundary marker for United Methodist disciples.
The church has neither the job nor the power to pass legislation for those who are not Christians or for those of other denominations, but we do have the authority to mark boundaries for those who wish to be faithful members of our churches, and this is most clearly represented in our list of chargeable offenses for clergy and laity found in our current Book of Discipline.
In other words, the current debate is an in-house affair with implications for ecumenical relations with other Christian bodies and also for how we are viewed by the larger culture. Summer’s concern that—should we maintain our current teaching—we will “invariably slide further behind in today’s rapid momentum of bringing fairness and justice to LGBT persons” tips his hand, and it is a pressing concern for many moderns whose biggest fear is the church not keeping up with times, as if that was our mission.
My concern, however, is a different one, and that is that we not be bullied by the culture and its false agendas of human liberation into giving up a point of teaching that fits well within our larger teaching on God’s design for faithful sexual expression. Our church has clear teaching on justice issues; our church also has clear teaching on sexual practices that are either compatible or incompatible with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and member of the UMC, and I see no conflict between them. We have expectations of one another as fellow United Methodists that we do not have of those who do not share our faith or our particular denominational history as a holiness renewal movement, first within the Church of England and later here in America and around the world.
I find it interesting that this initial boundary marker of “incompatibility” has been further developed and applied in the 1976, 1984, 1996 and 2004 General Conferences, as Summers notes. The argument could be made that the mind of the church, contrary to the pressures of the culture for all nearly sexual practices and arrangement to have equal status, has deepened in its convictions and teaching at just this point, as evidenced in the recent prophetic letter from our African bishops to their divided American colleagues.
The relevant paragraph from their epistle reads: “Scripture also teaches that all persons are sexual beings, whether or not they are married. However, sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy. The Christian marriage covenant is holy, sacred and consecrated by God and is expressed in shared fidelity between one man and one woman for life. In this vein, we denounce all forms of sexual exploitation, including fornication, adultery, sexual commercialization, slavery, abuse, polygamy, etc.”
In order to understand the larger and longer debate amidst the current ruckus, we need a brief review of the concepts of canonical Scripture, canonical doctrine and canon law, all of which are means of grace for the health of the church. In response to divine revelation, the church over time developed multiple canons or lists, each of which has a different and necessary function.
The list of 66 books of the Bible to be read and preached in the churches is the canon of Scripture, and—as our doctrine on Scripture teaches—is uniquely authoritative for Christian faith and life. The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are a canon of a different sort with a different function. They tightly summarize not a list of authoritative books to be read in worship but a list of theological convictions about person and work of the Triune God from creation through Christ to consummation to be confessed in worship by the baptized. They offer a lean, meaty summary of our Trinitarian vision of God and a lens through which Scripture is to be read by the faithful. Each line of the said creeds was formed in bitter controversy, and each line is both a “yes” and a “no” in which the faith of the church is stated and an error rejected.
A creed is a line-by-line summary of the church’s intellectual and spiritual battles to receive and defend the faith. As an example, the initial assertion that “God the Father Almighty” is “the maker of heaven and earth” is a clear rejection of second-century gnostic teaching that a lesser deity made the earth and that salvation is an escape from creaturely status, a conviction about the goodness of creation confirmed later in the same creeds in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. The risen Jesus is our prime example of God’s plans for the entirety of the good but now fallen creation. The faith once received long ago in divine revelation is defined and refined and defended in ongoing controversy as questions are raised and debated both within the church and at the boundary between the church and the surrounding culture.
And so it is today.
Remember that is was not Scripture that distinguished the orthodox from the innovators, since both worked with the same texts. Instead, it was that the emerging orthodox read the church’s book through the lens of the church’s faith and not through an alien philosophy or spirituality. The formation of the scriptural canon and the formation of the doctrinal canon grew up together and serve one another to hold us in the deep faith of the church. Over time, the church also develops canons or lists of saints (i.e, our heroes in the faith as living models), canonical liturgies and sacraments (forms or worship that faithfully engage the whole person), canonical polity (a General Conference and episcopal form of government) and canon law (the internal processes of order, our Book of Discipline). We also develop teaching on a whole array of issues because of fresh challenges we meet along the way, and it is here at this level of explanatory teaching that the current controversy is conducted.
Our Social Principles are highly valued by our church because we believe that classic Christian faith with a Wesleyan spin claims and reclaims the whole of life, but our Social Principles are not part of our official Doctrinal Standards which—as guarded in our Constitution—consist of five documents or sets of documents only: The Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, his Notes On The Next Testament and The General Rules.
What is disputed is whether or not our current teaching in the Social Principles and ordination standards on an aspect of human sexuality is consistent with the Doctrinal Standards to which we pledge allegiance as church members and in vows of ordination. Summers says “no” and I say “yes,” but only if debate takes seriously our prior theological commitments and not just our current social location.
Our Doctrinal Standards affirm the authority of Scripture for faith and life, and Scripture has a consistent witness against all forms of sexual immorality for disciples, not just homosexual practice. The Wesley sermons hold out the possibility of being genuinely transformed by the effects of God’s dynamic grace, both inwardly and outwardly. Nothing in the Wesley corpus supports sexual license of any kind. And in The General Rules, Wesley not only lists the forbidden activities of his day (e.g. smuggling, slaveholding) but makes a general reference to “avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced.” That he does not mention explicitly sexual offenses is not because they were not practiced in his day but because he could assume consensus on the matter.
Summers’ appeal to a supposedly United Methodist ethos of a “middle ground” is historically suspect as if cutting the middle between conservatism and liberalism was an official theological method. It is not; we remain accountably not to an ever-shifting middle ground but to our Doctrinal Standards as fleshed out in supportive church teaching, and I find our current teaching to be deeply in line with and to be a legitimate development of our official doctrinal commitments.
That it is increasingly unpopular is not an issue. In fact, that may be an additional reason to take it seriously! Have we forgotten that the church is counter to the world as currently constituted? So why are we so concerned about accommodating its whims and fashions, especially when they are so contrary to the consensus of received teaching as tested for two millennia?
While I am grateful to Summers for his research on a neglected slice of United Methodist history, I resist the use he makes of it because I think it is both invalid and suspect. His supposition is that our initial decision in 1972 and our subsequent deepening and application of that teaching can be explained sociologically and psychologically as a conservative overreaction to the chaos of the times, and that the development of that teaching has grown only meaner and more narrow is an overreach. His argument is fundamentally the same of those who reject the Nicene Creed and its affirmations because the Council of Nicea was called and convened by the Emperor Constantine with clearly political motives.
Whatever the winds swirling around its deliberations, then or now, the decisions of properly constituted ecclesial bodies is church teaching, and while they may err, they are not to be flippantly dismissed when challenged by the culture.
Like my pastoral colleagues, I serve in the midst of a confused and confusing culture that delivers all sorts of knotty problems to our doorsteps. We are not the sex police, and we only deal with the information we are given, often in confidence. But in my dealing with heterosexual couples who come for marriage I seek to apply our doctrinal and moral standards with compassion and realism.
Take the case of a couple who were living together and came to me for marriage. One was baptized, the other not. In our initial discussions about how Christian marriage differs from secular marriage, I laid out three options in order of preference. They could separate their living arrangements till the marriage as a public witness, they could have an immediate civil marriage at the courthouse and a church service later, or they could continue to cohabit till the wedding, and I would work with them whatever their choice. They chose the latter.
Now because the bride was not baptized, and since our wedding service assumes both parties are believers, I instructed her in the basics of the faith and baptized her the Sunday before the wedding. It was a glorious day of putting first things first. She was married the following week, and only then received into church membership, since only then could the vows be taken with integrity by the couple.
This to me was careful pastoral realism that did not perjure them before God and the church or set a bad example for others who knew their living arrangements. While all persons, of whatever preference, are welcomed into the worship and fellowship of the church, not all are prepared to take the vows with integrity and to uphold church teaching. Working that through requires discernment and dexterity!
As difficult and controversial as our current teaching is, I am convinced it is a faithful expression of our Doctrinal Standards and, beyond that, of the deep wisdom of the church as found in Jesus and his Gospel. And I am thankful for Dr. Tom Summers’ research and writing for helping me think about these disputed matters.
I expect the coming General Conference to be the most difficult in recent memory, and for the word “incompatible” to have a fresh new meaning when it’s all over.
Thrailkill pastors Main Street UMC, Greenwood.