The following commentary is by Riley B. Case, associate executive director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church.
Dr. Case served for many years as a pastor and district superintendent in the UMC’s North Indiana Conference (now the Indiana Conference).
He is the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon Press) and has served as a delegate to five UM General Conferences.
This opinion pieced was originally published in a slightly longer form in the Confessing Movement’s e-publication, “Happenings Around the Church.”
Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
United Methodists are in the news again — not because of what UMs are doing in flood-ravaged areas, or for the numbers of mission teams serving in various places, or for spectacular evangelistic efforts, but for internal conflicts over issues related to marriage and homosexuality.
Major articles have appeared in TIME magazine, the Boston Globe, and USA Today. This is because of the Amy DeLong church trial in the Wisconsin Annual Conference, and because hundreds of United Methodist clergy have pledged to defy church law and perform homosexual unions.
Not surprisingly, most articles in the secular press have given wrong impressions.
A vocal minority
The secular media makes it sound as though there is strong support for changing the church’s historic stand that supports celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. According to several reports, there is “growing pressure” for the United Methodist Church to join other mainline churches in ordaining sexually active homosexuals; clergy are willing to defy church law; a major battle is looming at the 2012 General Conference, etc.
The truth is quite different. Despite the publicity, despite the equivocating on the part of the bishops, despite manipulated trials, despite statements from retired bishops and seminary faculty and boards and agencies, The United Methodist Church is not about to change its biblical stance. Overwhelming numbers of church members would oppose it. We need to assure our troubled church members that this is so.
Nearly 40 years of fighting
In speaking of General Conference 2012, the secular media suggest that the General Conference (the only body in the UMC that can change the Book of Discipline) will “settle” the issue of homosexuality for United Methodists. This is the same mantra touted in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.
Let’s face reality: whatever happens on this issue at next year’s General Conference, there will not be peace in the denomination. There will be talk about civility, but civility will not take place. There will be talk about a compromise that will make everyone happy, but no conceivable compromise will make everyone happy. There will be talk about unity around “core values,” but we seem not to agree what those core values might be.
Does anyone see a hopeful future for United Methodism over this issue?
It needs to be pointed out — and written boldly — that it is not evangelicals who are creating controversy, disunity, and lack of civility in the church. It is not evangelicals who are talking about demonstrations, undermining the Discipline, pledging themselves to ecclesiastical disobedience, and going to extraordinary lengths to obstruct justice. It is not evangelicals who are breaking covenant and making a mockery of church law.
What are evangelicals seeking? Simply this: Since the United Methodist Church has officially approved and (supposedly) operates with written doctrines, social principles, and covenant relationships, we want those in the church to honor and submit to these doctrines and principles and relationships.
A challenge to the connection
Some secular news accounts have given a wrong impression when they speak of those pledging to perform same-sex unions as primarily defying “church authorities” — as if it is the “authorities” (whoever they are) who are the block to loosening standards in regard to sexuality.
From the UM
The defiance is more serious that simply “defying authorities.” What is being defied and undermined is the United Methodist connection itself, including covenant relationships, ordination vows, and our commitment to one another as United Methodists.
The progressive strategy, at least on the part of some, is to wage civil war. This war is not against some outside imposed authority being foisted upon them, but against the very church to which these persons vowed faithfulness.
In other words, some in our connection desire to overturn the understandings, the promises, the ordination vows, and the Discipline that have made us who we are as United Methodists and replace them with something different — all in the name of some higher good. The higher good is variously stated: conscience, justice, inclusivity — all of which are defined not by Scripture, tradition, and reason, or by our vows, doctrine, and heritage, but by progressive preferences.
At the trial of Jimmy Creech some years ago, the defendant didn’t offer a defense, or even a plea of innocent or guilty. Rather, he urged the jury to make a prophetic judgment — namely that it is not the practice of homosexuality that is incompatible with Christian teaching (as Methodist doctrine states), but the prohibition against the practice of homosexuality that is incompatible with Christian teaching. In other words, bring the whole system down by judicial decree.
Or by any means. Obfuscate. Overload the system to make it inoperative (if 900 UM clergy perform same-sex unions, the system will blow all circuits and simply cease to function). Challenge all language so that words such as “practicing,” “self-avowed,” “heresy,” “status,” “celibacy,” “faithfulness” must be defined in such a legalistic way that they are inoperative.
Our covenant relationships were never meant to be business contracts that need 10 pages of legal language to make them operative. Our covenant together is based on relationships and relationship language is based on trust. At the present time, trust is in short supply.
So there is a problem — a serious problem. Numbers of United Methodists, both clergy and lay, feel like aliens in their own denomination. How can we exist in a denomination when some seek to undermine the core values that make us United Methodists and when the covenant relationships we speak of seem to mean nothing?
Where are the bishops?
In our system of church government, we have an executive branch (the bishops). We need to hear from that executive branch — and it needs to be something more than “Let’s stay at the table” or “We feel your pain” or “Let’s wait until the next General Conference.”
Even bishops who do not support the teachings of the Book of Discipline in regard to human sexuality (which itself raises questions about how sincere they were when they took their vows*) must realize that if the present strategy of ecclesiastical disobedience and intentional obfuscation continues, the whole system could come crashing down. To continue down the present road without intervention cannot be good for United Methodism.
The bishops seem quite capable of strong action when they want to act. They were effective in blocking the election of judicial council members in 2008 who voted in favor of Judicial Council Decision 1032. There have been numbers of instances where bishops (and cabinets and conferences) have taken care of moral problems and loyalty problems without having to hold trials and without public fanfare.
In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church — one of our predecessor denominations — was being rent apart by attitudes toward slavery. The bishops at the time could not work through their own conflicting attitudes about slavery, or, perhaps more accurately, what the church should be doing about a stated position of the Discipline which was being undermined and defied by a part of the church.
In what must be considered as one of the greatest historical “cop-outs” in the history of the church, the bishops encouraged the General Conference to “table” any action for four more years.
But the church had been tabling the issue far too long. In 1845, the denomination divided.
Let’s pray that history will not repeat itself.
- *Each newly elected United Methodist bishop is asked, “Will you guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God’s Word?”