Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS
Demonstrators supporting the removal of the UMC's anti-LGBTQ stances held communion after the vote to retain them at the 2012 General Conference
A United Methodist Insight Exclusive
A major discussion for the 2016 General Conference will focus on The United Methodist Church moving from being a U.S.-centric denomination to becoming a “global church.” Some proposed legislation looks at what this would mean for our form of organization, but. I’ve been thinking more broadly about what must change to create a truly worldwide denomination to happen. My conclusion:
For any effort to become a global denomination to work, each of three distinct groups in the denomination is going to have to give up deeply held beliefs about the expression of human sexuality. Unless and until all three groups are able to do this, work on creating “a global church” will stall. The three distinct groups are: U.S. progressives, U.S. conservatives and Central Conferences delegates.
Here's what's at stake:
From the best I can tell, most United Methodists agree that the best expression of human sexuality comes in committed, monogamous relationships between consenting adults. However, we disagree sharply on acceptable forms of human sexual expression, which has resulted in the church adopting a basic stance that "homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching." Unfortunately, the situation is far more complex than that one statement, and rectifying it will require everyone to give up something. I don't think it's overstating the case to say that the future of a global United Methodist Church rests upon the decisions that delegates to this General Conference make regarding human sexuality.
For a global UMC identity to work, progressive U. S. United Methodists must give up their belief that all the UMC's anti-gay rules must be eliminated. In other words, U. S. progressives must accept the deep cultural need of United Methodists in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, where churches struggle against an widespread cultural belief that casual sex with serial partners – often heterosexual, but not always – is an acceptable practice.
The danger of the African cultural belief has been shown clearly in the proliferation of HIV/AIDS across Africa. Since the disease was identified in 1977, 90 percent of the world's HIV/AIDS cases have occurred on the African continent. Facing this public health challenge, African conferences more need the support of Social Principles that condemn profligate sexual practices in all orientations.
Plus, progressive and conservative United Methodists will have to join together to come up with a more realistic understanding of human sexual practices across a spectrum of orientations. Conservative U. S. United Methodists resist saying anything like this because they are trying to protect "the authority of the Scriptures" (which, if they are indeed Scriptural, should not need protection at all). Their dogma refuses to acknowledge a human reality: same-sex marriage and unmarried sexual relationships exist around the world, and most people don't seek the church's permission to have sex! Plus, the presence of the verses in Leviticus 18 and 20 condemning “men sleeping with men as if with women” are, in and of themselves, proof that homosexuality has existed for at least 2,900 years. That is testimony that homosexuality is part of the way God created mammals.
Thus it becomes clear that the current all-or-nothing approaches of progressive and conservative United Methodists on human sexuality fail the denomination on at least two levels: they fail to support our Central Conference members in their contextual mission needs, and they fail to support the UMC's overall mission of improving people's health worldwide.
Two proposals coming before the 2016 General Conference could help resolve this dilemma if adopted: 1) a constitutional amendment to create a U. S. Central Conference and 2) a constitutional amendment to create a "global" Book of Discipline that would allow regions of the denomination to create their own contextual church laws to meet their specific missional needs. These two amendments would allow each region of The United Methodist Church to create sets of church laws and guidelines that would best support their contextual missions. If such provisions were passed, delegates from Central Conferences would need to refrain from trying to impose their own beliefs and needs on the churches in the United States.
Admittedly, it will be difficult for all three groups to make these sacrifices. Each has turned its own beliefs into orthodoxy for their members. It’s hard for any of us to give up our own deeply held beliefs. Think how hard it is for groups in the church to do the same! However, these orthodoxies have now developed to the point where they reciprocally are hurting other segments of the UMC. Is the goal of any of the segments of our denomination to be “right,” or should our goal be to come up with mutually supportive ways to make the denomination to work to reach and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
As long as we let our respective egos get in the way, nothing will happen to move us toward the goal of being “a global church.” It is only when we recognize and accept the right of each segment of the church to function based on its context that we can move forward.
The Rev. Thomas H. Griffith of Chandler, AZ, is a retired clergy member of the California-Pacific Annual Conference with expertise in United Methodist polity.