UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
A Bishop's PrayerHis activities have made him the target of Good News and the Confessing Movement, which are now demanding that he be censured by the Council of Bishops.
Sam Hodges of the United Methodist Reporter has posted an excellent, comprehensive article on the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between conservative or traditional United Methodists opposed to the acceptance of homosexuality and liberal or progressive clergy and laity who promote LGBT rights in the name of love and justice.
Specifically, the leaders of the Confessing Movement and Good News – mostly white male pastors of tall-steeple churches in the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions – have asked the Council of Bishops to censure retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert because of his activism on behalf of LGBT rights during the 2012 General Conference in May and the Western Jurisdiction Conference held in July. Their letters can be viewed on a website, Faithful UMC.
Bishop Talbert chairs a strategic committee that the Western Jurisdiction appointed to enact a set of principles, "A Statement of Gospel Obedience." The statement encourages United Methodist clergy to stand up for LGBT people's civil rights, including the right to marry, and to support the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in The United Methodist Church.
After 25 years of observing, reporting and interpreting United Methodism around the world in a professional capacity, this latest exchange first prompts me to quote Bette Davis' classic line from the movie "All About Eve:" "Buckle your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy night."
Anyone who has been following this issue for the past 40 years likely perceives that the bedrock issue regarding the UMC and its anti-LGBT stances as at heart a power struggle, namely who gets the authority to say who's in and who's out in The United Methodist Church. In this respect, the presenting issue may be of the moment, but the battle is the same one that has been fought by church authorities since the earliest days of Christianity (see Acts of the Apostles for further information).
What makes this battle so pitched in the church context, however, is that both sides believe they are operating from a biblical morality. University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt, in his latest book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, outlined this moral matrix in terms of six opposing values:
In his research, Professor Haidt has found that the true crux of moral conflict surprisingly rests on just two of these six factors: in-group authority and sanctity.
Thus it becomes easier to understand how repugnant the actions of retired Bishop Talbert are to traditionalist United Methodists. Not only does he support those whose sexual expressions are deemed "unpure" by Good News and the Confession Movement, his standing as a bishop of the church threatens the authority of the institution. This threat is shown in the groups' appeal to the Council of Bishops to uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the collection of church laws. He is, in their eyes, both heretic and apostate for rejecting these moral values.
The pro-LGBT moral matrix captures a majority among Western Jurisdiction, along with such unofficial groups as Methodist Federation for Social Action, Reconciling Congregations Ministries, Affirmation, United Methodists of Color for an Inclusive Church and others. In their eyes, the UMC is guilty of oppressing gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexual people – and their families and friends – by codifying "homosexual practice" as "incompatible with Christian teaching." Thus Bishop Talbert becomes not an apostate but a prophetic leader calling the UMC to account for its sin of oppression and harm.
In reality, both sides in the church's homosexuality conflict are trapped in their own respective moral matrices. Because they resist understanding the morality of the "strangers" of the "other side," they are caught in closed systems, leading to the current stalemate. Contrary to the triumphalist rejoicing of conservative forces, the 60/40 votes on homosexuality at the 2012 General Conference do not represent a mandate, but evidence of a deep fracture that could lead to the collapse of The United Methodist Church.
Can anything redeem this 40-year-old conflict before it causes such a collapse of The United Methodist Church? The Rev. Amy Oden departing dean of United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, recently offered some wisdom that could at least turn down the heat, if not reveal some light.
In a recent blog post referring to the polarized, emotionally fraught presidential election, Dr. Oden suggested that rather than engaging in yet another screaming match with someone of opposing views, Christians could better contribute to social civility by engaging in what she calls "The Two Questions Experiment." Amended to apply to the homosexuality conflict, her two questions are:
- How did you come to your view on _____________ (gay rights, opposition to homosexual people, fill in the blank)?
- How is this issue important in your life right now?
Gaining worthwhile results from these questions keys upon listening carefully to the answers, suspending both judgment of the other person's moral stance and his or her worth as a person. The first question is likely to elicit something of the speaker's life story, an account of a friend or family member affected by the matter at hand. The second should get at the speaker's "why" – why this particular issue is so important that a person is willing to exercise passionate action about it.
I like the idea of using Dr. Oden's experiment as a response to the latest tussle the UMC's latest battle about LGBT rights. However, rather than hearing more from folks who make up the UMC's political elite, I'd like to hear from folks in local pulpits and pews, where issues center more on how people live in Christian fellowship in both church and world than on whether they "win" a political fight. To that end, I would add third and fourth questions to Dr. Oden's list:
- How do you understand Jesus' teaching on welcoming the "strangers" in our midst?
- Who do you view as a "stranger," and what would it take for you to get to know the "stranger" as a person like yourself?
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was correct when he said one can only love enemies into changing, how do we United Methodists go about loving those in our midst who hold views opposite our own, so that we act like a community of true Jesus followers?
The answer to that question may do more to determine a future for The United Methodist Church than any strategic plan or institutional restructure could ever accomplish.