Methodists Play Kick the Can
I remember many a fun evening during my early teen years, playing Kick the Can with my neighborhood buddies. What a thrill it was to sneak around trees and cars, slowly getting closer to the can in the middle of the intersection. A teammate would distract the guardian of the can, and I would run as fast as I could to kick the can down the street. There is a similar game being played by the United Methodist Church, but this can-kicking has resulted in some unfortunate consequences.
Meeting in Portland, Oregon, from May 10 to 20, 2016, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church gathered from around the world to set policy in the UMC for the next four years. The topic of human sexuality was one of the leading issues for this group to consider. From the outset of this world-wide meeting, with representatives from all continents in attendance, the prospects of real change in UMC policy seemed a remote possibility. Overtures to include and recognize prominent gays for worship leadership were quickly suppressed. It seemed as though this religious body who would be addressing human sexuality issues in its deliberations wanted no LGBT person to be up front and on stage.
A bit of background for non-Methodist readers is necessary here. Since 1972, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has been guided by a last-minute amendment to its “Social Principles” which states: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.”
What a powerful, progressive and welcoming statement that was! However, of the debate floor, an amendment was proposed and passed which added these words to the last sentence: “although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
This 1972 “incompatibility” clause has haunted the UMC over these past thirty-four years, and has been the primary roadblock to acceptance of gay marriage and gay pastors. The first sentence and the last sentence of that amended statement seem to be self-contradictory. If gays and transgender persons are of sacred worth, then who they inherently are as persons cannot be incompatible with Christian teaching. But then, who ever said the United Methodists needed their Rules and Principles to be without contradiction?
So here it is, the year 2016, and one would expect more enlightened and scholarly discussion of the issue at hand. Such was not the case in Portland, however. Rather, this religious body decided to kick the can down the street. This statement, which passed in a narrow vote, reads in part: “We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality…We commit to maintain an on-going dialogue with this Commission as they do their work…Should they complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then we will call a two- to three-day gathering before the 2020 General Conference.”
So, rather than debate the issue and take action one way or the other, thus providing some direction, the UMC wants to study it further. Never mind that the UMC has commissioned studies in the past. Never mind that many in the LGBT community are tired of waiting on the UMC to decide where it wants to stand in acceptance or rejection of gays and transgender clergy and members. Never mind that there will never be total agreement in the UMC on LGBT issues.
The claim has been made, however, that this measure for further study is a victory, albeit a small one, for the LGBT community. Reading the tea leaves of this recent General Conference leads some to affirm that had direct motions been made on the floor during their meeting, they would have been uniformly rejected. At least with this action, the conversation will continue and in-depth study compiled, all of which will serve to educate the leadership and membership of the denomination, and promote communication among all parties.
Rev. Frank Schaefer, who had been defrocked for officiating the same sex wedding of his son, and subsequently reinstated, saw a glimmer of hope in this action. Schaefer writes, “I count this decision as a victory for the LGBTQ cause, though our division is not yet reconciled. There is much work to be done on our way to full inclusion of our LGBTQ members in the United Methodist Church. It’s a small step in the right direction that gives me hope and strength.”
Jacob Lupfer, writing for the Religious News Service, shared these thoughts: “Thus both sides claimed victory. Traditionalists celebrated that the church did not follow other denominations in liberalizing on gay issues. Progressives cheered the commission as a chance to have their inclusive views legitimated by the whole church. In reality, the bishops did not lead…The denomination’s unsustainable ecclesial disunity will continue unabated: Many LGBT clergy are coming out of the closet, many more will disobey church teaching, and some will face expensive and divisive church trials.
United Methodists had a chance to confront reality and begin to chart a way forward. Instead, they ratified the status quo, appointed a committee, and kicked the can down the road. In other words, they did the most Methodist thing ever.”
Editors note: Many Methodist Churches, including Epworth United Methodist Church in Rehoboth Beach, are members of the Reconciling Ministries Network and welcome LGBT peoople into their congregations.