Disclaimer — This is oversimplified. Much of what’s said requires further discussion. Great care was made to not stereotype or name-call but try to frame the debate as a way of explaining what’s going on.
I am no longer at General Conference. I’m home with twin 5-year olds as they continue to tell me everything they did over the past ten days and show me lots of pictures. I’ve also been making origami “with” them.
So, I’ve been getting my “breaking” conference news via Twitter. It’s clear that today is the day the church went into the “sexuality” discussion. It was a very painful morning at General Conference. It should have been painful no matter what “side” one was one. There were passionate speeches. There were both silent and disruptive protests. There is passion and theology and a lot of experience that has shaped the discussion.
While it can be a horrible thing to be part of, with so much on the table, I thought I’d take a moment to describe kind of what goes on. This is a vast oversimplification. But it may help some.
Here’s the problem…
1) The Bible mentions, in a few places, homosexuality. And, the way it has been interpreted by most persons in the church, the “practice” of homosexuality is a sin. There are those within the United Methodist Church who argue from the standpoint of “God’s holiness” and make the case that homosexuals should be banned from membership, from “homosexual unions,” from the ministry, and that any language that lessens the church’s stance on this is an affront to the holiness of God and an affront to Scripture. This position is stronger in the UMC now than it has been for several years as the church has grown and grown in Africa, where, culturally, homosexual practice can be a punishable offense in many places. This is in spite of the fact that American culture has become more moderate on the issue, particularly among younger persons.
2) There are many LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) folks in the world and many in our churches. There are those who wish to welcome the LGBT folks. Some wish we would stop calling homosexual practice as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and declare that it is not a sin. There are some who would like to see LGBT folks ordained into clergy. And then there are those who would merely like some of our restrictive language removed as they try to find ways to minister to and with homosexuals in their midst. This “side” has a different understanding of holiness, questioning why we talk about “holiness” when it comes to homosexuality but tend not to when it comes to issues like money or power or other sexual issues in the church or hurtful words against brothers and sisters in Christ. They argue more from a position of “God’s hospitality.” Why is it, they ask, that we welcome all other kinds of sinners to God’s table but single out this issue and lift it up above others? While those on the conservative side are quick to bring up the couple of verses that talk of homosexual practice, those on the liberal side are quick to note the inclusion and grace offered by Jesus and the fact that Jesus, as far as we know, says nothing on the issue.
There are “two sides” with some diversity within each. And it’s pretty clearly split 60/40, with the 60% being the more conservative side. This causes quite a bit of tension because it’s an issue about which many people feel very strongly. To generalize, our African brothers and sisters and many of the United Methodists of the Southeast and South Central Jurisdictions (think “Bible belt”) feel very strongly on the conservative side of the issue. Also to generalize, our brothers and sisters in the Northeastern Jurisdiction and the Western Jurisdiction (think “New York” and “California”) feel very strongly on the more liberal side. While less defined, there are those in the “middle” who would merely like to be able to agree to disagree when it comes to the holiness/hospitality debate so that other issues of ministry can come to the fore.
This is a big issue in our culture. Even in Anchorage this past spring we had a vote on protecting the rights of LGBT folks that was played out in the media with some churches taking a stand against protecting the rights while others, including our Superintendent, viewed this as a justice issue to protect persons who were vulnerable. There were persons who were passionate about this.
Inclusion, welcoming, hospitality, holiness, who’s “inside” and who’s “outside” the circle of God has always been an issue for the church.
Take a look at Acts 10. It’s here we find Peter arguing:
He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
Take a look at Acts 15:7-11:
After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 1Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The playing field may be different, but it’s a similar debate. While the arguments are horribly offensive to those who hold dearly to notion that homosexual practice is anathema to God… While the arguments are horribly painful to those who have been made to feel that they are outside the reach of God’s grace by the very nature of their identity… While it is exceptionally divisive and almost makes us forget the great joy of worship and communion with each other and working together for the kingdom of God… It’s not a new debate. And, thankfully, our God is bigger than it.
I hope this helps explain some of what is going into the debates at General Conference.
May we, in our differences, find ways to treat each other with love and grace.