Book Review: Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. Rueben P. Job, Neil M. Alexander, eds. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014)
I move in five steps here: summary, overview, review, conference\discussion, and concluding thoughts.
1. Summary: After a personal introductory frame from Job and Alexander, seven UMC general superintendents offer 10-20 page statements about Methodism and gay people, following which Job concludes with a call to prayer. Two write directly about the full humanity of gay people, one in affirmation (Talbert) and one in denial (Yambasu). Three offer administrative worries (Palmer—the discipline must be upheld), (Lowry—the center cannot hold), (Carter—the connection needs support). Two offer mildly inclusive reflections on recent conference level experience (Ward, Wenner).
2. Overview: The most striking feature of this collection is its nearly complete lack of theological reflection, biblical interpretation, and homiletical assessment. Does the gospel offer grace, freedom, love, acceptance, pardon, and hope to sexual minorities or not? Does the gospel disdain silent or spoken bigotry against sexual minorities or not? Where do the Scriptures (John 14, Galatians 3, Ecclesiastes, Amos 5), or the tradition (Bristol, Appomatox, Seneca Falls), or human reason (diagnostic library, psychological research,) and experience (case studies and stories of gay children harmed by religious bigotry) intersect with these chapters? Hardly at all, granted occasional interjections, more from Talbert and Carter than others. One major exception is the attention Lowry pays to Acts 15 (and so Galatians 2, which he somehow neglects), the Jerusalem Conference. He is right to do so. His reading of the passages however is exactly the full opposite of their meaning (see, for example, J. L. Martyn, Anchor Bible Commentary, Galatians, among many others). Lowry argues that the point of the Jerusalem Conference was order. It was not. It was freedom, the freedom for which Christ sets free. Other than our own current debate the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15, Gal. 2) is the historical high water mark of religious interest in detailed sexual debate—circumcision then, gay love now. In the Bible, Paul leaves behind tradition for gospel and Peter accedes. (Freedom not order.) The uncircumcised are the recipients of the gospel (then) as are gay people (today). Lowry: ‘the famous debate at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a debate over order, the doctrinal discipline of the church’ (74). No. No it is not. In choosing to leave behind religious order, textual rigidity and an inherited holiness code in order to preach the gospel to the ‘genitally unclean’, men who were not circumcised on the eighth day, the church decided that gospel ever trumps tradition, and grace ever trumps order. It is the perfect biblical citation for this debate, only Lowry reads it upside down. We will not ever ‘find our (administrative) way’ until and unless we first reflect theologically, interpret biblically, and assess homiletically. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male or female. Nor gay nor straight. Are gay people people or not? 5/5 or 3/5 human? (We have a bad habit in this country, of finding ways to fractionalize the marginalized.)
We baptize, confirm, commune, forgive and bury gay people. We somehow cannot find our way to marry or ordain them? We baptize, confirm, commune, marry, ordain, forgive and bury those who have undergone surgical abortion, and offer the same to those who oppose abortion. Can we not live ‘in all things charity’?
3. Review: Palmer’s distinction to affirm ‘uphold’ more than ‘enforce’ (his assigned theme), in interpretation of the book of discipline has some merit and more grace, and reflects his own sincere, irenic temperament. Ward does honor the ‘brave witness’ of a lesbian couple who suffered the bigotry of the Mississippi conference to bear witness to their love for each other. Talbert has said and done the right thing, well prior to this collection, and his essay is the truest of the seven. He and his African colleague are the only two who directly state what they personally think regarding the full humanity of gay people. (Carter rightly affirms that every person is created in God’s image, and laments theological incoherence.)
4. Conference (that is, Discussion): Carter. Carter calculates (perhaps accurately, but there is no documentation) that small progressive jurisdictions (we could read here, ‘northern’ could we not?) have more presence, voice, vote and leadership on boards and agencies than do larger and more moderate (we are meant to read here, ‘southern’, are we not?) jurisdictions. Talbert. Talbert simply and categorically states that the discriminatory language about gays in our church is wrong and cannot claim allegiance, loyalty or support. The UMC today provides ‘liturgical resources for pastors who may choose to use facilities of congregations to bless animals, fowls, inanimate objects, and more. Are not our LGBT sisters and brothers of sacred worth like all God’s creatures’? (37) Yambasu. Yambasu equates homosexuality with promiscuity, sexual slavery, and adultery, describes the Bible as infallible, and places the denigration of gay people on par with the venerable inheritance of the ten commandments (87). The voice, or at least a voice, of Methodism in Africa. To the extent that his view represents African Methodism, it is a communicative benefit to have his remarkable and disappointing perspective stated in the raw. Lowry. Lowry implores us to keep covenant with one another, as he stated in a recent interview, ‘covenant is Old Testament 101’. Many would respond that the question is not whether to keep covenant, but in and about what to keep covenant. If the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, requires the affirmation of the full humanity of gay people and the full rejection of bigotry against sexual minorities in the name of scriptural authority, then the point of covenant is mutually to commit to that gospel. Covenant on behalf of rules of discipline that deny the gospel is false covenant. In the recent interview Lowry admits that a substantial USA UMC majority now affirms same gender marriage and ordination for gay people; he speaks wisely and protectively of the guaranteed appointment; he deplores the waste of resources in time and money which are going into this ongoing debacle. Wenner concludes: “I pray and work for a future where we will find ways to embrace diversity on many issues, including human sexuality, allowing us to think differently. Perhaps we may even be able to live with different answers concerning clergy who live in faithful and loving homosexual partnerships and those who choose to conduct same-gender marriages.”
Thoughts: 1. The Book of Discipline affirms a moderate pro-choice position regarding abortion. But when it comes to marriage and ordination, we do not exclude those who practice surgical abortion, nor those who reject such practice. We have a position as a church. But we allow for differences in practice, practices that both agree with and conflict with our stated position. We do not deny ardent pro-life preachers ordination because they refuse to practice or affirm others to practice abortion. Nor do we exclude from ordination women who have had abortions or men who have provided pastoral help to others in the course of such a procedure. If we can find a way to live together, regarding marriage and ordination, when it comes to abortion, we should be able to do so regarding homosexuality. 2. The first task of an interpreter is to honor and affirm the texts interpreted. In this case, rightly, our general superintendents, interpreters of the book of discipline, affirm the value of the book to be interpreted. Once the general conference has passed off a version of the discipline for another four years, it falls to the bishops, along with others to interpret and apply it. It may help our leaders to rehearse again some of the basic modes of interpretation of texts, biblical texts and others, taught and learned years earlier. Most passages, including your favorite scriptural passage, parable, story, psalm or teaching, allow more than one faithful reading. There may for sure be out of bounds readings, but multiple legitimate ones, too. Simply on a non-literalist hermeneutic, diversity of readings of the discipline itself should be expected. So the dozen affirmations in the discipline of the requirement of pastoral care for gay people may rightly be read as a requirement for pastoral ministry for gay people who are getting married or discerning vocations. Gay marriage and ordination may be understood as not only permissible, but required, to the fulfillment of these paragraphs. 3. We further do admit that while all abhor war, some are pacifist and some are not and all are part of the UMC. Why we can allow latitude regarding issues of life and death, abortion and warfare, but not regarding love and marriage, is a mystery and truly says much about the remains of the mind of the church (UMC). 4. Marriage: UMCBOD Para. 340 2.a.3.a. (Duties of pastor) To perform the marriage ceremony after due counsel with the parties involved and in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church. The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor. So. Do we mean this? Are we going to ‘enforce’ as Br. Palmer says ‘enforce the discipline’? Here the burden of responsibility is clearly, unequivocally placed upon the pastor whose ‘right and responsibility’ it is to decide to marry a couple. There is no shading here, no hem or haw. The pastor decides. After due counsel (pastoral care) and in accordance with state law and church rules. No comment here is offered to the situation when state law and church rules, both of which are to be upheld, are different. Rightly, the BOD leaves these difficult (pastoral) decisions in the hands of the minister. “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor”. Not the General Conference. Not the General Superintendent. Not the District Superintendent. Not the Charge Conference. The pastor. As it should be.