As we anticipate the election of laity and clergy for the 2016 General Conference, United Methodists in Indiana are wondering what is going to happen when we gather for the 2015 session of Annual Conference.
Jack Clark’s letter to the editor (January/February issue of HUM) voices a conservative’s lament about the UMC’s current struggle over the issue of same-sex marriage. Mr. Clark cites biblical authority to argue that the church should not change The Book of Discipline’s prohibition of same-sex marriage. He invokes the image of the “remnant” for what the UMC might be in the future. Mr. Clark seems to think no change is possible without splitting the church. Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Meanwhile, other United Methodists voices are calling upon clergy and laity to recognize the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. Like some secular voices, these advocates imagine a time in the future when the United Methodist Church will find itself on “the right side of history.” I also find such progressive triumphalism to be off-putting.
Both conservatives and progressives tempt United Methodists standing in the middle to think that only way we can resolve this controversy solely is to look to the past or to the future. At their worst, both sides display “all or nothing” thinking. I am not optimistic about the capacity of these politicized factions to lead the UMC forward.
Make no mistake: there are difficult questions to be resolved. However, I remain hopeful about the capacity of United Methodists “in the middle” to create opportunities for conversation in the face of those who act as if conversation is no longer possible.
First, I am hopeful because I have participated in conversations across the years in which United Methodists have been willing to talk with one another with candor in the midst of disagreement. I don’t know how many congregations have engaged questions about homosexuality and the Bible in the context of book studies such as Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible. But I am grateful to have been part of such conversations this past summer at Nashville United Methodist Church where we spent six weeks talking about these matters.
For example, we discussed Genesis 19:1-29, which is often discussed as if it is about homosexuality. We talked about the historical context and we also discussed what Ezekiel and Jeremiah understood that passage to mean. In the process, we discovered something important. Although this passage is often identified as forbidding homosexuality, it is actually about rape and inhospitality. When we take the time to come to the table to talk about what the Bible means, it becomes possible to explain in what senses you can continue to assert the authority of scripture while also taking responsibility for interpreting the Bible in an informed and careful way.
Second, I am encouraged by the fact that we are beginning to discuss historical analogies that might be able to help us find our way forward while seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In his recent book about the Bible and same-sex marriage, Mark Achtemeier points John Calvin’s reinterpretation of a biblical prohibition – in this case against unlawful interest (usury) – as an analogy to be explored. Achtemeier pointedly reminds readers that before 1550, most Christians believed it was incompatible with the Bible to pay interest for lending money. John Calvin persuasively argued that the biblical focus of concern was with the oppression of the poor. Where interest is charged for wealth investment, Calvin contended, there is no oppression.
The number of texts in the Bible that address issues of money far exceeds those that pertain to the question of homosexuality. This is simply one example of how the interpretation of Scripture has changed in the midst of evolving institutions (banks, international finance, etc.). This historical analogy does not resolve the issue of same-sex marriage for us, but it is a reminder that we are not the only generation that has faced the challenge of how to reinterpret our social institutions. And lest United Methodists in Indiana think that this analogy only applies to Presbyterians heirs of John Calvin, let me remind us all that not only do many of us use credit cards, but John Wesley operated with substantially the same (revised) understanding of what did and did not count as unlawful interest.
Third, I think this is a time when we United Methodists in Indiana need to remind ourselves about some of the strongest examples of doctrinal and disciplinary revision in our own history. Consider what transpired in 1888 when the White River Conference of the United Brethren in Christ (UBC) gathered for its annual meeting in Hartsville. For much of the previous decade the UBC had been wracked by controversy over whether exceptions could be made to the church’s rule about how UBC membership precluding being a member of “secret societies” like the Freemasons – an issue that had been discussed frequently since the early 1840s without resolution. As election for General Conference approached, everyone was looking to see what would happen in the White River Conference (one of three UB conferences in the state of Indiana). Would the church ultimately decide to change its doctrine and discipline or would UBC stand by its “Old Constitution” prohibition against secret society membership.
By 1888, the “Old Constitution” leadership in Indiana had become so shrill and unbending about the “secret society” issue that moderates in UBC in Indiana had become embarrassed. When the clergy gathered from around central Indiana in the summer of 1888, a group of ten leaders who previously had been associated with the “radical” side of the debate decided that they were not going to support the radicals after all. In the end, three out of four candidates elected from the White River Conference supported a more flexible position that recognized some exceptions to the rule against secret society membership. When other annual conferences realized that the “radicals” could be beaten in their own stronghold, coalitions of moderates and liberals also formed in other conferences. By the time the General Conference convened in 1889, a “conservative-progressive majority” had formed on this matter. Revision of the doctrine and discipline of United Brethren in Christ Church was approved by 80% of the delegates.
I call attention to this example for two reasons. First, I think it serves as a good reminder of the possibility that attitudes can change, and institutions sometimes do evolve in the midst of social shifts. Doctrinal revision can be successful. Second, I think we should not forget that the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church stands as a powerful example of the capacity of a church body to revise its self-understanding in response to the Holy Spirit. The EUB tradition is the only Protestant example that I can call to mind that not only revised its constitution and Confession of Faith in 1889, but subsequently revised the Confession of Faith again in 1962. The editors of a recent series of books on Wesleyan Doctrine rightly lift up the 1962 EUB Confession of Faith as an example for doctrinal integrity.
Meanwhile the number of people who continue to adhere to the “Old Constitution” UBC cause (worldwide) is slightly less today than there were in the 1890s in the state of Indiana. As we know, today, there is no debate in the UMC about membership in the Shriners or Freemasons. (Indeed, I have spoken to groups in former EUB congregations that were stunned to learn that once upon a time there had been a controversy in the UB Church over freemasonry.) Ironically, masonic orders have long since gone out of fashion. Some would say that the issue of “secret society” membership is doubly irrelevant in the 21st century. So much for being part of the saving remnant over the issue of secret societies!
Who knows how future generations will look back upon the way we handle the controversy overs same sex marriage in 2015-2016! Both progressives and conservatives should take seriously that the future generations may have different concerns. They may look back and ask, did congregations in Indiana really deny the use of their buildings to Boy Scouts? They may also wonder about why it is that UM Annual Conferences in 2015 could not find the time to talk about the destruction of the earth’s ecosystem, growing income inequality, etc. They might even think it odd that we are spending so much time focused on the election of General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference delegations!
On the other hand, I also would like to think that some of the men and women who are commissioned for ministry at the 2015 session of the Indiana Conference UMC will serve Christ’s cause in the years to come in such compelling ways that they will be forced to conclude that United Methodists in Indiana in the 21st century clearly did care about the cause of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” May God give us the grace to be hopeful about our God-given capacity to unite around the mission of the UMC. That is the one thing we can do that will make the most difference!
Michael G. Cartwright is Dean of Ecumenical & Interfaith Programs at the University of Indianapolis where he has served since 1996. An ordained elder in the Indiana Conference UMC, Cartwright worships and serves with the congregation of Nashville United Methodist Church in Brown County, Indiana.