The following comments are my personal opinion. I am not writing in any official capacity other than my role as a bishop who was elected and consecrated to teach the faith and to defend the church. My comments do not reflect any kind of official position of the Indiana Conference, the North Central Jurisdiction, or the Council of Bishops.
Background: the 2012 General Conference voted to retain our current language in the Social Principles which affirms that all persons are persons of sacred worth, including gay and lesbian persons, but that we believe “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In the aftermath of that vote, many persons have expressed their personal disagreement with the action of the General Conference. The Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, meeting in their Jurisdictional Conference in July, took the unusual step of adopting “A Statement of Gospel Obedience” in which they expressed their belief that our UMC statements are in error. The Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference adopted a similar resolution. However the Western Jurisdiction went a step further. They urged their clergy and congregations to “act as if Paragraph 161F does not exist.”
Reactions and Responses: While it is certainly true that our United Methodist Church continues to struggle with the issue of human sexuality, and while it is certainly true that a strong minority of delegates to our General Conferences have voted to change our teachings on the issue of homosexuality, the Western Jurisdiction has taken a step which deserves a thoughtful and prayerful response. Instead, there have been many reactions and responses which seem unhelpful, such as:
1. Many persons are angry that some bishops and some leaders of our church would make an outright declaration urging disobedience to our Book of Discipline.
2. Other persons have greeted the actions of the Western Jurisdiction with apathy. As one person said to me, “What else would you expect from them? But they are declining so rapidly that their opinions really don’t matter.”
3. Some others have responded with warnings that the actions of the Western Jurisdiction are a prelude to an actual split in our United Methodist Church. Among those, some seem to fear such a split and what it would mean for our witness to the world; others seem to welcome such a split because they are “tired” of all the debate on this issue.
My Own Response: My own prayerful response to the Western Jurisdiction and the reported actions and statements of its leaders is to offer the following critique and some (hopefully) helpful suggestions for moving forward.
First, the statement of the Western Jurisdictional Conference comes across as a kind of “neo-colonialism.” For years we United Methodists have celebrated becoming more of a global church, but now that the General Conference is dominated by a large number of delegates from other countries, most notably from Africa, the Western Jurisdiction seems to be distrusting the wisdom and experience of those delegates and instead saying, “We know better. We are more enlightened. We have more experience leading the church. We do not trust the decisions of a church which is no longer US-dominated.”
Second, the statement about acting “as if certain parts of our Discipline do not exist,” is a very poor substitute for the honorable practice of civil disobedience as expressed most clearly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement in the United States. Dr. King taught that when a person believes a law is unjust, that person is obliged to disobey that law and to accept the consequences of such disobedience. Accepting the consequences of disobedience is a part of the witness against the unjust law – even if that consequence means imprisonment. For the Western Jurisdiction to invite persons simply to ignore parts of our Discipline dramatically weakens the ethical impact of their disagreement with that Discipline.
Thirdly, the Western Jurisdiction’s action does not offer the church any way forward on this difficult issue. While those who voted to adopt “A Statement of Gospel Obedience” may have felt some satisfaction or even self-righteousness for their vote to offer “radical hospitality” to all persons, the statement itself did not offer the same radical hospitality to those who disagree on this issue.
What if the Western Jurisdiction instead had voted to expend their funds and leadership and energy to invite the whole church into a time of prayerful discernment, study, and holy-conferencing on this issue? What if the Western Jurisdiction had voted to listen to the concerns, witness, and perspectives of our brothers and sisters in Africa, rather than simply dismissing them as being uninformed or less enlightened? What if the Western Jurisdiction, which has a proud history of diversity, tolerance, and openness to new models of ministry, had offered some suggestions for our United Methodist Church to move forward on this issue? Instead, the actions and statements of the Western Jurisdiction seem to conclude that “we are right and everyone else is wrong.” Such an attitude does not help our whole church move forward toward any new understanding or wisdom on the many tough issues we face.
A Way Forward: I believe that our United Methodist Church one day may modify its various statements on human sexuality. The Social Principles in our Book of Discipline are the result of many General Conferences, which means its various statements and paragraphs were written by committees – and they read like they were written by committees. There is little sense of consistency and theological structure. I believe that a future General Conference may indeed take action, first to affirm that Christians of good will are in disagreement on these issues, and second to adopt a more moderate and holistic approach to these issues in our Social Principles.
Changing our Social Principles or other parts of our Discipline is not the whole answer. As one of my colleagues has expressed it to me, “The question is not if our church will modify its stance; the question is when and how that stance will be modified.” The how is the most important part of his statement. For the church to move forward, any modification should come in an atmosphere of prayer, theological reflection, humility, listening to God and listening to one another. The actions of the Western Jurisdiction, while understandable, do not provide a helpful way forward. Bringing together the best of our church to address these issues outside of the legislative processes of a General Conference could be the how that is needed. Even if such a process takes time, it would worth that time to come together as a church and to find a way forward together.
Bishop Coyner leads the UMC’s Indiana Conference.