From conversations I have had with many across The United Methodist Church, I feel that there is a fair amount of stability within the stated concerns of the more “progressive” and “conservative” wings of the Church, and there is a growing consensus concerning the content of the position embraced by most in the middle. In an effort to move beyond the usual debates, I propose the following as draft of a statement from the middle. The purpose of this document is to facilitate the development and refinement of a middle position which might form an alternative to a schism within, or collapse of the United Methodist Church.
It is clear that some will immediately reject the possibility represented by the ideas that follow. I do not doubt that, some, in order to prevent the development of a consensus middle position, would like to shout it down before it is able to take shape. And it is always possible that coming up with a position that will stabilize the Church is impossible. For some members of the conservative and liberal branches of the church, the impossibility of compromise is a self-fulfilling prophesy. In order to avoid making this document the site for a continuation of the current impasse rather than an opportunity to move beyond it, I encourage those who do not have an interest in compromise to read no further. I am interested in constructive proposals here, not rejection of the entire project. So, if you are interested in the possibility of the development of a Methodist via media in these troubling times, I encourage you to read on and suggest further ideas or counter proposals.
Draft of A Statement From the Middle
“Unity and holiness are the two things I want most among Methodists.” ~ John Wesley
We affirm and celebrate the Christian Church’s unity in the orthodox theology of the tradition as reflected in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds and the United Methodists Church’s theological unity as reflected in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith found in the Book of Discipline.
We affirm and celebrate the Church’s unity in our goal to live out the Great Commandment (Matt: 22:36-40) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20), and in the particular statement of those commands in the mission of the United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (1).
We affirm and celebrate the distinctive unity of the United Methodist Church in its emphasis upon the many forms of God’s grace (prevenient, justifying, assuring, and sanctifying) which aid us in all stages of our own development in relation to God.
In conformity with the fifth Article of Religion of the Methodist Church, we affirm the authority of the Bible as the touchstone of the Christian tradition. “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (2).
We affirm the reality of original sin, which “is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (3).
In the light of our acceptance of original sin, we reject an uncritical endorsement of human desire, recognizing that human desire after the fall is always tainted by sin. However, with John Wesley also recognize that by the grace of God, all people have some access to the “approbation of their own conscience” (4). Thus, while we reject any uncritical acceptance of human desires and inclinations, we recognize that they are, under proper restraint and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a potential source of moral knowledge.
In the tradition of John Wesley, we reject antinomianism and ethical relativism. The grace of God is what allows us to live lives sanctified into God’s moral order. It does not eliminate the need for moral order. Where there is room within the United Methodist Church to disagree on exactly what God’s law requires on some issues, it is never possible to set aside the recognition and, in some cases, the enforcement of standards of justice and righteousness within the Church.
We affirm the need for Order within the United Methodist Church, and believe that part of the role of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church is to enforce the Discipline of the Church. As such, we endorse taking necessary steps to hold those guilty of violations accountable when charges are brought against them.
We affirm that sexuality is a good gift to all persons from God. We hold that sexual relations are only fully affirmed within the bonds of marriage between two consenting persons. “We believe that sexual relations where one or both partners are exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive to individuals, families, and the social order” (4). We oppose the “casualization” of sexual behavior in contemporary society.
We affirm the sacred worth of all people, and believe that certain “basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against all persons, regardless of sexual orientation” (5).
We affirm the possibility of full membership of all people in the United Methodist Church, and full participation in the sacraments as means of grace for all people, regardless of sexual orientation (6).
We affirm the role of the Church in witnessing an alternative order to the World (Romans 12:2). In a World that is broken by increasingly vicious political partisanship, we believe that the Church’s ability to be bound in unity by the love of God in Christ across our divisions is an important part of this witness.
We affirm the oft quoted dictum: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters (or non-essentials), liberty; in all things, charity.” As such, we distinguish between issues deemed essential to the Christian and United Methodist faith, on which we require unity, and issues which are non-essential, on which we allow continued debate and discernment.
We recognize and appreciate that the United Methodist Church has been able to maintain its unity despite disagreement on a number of issues that have been located as non-essential. For instance, United Methodists are free to fervently disagree with one another about the morality of war per se, and about the morality of particular wars. Within bounds, United Methodists hold different positions on abortion, divorce, economic policy, and a myriad of other issues. In practice The United Methodist Church has already allowed for differences between Congregations on non-essential moral and theological issues, and has found ways to match pastors with church congregations appropriate to the particular shape of each congregational community.
We acknowledge that Christians of good faith disagree on how to interpret scripture and nature with regards to the moral status of homosexual intercourse. Given the diversity of positions embraced by Christian scholars both within and beyond the United Methodist tradition, we accept that this is a debate in which it is possible for different people to hold rationally respectable and yet contradictory conclusions (See, for instance, 7, 8, 9, and 10). As a result, we recognize that people of good faith and sound reason disagree about the propriety of homosexual marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.
In the light of these disagreements, under the pressure of the universal charity which is demanded of us as Christians, and wishing to reflect a witness of unity of focus on the mission of the United Methodist Church, we advocate locating issues of homosexual marriage and ordination in the category of doubtful or non-essential matters on which the Church allows some level of freedom to its members, particular congregations, Conferences, and its clergy.
We recognize that shifting to allow disagreement on this issue within the Church will require changes from the status quo. We do not propose or conceive of these changes as a “win” or “loss” for either side in this debate. We reject the model of a zero-sum game that is at times proposed for this issue. Rather, we seek to identify a structure which allows for mutual respect in the midst of disagreement that has structural implications.
We believe that decisions about whether to participate or preside at any marriage ceremony should be left to the conscience of particular members of the clergy, as this conscience as it is formed by meditation on scripture as enlightened by reason, tradition, and experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit. As such, we advocate for a change in church order so that, following that change, no minister should be punished or rewarded for either participating or refusing to participate in such a service.
We endorse the development of a model of ordination that allows for the ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals within the United Methodist Church. However, we demand that, given the freedom of disagreement, this model will require openness to discernment about qualifications for church leadership on regional or local levels. We respect that the will of individual church bodies will often be determinative in this process, as congregations are free to disagree on this qualification of leadership. We are open to the possibility that this process of discernment may be worked out on broader levels, including by the Conference or Jurisdiction.
We affirm, as the United Methodist Church learned in the aftermath of its struggle with integration, that in order to celebrate and preserve the beautiful diversity that exists within the unity of the Church, it is essential to find clergy who fit culturally, theologically, and liturgically with their congregations (11). We encourage the further development of mechanisms that would expand this principle in order to allow for a diversity of views on the issue of homosexuality.
We hold that embracing this position is entirely compatible with holding strong views on the morality of homosexual behavior. We do not embrace this position because we hold weak beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, or because we are neutral on the issues involved. We embrace the middle position because we respect those who rationally, and in good faith disagree with us on this issue and recognize ourselves as bound to live together within the body of Christ with them.
Though we recognize that this position does not substantially resolve the issues around disagreements about homosexuality within the Church, in embracing this position, we are hopeful that the Church will be free to focus more upon the essential matters that bind us together in the body of Christ, and expend our energies more effectively in pursuing the mission of the Church.