For decades, United Methodists managed to live together in semi-peace by using a simple plan -- they lived in different places. This allowed them to ordain pastors and elect bishops who took radically different approaches to doctrine and church law.
This was explained, back in the mid-1980s, in a prophetic study called "The Seven Churches of Methodism." The bottom line: It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."
The cutting-edge on the progressive future was found in Denver, in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference and the Iliff School of Theology. If would-be United Methodist pastors disagreed with the church they could go West, and many did. In the late-1980s, a gay youth minister at Iliff told me (I was at The Rocky Mountain News) that she estimated 40 percent of the student body, perhaps even 50 percent, was gay.
This reality first hit the headlines in 1980 when Denver Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., announced that he was openly rejecting church teachings that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Soon, he appointed an openly gay pastor to a Denver church. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”
All of this is highly relevant to understanding the tensions laid out in that New York Times piece that ran with this headline: "Methodist High Court Rejects First Openly Gay Bishop’s Consecration."
But before we get there, we need to look at one other detail in the early Denver cases that remains important for reporters who want to do accurate coverage of the UMC debates in the here and now.
That Denver pastor survived in ministry, in part, because the church law opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Thus, when appearing before church officials, he simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. He was, therefore, not “self-avowed” -- at least not during official church meetings. Sympathetic leaders in the West declared that he was not in violation of the larger church’s doctrinal standards. It didn't matter what the man said in newspaper interviews.
So now we return to the ongoing sago of Denver and the United Methodist West Here is the overture in the Times report. Look for the key words at the end of this:
The United Methodist Church’s highest court has ruled that the consecration of its first openly gay bishop violated church law, compounding a bitter rift over homosexuality that has brought the 13-million-member denomination to the brink of schism.
In a 6-to-3 vote made public on Friday, the church’s Judicial Council found that a married lesbian bishop and those who consecrated her were in violation of their “commitment to abide by and uphold the church’s definition of marriage and stance on homosexuality.”
Still, the court ruled that the bishop, Karen P. Oliveto of Denver, “remains in good standing” pending further proceedings, offering her supporters a glimmer of hope. But it also raised the prospect of a suspension or forced retirement.
“Under the longstanding principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore or negate church law,” the council ruled. “It is not lawful for the College of Bishops of any jurisdictional or central conference to consecrate a self-avowed practicing homosexual bishop.”
This Times report does a good job of letting readers hear from authoritative voices on both sides of this important old-line Protestant debate. Bravo for that.
However, it still fails to note two crucial facts at the heart of these debates.
(1) The crucial problem here is that many, perhaps most, gay and lesbian pastors in the UMC are -- with their public stands for gay marriage -- violating their own ordination vows (click here for the details). That's the crucial offense at the heart of these proceedings, but I don't think I've ever seen it mentioned in a news report.
(2) United Methodist law does not ban the ordination of gays and lesbians. It does ban those who openly express, and live out, their opposition to 2,000 years of Christian tradition on sex and marriage.
Thus, there are problems in some passages in the Times report. Read this carefully:
The Judicial Council also decided, in separate rulings, that the New York and Illinois regions must ask candidates for the ministry about their sexuality and rule out those who are gay “or in any other way violating the church’s standards on marriage and sexuality.”
The boards of ordained ministry in those regions announced last year that they would not discriminate against candidates based on sexuality or gender, but the Judicial Council ordered them to drop that practice.
Again, note the regional conflict between liberal regions and the majority UMC views at the national, and now global, levels.
But also note that the Times team, probably echoing explanations offered by the doctrinal left, states that the church bans the ordination of all gays, as opposed to gays who openly reject church teachings. It's a fine line, but a crucial one -- in doctrine.
Here is another example of this error. Will the Times print a correction?
Bishop Oliveto was elected by the church’s Western Jurisdiction last summer and assigned to oversee about 400 congregations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming.
Her election was immediately challenged by the church’s South Central Jurisdiction, which argued that the decision violated the church’s ban on ordaining gay people.
Does the United Methodist Church have a ban on ordaining all gay people, or does it have a ban on ordaining "self-avowed, practicing” gays and lesbians? Perhaps the Times could paraphrase this by saying the church bans the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians who publicly reject the contents of their ordination vows?
This fight will go on, of course, in part because the doctrinal left holds the high ground in most of the church's seminaries and denominational agencies. However, the growing sections of United Methodist polity -- especially Africans and Asians in the Global South -- favor orthodox Christian teachings on these issues.
The following is a helpful Times summary that points forward and, by the way, once again quotes the formal language of the church law (which conflicts with the total "gay ban" language).
The country’s third-largest religious denomination, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church adopted language in 1972 declaring that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained because “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Methodists have debated that language every four years at meetings of the church’s top decision-making body, the General Conference.
The denomination was deeply divided at the 2016 meeting of its General Conference, but averted fracture when bishops decided to appoint what they called a “Commission on a Way Forward” to propose a solution to the stalemate over issues of sexuality. The church announced this week that a special session of its General Conference, in St. Louis in February 2019, would be dedicated to resolving the church’s divisions over sexuality issues.
By the way, if you want to understand this issue from an alternative point of view, see this interesting opinion piece at the Hacking Christianity website, which focuses on the regional conflicts that I mentioned at the top of this post. Here is a crucial passage in "Doing Away with the Western #UMC."
The Western Jurisdiction has 340,000 United Methodists whereas the Southeastern Jurisdiction has 2.8 million. The West makes up less than 5% of Methodism … that’s it. Why are these larger jurisdictions so concerned with a smaller (some would say, insignificant) portion of United Methodism?
Well, there’s a lot of bad news out there for the church. Perhaps the UMC has found a scapegoat in the Western Jurisdiction and believe that their ills will be over when the scapegoat is destroyed.
One final note: The Times coverage of this ruling includes some very helpful material for readers who want to push deeper, including the actual ruling released by the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church and a set of letters reacting to it, including a statement from Bishop Oliveto.
MAIN IMAGE: Graphic map accompanying the article "Doing Away with the Western #UMC?", at the Hacking Christianity website.