"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It hardly qualifies as persecution, and it would be hyperbole to say that they have been subjected to “all kinds of evil” utterances, but Ginger Gaines-Cirelli and Adam Hamilton have certainly gotten a lot criticism for their leadership in the United Methodist centrist movement.
Hamilton has national recognition as the founding pastor of a mega-church of more than 20,000 members and Gaines-Cirelli is the Senior Pastor the most visible church in the Reconciling Ministries Network.
The “Uniting Methodists” say that they are “Called to be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.”
It is a worthy vision.
Heaven knows the diagnosis is accurate. We are divided and polarized as a culture and there are deep an painful divisions within United Methodism. It remains to be seen whether this new group can be a unifying and clarifying voice.
They believe that faithful Christians can different views on same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. In simplest terms they want us, as a denomination, to agree to disagree.
I confess that I cannot accept the assertion that the exclusion of LGBTQ Christians from full participation in the life of the church is faithful to the Gospel. This does not mean that I believe that everyone who holds that position is an evil person. And it does not mean that we cannot have fellowship with one another. It does not mean that we cannot “agree to disagree,” but I cannot see the two perspectives as being equally valid interpretations of Christian faith and ethics.
In this argument the two sides do not have an equal claim on the truth.
And before we go any further it should be stated that although it has often been said that “there is pain on both sides,” that pain is not equal.
United Methodist policies and positions over the last four decades have caused great harm to our LGBTQ siblings. For traditionalists to claim that the “pain” they feel at knowing that there are pastors in our denomination who celebrate same sex weddings and conferences that ordain gay clergy is somehow equivalent to the pain of exclusion and marginalization is disingenuous at best.
The Uniting Methodists Movement makes six affirmations:
- Disciples: Despite our differences, we are committed to remain a part of, and support, The United Methodist Church and to fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
- Evangelism: We are committed to both evangelism and social justice as essential to the expression of vital United Methodism.
- Standards: We accept and uphold the Doctrinal Standards and Theological Task of The United Methodist Church as stated in our Discipline.
- Interpretation: We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.
- Officiation: We call for disciplinary changes so that clergy are neither compelled to officiate at same-sex weddings, nor prohibited from doing so.
- Ordination: We call for disciplinary changes so that annual conferences are neither compelled to ordain LGBTQ persons, nor prohibited from doing so.
The first three affirmations are pretty straight forward. We might argue about how we interpret our Doctrinal Standards, and some traditionalists are still pushing for a literal interpretation of the Nicene Creed as a normative theological standard, but those issues are not new and they are probably not deal breakers.
On interpretation, we can expect some serious pushback from traditionalists, who have been adamant that the issue is biblical authority. I have addressed that issue numerous times, so I won’t go into it here.
The most controversial of the affirmations are the last two.
It will be hard for traditionalists to accept same sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy within “their” denomination, even if they are not required to participate directly.
As the pastor of a Reconciling Congregation who is committed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, I am more concerned with the issue from that perspective.
The United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus lists their primary concerns:
• By trivializing LGBTQIA+ justice, the UMM does further injury to those who have already been harmed;
• The UMM does not fully take LGBTQIA+ voices into account;
• LGBTQIA+ persons could not sign on to the UMM plan without participating in our own oppression or that of other members of our community;
• The UMM is built on the delusion that the perpetuation of injustice is as moral as seeking of justice;
• The UMM breaches our principle of connectionalism – where all persons can “participate in every level of connectional life and ministry.;”
• It is as though we have become the Laodicean church described in Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16). To seek a middle ground between inclusion and discrimination is to place institutional preservation before our call to follow the way of Jesus, in whom we have the freedom “to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.” (UMC Baptismal vows)
The Reconciling Ministries Network issued this assessment in their press release:
“The foundational statement of the UMM is another example of fellow United Methodists advocating for changes ‘about us, without us’ and once again asserts the false notion that a unity of substance can be achieved while discriminatory policies remain in place. The proposal joins a long tradition of prioritizing a surface level kind of unity over the well-being of LGBTQ people, particularly those most vulnerable in the South, and fails to embrace an unprecedented opportunity to set our church on a new course toward justice, reconciliation, and health.”The most faithful and just “way forward” would be for the whole United Methodist Church to embrace the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in every aspect of our life together.
Sadly, that is extremely unlikely.
And there is no way that those of us in favor of an inclusive church would agree to stop celebrating same sex weddings or ordaining qualified candidates regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
That leaves two options.
We can split into two (or more?) denominations, or we can embrace a future like that envisioned by the Uniting Methodists Movement.
Whether we split or remain united, the traditionalist churches and pastors and conferences will continue to do what they are presently doing, and the inclusive churches and pastors and conferences will also continue to do what they are presently doing.
The only short-term difference is that if we split, then the folks on the other side will not be doing what they are doing in “our” name.
We will no longer be responsible for their unfaithfulness.
At this point, Adam Hamilton’s example is useful. Over time his position changed from traditionalist to favoring inclusion. That happened because he came into increasing contact with faithful Christians who happened to be gay. That happened in spite of the cost. When he came out to his congregation in favor of inclusion something like 800 members left the church in the next week. That is no small thing, even in a mega-church.
The culture is shifting on this issue.
People are changing.
One of the key questions we need to ask as we consider the future of the church is how we can best facilitate that change in the church and in the wider world.
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.