A Way Forward for the UMC: A Response to “A Time to Split?” by Amy Frykholm in “The Christian Century”

Amy Frykholm’s article, A Time to Split? in the April 16 edition of the Christian Century (to read the entire article you must subscribe to The Christian Century, which I do) caused me to continue to think critically about the crux or the kernel of what makes the issue of sexual identity cause us to consider schism/splitting.  I, too, once wrote and I thought schism/splitting was the only solution.  My mind has changed back to my original point of view that I have held far longer: there is no need to split over this issue of sexual identity.

After much discernment, critical thinking and using a process I learned from, National issues Forums, I believe I have named and framed the crux or the kernel that is driving this issue that provides a way forward for us to continue to live under the same roof, in the same UMC or under the same umbrella.  Naming and framing this current divisive issue in this way, I believe, provides us with a way forward in continuing to grapple and struggle with our differences and remain the UMC without schism/splitting.  As I do not believe that schism/splitting will bring resolution.  In using this process of naming and framing the issue, I have focused on the common ground that I share with the Good News/Confessing Movement and with the Reconciling Ministries Network. That common ground is scripture is primary, and it is the interpretation and understanding of scripture that is the issue.

As Ted Campbell wrote, schism/splitting will be a cruel, harmful and expensive ordeal.  Here’s a quote from Ted Campbell that helped me to finally name and frame what I believe is the real issue before us:

My colleague the Rev. Rob Renfroe, who serves as president of the Good News movement within the United Methodist Church, points out that conservative leaders in the UMC didn’t raise issues about homosexuality until liberal church leaders raised these issues. He’s literally correct about that. In April 1972 proposed language for the Social Principles statement in the Discipline only included an affirmation of the “sacred worth” of gay and lesbian persons, their need for the ministries of the church, and the need to protect their rights in civil society. That statement, however, provoked a motion from the floor of the General Conference that added the clause, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” (1972 Discipline, p. 86). That set a trajectory for a 40-year culture battle over this language, including subsequent restrictions on the ordination or appointment of “self-avowed and practicing” homosexual persons.

“40-year culture battle over this language, [emphasis added] including subsequent restrictions on the ordination or appointment of ‘self-avowed and practicing’ homosexual persons”–with “this language” being the crux and kernel of it all.

It is the interpretation and understanding of scripture/the use of language in interpreting and understanding scripture that is the heart of this issue of sexual identity, along with what was driving the issue of owning slaves in our country and ordaining women as clergy.

At the heart of each of these issues is language–the interpretation from the original scripture source languages.  Adding in the culture and context that must go along with any language in order to truly use and understand it in addition to the variety of teaching and preaching from various faith traditions on all of these issues can only provide a plurality of positions.  I have UMC male clergy colleagues of all ages whom, if they voiced their honest beliefs and opinions, would today clearly and firmly state that women should not be ordained as clergy.  They base their honest belief and opinion on their own interpretation and understanding of scripture.  Many Christians hold the same beliefs about female clergy based on what clergy have taught them along with their own interpretation and understanding of scripture.  The exact statements could be made about the issue of slavery and the ways the interpretation and understanding of scripture were applied to that issue.

Here is my suggestion of the way forward to avoid schism/splitting which will solve nothing and create only hurt, turmoil and will not bring any real resolution.  The issue of sexual identity just like the issue of slavery and the issue of ordaining women as clergy can be framed or discussed around these three choices or tenets.  It is already the way we live as the UMC, and we have named it the Wesley quadrilateral:

1. Scripture is best interpreted and understood as inerrant/literal.

2. Scripture is best interpreted and understood as the Word of God as we experience and live it.

3. Scripture is best interpreted and understood through considering the source language and context/culture of the time it was written.

When we honor and recognize that these three choices or tenets have always and most likely will always exist among Christians, then we can also accept that often we find ourselves moving among these choices/tenets and not always able to only believe firmly only one of these choices/tenets. This is behind why many Christians claim the ten commandments from the Old Testament and disown most of the rest of it as antiquated or even believe that the Old Testament is about an angry God and not the God of the New Testament.  Can we seek common ground on the issue of the interpretation and understanding of scripture fully realizing that mostly likely, regardless of why we personally believe as we do, that we only harm each other and do not love each other as Christ loved when we want to forcibly impose our own interpretation and understanding of scripture on each other?  After all, the church inquisitions were rooted in the same misled way of addressing church issues and being dogmatic.

Relationships, fear, tradition, the unknown, cultural perception–what will people say or think about us–Christian history, church institutional power, our relentless desire to use our own interpretation and understanding of scripture as our own moral line drawn in the sand–trials of clergy who officiate at same sex weddings–and our rebellion and sin against God, because of our selfish desires, inform where we stand on each of these choices/tenets about scripture.

  • Scripture
  • Experience
  • Reason
  • Tradition

As Methodists we say scripture is primary, and it is our own interpretation and understanding that we believe because of our own life experiences, our experiences in faith communities, and for most Methodists that experience often includes multiple faith denominations along with non-denominational, our reasoning and the reasoning of clergy and laity who have taught us about interpreting and understanding scripture, and the historical catholic Christian tradition that we all claim–the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

The UM Book of Discipline is not written in stone, and it was altered to reflect scriptural interpretation and understanding regarding slavery, regarding women being ordained as clergy, and in 1972 on sexual identity.  It can be altered again without causing schism/splitting.  The UMC managed just fine until 1972 when it was changed.  Do we really believe that changing it back to what it said in 1972 will cause the UMC to cease to exist and function?  Prior to 1972 I believe that people of different sexual orientations were ordained, were full members and active leaders in the UMC and trials of clergy and lines drawn in the sand over the issue of sexual identity was not what drove the decision to change the Book of Discipline language.  Selfish desires around power and control drove the change just as it drove the changes around slavery and women being ordained.

Why?  Because underlying it all, I believe, is a lived reality that we will never be able to agree on the same interpretation and understanding of scripture.  We are rebellious sinners who can become power mongers.  The best way to have power is to be the people who have control over the rules and to enforce those rules whether it is in government or the institution of the church.

Holy Week always reminds me that Jesus came to stop this madness, and we seem intent on continuing it.  Lord have mercy on us.