Why does our church doctrine say "the practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching"?
Anyone who has ever attended a General Conference knows church doctrine isn't formed as a result of a Pentecost-like unanimity. It is always the result of compromise among passionate people.
At the 1976 General Conference, and at every one since, there have been two sets of conflicting passions over the issue of homosexuality and the church. The first is how the Bible is to be understood. The second is how to be a faithful church.
Our Social Principles declare that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, because the majority of voting delegates over the years have continued to believe that:
the teaching of Scripture is clear and unequivocal, and/or
the church would be torn apart if it were seen to condone anything other than celibacy for gay men and lesbians.
I say "and/or" because many United Methodists, including several in key leadership positions, no longer believe the teaching of Scripture is unequivocal, but they are reluctant to be the first to stand up and admit they've changed their minds.
The minority voices have argued that the Bible has both timeless truths and time-bound teachings. They offer reminders that the church has previously repented of its adherence to time-bound teachings (such as its defense of slavery), and they believe it ought to do so again on this issue. Those minority voices have also argued that when church unity is achieved by silencing or marginalizing a group of God's children, it is no unity at all.
So what will happen now? Will we decide that God can work within the tension between the various voices? I pray that we will, because otherwise we dismiss all we've come to understand since 1976.
Twenty-four years can make a great difference. In this country, it took less time to desegregate lunch counters, public transportation, schools, and the military. In recent years, even less time has been needed for enormous shifts of sensitivity about sexual harassment, equal opportunity, and gender roles.
Since 1976, the realities related to homosexuality and the church have also experienced a significant shift. Twenty-four years ago, the only gay men and lesbians visible to church leaders were the activist pioneers whose zealous style was perceived as inflammatory and anti-establishment. Today, because so many dedicated gay Christians have had the courage to come out, church leaders know legions of gay men and lesbians whose mainstream lives stand as quiet testimony to their cause.
In 1976, North American culture was still under the sway of Sigmund Freud's understanding of homosexuality as a form of immaturity. In fact, Methodist theologian Albert Outler's embrace of Freud was a central argument in his floor debate during the General Conferences of the 1970s. In 2000, Freud's interpretation of homosexuality is all but banished from psychiatry. The membership decline after the 1968 merger made church leaders in the mid-'70s fearful that even more catastrophic losses might result from any stance that appeared to condone "the practice of homosexuality." But despite the emergence of a network of more than 160 churches and campus ministries that have openly welcomed and affirmed gays and lesbians (the Reconciling Congregation Program), membership losses in the denomination have been waning.
But if the church makes these changes, won't the future of the denomination be threatened?
What we know for certain is that the future of the denomination would be altered. We can expect some churches to rejoice that United Methodism has put aside a discriminatory thorn in its own flesh. We can expect some churches to withdraw from the United Methodist Church out of their own sense of what is biblically faithful. We can expect some churches to be thrown into a new round of discernment.
The larger issue is whether denominational turbulence can serve a godly purpose. For me, the answer is yes. When I disagree with you, at least three things can happen: I can come to understand my own position better; I can come to understand your position better; or I can fail to learn more either about myself or you.
If I resolve to understand my own position better, I become a better partner in dialogue. I have the opportunity to be more genuine with you because I can move beyond attacking you and on to representing my own belief. I also have the opportunity--through prayer, study, and Christian conversation--to strengthen my overall walk with God and my knowledge of God's will as revealed in the Bible.
If I resolve to understand your position better, I am less likely to engage in demonizing you. I view you as one who is as faithful to the task of discerning God's will as I am attempting to be.
God help me if I do neither.
There is much talk going on now that all matters related to homosexuality should be tabled. I hope and pray that this will not happen. If the faith of those who wish to see the church's position changed is seen as an impediment to getting on with "the real business of the church" (a phrase used regularly these days), then that means part of the real business of the church is silencing discussion on a monumental issue.
As people of faith, we must believe that silencing dialogue is much more threatening to Christian community than the fracture of the United Methodist Church.