May 2, 2017

The Uncertain Future of the UMC (and it isn't about sexuality!)

Bryan Hooper

As a lifelong United Methodist and a somewhat reluctant member of the clergy, I watch the church as its institutions struggle to navigate the rough waters around homosexuality, church polity, and the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These are difficult waters to move through. For many, homosexuality remains a sin, inspires disgust, and deserves the strongest condemnation. At present, our church's official policy is to deny homosexuals (self avowed, practicing) access to full membership as clergy. The level of welcome and participation of gay and lesbian lay people varies widely from church to church (though churches are clearly moving in the direction of more acceptance of gays in volunteer roles).

So, our Judicial Council, unsurprisingly, ruled recently that a Bishop can't be a lesbian and, furthermore, our Boards of Ordained Ministry, which recommend candidates for ministry, must make a "'full inquiry' of candidates" which includes "issues of sexuality". In other words, I guess our Boards have to ask our candidates about their sex lives. That will be awkward!

What's interesting to me is that the only time the church makes news anymore is when we are fighting about homosexuality. For the vast majority of Americans, the depiction of our church in the mainstream media is the image they will retain of our church. Not a pretty picture, and not something I would want to be a part of, except that I already am.

I support the full inclusion of our LGBTQI friends in all levels of the church. If they have the gifts and grace to serve as pastors, we should be celebrating that fact. But I also think the church, on either side of this debate, is making a terrible miscalculation if it thinks that by resolving the "homosexual question" - either with a new commitment to unity or a church split - that the church's problems will somehow be easier to solve. The fact is that the world has largely moved on from this issue (Ellen came out on TV 20 years ago!) and whether or not the church "resolves" it won't be of much interest to most people.

Instead, the church - or the churches if we split - will be faced with all the underlying issues that we haven't even begun to address in earnest. We just won't have homosexuality to distract us anymore from the dismal realities of our shared life: that our churches continue to shrink, that our structures continue to be untenable, that our financial models don't add up, that our wider culture no longer understands us nor really cares about us.

So, what to do in this situation? Well, we are going to have a special General Conference, that will cost around $4 million, so we can argue some more about homosexuality.

We live in a world that is in serious turmoil and desperate need of the hope, grace, and open-ended possibilities that our God offers. The Methodists, historically, had an important role to play in extending that grace through our churches which were places for people to be accepted, loved, developed spiritually, and engaged in transformative mission and ministry. We extended that grace through our hospitals and clinics, our homes for the elderly, our schools and universities that embraced intellectual advancement and scientific inquiry. We had a passionate and progressive vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ unfolding in our individual and collective consciousness as we pursued personal and social holiness.

What happened to that?

I fear that our church will split because I don't see how the "homosexual question" can be answered in a manner that is acceptable to all. But I fear, even more, that we will continue to fail to embrace the beautiful and worthy mission that God has given us.