But really, there are far deeper issues within The United Methodist Church, for which sexuality is merely the proxy or presenting issue. Over on the progressive side, we have clergy who don’t believe the basic things our Articles of Religion or the Creeds teach. We have clergy who not only pick and choose out of what the Bible says, but we have clergy who don’t accept the Bible as a source of authority, period. Now, not everyone who disagrees with the traditionalist side in the sexuality debates is a heretic or a heathen; but that there are heretics and heathens among the clergy, especially on the left side of the aisle, is indisputable.
And this is not to ignore the presence on the traditionalist side of some very strange theologies as well. We have dispensationalists and crypto-Baptists whose understanding of the sacraments is not ours, we have holiness and charismatic folks who use the same terminology to refer to different things, we have people who think they’re orthodox but who have defective Christologies. Again, perhaps only a few on the traditionalist side are really “out there,” but it makes me wary of identifying myself with their other causes too comfortably.
How is it that you can hear virtually anything from a United Methodist pulpit? Why does the sign out front not tell you anything about what the people inside uphold and are being taught? I suppose it is the result of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Modernism captured the elites of Methodism a hundred years ago, but the laity didn’t follow them. In order to keep things going, the clergy began to speak in a sort of code. The code was constructed to sound very religious, which kept the laity from objecting, and centered a lot on right behavior, on social holiness and so on, which, again, the laity could follow. At the same time, “freedom of the pulpit” became a kind of idol. Wesley’s comment to a Roman Catholic, that “we think and let think” was frequently quoted (out of context). But to those who knew the code, the things actually said often contradicted what we all swore we would teach. And that was okay. Some people made a hobby out of seeing how close they could come to outright denying the faith and still keep their orders; meanwhile, over on the other side, evangelicals figured that so long as they paid their apportionments and played the game, they could therefore say anything they wanted, too.
The result of all this is that the laity have mostly tuned out what the clergy actually SAY. Progressive and traditionalist pastors succeed each other in the same pulpits, but the laity don’t notice the difference unless the incumbent is really out on the fringe, either way. So long as we sound religious on Sunday morning and talk about treating people right – and are loving and open to people in our personal lives – we pass muster. People hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe, and the church goes on. Not that it prospers under such an arrangement – as Paul said, if the trumpet doesn’t give a clear call, nobody is going to know where to go in the battle – but church seems like church, and the doors stay open for another year, and the bishop sends us a new pastor who re-arranges everything in the service (and we can’t do anything about it), and that’s just life in The UMC.
So, why sexuality? Why is that the line drawn in the sand? I think it’s because, unlike so many things, there comes a time when you can’t disguise what you’re being asked to approve of. Not that ordinary people are going to throw stones at the gay people they know – and everybody knows some; but when we take something we are pretty sure is wrong, or off-kilter, or not really part of the “ought-ness” of life, and then not only define it as acceptable, but as good – part of the bonum esse of creation, a thing to be celebrated, not allowed for; and if celebrated, then encouraged in all its multitudinous forms – then that seems like a bridge too far. Traditionalist clergy talk about the holiness code – the moral law, as distinct from the ceremonial law – in the Bible, and how that hasn’t changed. Progressive clergy attempt to confuse the two, in order to claim that we can dispense with definitions we don’t like.
And then, after arguing over it for literally forty years, suddenly it all came to a head. The progs made one last push to enact their agenda, and it failed. The global majority (as distinct from the majority of the American leadership) said No. And that enraged the other side. They are no longer talking in code, now. They are organizing and fully intending to make everybody swallow the pill they insist we must take in order to become the kind of church they think we ought to be. Centrists and radicals are joining hands to support the most extreme result. Can the trads resist? Will the settlement achieved at GC19 be perfected at GC20 – or overturned? Will we fight until somebody is pitched out, or will we figure out how to sort ourselves into different denominations and turn our attention to other things? Nobody knows right now.
My own feeling is that sexuality is pretty small potatoes when compared with dogma. But when sexuality becomes dogma, then that has to be addressed. And that’s where we are. I don’t know how it will all come out, but I know that I have to testify to the truth, regardless of my fears or desires. To quote Hamlet, as he readied himself to face his own, final confrontation:
We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.