The General Conference, the quadrennial gathering of United Methodist representatives from conferences around the world, adjourned this past Sunday in Pittsburgh. Budgets were approved, resolutions were passed, prayers offered, and hymns sung. Among the changes proposed that were not made, a rule which would have prompted Critical Christian to claim, "I told you so!" was the elimination of clergy mandatory retirement at 70. Oh well, wait 'til 2008 when the Baby Boomers rule the roost and it is their ox that is gored.
The big news from the General Conference, however, was the suggestion made by a non-delegate at a breakfast meeting of Good News, an evangelical movement in the church, to divide United Methodism into three parts. Bill Hinson, the retired senior pastor of First UMC, Houston TX, claimed only to be sending up a trial balloon. The press, understandably, picked up on his speech and gave it national distribution. You have probably read about it. If you haven't, then take a look at a news report on the web at:http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=17&mid=4698
There are several issues which split the United Methodist Church. But like the Episcopalians (and the Presbyterians and Lutherans) the issue over which the battle lines are drawn is gay clergy and the refusal of the majority at the General Conference to relent on a rule of thirty years standing prohibiting the ordination of openly homosexual pastors. The rule gained new prominence and national attention with the recent trial of an openly lesbian pastor in Washington State, who was acquitted by a jury of her peers at a recent ecclesiastical trial, even though her personal witness was in clear contravention of The Discipline. The Rev. Karen Dammann is presently on personal leave from the pastorate; and it is unlikely that her bishop will reappoint her.
Methodists have split before. Over the issue of slavery at the time of the Civil War: not until 1939 did the two sides reconcile and the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Episcopal Church united as the Methodist Church. Even earlier and of longer duration was the division over language: the German-speaking Methodists became the Evangelical and United Brethren, reuniting with the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. Still another division, with little likelihood of reconciliation, created the Wesleyan Methodist Church, people who protested the control of the church by the clergy. The mid 19th Century racial split also has yet to be mended: the Christian Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion have retained a separate identity for more than a hundred years.
But this time the threatened division is over gay clergy.
A friend of mine from Sunday Bible Study wrote me recently to get my take on the Dammann affair. I waffled in reply. I told her that what I really wished for was the whole issue to go away. I don't feel very strongly either way. I hear the evangelicals' protest that homosexuality clearly violates Scriptural commandments and traditional norms. But I also hear the progressives' rallying cry that this issue is to the 21st Century what racial discrimination was to the 20th. Each side is absolutely certain of its righteousness. Sometimes I am inclined to say, "A pox on both your houses."
Why, I want to ask the evangelical, is the inference of Romans 1:27 to be taken so much more seriously than Paul's plain commandment in I Corinthians 14:34? Or why is the law of God in Leviticus 18:22 (against gay sex) insisted on when the law of God in Leviticus 11:9-12 (prohibition against eating scallops, among many creatures from the sea without scales) is violated with many a church potluck supper?
Why, I want to ask the progressive, do you insist that I must not only tolerate the gay life style but endorse it? Sanction (derived from the same root as "sanctity") is what those pressing for the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy are really after. And I'm just not very sure I am ready to say that a gay life style is normative.
Which, I assume, puts me in the other camp, the other one of the three Bill Hinson listed besides evangelical and progressive, the centrists. I can live with that. I just can't get worked up either for or against the inclusion of gay clergy in the ranks of the ordained. Call me spineless. But, I suspect, my sentiments reflect those of the vast majority of "the people called Methodist."
You may lead this old jackass to water, but you can't make him drink.