By Dr. Riley B. Case
The church is divided over the question of the practice of homosexuality. There is no question about that. While the church has stated that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, many have disagreed. While some would like for the church to remove the restrictions and simply bless the practice of homosexuality, others, including many moderates, would like for the church to find a “middle way.” One “middle way” would be simply to admit the church “is not of one mind” on the matter of the practice of homosexuality and so to state it in our Discipline. The “not of one mind” petition is what failed to pass at the General Conference.
At this point, it would be worth considering what happened the other time the church was so bitterly divided over a moral question, namely, on slavery in the mid-1800s.
There is no question about where Methodists stood on slavery in the early days. John Wesley, Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury were horrified at the idea that one human being could enslave another. The General Rules, the Disciplines, and early sermons made it clear that slaveholding was an abominable sin against God and human dignity and would not be tolerated among the people of God called Methodists.
Then Methodists got prosperous and, in the words of Orange Scott, the abolitionist, “aristocratic.” Along with the secular world around them some Methodists, primarily in the South but in other places also, began to argue that it was not slavery as an institution that was so bad, but the mistreatment of slaves. Christian slaveholders had a responsibility to win their slaves to Christ, and maybe even offer a form of education, but were not under moral obligation to free slaves.
Soon Methodists (as well as the rest of the country) were divided into three groups. Abolitionists made up the first group. Slavery and whatever was associated with slavery was to be resisted and abolished, and as soon as possible. All the moral weight of the church was to be poured into this effort (including the Underground Railroad). At the very least slaveholders should not be church members. Abolitionists, moral heroes today, were not seen as such in the mid-1800s. They were troublemakers. Their critical remarks of the church were seen as divisive.
The next two groups were in the “we are not of one mind” category. One group supported slavery. This group argued that slavery was approved by Scripture, and insisted on “non-interference,” the principle that groups from far off should not interfere in local affairs. Theirs was a form of modern multi-culturalism. Cultural circumstances determined what is right and wrong and persons in the church should respect the beliefs of others. What was sin for one group of persons was not necessary sin for others. They argued that slavery was a political issue more than a moral issue. This group claimed allegiance to the slave-permitting laws of the state rather than any moral law, especially if law was imposed by outsiders.
The third group might be called the moderates, although a better description might be, the “Compromised Middle.” Included in this group were the people who either did not know much about slavery or, if they did know, did not desire to be greatly involved. Others in this group, including many church leaders, did know about slavery and were concerned (rightfully so) about slavery’s potential for dividing the church. They deplored the “extremists” on either side. In the language of today, they believed the best way for the church to deal with slavery was through dialogue, understanding, hearing one another’s stories, getting to know each other, and finding the center of their togetherness in love.
With the moderates, or Compromised Middle, the primary concern–ahead of faithfulness to the Scriptures, moral justice, or the tradition of the church–was unity. Many believed, or said they did, that slavery was a sin. But a greater sin, evidently, was intolerance and divisiveness, particularly the intolerance and divisiveness of the abolitionists. The Kentucky Conference in 1835 unanimously adopted a report condemning slavery as morally wrong while at the same time deploring “the interference of the abolitionists.” It was compromise in the interest of avoiding conflict.
The bishops, for their part, were the most compromised of all. Not able to agree among themselves, they condemned extremists, deplored the controversy, and talked unity. The bishops were particularly loath to criticize each other even when one of their own, Bishop James Andrew, was revealed to be a slaveholder. When the issue could be avoided no longer and the General Conference of 1844 was prepared to pass a resolution suggesting that Bishop Andrew desist from exercising his office as long as he continued to be a slaveholder (which was itself a compromised resolution for the sake of harmony), the bishops proposed a resolution that the matter be tabled for four more years.
As with slavery then so with homosexuality today. The church today is divided into three groups. The first group declares that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. According to this group, this stand is consistent with Scripture, with the tradition of the church through the years, and is supported in large part by Christians around the world. Even as slavery struck at the moral fabric of what Christian faith was all about, so with homosexual practice. This group speaks of accountability and upholding the Discipline.
The second group believes homosexuality is a gift of God, or at least, is not inconsistent with Scripture. This group appeals to a number of different arguments: God has revealed new truth (a new revelation which evidently they alone have received) which informs them that the practice of homosexuality is not a sin after all; or, what may be considered wrong in some parts of the world (like Africa) is not necessarily wrong in some other part of the world (like California); or, loving, committed relationships and personal experience trump Scripture and tradition. This group sees the first group as hateful and intolerant.
A third group, which one might call the “moderates,” want us all simply to get along. They deplore the rigid approaches. Much of their effort is spent speaking about dialogue, understanding, hearing one another’s stories, getting along, and finding the center of our unity in love. They find attraction in the idea that perhaps it is best that we just admit we “are not of one mind” and let people do what is right in their own eyes.
The bishops, like the bishops during the years of slavery, are themselves conflicted. A number do not personally believe in the church’s stance, and their bias shows. In some annual conferences, candidates for ministry are denied membership for being “rigid,” that is for holding with conviction what the church has always taught about homosexuality. Regardless of what they might say among themselves, publicly they do not engage in debate with one another. When the bishops speak as a Council of Bishops, it is to acknowledge that there is much pain over homosexuality, but the church should be loving in all things, show restraint, and move on to other more important matters.
Very few people are satisfied with the present situation facing the United Methodist Church. Those who would affirm the practice of homosexuality believe the church is rigid, intolerant, and hate-filled and has been manipulated by hate-mongers and right-wingers. Those who support the Biblical view of homosexuality believe the church is on the edge of apostasy. Those in the middle, like a mother whose children are out of control but who doesn’t know what to do, tell us we should all be nice to each other. They appear to be, in the words to the church at Laodicea, “neither hot nor cold.”
st Episcopal Church had many things to be proud of in the nineteenth century. How it dealt with slavery, however, was not one of them. The resolution on Bishop Andrew led to a Plan of Separation, which was a form of amiable separation. It was the northern conferences who, in the name of unity, passed resolutions against the plan. Thus, when separation came, it was not amiable. Battles over property and encroachment represent an ugly chapter in the church’s history. The Methodist Protestants, who did work out an amiable separation, were able to reunite in 1877.
What will happen to the United Methodist Church in the coming years over the issue of homosexuality? There is not much encouragement in thinking that things will probably progress just as they have been: continual political maneuvering, announced strategies to undermine the Discipline, ugly words spoken against brothers and sisters, more rounds of dialogue that don’t solve anything, a compromised moral witness, resolutions on unity that provide no help in bringing about that unity, conflicted bishops. Those on the evangelical side of the issue are alarmed that some of our best families, our best prospective pastors, and even some churches, are simply opting out of the denomination. Despite the church’s announced position, the church’s ambiguity has the effect of permission-giving to the acceptance of homosexual practice.
One must always hold out the hope that God will do some new thing. If so, it will probably come through the moderates in the denomination. But for the moderates, as well as all of us, it can no longer be business as usual. The church’s response to slavery should teach us that.