By Dr. Riley Case
Not long ago The Confessing Movement sent out an e-blast inviting clergy and lay persons to sign a petition sent to United Methodist bishops asking them to make a clear statement in support for the denomination’s position regarding marriage and homosexuality. The petition letter was initiated by 59 pastors of significant churches. Forty of the churches are part of the 100 largest churches in the denomination. Seven of the churches have a membership of over 5,000.
The invitation to sign on will be open for some time since a large part of the church is still unaware of this invitation. The web page is www.FaithfulUMC.org. If a Sunday School class wants to hand sign the petition they may do so. Send the hard copy to:
The Woodlands United Methodist Church
2200 Lake Woodlands Drive
The Woodlands, TX 77380
The following commentary is designed to give some perspective on the letter.
1. What prompted the letter to the bishops? For the past forty years the UM Church has debated the issue of sexual morality. The traditional affirmation: faithfulness in marriage (the union of a man and a woman) and celibacy in singleness, has been challenged by progressives who believe that new truth and changing cultural mores have made the traditional view outdated. Progressives believe the church needs to change with the times. Particularly these progressives would like for the church to bless homosexual practice and homosexual unions. The numbers who believe this are relatively small but they have influence on general boards and agencies, in the seminaries, and among some of the bishops.
The people who want the church to change its stance have sought to bring about the change legislatively (through General Conference action), through judicial means (they have wanted the church’s Judicial Council simply to declare the church’s stance unconstitutional), and with pronouncements and proclamations (such as the statement by 36 retired bishops that the church needs to change).
Now, however, these groups have raised the stakes. In a page taken from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in which civil disobedience was a tactic to draw attention to laws on segregation that were unjust, progressives have vowed ecclesiastical disobedience as a strategy they believe might force the church to change. 900 clergy have indicated their willingness to conduct same-sex marriages or unions believing that the church would not have either the finances or the will to prosecute large numbers of church trials.
It is difficult to believe that there are anywhere near 900 same-sex couples who wish the blessing of The United Methodist Church on their relationships. However, it would only take 20 or 30 cases of ecclesiastical disobedience to throw the church into chaos.
Whether 900 or 20 or none, the defiant action on the part of so many clergy willing to betray the covenant of trust that is at the heart of any kind of church unity based on shared values is a serious matter. The petition letter asks the bishops, one group that ought to be taking leadership in situations such as this, to take action.
2. Who are the people who initiated the letter of petition? It is significant that this appeal to the bishops did not originate with any of the evangelical renewal groups such as The Confessing Movement, Good News, Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD), or Transforming Congregations. Had the petition been sent by any of the renewal groups it would have been more easily brushed off. Evangelical renewal groups are often seen as right-wing and reactionary and homophobic and, therefore, not to be taken seriously.
But what if it were the pastors of significant churches? This is a new development. The churches identified in the original petitions are vital and growing. Together they are paying millions of dollars of apportionments. They represent what is good and right about the denomination. The bishops and the church at large will ignore their expression of concern at their own risk.
3. What is at stake? The future of The United Methodist Church is at stake. Can anyone imagine a scenario that would bring renewal or healing or growth or vitality to the church if acts of ecclesiastical disobedience win the day? If the breaking of covenant trust prevails without accountability, if the church should be forced to change its position because of political maneuvering, and if the vast majority is forced to accept the ideology of a small minority, then the church will surely unravel. The people in the pews read the religious and the secular press and are restless. They want to know why the leaders are silent. They want to know why some seminaries and some boards and agencies seek to undermine the position of the church. Thus we have the appeal to let bishops know the concerns of the vast majority of the clergy and laity.
In the city I live in some mainline churches have suffered serious losses over homosexuality. First is the Congregational Church (UCC). Internal conflict over the denomination’s shift to pro-homosexual advocacy cost the church over half its members. Then the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), again after the denomination indicated practicing homosexuals could be ordained clergy, voted to leave the denomination, but not before much internal division and pain. This is a leading church in the community. Now they battle the denomination over property rights. Finally the Lutherans (ELCA), once more after the denomination departed from Biblical standards of sexual morality, suffered losses in two congregations so severely that the two finally merged in order to be viable. Would ten area United Methodist churches be next? Do those who apply the pressure to change the church’s position not realize that they would lead us over the cliff? In Africa, especially in lands where Islam and Christianity live side by side, the effect would be devastating.
And so the petition appeal. It is a small thing. It seems reasonable. It asks simply that leaders be leaders and that they put the good of the Church first.
The Confessing Movement | 7995 East 21st Street | Indianapolis | IN | 46219