Methodist LGBT+ Issues Part 1: “What Would Wesley Do?”

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The recent Methodist Global General Conference vote concerning LGBT+ sexual practices pertaining to clergy and church leadership, has made headlines on major news outlets and has left a lot of “Methodists in the pew” scratching their heads and looking for some form of guidance. In addition, the Annual Meeting of the Baltimore-Washington Conference is coming up at the end of May where crucial LGBT+ decisions will come to a vote. I have heard many say that these are issues about clergy and church leadership, so why is this import to the general population of Methodists?

The media, both news and social, is portraying this issue as one that could divide the Methodist church, and rightfully so. However, one national news commentator said it was a battle of love versus hate in the church. I thought that was a bit extreme until….

Because of the tragic mosque shootings in New Zealand there was an interview on a major cable news channel of an ex white supremacist skinhead about hate group recruiting techniques. He told of how, as a teenager, he was bullied, verbally abused, and rejected by his school peer group. He felt alone, useless, and isolated; therefore easy prey to recruitment by white supremacist skinheads. After many years in this hate group, he was “rescued” by some concerned friends. He is now a consultant to law enforcement on recruiting methods used by these groups. 

He related one recruitment method where hate groups prey on people alienated from their religion (he did not mention any particular religion) but mentioned LGBT+ people in particular as being vulnerable to hate recruitment. He made reference to the religious practice where the LGBT+ leadership (clergy) were persecuted and signaled out, but not the general church congregation. This generates feelings of, “if you don’t want us as leaders, you don’t want us period”. The simple association is alienating and has consequences, especially for young people. 

When your church is involved in practices that are mentioned in conjunction with hate group recruitment scenarios, we may need to start paying attention.

The first possible place to look for guidance is the “Methodist Rulebook”, The Manual of Discipline which states:

Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church: The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.

304.3 Qualifications for Ordination
While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

“Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984, 1020

So there is some sin involved that is not a burning issue for the congregation, but is an issue for the “Holy Living” of the clergy. After talking to a number of people, the problem seems to come down to the question of, “Is the LGBT+ sexual lifestyle and worldview a sin and is the sin more important for the clergy than the congregation?”.  The answer seems to be wrapped up in the vague and confusing statement, The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”.

What does “Christian Teaching” mean and where can we find this teaching spelled out???  Yes, I know that everyone is now screaming, “It’s in the Bible” and I assume most thoughtful Christians understand that. We might also want to include the writings of the “church fathers” as well as Christianity’s influential mystics, such as John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Teresa of Ávila.

Most Methodist churches have robust education programs involving spiritual practice and study, but I’m guessing they might not spend a lot of time on what happens in the bedroom and how you know if you’re a boy or girl. The exception would be if you happen to be involved in high school youth ministry where its a really hot topic now days. As you will see below, to John Wesley “Christian Teaching” involved far more than simply reading the words on the page.

Now since we’re Methodists, we may want to see what John Wesley might have thought about the matter. Since I’m not aware that either Wesley, or Jesus, spoke directly to this issue, we may need to do a bit of thinking.

The founder of Methodism sought Christianity more in practical principles and sanctified affections than in dogmatic orthodox formulas, and laid greater stress on the ecumenical consensus which unites all religions, rather than on the sectarian dissensions that tend to divide us. In his Sermon 7, “The Way to the Kingdom” he states:

For neither does religion consist in Orthodoxy, or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but in the understanding of things. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever-blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God; he may assent to all the three creeds, — that called the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian; and yet it is possible he may have no religion at all.

What Wesley appears to be saying is that “correct belief” is secondary to “proper understanding”. For those of you familiar with world religions, this is an idea that is in agreement with the thoughts of our Buddhist and Hindu spiritual brethren. It’s what Aldous Huxley called the “Great Spiritual Perennial Philosophy” of all religions.

Wesley was far more concerned with how an individual treated his fellow humans, how one  lived his life in harmony with others, as well as  how one prayed, and meditated to enhance communion with God. Wesley got these ideas from the information in the Bible plus his own personal experiences, and not from any derived creedal belief.

So why was Wesley not impressed with creeds and their associated confessional statements? Put simply, he was just as concerned with what Jesus taught and did in his earthly ministry, rather than what later Christian creeds said Jesus was.

This understanding involved hard work as well, and it required the application of what is now commonly known as The Wesley Quadrilateral outlined below. The quadrilateral ia a methodology that can be used to resolve contentious scriptural and theological dilemmas.

  1. the pursuit of reflection through reason
  2. the understanding of culture, tradition, and history
  3. the study of the scriptures
  4. the application of personal experience and the experience of others

For Wesley interconnectedness and relationships were of the highest importance. So we add to the Quadrilateral his ultimate statement to “DO NO HARM” in the process of resolving these dilemmas. 

This is the first of a series of posts that will contain information on current Methodist LGBT+ issues. This type of religious discussion tends to generate a lot of heated rhetoric based on a lack of understanding,  misinformation, and irrelevant anecdotal stories. There may even be a bit of bloviating as well :-). This is because such topics go to the core principles that serve as the foundation for our system of belief and behavior.

I will be discussing more about these “beliefs and behaviors” as a source of conflict in the next post of this series;   Methodist LGBT+ Issues Part 2: “The Nature of Spiritual Disagreement”.

As such, my goal in these posts is to provide information pertinent to making decisions on these issues using the four guidelines stated above. I will hopefully be able to leave my own personal experience (and more importantly my opinions) out of the discussion.

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