Let’s get this out of the way: good people within the United Methodist Church, with all the best intentions, disagree on matters of human sexuality. There’s no way around this. Whether or not the General Conference petition by Mike Slaughter and Adam Hamilton would have made for effective legislation, the fact of the matter is that their proposed legislation reflected a truth that inheres within United Methodism: we disagree with one another about homosexuality.
In fact, we disagree about many things. That is why we have a set of regulations that effectively functions as church law. These regulations are contained in the Book of Discipline.
For years, many United Methodists have defied the Book of Discipline on matters of doctrine. Denial of doctrines such as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection are violations of our doctrinal standards, which are protected in the first Restrictive Rule. We have been able to deal with this matter, though, because of the gray area created by the section of the Discipine called “Our Theological Task.” In other words, for all its faults, the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has created enough ambiguity to allow us to avoid church trials over matters of deviation from the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.
Ethical matters such as homosexuality, however, while certainly related to theology and doctrine, fall into a different category. These are specifically matters of behavior and practice, and, at times, the General Conference has seen fit, rightly or wrongly, to issue clear regulations on ethical matters.
This is where church law comes into play. Church law emerges specifically because of our disagreement. When there is deep disagreement and debate over important matters, the church may see fit to regulate itself internally. The resulting regulations will necessarily make some people unhappy. Yet without such internal regulations, the UMC cannot function as a denomination. We have regulations regarding our internal hierarchy, our appointment system, the ministry of the ordained, and many other such matters. Granted, the level of adherence to these regulations has at times varied, but I don’t recall a time when there has been such widespread open defiance of the Discipline as is the case now in relation to issues of human sexuality.
We can say that we are held together in our love for Christ and the unity of the Holy Spirit, and indeed we are. We are held together as Christians in this way. Denominations, however, are held together by their internal self-regulation. If we disregard our church law, we are no longer a denomination.
The ministers of the church who are openly defying the teaching in the Book of Discipline are engaging in de facto schism. The question is not, at this point, whether the church will divide. It has divided because of the open defiance of the Discipline. It has not divided de jure yet, but continued de facto division will result in a de jure division. Perhaps this is the goal of such behavior. My own opinion is that dividing the church in this way would be a huge mistake, but it wouldn’t be the first huge mistake in the history of either the UMC or the Church universal.
With all due respect to Dr. Thomas Frank, who is widely recognized as one of the foremost experts in UM polity, referring this issue back to conferences for discussion among ordained clergy seems to repeat a process that has not worked. Annual conferences have discussed this issue to the point of neglecting other business of the conferences. The General Conference has repeatedly taken up this issue. No doubt, we will continue to have discussions along these lines, though the extent to which they will be productive is questionable. Our discussions of human sexuality have been more rhetorical than reasonable, more political than persuasive. Real discussion of these matters cannot take place in settings in which caucus groups control the conversations.
Dissolving our denomination will have tragic consequences. There are huge problems facing the world today, and not all of them relate to human sexuality. My own primary concerns relate to ministry with people with disabilities. I want the church to pay attention to this matter, to take it seriously, to make more of a tangible difference in the lives of people who live with disabling conditions. And yet there are more problems: a child dies from the effects of extreme poverty every three seconds. Half the world lives without clean drinking water. Christians in many parts of the world continue to be martyred for the faith. The list could go on. As long as we are consumed to the extent we are by a single issue—the issue of human sexuality—we divert proportionate time and resources from the myriad other issues facing the church today.
Church law matters because it allows us to go about our work together. It is not always right, but it is a necessary way of organizing our corporate life. Apart from this realization, the UMC cannot exist.