The United Methodist Council of Bishops has issued a brief statement calling the church to prayer in regard to our human sexuality debate. The statement reads:
As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church. We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people. We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.
They’ve already taken a lot of criticism for this statement in social media. It has been called weak and an abdication of leadership. Many have wanted a stronger statement, one way or the other. They want the Council to say, “We’re going to take charge and enforce the Discipline!” or “We all want to change the statement in the Discipline on human sexuality!” And they want the Council to back up those words with actions.
The Council of Bishops, however, cannot and will not do either of these things. As their statement tells us, they simply do not agree with one another on matters of human sexuality. No unified statement is likely to be forthcoming. Additionally, the Discipline gives them no real authority to hold one another accountable across jurisdictions.
I suppose they could have called for further conversation, but at the present time, debate on these matters is not going to be particularly helpful. What more can be said that hasn’t already been said? Are we likely to bring forward new arguments? Are new insights likely to emerge? The people of the UMC do not simply disagree over homosexuality, but over a broad variety of issues. The differences go all the way to the bottom. They relate to the nature and function of scripture, the centrality of core orthodox doctrines, theological anthropology, the nature of sanctification, and the goal of the Christian life. As I’ve argued before, we’re not likely to have fruitful debate if we cannot agree on a shared set of presuppositions about the topic of our debate.
This assumes, of course, that we actually want to have reasoned, coherent, and respectful conversation around these matters. I used to labor under the impression that this was a widely held goal among those engaged in public discourse in our church. I’ve been disabused of this notion. More often than not we have adopted the logic and strategies of negative campaign ads so common in secular politics: attack the character of your opponents, and eventually you will win the day.
In our current context, debate won’t bring resolution of our differences. Voting at General Conference clearly won’t bring resolution, and neither will kicking this upstairs to the Council of Bishops. We are learning denominationally what so many people realize at crisis points in their lives: we cannot do this of our own power. We are not capable of restoring ourselves to faithfulness. Only God can do that. Prayer should not be a last-ditch effort, but it is sometimes the last thing we do anyway. Nevertheless, prayer is powerful. God is powerful. And God is alive and active in the work of renewing the church today. Calling for prayer, then, is the wisest thing that the Council of Bishops could possibly do in our current circumstances. It is an acknowledgement that this has never really been our church, and we have never really been in charge. We are simply God’s servants living out our callings in the midst of a particular branch of the Church universal.
So I’m going to join the bishops in praying for the UMC. I’m not going to pray for unity for its own sake or for the preservation of an institution. I’m going to pray that out of this struggle and chaos and pain, God will bring renewal and call into being a church that is focused clearly on God’s purposes. I’m going to pray that the people called Methodists will renew their commitment to making disciples of Jesus Christ and engaging in works of piety, justice, and mercy. Whether or not there will continue to be a denomination called The United Methodist Church, I have no idea. That’s not my primary concern. My concern is that people come to know new life in Jesus Christ. If we can’t be about this work, then we have no business calling ourselves a “church” anyway.