How Will We Be Known?

by Rev. Dr. William O. (Bud) Reeves

I’m going to go out on a limb here.

The Commission on the Way Forward, the group established by the Council of Bishops at General Conference in 2016, is presenting a final report to the Council, who will then present a proposal to a special General Conference in 2019. The question at hand is how we deal with the division of opinion on the issue of human sexuality. The future of the United Methodist denomination hangs in the balance, and something is going to happen in the next few months. So far, the Commission has presented three options. We held some “town hall” meetings around the Arkansas conference, and the three options were described as “divisive,” “harmful,” and “confusing.” Not a promising start.

However, I believe one of the options holds more promise than the others. It is the so-called “One Church” option. As described in the town hall meeting, “This model removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. It also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.” This option is not perfect, either, and I am praying for something better to be worked out. But the reason I believe the “One Church” option is the best so far is that I believe it would be a travesty for the United Methodist Church (or the future branches thereof) to be defined by our position on human sexuality.

The United Methodist Church should be defined by our Wesleyan heritage, not a particular social issue. Our DNA is not about human sexuality. It is about a theology of grace, hearts warmed by the Holy Spirit, and an open table at Communion. We are the people of the “extreme center,” balancing faith and works, conversion and social justice, the centrality of Scripture with tradition, reason, and experience. We can remain one church and allow grace for a variety of opinions; in some ways we always have. We can give room for different applications of the Gospel in various contexts, as long as the fundamental values of the faith are maintained. We can “think and let think.”

I have to admit that my thinking on this issue has changed in the 40-plus years I have been considering it. I grew up with traditional, conservative south-Arkansas values. My first memory of this issue is a presentation I made on the new Disciplinary language to a conference youth camp in 1974. I have written columns defending traditional understandings. I still understand them.

My broadening began when I actually studied, researched and conversed with a group of diverse people as part of a human sexuality task force a few years ago. (We produced some brilliant resources that were universally ignored!) For the first time, I read cogent, yet divergent opinions on human sexuality, from Biblical interpretation to psychological research. I found good arguments for both traditional and progressive viewpoints. Applying the criterion of “reasonable doubt,” I found myself unable to render a verdict for either side to the exclusion of the other.

The turning point for me came when I went through a divorce. Jesus, though reportedly silent on homosexuality, had plenty to say about divorce, and it was not positive. Yet I had to be honest with my churches, colleagues, and supervisors about what was happening. To a person, all I received was grace, love, and forgiveness. My ministry was never questioned. The support was wonderful, though not very “Biblical.”

At that point, the question hit home, “If we can be that gracious toward people going through a divorce (and we should), why can’t we be that gracious toward LGBTQ brothers and sisters?” We could be wrong, but it is better to err on the side of grace than judgment. We are not going to find ourselves being more gracious than Jesus.

I feel very vulnerable sharing my opinion so bluntly; I’m sure there will be conversations to follow. But I believe it is high time for those of us in the “Methodist middle” to have the courage of our convictions and express our passion for the future of this church we love.

I’m not interested in changing anyone’s opinion about human sexuality. That’s not the point. The point is, we should be able to differ on this issue and live together for the sake of our shared values and mission. I am interested in the United Methodist Church being known for the right reasons, making a unified witness in a fractured, polarized world, producing ministry that makes disciples of Jesus Christ and vital congregations.

Whatever happens, there is going to be pain, and most of the pain will come at the local church level. Some will not be able to stay, whatever we decide. Painful times for the church are not unprecedented, and God has always brought us through.

I am a cradle Methodist. I have stayed one because of the Wesleyan DNA. I hope, in some far distant future, to die one. I just don’t know what that is going to look like. So I am praying, waiting, and hoping. Maybe right now that is the most faithful option.