Unity is Difficult, Not Impossible (Part 1)

by Dan Johnson

This will be the first of four posts attempting to understand the three seemingly totally incompatible positions that are represented in the UMC, and a fourth, sharing my hopes for finding a way to stay United. I’m sure some of you will be eager to point out the value of the other two positions while reading this one, but try to wait until I come to them later in the week. I think you will be able to see why staying United will be so difficult, but maybe you will also see why it may still be possible.

I write in the spirit of “seeking first to understand” that St. Francis shared in his model prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace.” So, my goal here is not to promote a particular view, but to seek to understand, and encourage you to try to understand, the particular view and those who hold it. Understanding is not the same as embracing, and right now there’s not enough taking the time and energy to understand.

1. The Progressive View: It’s a Matter of Civil Rights

There is a growing sense within the church and within our country that one’s sexual orientation is a given at birth for many people, over which they have little or no choice or control. Attempts at “restoration therapy” – to turn them “straight” again have generally been discredited by the psychological community as “unsuccessful,” and harmful and damaging to the individual. My own observations concur with this. Many of us have heard parents say, “I knew from the time he/she was 3 (or pick an age) that he/she was gay/lesbian. More could be said on this, but the bottom line is this: If or because this is true, then one’s sexual orientation is like one’s skin color, or ethnicity; it’s not a matter of choice, but is who one is, and the implications become a matter of human rights and civil rights, which must be protected.

Persons who hold this view are inclined to see any and all attempts calling for the compromising of their advocacy of full rights on behalf of same sex marriage and ordination as morally wrong and oppressive, even unChristian toward these persons. They also believe that their acts of solidarity on behalf of gay/lesbian persons, while “in disobedience” to the Clergy Covenant and to the Book of Discipline, are in fact acts of prophetic, civil disobedience in the same spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr in his disobedience to an unjust racial system, and similar to Martin Luther’s disobedience to an unjust Roman Church system, and Gandhi’s active, pacifists resistance to oppressive British rule in India. They believe they are keeping the higher Covenant of God, and only by disobeying the human book of Discipline can they be obedient to the higher law of God’s love. They also believe that it is not right for happily married heterosexual persons to dictate to persons unlike them what those persons can and cannot do in their private lives.

I must admit that over my ministry I have often known several same sex couples – often two women, middle age or older who have been living together, often for more years than I had been alive, and I felt no compulsion or desire to comment or pass judgment on their personal lives. Should they be permitted to express their relationship in a covenant ceremony called marriage? Had one or both felt called to pastoral ministry, should they be permitted to be ordained? Certainly those who hold the position I’m describing here would say “Yes,” and for them it would be morally wrong to deny these gifts.

I’m not suggesting you should agree or disagree with those who hold this position; rather, I’m trying to understand in my own mind and to invite you to understand in yours why and how those who view this issue as a human rights issue can feel so passionate about it. And I invite you to see them not as evil or bad, but as persons who live out of a sense of biblical justice. Add to that if their son or daughter or other family member were of same sex orientation, then the deeply personal is added to the human rights motivation. It becomes obvious then, doesn’t it, how persons with this view can become upset at people who hold a view, which these persons believe suppresses the human rights of another individual and does great harm to many of those individuals, even if, or because, it is claimed to be a Biblical view. But is it impossible to stay in the same Church as those who hold a very different view? I hope not, but we’ll have to see, and I hope we will all be praying for the Bishop’s Commission on A Way Forward which is trying ever so prayerfully to navigate these tumultuous waters.

That’s a summary of my understanding of view #1. Stay tuned.