I just finished watching the web cast of the panel of eight bishops, and I was disappointed just as I was in the book of that name that was published by the Council of Bishops last spring. (Find my review of the book in my blog post of June 20th.) I found the talk of unity disingenuous since the reality is clearly that the church is not united on this issue. One of the Twitter commenters stated that he didn’t like being described as an “issue” rather than a human being and noted there were no LGBT people on the panel discussing the issue of homosexuality.
I suppose the two webcasts and the book are efforts to fulfill the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but I felt they lacked the spirit of his intentions. His method involves scripture, tradition, experience and reason as four different sources of theological or doctrinal development. The current buzzword is to pray for discernment. The Roman Catholic Church for centuries emphasized tradition and official established church doctrine as the only sources, with very few options for personal beliefs, insights, or enlightenment. Wesley formed the Holiness Societies to not only study the scripture but also to discuss them in the light of their own experience, to reason together as to how they would be most applicable to the circumstances of their time, and to be accountable to each other. The Methodist Church must be held accountable for the damage this long debate and the resulting animosity have caused.
The Evangelical tradition of some Protestant Denominations has placed the scripture as the sole source of doctrine or dogma, and declares that it has been fixed in place for 500 years without regard to translations, exegetical research, original manuscripts, or other issues related to the intended meaning of the actual words in the King James English translation of the Bible. “It means what it says it means,” except of course the 16th Century English that was archaic at the time does not have the same meaning as contemporary English today. The purists claim that progressives are heretics who diminish the true intention of the Holy Scriptures by interpreting them in the context of our modern culture. Of course, they choose to ignore the context of the culture in which those scriptures were originally written down. The writings were compiled after centuries of oral traditions and were not established as the canon until hundreds of years later. (So much for the difficulties of reading and interpreting scripture.)
I still get the feeling that Jesus must have felt in discussing the law with the Pharisees and the Sadducees who claimed that all that was necessary to a good life was to fulfill the law as prescribed by Moses. Jesus taught that we are required to understand and to apply the heart as well as the letter of the law.
And so for 42 years we have been haggling over the wording in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which is the official dogma of the church. The legislative body of the church, the General Conference, has debated this wording and modified some sections but still retained the principal condemnation that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Political camps have maneuvered every four years with little progress.
The devotees of the status quo claim that because the majority have voted at General Conference, then in the urgency of unity we must all obey and observe that dogma if we are to maintain the integrity of the church and the sanctity of the scriptures. We don’t have people calling out publicly that homosexuals are going to hell or that homosexuality is a sin anymore, but it is clearly implied by our policies.
So why do we get so hung up on seven deadly scriptures that are cited to use the Bible as a club to attack and condemn people rather than to use the Bible how we can best learn to live together in charity and to reach out to everyone to bring them to Christ no matter who they are?
Any church that is preoccupied with maintaining the status quo, regardless of the issue, rather than reaching out in its primary mission of evangelism is doomed to failure. If nothing else, it eventually becomes irrelevant to the needs and concerns of society and becomes defensive in self-perpetuating itself. When dogma has been revealed to not only be damaging to individuals but also to the grace of the church itself, what justification can be given of the primacy of the need to maintain unity? Am I suggesting the United Methodist Church separate as it did over the “issue” of slavery? No, but I do believe the endless dialogue is not productive if it leads to no resolution. The Jews love to debate the Midrash, but that is not the Christian tradition of how we understand the scriptures.