Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Church's One Foundation: Homosexuality and Schism in the UMC

As the United Methodist General Conference nears, I continue to be fascinated by essays written by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Conference, regarding the church and homosexuality. In previous postings on this blog, I have noted my interest in the stance of the Florida Conference and of Bishop Whitaker on this issue.

I’ve noted that my partner and I were hired by a United Methodist college in Florida in 2006. I’ve also noted that the executive committee of the board of that college (on which Bishop Whitaker sits) approved our hire, after holding a discussion about the fact that we are an openly gay couple in a long-standing committed relationship.

I’ve posted as well about what happened after we arrived in Florida on the very day that the statewide conference ended in 2006, bitterly divided over the issue of whether gay and lesbian persons can be welcome in Florida Methodist churches.

These experiences, and my own history with the Wesleyan tradition, also detailed in previous blogs, give me a strong interest in what is happening with the United Methodist Church in relation to gay and lesbian persons. As I have also noted, in my view, it’s important to track what is going on in the UMC re: gay folks because the Methodist church is, in important respects, a weathervane for the attitudes of mainstream Americans.

Despite its Wesleyan origins and strong Social Principles, the Methodist church is very much a middle-of-the-road heartland American church, a church that reflects cultural norms in strong ways. As goes Methodism, so goes the nation. Our current president is a Methodist, and one of the two Democratic candidates, Mrs. Clinton, is a Methodist. The United Methodist Church bears watching, if one is gay and living in America. (Once again, in offering this analysis, I want to recommend the valuable statement of Shannon B. entitled “Why You Should Pay Attention to What Is Going on in Ft. Worth at the End of April” at Pam’s House Blend blog; I cited this statement in my blog posting of 11 April at http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/04/citizen-journalists-methodist-canaries.html).

I offer the following perspectives as someone with a personal history of connection to the Methodist church—a connection both very rewarding and exceptionally painful—and as a Catholic theologian looking from the outside at the theological basis presented by those like Bishop Whitaker who resist revision of the sexual ethic of Methodism regarding homosexuality. I’m particularly fascinated by the argument Bishop Whitaker offers in a statement on the case of Rev. Karen Dammann in the Pacific Northwest in 2004.

Rev. Dammann is an out lesbian living in a committed relationship. After she informed her bishop, Bishop Elias G. Galvan, of her relationship, he referred the matter to a local Judicial Council. After various levels of deliberation and adjudication (all detailed in the statement of Bishop Whitaker on which I am commenting today), Rev. Dammann was acquitted of the charges against her and allowed to continue in ministry.

The statement on which I am reflecting today is Bishop Whitaker’s response to the Dammann judicial decision. It is found on the website of the Florida UMC Conference at www.flumc.org/bishop_whitaker/dammann_statement.htm.

What particularly interests me in Bishop Whitaker’s statement is that it offers arguments drawn from some version (but a rather filtered and watered-down one) of Roman Catholic traditional teachings about sexual morality. It seeks to establish a broad “transcultural” consensus about the “divine order” of human sexuality which is reflected in a Christian tradition that Bishop Whitaker sees as uniform across history and cultures.

Bishop Whitaker states,

Those who support the Church’s position believe that the prohibitions against homosexual practice in Scripture and tradition should be placed in the context of the whole teaching of Scripture which affirms that the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness are the revelation of the divine order for the sexual life of human beings. They believe that the Church should adhere to this divine order rather than accommodate to ideas and practices acceptable in Western societies (emphasis mine).

Though Bishop Whitaker is drawing on a version of Catholic tradition in the preceding statement, as a Catholic theologian, I find Bishop Whitaker’s argument far from compelling. In the preceding statement, Bishop Whitaker is imposing on the Wesleyan tradition a watered-down version of Catholic natural law theology. Official Catholic teaching about sexuality has long held that, if human beings reflect rationally on the “purpose” for which sexuality is given by a Creator God, we will come to the conclusion that sexuality is a gift given for procreation. Catholic theologians have long spoken of a natural law written in all human hearts which makes these insights accessible to all human beings—the transcultural and transhistorical “divine order” about which Bishop Whitaker writes.

Bishop Whitaker seems unaware, however, that a large number of Catholic theologians and a huge percentage of Catholic laypersons have rejected many of the conclusions of Catholic natural law theology pertaining to human sexuality. In fact, studies show something over 90% of Catholic married laypersons in the Western nations repudiating official Catholic teaching on contraception—which is rooted in the same natural law theology on which Bishop Whitaker’s argument relies.

Thomas Aquinas reasoned that, if sex is given for procreation, then masturbation is more sinful than rape, since the latter has, at least, the potential to result in procreation. On the basis of natural law theology, the Catholic church holds that not only are homosexual acts sinful, but any genital act that does not deliberately intend to be procreative is sinful.

If Bishop Whitaker is going to impose Catholic natural law theology on Methodism, in support of his belief that homosexuality violates divine order, he must also, to be faithful to the tradition he is imposing, forbid contraception, masturbation, impure thoughts, and so on. Catholic natural law theology teaches that each of these—the very act itself—is “grave matter” that results in the condemnation of a person to hell, if that person engages in the act willingly.

To repeat: very few Catholics in the Western world today accept these conclusions about human sexuality. In fact, a majority of us oppose these conclusions and the use of natural law theology and a language of divine order to speak about human sexuality. For many of us, an ethics based on relationality and stewardship would do a better job of preserving key Christian values re: human sexuality than does the language of divine order, which reduces human sexuality to an animal level by seeing it only in procreative (and not relational) terms.

But perhaps even more interesting in Bishop Whitaker’s statement about the Dammann decision is his willingness to bring out some other big gun ideas and terms from the Catholic tradition in speaking about the decision re: Rev. Dammann. Bishop Whitaker ends his statement by warning of the dangers of heresy and schism: “There are two main sins against the church of God, heresy and schism. Heresy is choosing one’s own theological opinion over the doctrine of the church when one’s theology is contrary to the teaching of the church. Schism is separating from the church and destroying the church’s visible and physical unity.”

These are highly charged terms from the Catholic ecclesial tradition. Bishop Whitaker is particularly concerned that the Dammann case might lead to schism in the church.

What fascinates me in this conclusion is the implied assumption that welcoming, ordaining, and giving full human rights to gay persons in the church is a church-dividing act. Bishop Whitaker’s argument implicitly elevates the church’s sexual ethic to the level of a “non-negotiable” on which the church is founded. Alter this ethic—tamper with the “divine” order and the “transhistorical” consensus—and you will destroy the church.

This is overdone. Not even the Roman Catholic tradition would see sexual ethics as the basis on which the church is founded, such that, to alter its traditional teachings in this area, it would call into question the unity of the church. The Roman Catholic church has never made any infallible declarations about matters of morality precisely for this reason: morality has a significant cultural component that shifts throughout history and across cultures. To found the church on a particular moral teaching is to build it on sand.

The church once forbade the practice of usury. The church taught that it was gravely sinful to lend money at interest, to use money to make money. The church once defended slavery, a transcultural practice that had a strong basis in the scriptures themselves.

Because the church clearly has altered its moral teachings, it would be very unwise to ground the church on any sexual teaching. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord—not a teaching about sexual ethics.

As is evident from other postings on this blog, I also strongly question Bishop Whitaker’s argument that, in fully including gay and lesbian persons in church life, the Methodist church would be abandoning a consistent “transcultural historic and global” position of Christianity. Bishop Whitaker characterizes the consensus of Methodism as follows: “…[T]hey believe that the public teaching and moral guidance of the Church about human sexuality should be faithful to the witness of Scripture and consistent with the teaching of the transcultural historic and global Christian community.”

Even if we conclude that there is transcultural and transhistoric consensus about the inappropriateness of homosexual behavior (and I am not willing to accept that conclusion so readily as Bishop Whitaker appears to be), there are the matters of slavery and of subordination of women to men to contend with: these are cultural practices that were long held by Christians worldwide to be not merely appropriate, but biblically ordained.

We now reject those conclusions.

What drives the opposition to full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church? In my view, this is all about a tremendous fear on the part of many men that opening the church to the feminine will topple the social order, the divinely ordained, traditional social order—in which they have long been at the top.

I find Bishop Whitaker’s aside—“For decades there have been emotional disagreements about homosexuality expressed at sessions of the General Conference”—enlightening in this regard. Emotion is what women do—at least, in the viewpoint of men who reserve rationality to themselves.

This aside implies that arguments about divine order, transcultural consensus, heresy, and schism, are rational, cool, male things, while protests by those excluded from full communion are female, emotion-laden events. It also implies that the church should listen to the cool rational voice of its male spokesmen, and not be swayed by the emotional voices of protesters.

Given these prejudicial assumptions, which seem to me to be deeply woven into Bishop Whitaker’s discourse about gay and lesbian persons and their places in the world and church, I find it hard to accept his conclusion that even those opposing the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in Methodist churches “support justice for homosexuals in civil society and hospitality toward all homosexual persons….”

How can there be justice for gay and lesbian persons in civil society when the church and its institutions are themselves unjust? How can civil society learn to display hospitality towards gay and lesbian persons when the churches and their institutions do not lead the way and provide an example of such hospitality?

Were the experiences of my partner and me at Bishop Whitaker’s Methodist university experiences of justice and hospitality, experiences that model these virtues for civil society?

And who should be asked, if we want to find out how the church truly behaves towards gay and lesbian persons—its cool rational male leaders, or those whose lives are in the control of and directly affected by the cool and calm rational discourse of those leaders?

In my view, if the church wants to find out how it really treats gay and lesbian persons, it has to ask, first and foremost, gay and lesbian persons ourselves.

And how can it do that, when it hounds us out of its institutions, and does not even afford us job security in those institutions? Or when it never gives us a place at the table as it doles out its crumbs of “justice” and “hospitality” to us . . . .

If homosexuality is a church-dividing issue today, it is so in that the continued failure of the churches to recognize that all Christians are invited to the one table, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, thwarts the church's ability to be what it is intended to be at the most fundamental level possible: a sign of God's loving mercy and justice in a world in which these virtues are sometimes at a premium.


colkoch said...

Bill, the one thing that is really beginning to get on my nerves is the insistence of Natural Law theorists to practice cafeteria science, picking and choosing only those scientific conclusions which don't seem to blow their basic premises sky high.

The truth is that Aquinas based his whole sexual theory on erroneous information based in patriarchal enculturalism. It amazes me that 800 years later, knowing very well that sex doesn't work the way Aquinas thought it did, that he's still the bell weather for natural law theology. In this case the church seems to be desparately hanging on to both the baby and the bathwater and justifying it by adding a lot of frothy bubble bath.

If churches were dead serious about how they view procreative sexuality, they would no more marry an infertile couple than they would a gay couple. The fact they do says volumes about what this gay issue is really about, and it's not marriage and non procreative sex. It's as you have written, keeping the emotional feminine out of rational male heterosexual society.

That this exclusion is based on a totally irrational scientific position speaks volumes about just how emotional it is at it's core. In one sense it's a perfect example of what happens when the emotional intelligence within males is dammed upped and denigrated. It's irrationally projected on the 'other'.

Give me a break. Stop with the bubble bath, nothing can cover up the stench that this particular bathwater is creating.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, finally getting a moment when I can be online more easily, and reflect on your good comment. I like the term "cafeteria science" very much--the twist on the charge that Catholics who pick and choose are "cafeteria Catholics."

You're exactly right: many of those borrowing bits and pieces from the Catholic tradition to support their preconceived notions of the "transcultural" and transhistorical consensus on sexuality are picking and choosing from what natural law theology and science say.

This seems to be a pattern in neoconservative politics. They pick what they need from the Catholic tradition to suggest that they have the weight of history behind them. But they ignore huge amounts of the same tradition, both good and bad.

They don't endorse Aquinas's biological conclusion that women are misbegotten males.

They don't buy into the Pope's stance against the Iraq war or capital punishment.

In short, there's more than a little bit of dishonesty in the use of a watered-down natural law tradition to suggest a consensus that is far less uniform across cultures and historical time frames than people like Bishop Whitaker suggest.

The neocons and their Christian apologists are forever telling us African Christians are anti-gay. But they never cite Desmond Tutu when they say this....

It's their church--their church dominated by white males--that they want to pretend is transcultural and transhistorical. So that they continue to hold all the power in their hands....