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The Methodist Church - Past and Present

 

Methodism Past and Present       Gerry OShea

Until recent times, most theologians and churchmen clearly condemned same-sex intimacy as unnatural. Their disapproval was wrapped in a syllogism: The purpose of sex is procreation; gay physical relationships have no possibility of pregnancy; therefore, same-sex intimacy breaches the moral code and must be condemned.

 Scientific studies have clearly established a new paradigm in this area. Research explains the largely genetic origins of homosexual attraction, and most Western countries, including the United States, allow gay couples to marry and have their unions officially recognized.

While there is no single gay gene, there is overwhelming evidence of a biological basis for sexual orientation that is programmed into the brain before birth, based on a mix of genetics and prenatal conditions.

A few months ago, the Vatican issued a clear directive allowing a priestly blessing for marriages of homosexual couples. They still assert that people in such relationships are engaged in unnatural and sinful behavior, but they justify the blessing as an appropriate pastoral response by asserting that it is meant for the partners as individuals and not for their allegedly immoral union.

 While calling on heaven for a kind of split blessing has raised eyebrows among many ethicists, its approval by Pope Francis involves an important change in church practices, and it is fiercely opposed by most dioceses in Africa and Eastern Europe and it has received a cool welcome from many American bishops.

 The controversy in the Vatican about this issue coincides with developments in two other international Christian denominations, the global Anglican Communion and the United Methodist Church.

Until recently, The United Methodist Church (UMC) was the third-largest Christian denomination in the United States. Methodism in America has a reputation as the most liberal of the Protestant churches. For instance, in the mid-1950s, they ordained women without any major internal protests, and in recent Presidential elections, unlike other Protestant denominations, the Methodist vote splits fairly evenly between the two main political parties.

This positive and open-minded spirit did not carry over to the gay issue. Officially, the UMC forbids same-sex marriage and does not allow openly gay members to serve as ministers. However, in recent years, this church ordinance was, in Shakespeare’s words, “more honored in the breach than in the observance.” Despite the condemnation in their rule book, the UMC now has a number of openly gay priests and two gay bishops.

The Methodist Book of Discipline forbids any church minister from performing the ceremony at a gay wedding. Any church member is empowered to bring charges against the pastor involved in conducting the marriage rituals. If mediation with the local bishop is not deemed satisfactory, then a trial must be arranged with a jury of clergy and laity - a high-minded and admirable democratic procedure.

If the minister who performed the ceremony is found guilty, his or her punishment might be as extreme as revocation of preaching credentials in southern states like Alabama to a three-week suspension in Massachusetts or other dioceses in the northeast.

This obvious lack of unity in dealing with a crucial sexual issue resulted in 2019 in the UMC setting up a disaffiliation process with the ironic title “A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” This allowed those who disagreed with the liberal acceptance of the gay lifestyle to join a new denomination: “The Global Methodist Church,” GMC.

The congregations that opted for the new conservative GMC were allowed to take legal control of any buildings and all the local assets of that congregation. This qualifies as the biggest church schism ever in America.

United Methodism has been a broad church marked by both geographical and ideological diversity. There are 31 members of Congress who name it as their religion, including Assemblyman Tom Cotton from Arkansas, who favors political positions that are in tune with the far right, while Elizabeth Warren, a distinguished senator from Massachusetts, often speaks for the other end of the political spectrum. Mr. Cotton has joined the breakaway group, the Global Methodists.

Rev. Will Ed Green, an openly gay senior pastor in the Washington area, claims that the cleavage within the church allows the UMC to focus on social justice priorities. For instance, 14 congregations in the Washington area have committed to constructing affordable housing projects on church property.

 About a quarter of the 30,000 Methodist churches have joined the new organization. There were around twenty million members of the United Methodist Church in 2020. With the millions departing for the new conservative church and the general decline in nearly all Christian denominations, the membership numbers are projected to be about half that by the end of the decade.

The history of the Methodist movement traces back to 18th-century England where the devout founder, John Wesley, proposed a “method” or system for encouraging a deeper commitment to the Christian life, including small-group meetings and an emphasis on holiness and service.

The latest Methodist split culminates decades of division in all Christian congregations about various aspects of sexuality – a topic that Jesus rarely addressed. His focus was on learning about loving encounters with God and the pre-eminent commandment to cater for the poor and marginalized.

On the one side of this debate, we find liberal people convinced that live and let live is the mature philosophical way to deal with differences in sexual preferences. They advocate for celebrating all respectful and consensual expressions of love between consenting adults.

In a different context Matthew Arnold in his poem “The Scholar Gypsy” bemoans what he called “this strange disease of modern life” and these words describe the perspective of most traditionalists. They see a decadent West that is constantly changing for the worse and disregarding what they see as the sound biblical truths that guided past generations.

Rudyard Kipling’s words describing the divisions between India and his native Victorian England remind us that some divisions are unfixable, and these words also apply to the two brands of Methodism. “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com

 

 

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