Methodism Past and Present Gerry OShea
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com