Hamilton: Church homosexuality law needs ‘local option’

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The Rev. Adam Hamilton leads the 18,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., and reaches many others through best-selling books about Christian faith. At the 2012 General Conference, he and the Rev. Mike Slaughter, of Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, offered “agree to disagree” legislation on the issue of homosexuality.

Though that effort failed, Hamilton continues to push for official, practical recognition of the church’s division on the issue — and for denominational unity. This week he debuted “A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church,”  a proposal to let local churches decide — after a discernment process and super-majority vote — whether to host same-sex unions and welcome gay clergy. Under the plan, the denomination’s annual (regional) conferences would decide for themselves if they would ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”

Both ideas would require a change in current church law as it deals with homosexuality.

Hamilton has drawn support from Slaughter and a range of other large-church pastors. He’s asking others in the church to read the proposal and consider signing on.

Hamilton agreed to answer questions posed by United Methodist News Service’s Sam Hodges.

Was it the 80-plus traditionalist pastors and theologians who recently called for an amicable split of the denomination, describing differences over homosexuality as “irreconcilable,” who prompted “A Way Forward”?

I had not anticipated proposing a local option to address the issue of how our churches minister with homosexuals. I had hoped we might, at the next General Conference, find a way to at least recognize that faithful United Methodists disagree on the issue of how we interpret Scripture regarding same-sex relationships.  

Two things changed that:  First, phone calls with those pastors and laity calling for a formal split in our denomination.  The second was the conversation at the Connectional Table proposing the (Book of) Discipline’s position on incompatibility be overturned.  

If these are the only two options, churches would need to decide either that they are willing to host gay marriage and gay clergy in their churches, or they would need to leave the denomination.

I’ve heard from many pastors who say they don’t want to leave the UMC they love and that they routinely welcome gay and lesbian people in their churches, but they and/or their congregations are conflicted over gay marriage and ordination.

Like many others, I began wondering if there is another way forward. This proposal came out of conversations with leading pastors in six different conferences.  It is only a conceptual framework for the church to consider as an alternative to a total reversal of the current denominational stance, or leaving the denomination.  There are many questions that remain.  But, it is a starting point for a conversation.

Had you been thinking along these lines already?

My thinking prior to this spring was that we would, in the words of one of my friends, “muddle along” for the next 16 years until most of the clergy my age had retired.  Younger clergy overwhelmingly support changing the denomination’s position and, at that point, they will likely change our Discipline.  What I had not anticipated was the frustration on both sides that led to clergy officiating at gay weddings, the trials and the response to the trials on both the left and the right. Traditionalists are rightly frustrated when clergy violate our Discipline and covenant at will.  Progressives are understandably frustrated when it appears there is no way forward and they believe that the Discipline does not capture God’s will.  

Up to this point. I’ve not supported changing the denomination’s position except to acknowledge the fact that faithful United Methodists can be found on both sides of the divide.  My feeling was, and remains, that a wholesale change in position at General Conference, which would then require every church to accept this change, would have detrimental consequences to a majority of our churches. This would ultimately negatively impact our shared ministries together as well.  

Again, what changed for me were the events of this spring the violations of the Discipline, frustrations on both sides with the various trials, and ultimately, the call to divide the denomination. The only way forward that I could see that might hold together a large number of our churches was to provide a de facto position to local churches that looks very much like our current position, but to insert permissive language into the Discipline that would allow local churches whose pastors and leaders wished to do so, to enter into a discernment process that would ultimately give them the ability to adopt a principled position different from the current denominational position. It seems likely that those churches who would do this are those who are Reconciling (Ministries Network) congregations.  

Already, these churches hold to, and advocate for, a position that is different than our Discipline’s position.  Already, bishops assign pastors to these congregations based upon theological and practical fit.  What would change would be the permission for these congregations to bless gay marriages.  For most churches choosing to do nothing, their position would continue to be the current position found in the Discipline.  

Why do you personally feel so committed to keeping The United Methodist Church together?

I’m not sure we can keep the church together.  I believe there are churches that may leave, who say we cannot live in a denomination where any church is allowed to host or officiate at the wedding of someone who is gay.  But I hope that most churches will say, “I believe that faithful Christians may interpret Scripture differently on this issue.  Provided our congregation may hold to a more traditional interpretation and practice, I am willing to accept that some other United Methodist churches may take another view of the issue.”

I believe a large majority of our churches already hold this view.  Most of our church members are already living with the idea that some of their friends in their own church see this issue differently than they do.  They have learned to accept one another.  

What are the key challenges you see in getting The United Methodist Church to move toward your local option idea?

Like most significant changes, changes that are difficult to make, the only way such a change will happen is if the pain of doing nothing is greater than the pain of making the change.  I don’t know if the local option is the right alternative.  If there is a better one I pray it surfaces.  But, the threat of a major division of our church should lead us to a willingness to consider alternatives that hold together most of our churches.  

How do you think your church, the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, would go if given local control as spelled out in the petition? How would you advise the church to go?

In 2012, our church council adopted the language and policy Mike Slaughter and I proposed at the last General Conference.  We do not all agree on this issue.  Our staff and laity are divided.  What we agree upon is that faithful United Methodist Christians can interpret the Scriptures differently and for good reason.  We also affirm that everyone is welcome at Church of the Resurrection.  This will continue to be our position until such a time as a super-majority of our members see this issue differently.   

The group recently advocating a separation divided the church into “traditionalists” and “progressives.” Do you see a middle group as well, or perhaps more than one other group?

I think words fail us when it comes to describing the various camps.  Some among those calling for a split have tried to appropriate the word “orthodox.”  But orthodoxy traditionally has been concerned with doctrinal formulations found in the creeds. Most of the people who’ve signed the (local option) document so far embrace the historic doctrines of the Christian faith.  Those on the left call themselves progressive, but many of those who are more conservative on this issue are progressive in many other ways.

As I’ve noted above, what I think is that a vast majority of our churches and pastors are not completely comfortable on either end of this debate.  Few want schism. Few want to be a part of a new denomination that was formed based largely upon its opposition to gay marriage.  Few want to be a part of a church where they will be required to officiate at gay weddings or where their churches are required to accept gay clergy.  Most of us have shifted our views on this issue, at least a little, in the last 20 years some more than a little.  

Do you see anything working in favor of The United Methodist Church, compared to the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church, in terms of hanging together despite division over homosexuality?

I think we have to learn from these churches and their experience.  I am hopeful that a position like what we’re proposing might help us hang together.  Most of our churches would, by doing nothing, simply maintain our current Disciplinary language.  Those that are already Reconciling congregations would continue doing ministry as they do, but would have permission to, through a process of prayer discernment, identify as congregations where gay and lesbian people might marry.  Already, bishops are careful to appoint pastors who are a fit for Reconciling congregations.  Little would change for most congregations under this scenario.  

Like many on both sides of this issue, I care deeply about our denomination, and I hate to see it divided into two, or perhaps three new denominations.  Some pastors I love dearly and who I’ve come to consider friends are encouraging the split as the only way forward.  They quote Lyle Schaller’s book “The Ice Cube is Melting,” a book for which Lyle asked me to write the foreword.  I am hopeful that the Spirit might lead us to avoid a split.  This document is one attempt at saying we think it is possible.  

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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