The idea of letting United Methodist churches and annual (regional) conferences choose to depart from church law regarding homosexuality is gaining support. But it’s also seeing heated opposition from those who say “local option” would violate Methodist connectionalism and merely shift longstanding conflict to the church and conference level.
On June 5, the Rev. Adam Hamilton and others offered “A Way Forward,” a proposal to let churches vote to depart from the Book of Discipline by hosting same-sex unions and welcoming gay pastors. The proposal also calls for letting annual conferences decide to depart from the Discipline by ordaining self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.
Hamilton said he hoped to provide an alternative to a May 22 call by some clergy and theologians to begin consideration of an amicable split of the denomination. That group, self-described as traditionalist, argues that differences over homosexuality within the United Methodist Church are irreconcilable.
The local option proposal by Hamilton, pastor of the 18,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kans., debuted with endorsements from a range of large-church pastors, including the Rev. Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio.
As of June 11, about 2,100 people had added their names in support of “A Way Forward,” according to the website.
Concern about ‘A Way Forward’
But late this week, a group of nearly 80 clergy, theologians and laity, again from a traditionalist or conservative perspective, responded with “An Open Letter to Revs. Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter.”
The letter praises Hamilton and Slaughter for trying to address divisions in the denomination. Then it says:
“But with all due respect, your proposal will only extend, localize and exacerbate the acrimonious debate over the issue by forcing every congregation and annual conference to continue arguing about it for years to come. Your solution would pit many pastors against laity in local churches, friends against friends in our congregations, members against members at every annual conference, and bishops against pastors in the appointive process, all without any assurance that it will really resolve the issue.”
The letter signers argue that the conflict is fundamentally scriptural, and that they themselves can’t support any compromise on what they see as the Bible’s teaching that sex outside heterosexual marriage is sin.
The letter also holds that local option would turn the United Methodist Church from a connectional to a congregational model of polity.
‘…end of Methodism as we know it’
“That is the end of Methodism as we know it,” said the Rev. William J. Abraham, professor of Wesley studies at Perkins School of Theology and a signer of the letter, in a phone interview.
The Rev. Greg Stover, pastor of Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati and another signer, said many years of General Conference conflict over homosexuality would merely shift to the local level.
“It would produce a lot of pain and turmoil, without resolution to our differences,” Stover said.
The group earlier calling for amicable separation put forward four pastor representatives for comment, but did not release the names of others supporting the effort. The letter to Hamilton and Slaughter contains nearly 80 names, including three of the four publicly identified with amicable separation.
Abraham said “amicable separation has to be on the table,” but added: “I don’t think there’s any consensus among conservatives that they’re all ready to go with amicable separation.”
But he also said that if local option were to be approved at General Conference 2016, some conservative churches would leave the United Methodist Church.
“It beggars disbelief on my part that someone like Adam Hamilton and company don’t realize this is going to split the church,” Abraham said.
On Friday, June 13, Hamilton responded with a letter of his own, addressed to the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News, an unofficial conservative caucus within the United Methodist Church. Renfroe is one of those who drafted the letter to Hamilton and Slaughter.
Hamilton offers a detailed argument rejecting the assertion that local option would end connectionalism. He also reiterates his desire to hold the denomination together as tensions over homosexuality continue.
“The signers (of “A Way Forward”) don’t all agree on how to read and interpret the biblical texts often cited regarding homosexuality,” Hamilton wrote. “What they agree upon is that it is possible to be faithful, orthodox, Wesleyan, United Methodist Christians and hold to differing ways of understanding these texts and to come to different conclusions regarding homosexuality.”
Hamilton and Slaughter offered “agree to disagree” legislation at the 2012 General Conference. That proposal, which did not suggest a local option, failed to pass.
Their latest effort brought qualified support from some who strongly favor changing church law to allow for ordination of homosexuals and to allow clergy to officiate at same-sex unions.
“I prefer the local option to a formal fracture of the connection in our precious church,” said the Rev. Bruce Robbins, a retired pastor and former top executive of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. “Yes, a local option would wound us and need great healing. But we are promised grace!”
Robbins added: “But I have not given up on the hope that our leaders can work through the Connectional Table, the Committee on Central Conference Matters and the Commission on General Conference and find a more holy way forward at the 2016 General Conference.”
As more states have legalized same-sex marriage, more United Methodist clergy have defied church law by performing such unions. Considerable mainstream media attention has accompanied the church’s response, including a complaint filed against retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert for officiating at the wedding of two men in Alabama, and the defrocking of the Rev. Frank Schaefer for performing the wedding of his son to another man.
On Friday, ten retired clergy members in Texas announced that they are willing to officiate at same-sex weddings.
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]