Pain and Protest: A Good News Commentary

For ten previous General Conferences (1972-2008), the issue of homosexuality has absorbed increased time and energy and caused deep division in the church. This General Conference was the eleventh such time. Veterans of previous General Conferences come prepared for the drumbeats of protest, the rainbow stoles designating “us vs. them,” and the tears that accompany the vote of the General Conference.

Although we do not agree with those who would change United Methodism’s stance on homosexuality, we do not take their tears lightly. It is grievous that General Conference has become a place of such pain and protest. The sorrow is profound and will not be healed easily. We know that the protesters and their supporters are hurt and upset at the direction, once again, that our denomination has taken. We do not celebrate in their pain.

Most would agree that the orchestrated protest is not what John Wesley had in mind when he spoke of holy conferencing. For first-time visitors, the experience can be overwhelming and dramatic. For many of the Central Conference delegates, it is difficult to comprehend. There were ceremonial arrests in Cleveland and a broken African communion chalice in Pittsburgh. In Fort Worth, it was the chalk outlines, a lesbian wedding in the park, and a funeral shroud over the communion table.

One need not be a sacramentalist to find it exasperating to see the elements of the Lord’s Supper once again used as political theater.

Yet after numerous dialogues, at least two General Church study commissions, official study resources, dozens of convocations, piles of books, demonstrations and disruptions of the General Conference business, and extended impassioned debate, our denomination has consistently affirmed a holistic position that is pastoral and biblical, compassionate and redemptive.

United Methodism’s statement is a balanced and nuanced position that affirms the “sacred worth” of all persons even while acknowledging that as Christians we cannot affirm every expression of human sexuality. After all, there are certain sexual practices that contradict biblical standards and as faithful disciples we must be willing to declare them to be incompatible with Christian teachings. The United Methodist position does that with mercy and grace.

To a watching world and local churches at home, it is a statement of ethical stability in an age of murky morality. It is a statement of theological honesty in an age of religious ambiguity. It is a prophetic statement to a world that offers no boundaries to sexual expression. To young people, our statement may provide a necessary guardrail to protect them from sexual brokenness.

The biblically prophetic message has always been more interested in truth and transformation than in consensus and conformity to mob-rule morality. What the world often finds excusable and acceptable, the church does not and cannot.

In the interest of reaffirming our stance on human sexuality, we must admit that we have not always shown love for the activists who struggle with same-sex attraction. In far too many of these highly-charged denominational gatherings, the temptation has been to allow our words and actions to weigh heavier on “incompatible with Christian teaching” than on “persons of sacred worth.” Where we have allowed that to occur, we apologize.

This is not to paper over legitimate differences of opinion that we have regarding sexual ethics, the authority of Scripture, and the role of boundaries in the UM Church. We probably will not change one another’s minds. Nevertheless, we are grieved that what has been lost in the debate over homosexuality since 1972 is the potential for ministry to those who struggle with sexual brokenness.

Even though our denominational debates usually focus exclusively on homosexuality, United Methodism must begin to learn how to provide effective and compassionate ministry to all persons who struggle with their sexuality — whether it be heterosexual or homosexual.

We live in a hypersexualized culture and United Methodism must deal seriously — and here we are speaking to conservatives as well as liberals and moderates — with the crippling spiritual devastation that sexual brokenness brings into our local congregations. Many who sit next to us in our pews have been victimized by sexual abuse or by an unfaithful spouse. Others in our congregations struggle with promiscuity, are addicted to pornography, suffer with sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, are confused about their sexual identity, or wrestle with same-sex attraction. They all need to know that the United Methodist Church is prepared to minister to their needs. Right now, we are woefully ill-prepared.

In the midst of our sexual brokenness, the Bible says, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear!” (Isaiah 59:1)

The United Methodist Church was birthed as a Holy Spirit movement that believed in the power of God to transform the lives of all those who struggle with sin—homosexual or heterosexual. Through a biblical ministry of mercy and grace, we must be a church that welcomes the sexually broken and confused. We must be a church that stands with those who seek healing, wholeness, and holiness in their sexuality.

—Good News Editorial Team. Reprinted from the May 4 daily Focus newsletter at General Conference.