By Connor Ewing
In what has unfortunately become a rare occurrence, the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. was used on the morning of January 22 to defend the dignity and sanctity of unborn life. The occasion was the twenty-second annual Lifewatch Sanctity of Life Service of Worship, sponsored by The Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality. The event featured a message delivered by Bishop Scott J. Jones, resident Bishop of the Kansas Area.
In contrast with the recent lobbying by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which governs the United Methodist Building, Bishop Jones rejected any government health care plan that funds abortions. “We need to recognize that access to an abortion is not a right,” Jones said. “While we believe that persons have the right to health care, abortion is not normally a health care issue. Rather, it is a sinful behavior.”
Entitled “The Once and Future Church,” Bishop Jones’ sermon addressed abortion and the role of churches in multi-religious society. Highlighting a defining feature of United Methodism, Jones explained, “The pursuit of holiness, both personal and social, is deep in the DNA of Wesleyan Christianity. We are committed to seeking holiness for ourselves, and to helping others move toward that goal.”
Referencing the profound religious and social evolution the United States has undergone, Jones said, “These demographic and cultural changes mean that our Wesleyan drive for social holiness faces significant intellectual and political challenges that did not exist during the abolitionist, temperance, or civil rights movements….In such a situation, given the decline in communal acceptance of moral values, Christian claims to impose our moral values on others are not well received and appear to be negative and punitive.”
In the face of this challenge, Jones proposed that United Methodists “must remain engaged with the larger culture and nurture our corporate commitment to use every resource we can to end evil and promote biblical values.” He then offered three ways to satisfy this call to serve culture: announcing God’s call for holiness with clear reference to what is pleasing to God, creating communities that “foster growth toward holiness through the means of grace,” and working toward consensus with religious and non-religious groups alike.
Turning to abortion, Jones summarized the relevant Social Principles as teaching that “abortion should be legal and rare.” Further exploring this teaching, he explained, “The fundamental teaching of our church on this issue is that human life is sacred, and the sanctity of life extends to the fetus….Therefore, anything that intentionally ends a pregnancy is wrong. Abortion is a sin.”
Jones asserted that current American culture would not allow for returning to a “1950s world where abortion did not happen legally,” whose “negative consequences far outweigh the positive benefits and the net gain for social holiness.” He noted that “living in a society that values individual freedom inevitably leads to more sinful behavior than we would prefer.”
The bishop did reiterate the United Methodist stance against partial-birth abortion. “We need to strengthen our laws against late-term abortions except in well-defined circumstances, because our courts have concluded that viability outside the womb is in fact a value that is sufficiently widely held that it can be sustained in law.” And he emphasized: “We also need to be clear that reducing the number of abortions is a goal.”
How to reduce abortions when disagreement about abortion pervades both church and society? To this question Jones responded, “The first step is to create communities of holiness that use the means of grace to help people through personal crises.” This entails encouraging adoptions, working with others to reduce the number of abortions, strengthening laws that restrict late-term abortion, increasing the availability of family planning services, and supporting crisis pregnancy centers.
Addressing legislation in Congress, Jones argued, “Proposals in the recent health care debate to provide tax funding for abortions are very misguided. What you fund with tax dollars will increase.” He continued, “While taxing abortions is both unfeasible and wrong, we need to find ways of dis-incentivizing abortions. We should be subsidizing positive alternatives to abortion that provide life-giving options that enhance personal and social holiness.”
Reiterating his belief that United Methodists must respond to their culture, Jones cited the ancient Christians’ attention to the vulnerable members of Roman society. Of these it was written, “They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, they take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”
Jones ended his message on a hopeful note, saying, “Once we realize that women in crisis pregnancies are among the least of these, and that our commitment to the sanctity of human life means we should do all in our power to welcome new life rather than end it prematurely, helping create communities of love for the unborn will come much more easily. The early Christians did it in a hostile society. We can do the same in our time and place.”
The worship service was sponsored by Lifewatch, also known as the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS). The organization was founded in 1987 and seeks to provide a unified voice defending women and their unborn children by promoting “Biblical and Wesleyan moral responsibility in the United Methodist Church and American society.” The service coincided with the annual March for Life, an event that draws thousands of abortion opponents to Washington D.C. to memorialize the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
Connor Ewing is a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C.