A way forward? Reflections on a new report from the United Methodist Church

Introduction

At the end of July a report was issued by a commission of the United Methodist Church (hereafter the UMC) setting out possible ways forward for the church to enable it to overcome its present divisions on the issue of human sexuality.

This report will be of interest to Anglicans as an example of how Christians from another tradition are attempting to address the same divisions over sexuality that are being experienced within the Anglican Communion.

This post will introduce the UMC for the sake of those who are unfamiliar with it, explain the nature of the report and the proposals it contains and provide a theological assessment of what the report has to say and what Anglicans can learn from it.

What is the United Methodist Church?[1]

The United Methodist Church is an episcopally ordered church in the Methodist tradition. It was created in 1968 by the union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The UMC has 12.5 million members worldwide and is the largest member of the worldwide Methodist family of churches. In the United States the UMC has approximately 7 million members and is the third largest denomination (after the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention), the second largest Protestant denomination and the largest mainline Protestant denomination.

In line with Methodist tradition the UMC is organised in a series of Conferences consisting of both clergy and laity. The highest authority in the UMC is the worldwide General Conference. This normally meets every four years and is the only body that can officially speak for the UMC as a whole.

Subordinate to the General Conference there are the twelve Jurisdictional and Central Conferences. There are five Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States: Northeastern, Southeastern, North Central, South Central and Western. Outside the United States there are seven Central Conferences: Africa, Congo, West Africa, Central & Southern Europe, Germany, Northern Europe and the Philippines.

Like the General Conference, the Jurisdictional and Central Conferences meet every four years. Their main purpose is to elect and appoint the bishops of the UMC who serve episcopal areas consisting of one of more Annual Conferences.

The Annual Conference is the rough equivalent of an Anglican diocese. As its name suggests, an Annual Conference meets once a year. UMC clergy are ordained at the Annual Conference and they are members of their Annual Conference rather than any individual congregation. They are also appointed to a local church or other appointment by the bishop at the Annual Conference.

The Annual Conferences are divided into Districts, each of which is served by a District Superintendent and which are made up of a number of local churches.

The law and doctrine of the UMC are contained in its Book of Discipline, which is binding across the UMC as a whole. This is published every four years to reflect decisions made by the General Conference.

Divisions over sexuality in the UMC[2]

Like other Christian churches, the UMC is divided over issues of human sexuality.

The UMC’s official position is conservative.

The Book of Discipline ‘affirms that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God’ and encourages United Methodists to be in ministry with and for all people. However, the UMC also affirms that sexual relations should take place ‘only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage’ and holds ‘the practice of homosexuality (to be) incompatible with Christian teaching.’

The UMC does not allow ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals’ to be ordained or serve as ministers, supports ‘…laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman’ and prohibits unions between two people of the same sex, thus preventing UMC ministers and churches from performing same-sex marriages.

This position still has the support of many in the UMC. However, there are many who would like to see it change and in spite of the church’s official discipline there are serving UMC ministers who are openly gay or lesbian, United States Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences have ordained gay and lesbian ministers and elected a lesbian bishop, and UMC clergy have taken same sex weddings.

The Commission on a Way Forward

In the face of this division the General Conference of 2016 voted to approve a request from the Council of Bishops of the UMC to ‘pause for prayer’ and ‘form a commission to explore options that help maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.’

Following this vote the Council of Bishops formed the Commission on a Way Forward, inviting thirty two people (eight bishops, 13 other members of the clergy and 11 lay members) from all over the world who ‘identified on all sides of the issues’ to be part of it.

The Commission’s vision for its work was to:

‘…. design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. This unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.’[3]

The Commission began its work in January 2017 and its report was published on July 31 this year. On February 23-26 next year a special UMC General Conference will be held in St Louis Missouri which will consider a report from the Council of Bishops based on the Commission’s recommendations.

The frameworks for the Commission’s Recommendations

The recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward are based on two frameworks.

The first is a fourfold ‘theological framework’ which runs as follows:

‘An Ecumenical Church [Acts 2; John 3; Genesis 1, 3]

United Methodists are part of the great ecumenical consensus expressed in the historic creeds of the

Christian faith: affirmations about the triune God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the life giving ministry of the Holy Spirit, and inclusive of the marks of the church that remain before us as gift and task—one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The church is the community of people transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ so that personal and communal life manifests holiness by demonstrating love for God and their fellow human beings. We share with Christians across many communions, Eastern and Western, Protestant and Catholic, a commitment to the central role of scripture in forming and sustaining the church in doctrine and practice. We affirm the gracious work of God in creation, and the reality of the image of God in every human being, obscured by sin and alienation from God, but never utterly effaced.

Grace and Holiness [Romans 5, Mark 12]

As Wesleyans we are heirs of a distinctive account of grace, which is God’s pardon and God’s

empowerment in the whole journey of salvation. We believe in the universality of the call to repentance and return to God who is our life, and the universal reach of God’s Spirit which grants freedom and power to respond to that call. We affirm the free offer of unconditional pardoning love, along with the divine determination to transform and reclaim as God’s own individuals, along with the communities and institutions they inhabit. We understand the goal of salvation to be holiness, understood fundamentally as perfection in love toward God and neighbour, to be pursued in this life as well as consummated in the life to come.

Connection and Mission [Philippians 2, Matthew 28]

As the fruit of our history as a movement we affirm the communal and connected form of the church’s life, and bear witness to the social and relational character of growth in holiness through mutual support and mutual oversight. We lift up the centrality of practicing the means of grace as the essential nature of discipleship, that calls us to work out salvation trusting ever in the activity and power of the Holy Spirit. And finally, we understand the church is called into being for the sake of the world, to spread the good news of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ and to be a sign of God’s intention for peace, justice and flourishing for the whole creation. The church embodies God’s mission for the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and is called into being for the sake of the world. 

A Convicted Humility [1 Corinthians 12-14]

We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions regarding same sexrelations and operate out of sincerely held beliefs. They are convinced of the moral views they espouse, and seek to be faithful to what they see as the truth God calls the church to uphold. It remains the case that their views on this matter are distinctly different, and in some cases cannot be reconciled. We pray the exaggeration of our differences will not divide us. We also recognize and affirm that as United Methodists we hold in common many more fundamental theological commitments, commitments which bind us together despite our real differences. These also have implications for how we understand and express our disagreements, and for what we do about them. Therefore, we seek to advocate a stance we have called convicted humility. This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction. It also involves humble repentance for all the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together. In that spirit, we wish to lift up the shared core commitments which define the Wesleyan movement, and ground our search for wisdom and holiness.’[4]

The second framework is a ‘missional framework’ which affirms ‘unity in mission’ and then sets out what unity in mission requires:

‘Unity in Mission

AS THE CHURCH SEEKS A WAY FORWARD, WE BELIEVE OUR MISSION UNIFIES US BOTH AS A MOVEMENT AND A CHURCH:

▶ The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This mission begins with and belongs to God. The church and humans do not own or control mission. God’s mission reconciles individuals to God and each other through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, heals the brokenness of individuals and the world, and restores individuals and the world to God’s intended fullness for creation.

▶ The church exists to bring people to a saving knowledge of God through Christ, make and develop Christian disciples, worship the Triune God, and partner in God’s mission in the world. The church must be in mission to be fully the church. Mission is a shared responsibility of laity and clergy.

▶ Mission is incarnational. God’s mission always happens in specific times and places. Thus, it looks different in different contexts. It works through individuals’ and groups’ cultures, social systems, and senses of identity, even when it seeks to reconcile, heal, and restore them.

▶ Mission goes beyond the activity of any one group of Christians. All Christians everywhere are participants in God’s mission. All people everywhere, including all Christians, need God’s mission of reconciliation, healing, and restoration.

▶ While all United Methodists participate in the church’s mission, not all participate in the same way. The Holy Spirit gives distinctive gives and passions for mission. United Methodists as a tradition have distinctive gifts and passions while our sub-groups and members also have their own distinctive gifts and passions. We have historically been organized to support mission in all places and contexts.

To be unified in mission requires:

▶ Faithfulness. We will continue to practice shared ministry, conferencing, itinerant ministry, and general superintendency, not for their own sake but to be faithful to God’s mission.

▶ Humility. We will practice our faithfulness with humility, knowing that our understanding of God’s mission is always partial.

▶ Contextuality. We will practice our distinctive United Methodist ways of being church differently in different contexts, even as we seek agreement on their meaning.

▶ Creativity. We will experiment with new forms of mission and polity to support missional engagement with ever- changing contexts.

▶ Flexibility. We will be flexible in how we understand and practice being church to support creative experiments in United Methodism.

▶ Mutuality. We will recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism. No one expression is normative for all others.

▶ Generosity. We will encourage each other in the generous use of our distinctive gifts and passions for the sake of God’s mission.’ [5]

Three possible ways forward for the UMC

In the light of these frameworks the report suggests three possible ways forward for the UMC.

  • The One Church Plan

The first, called the One Church Plan, is the one that has been endorsed by the UMC’s Council of Bishops.

Under this plan the Book of Discipline would be amended to allow, but not require, UMC clergy to perform same-sex weddings in countries where these are legal, and to allow, but not require, Annual Conferences to ordain LGBTQ ministers.

Under this plan the report also proposes amending the Book of Discipline (at least as used in the United States) to delete the statement that the UMC ‘does not endorse the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching’ and to alter the statement on sexual ethics to say that sexual relations within ‘the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults’ (the word ‘heterosexual’ being deleted before ‘marriage’). [6]

The report also suggests that if this plan were to be adopted the statement in the Book of Discipline on the church’s theological task should be amended by the addition of the following words: 

We agree that we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality. As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently. We also acknowledge that the Church is called through Christ to unity even amidst complexity. We affirm those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality. We believe that their conscience should be protected in the church and throughout society under basic principles of religious liberty. We also affirm those who believe the witness of Scripture calls us to reconsider the teaching of the church with respect to monogamous homosexual relationships.’[7]

These amendments would apply only to the Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States. Central Conferences elsewhere in the world would have the authority to continue to uphold the approach contained in the present Book of Discipline or ‘adopt wording in these contexts that best serves their mission contexts.’

The report explains that the One Church Plan:

‘… honors the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue. Such persons are deeply convicted by and committed to the words of Jesus prayer for unity in John 17:20-26. Here Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (NRSV).’ [8]

With this perspective in mind the One Church Plan is designed to allow as much space as possible for different approaches to mission while continuing to maintain the current unity of the UMC:

‘The One Church Plan acknowledges that practices among vital churches need room to thrive depending on their mission field, and the necessary incarnational identification with those we seek to serve. The variety of answers to the question “Who is my neighbor?” determines how practices in one context will be different from another.

The Commission hears a yearning from both traditionalists and progressives for more space. More space means more structural distance from people who practice ministry differently or more autonomy to adapt practices to the context that may not be requested elsewhere. Traditionalists do not want to be required to participate in same-sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, or the financial support of a bishop in a same- sex marriage. Progressives want space to freely exercise ministries that include same sex weddings, the ordination of gay persons, and the same-sex marriage of clergy. United Methodists in central conferences want space to shape conversations about sexuality according to their national context and without replicating whatever practices shape churches in the United States. Other United Methodists want to give space as generously as possible without compromising core identity and mission.

This desire for space is both a yearning for the necessary contextualization for missional vitality and a challenge to the unity of the church. Too much space challenges the unity of the church by risking

further separation of our connection. Little or no space will lead us to enforce uniformity in ways that could continue our impasse. The One Church Plan is built on the belief that it is possible to live with more space while we focus on our common mission.’ [9]

  • The Connectional Conference Plan

The second proposal, called The Connectional Conference Plan, would replace the current five geographically based Jurisdictional Conferences in the United States with ‘three values based connectional conferences.’

There would be a:

‘Traditional Connectional Conference, in which marriage shall continue to be defined asbetween one man and one woman, same-sex weddings cannot be performed, and those practicing homosexuality cannot be ordained, along with a covenantal commitment to a more traditional understanding of the doctrinal and moral standards of the church with enhanced accountability.’[10]

There would also be a: ‘Unity Connectional Conference, which acknowledges that members are not of one mind regarding biblical interpretations related to human sexuality, in which pastors are allowed but not required to perform same-sex weddings, annual conferences are allowed but not required to ordain those practicing homosexuality, local churches are allowed but not required to receive an LGBT person as pastor, and in which no bishop, pastor, or congregation is compelled to act against conscience in these matters.’[11]

Finally, there would be a:

‘Progressive Connectional Conference, in which same-sex weddings are performed by all clergy, all annual conferences ordain qualified LGBT persons, and all local churches welcome LGBT pastors who match the needs of the congregation and its ministry.’ [12]

Each of these three Conferences would cover the whole of the United States and Jurisdictional Conferences, Annual Conferences and local Methodist churches would have to decide which Conference they wanted to be part of. Outside the United States the existing Central Conferences would have the choice:

‘… of becoming their own connectional conference with the same powers as U.S. connectional conferences, or have the option of joining a U.S. connectional conference. U.S. connectional conferences joined by a central conference become a global instead of a U.S. connectional conference. Annual conferences that disagree with the decision of their central conference could vote to join a different connectional conference than their central conference. The central conferences in Africa could decide to unite in forming one African connectional conference (an option that is being discussed currently by African leadership).’ [13]

Under this plan the General Conference would be shortened, but would still have  ‘…authority over the shared doctrine and services of continuing general agencies.’ It would also ‘serve as a venue for connecting the connectional conferences, worship, sharing of best practices/learning, and inspiration.’ [14]

According to the report, what underlies this second plan is the recognition that the unity of the Church is threatened by ‘two interrelated but distinct dynamics.’

The first dynamic is ‘contextuality:’

‘… the church is called to embody and spread divine love in diverse social, cultural, economic, political, and national contexts. The way the church structures its life and engages in its mission is shaped by its dynamic relationship with these contexts. When one institutional church is present and witnessing in diverse contexts this witness will take different shapes leading to strain on the unity of the church, particularly when one group or context dominates the decision making processes. However, contextuality is vital to our mission and identity because love can only be embodied in relation to real people in concrete contexts.’[15]

The second dynamic is ‘freedom of conscience before God:’

‘Because we are fallen and fallible creatures our understanding of God and God’s purpose and will is always subject to mistakes and limitations. Christians sincerely seeking to love and serve God will come to different conclusions as to what God requires of them. Within a church people will have diverse and even contradictory understandings of the will of God. Our ultimate loyalty to God requires that we act in good conscience – that is, in accordance with what we are convinced is the will of God. Love for others requires that we do not coerce others to act against their consciences even when we are convinced that they are wrong.’ [16]

As the report sees it, the present conflict within the UMC over sexuality is a result of the ‘interaction of these dynamics’ :

‘The present conflict within the UMC over same gender marriage and ordination standards arises out of the interaction of these dynamics. Faithful Christians have come to different and contradictory understandings of God’s will in relationship to the affirmation of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. The UMC ministers in diverse socio-cultural and politico-legal contexts – these include contexts where homosexual relationships are criminal offenses punishable by death to places where same gender marriage is legal and religious or moral opposition to it is regarded as irrelevant.’[17]

The Connectional Conference Plan is designed to provide the UMC with a structure that will enable it embody and express God’s love and to remain in unity in the face of the pull towards division resulting from these dynamics:

‘The challenge before us is how to structure The United Methodist Church so that it embodies and spreads ‘the fire of heavenly love over all the earth’ given this diversity and contradiction in conviction and context. In the Connectional Conference Plan the different connectional conferences which could reflect both differences of conviction and/or context are expressions of love in the context of diversity and contradiction, while the uniting structures embody the desire to maintain as much unity and community as possible and to share resources in fulfilling our mission. Beyond this, staying together instead of dividing embodies the common core that we share.’[18]

  • The Traditionalist Plan

The third proposal, the Traditionalist Plan, is not presented in as much detail by the Commission as the other two because it received ‘modest support’ from the Council of Bishops and the members of the Commission and work on it was therefore discontinued. However, a request to include this model was received by the Commission from the Council of Bishops just before its last meeting in May 2018.

In the light of this request, a short sketch from the Commission outlining this third proposal is included in main body of the report. There is also an appendix giving further details about this proposal prepared ‘by a few members of the Council of Bishops.’

The summary of the Traditionalist Plan contained in the main body of the report is as follows:

Primary Action: Accountability to the current Book of Discipline language.

Disciplinary Language and Implications:

  • Broaden the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual to include persons living in a same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state that they are practicing homosexuals.
  • Mandate that any just resolution shall include a commitment not to repeat the offense.
  • Require every annual conference to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the     Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.
  • Annual conferences that did not so certify would be encouraged to form something similar to an ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’ As of 2021, annual conferences who could not so certify could no longer use the United Methodist name and logo, and they could no longer receive any funds from The United Methodist Church.
  • Require bishops (active and retired) to certify that they will uphold, enforce, and maintain the Discipline’s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination. Active bishops who did not so certify would not be eligible to receive compensation for expenses as of 2021, and would be encouraged to join the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church’ formed by the above annual conferences.
  • Local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision to not enforce the Discipline’s standards could vote to remain with the UMC.
  • Local churches that disagreed with their annual conference’s decision to enforce the Discipline’s standards could vote to withdraw from the UMC and unite with the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’
  • Clergy who could not maintain the Discipline‘s standards on LGBTQ marriage and ordination would be encouraged to join the ‘autonomous, affiliated, or concordat church.’[19]

Put simply, what this means is that under this third proposal the current discipline of the UMC with regard to human sexuality would be maintained and enforced and those who were not able to accept it would be encouraged to form their own new church, which would not be part of the UMC, but would be in some form of ecumenical relationship with it.

The appendix on this proposal further explains that this proposal:

‘…. maintains the current stance of the church regarding the definition of marriage andthe ministry of and with LGBTQ persons. It flows from the presupposition that The United Methodist Church ought to have one unified moral stance on the issues of marriage and sexuality. This model continues to affirm that LGBTQ persons are welcome to attend worship services, participate in church programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows of membership become members of local churches.

At the same time, the Traditional Model acknowledges the deep conscientious objections on the part of some to the current stance and practices of the church. It accommodates those objections by fostering a gracious and respectful way for those persons who cannot live within the current boundaries of church practice to form or join self-governing bodies that allow them the freedom to follow their conscience and institute practices in keeping with their understanding of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Such a self-governing body could constitute a Wesleyan denomination that could maintain an ongoing connection with The United Methodist Church through a Concordat Agreement.’[20]

Echoing the emphasis on contextuality, freedom and mission elsewhere in the report, the appendix goes on to declare that:

‘The Traditional Model takes seriously the need for greater contextualization of our ministry. It provides clarity and freedom for different parts of our movement to embody our different theological emphases and values on the important questions of marriage and sexual behaviour. Given that the human sexuality disagreement is one of the most significant in American culture today, it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons.

The unity of Christ’s church has, for the last 1000 years, taken different forms. There aredifferent types of unity and the Wesleyan movement itself is expressed in a variety of denominations many of which overlap geographically. We should see the formation of a new Wesleyan denomination as an opportunity for a different type of unity created for the sake of mission.’[21]

A theological assessment of the report

Given the very tight timetable under which the Commission was working, this report is an impressive piece of work.

It takes seriously the current divisions within the UMC and provides detailed proposals for possible ways forward that build on the current structures and disciplines of the UMC and seek to maintain as much unity as possible while allowing for appropriate contextual diversity for the sake of mission. It goes into copious detail about the legal amendments that would be needed for reach of the proposals and how matters such as pension arrangement would work.

Unlike similar reports from Anglican churches it does not assume that a ‘one church model’ is the only possible way forward and, albeit somewhat reluctantly, it includes proposals that would allow the UMC’s current discipline to be maintained and in fact strengthened. Unlike in many Anglican reports conservative concerns are taken seriously.

All this having been said, from a theological perspective there are a number of serious theological problems with the report and the proposals it contains.

The first problem, which emerges in the statement by the Commission about its vision for its work, is the way the report uses the concept of ‘contextual differentiation.’ What it means by this concept is allowing people the freedom to adopt different approaches to the issue of human sexuality in different contexts for the sake of the Church’s mission.

What the report never explains, however, is why it is the case that undertaking mission in different contexts may require different approaches to the issue of human sexuality. The historic Christian view point has been that what it means for humans to live rightly before God as sexual creatures is determined by God’s creation of the human race (as described in Genesis 1-2) and that for this reason there is one sexual ethic that applies to all human beings at all times and everywhere. The Commission seems to disagree with this historic approach, but it never says why its preferred approach, of allowing there to be different approaches to sexual ethics among different groups of people, is preferable.

What the report also fails to explain is what it thinks the limits of contextual differentiation should be. It declares that it wants to allow for ‘as much contextual differentiation as possible,‘ but it never spells what the limits of differentiation should be. The furthest the report proposes going is to say that the Christian sexual ethic requires sexual relations to be within marriage, but that marriage can be between two people of the same sex. However, it never says why the possibility of contextual differentiation should stop at that point. Why shouldn’t the Christian sexual ethic be extended to include polyamory, or extra-marital sexual relationships, if that is what is appropriate in particular cultural contexts? If the contextual adaptation of the Christian sexual ethic is appropriate then at what point does such adaptation cease to be appropriate and why? The report does not say.

A second and very similar problem is raised by the Commission’s suggestion that those in the UMC should ‘recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism.’ This is problematic because it seems to imply that anything anyone claims to be doing as a ‘contextual adaptation’ or ‘creative expression’ for the sake of mission has to be accepted as legitimate. This would mean accepting that Christian belief and practice are infinitely adaptable.

However, if Christian belief and practice were infinitely adaptable this would mean the concept of Christian belief and practice was meaningless. If any form of belief and practice could be called Christian then there would be nothing that was not Christian and so the term Christian would have no meaning. In addition, for something to be rightly called Christian there has to be some connection back to the teaching and practice of Jesus Christ and this puts limits on the forms of belief and practice that can be regarded as Christian. For these two reasons the report’s idea that all forms of contextual adaptation or creative expression should be accepted valid needs to be rejected.

This problem is not just a problem with what is said in a particular part of the Commission’s report. It is a problem with the argument of the report as whole. The reason the Commission suggests allowing some United Methodists to depart from the UMC’s current position of human sexuality is to allow for contextual adaptations for the sake of mission. However, unless all possible forms of adaptation are valid then the report has to spell out why the particular adaptations its proposals would make possible should be seen as valid. This it does not do.

A third problem, which again emerges in the Commission’s statement of its vision for its work, is the idea that the unity of Christians in the UMC, which the report seeks to promote, should be grounded not ‘in our conceptions of human sexuality’ but in ‘our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.’

The problem with this idea is that it suggests that affirmation of the Triune God who calls Christians to be a grace-filled and holy people can go alongside a range of different conceptions of human sexuality. The Christian tradition, however, challenges this suggestion. It has historically held that the Triune God has created human beings as men and women and has established marriage between one man and one woman as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse. As a result, living as grace-filled and holy people means living a life of chastity marked by sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual faithfulness within it. Affirming God and accepting the call to a chaste way of life necessarily go together.

The Commission seems to want to say that they do not need to go together, that is possible for Christians to affirm God while rejecting the call to chastity. What it again fails to explain is how this can be the case.

A fourth problem is with the selectivity of what the Commission says about the theological and missiological frameworks on which its proposals for a way forward for the UMC are based. These frameworks aim to set out what Methodists, as part of the wider Christian Church, have traditionally said about theology and the mission of the Church, but they ignore the fact that a particular anthropology, and a sexual ethic based on that anthropology, has been an integral part of Christian theology from the earliest days of the Church and that teaching people to live by this sexual by sexual ethic has been an integral part of Christian mission.

What the report never tells us is why these elements of Christian theology and the Christian practice of mission can be simply left out of the picture. The answer that the report seems to give is that they do not form part of the ‘core commitments’ of Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. However, the report never explains what distinguishes these core commitments from the other things that Methodists have traditionally believed and practiced. and in the absence of such an explanation the exclusion of traditional of traditional Christian anthropology and the traditional Christian sexual ethic seems purely arbitrary, particularly given that the question of sexual ethics lies at the heart of what the Commission is discussing.

A fifth problem is with the Commission’s idea of ‘convicted humility.’ The problem here is that the Commission does not explore the important distinction between true and false humility. True humility lies in obeying St. Paul’s injunction that a Christian ‘is not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think’ (Romans 12:3). It means being honest about our importance (or lack of it) and about the limitations of our gifts, our holiness and our knowledge. False humility, on the other hand, consists in either pretending to be humble when we are not, or underplaying our importance and exaggerating our limitations.

It is this last point that is relevant to Commission’s notion of ‘convicted humility.’ As we have seen, what they advocate is that Methodists should exercise ‘humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction’ and that they should repent of ‘the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together.’ In terms of the debate about human sexuality what this approach would mean in practice would be those holding to traditional Christian teaching being willing to accept that their position might be wrong and therefore being willing to put this teaching to one side when thinking about what it might mean to live as a faithful Christian. They might legitimately hold on to their viewpoint as their position, but they should not insist that other Christians need to hold it as well.

From a traditional Christian perspective, however, adopting this approach would be a form of false humility. This is because the only way it would make sense for someone holding to traditional Christian teaching to take this approach would be for them to doubt the truthfulness of what they believe. They would have to be willing to accept that God might not have made it clear that sex should only take place within a marriage between one man and one woman. This is because if God has made this clear then there is no possibility of the traditional position being wrong and no justification for putting it to one side.

However, doubting the truthfulness of what one believes God has revealed is a form of false humility because it means unduly exaggerating the limitations of our knowledge of God’s will. If we believe God has made something clear to us then we have to accept that it is true and if what is true is true for everyone and not just for us (as in the case of the traditional Christian sexual ethic) then we need to be prepared to argue that everyone should accept it and live by it.

A sixth problem with the report is with its failure to offer any justification for the change in the UMC’s current teaching and practice envisaged under the One Church Plan. As we have seen, it is envisaged that under this proposal the UMC would change its statements on sexual ethics so as to accept homosexual activity in the context of same-sex marriage and would permit the celebration of same-sex marriages and the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. What the report does not explain is why such changes would be theologically justified.

The nearest the report gets to offering such a justification is when it claims that we should acknowledge ‘that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently.’ However the report does not go on to say why the fact that Jesus Christ was ‘full of grace and truth’ legitimates different views of sexuality.

A seventh problem is with the report’s statement that that the One Church Plan:

‘… honors the perspective of United Methodists who believe that our current impasse over marriage and ordination of homosexual persons does not rise to the level of a church dividing issue. Such persons are deeply convicted by and committed to the words of Jesus prayer for unity in John 17:20-26. Here Jesus prays, ‘that all of them may be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (NRSV).’

It may well be true that there are people in the UMC who are committed to the unity of the Church on the basis of Jesus’ words in John 17. However, this does not mean that they are right to claim that same-sex marriage and the ordination of those in same-sex relationships are not properly church dividing issues. To justify such a claim one would have to explain what constitutes a church dividing issue and why issues of human sexuality do not come into this category. Once again, the report fails to offer any such explanation.

An eighth problem is that the report fails to properly explain why under the Connectional Conference Plan the ‘Unity’ and ‘Progressive’ Connectional Conferences should be allowed to perform same-sex weddings and ordain those in same-sex relationships.

As before, the report refers to the importance of contextuality, but yet again it fails to explain why performing same-sex marriages and ordaining those in same sex relationships are legitimate contextual adaptations of the Christian tradition.

The report also refers to the importance of freedom of conscience. As we have seen, it declares:

‘Our ultimate loyalty to God requires that we act in good conscience – that is, in accordance with what we are convinced is the will of God. Love for others requires that we do not coerce others to act against their consciences even when we are convinced that they are wrong.’

All that is said in this quotation is true. However, it fails to recognise that there is a difference between not forcing people to act against their conscience and making provision under church law for them to act in particular ways. It is right that the Church should not force people to violate their consciences by celebrating same-sex weddings or ordaining those in same-sex relationships. However, this does not mean that that the Church should therefore permit people to perform these actions unless as a corporate body it believes that they are in accordance with God’s will. It is perfectly legitimate for the Church to recognise that someone wants in good conscience to do something and yet hold that they are wrong to want to do it.

The key point here is St Paul’s declaration in Romans 14:23 that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’ If I believe that an action is wrong before God then I am failing to act in faith if I do it and am therefore sinning. This is true even if my belief is mistaken (as in the case of the early Christians who believed it was wrong to eat food sacrificed to idols). However if I believe that I should do something and the Church believes it is wrong then the Church would not be acting with faith in permitting me to do it.

What this means is that while the UMC should take the freedom of conscience of its members seriously it should not permit the celebration of same-sex weddings or the ordination of those in same-sex relationships simply because there are those who think this is what they should do. The Church has to have good reasons to permit them to do these things that go beyond their personal convictions and the report fails to explain what these good reasons might be.

A ninth and final problem is the failure of the report to offer any justification for the Traditionalist Plan. The only argument it offers for the UMC maintaining its present position while progressives form their own church is that:

‘Given that the human sexuality disagreement is one of the most significant in American culture today, it is appropriate for there to be two different Wesleyan bodies who teach differently on the question of Christian marriage between same gender persons.’

What this seems to be suggesting is that because society is divided over sexuality the Church should be as well. This is not a convincing argument. One could equally well argue that because America contains an increasing number of unbelievers there should be a Wesleyan body that advocates atheism alongside another that maintains belief in God.

What should Anglicans learn from this report?

The Anglican Communion is as divided as the UMC over issues of human sexuality and as Archbishop Glen Davies[22] and Nicholas Okoh[23] have recently argued, thought does need to be given to an agreed way forward for the Communion to prevent the continuing uncontrolled fracturing of the Communion.

The UMC report provides a salutary warning however, that any such way forward will require proper theological justification. We will need to develop a way forward that we can be properly confident is in accordance with God’s will because it is line with God’s self-revelation in the world he has made and in the pages of Holy Scripture.

[1] Details about the UMC can be found at its website at http://www.umc.org/

[2] For the material in this section see ‘Human Sexuality Backgrounder’ at http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/human-sexuality-backgrounder and ‘What is the denomination’s position on homosexuality’ at http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-the-denominations-position-on-homosexuality .

[3] Commission on a Way Forward, p.6.

[4] Ibid, p.7-8.

[5] Ibid, pp.9-10.

[6] Ibid, p.20.

[7] Ibid, p.20.

[8] Ibid, p.13.

[9] Ibid, pp.12-13.

[10] Ibid, p.49

[11] Ibid, pp.49-50.

[12] Ibid, p.50.

[13] Ibid, p.27.

[14] Ibid, p.26.

[15] Ibid, p.28.

[16] Ibid, p.29.

[17] Ibid, p. 29.

[18] Ibid, p.29.

[19] Ibid, pp.55-56.

[20] Ibid, p.63.

[21] Ibid, p.64.

[22] ‘Archbishop presents proposal for NZ Anglican future,’ Sydney Anglicans, 25 August 2018 at https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/archbishop-presents-proposal-for-nz-anglican-future

[23] Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Chairman’s September 11th Letter, at https://www.gafcon.org/news/chairmans-september-11th-letter