What should Anglicans make of the new Methodist report on marriage and relationships?

The report of the Methodist Church’s Marriage and Relationships Task Group.

On February 26 the United Methodist Church, the world’s largest Methodist denomination, with approximately 12.5 million members, voted to continue to uphold the belief that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,’ and to continue to prohibit both same-sex marriage and the ordination of those in sexually active same-sex relationships.[1]

By contrast, the comparatively tiny Methodist Church of Great Britain (c.188, 000 members) seems to be moving towards a very radical departure from the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality and in favour of a total acceptance of both same-sex relationships and other extra-marital sexual relationships as well.

As the outcome of a process which started back in 2014, the church’s ‘Marriage and Relationships Task Group’ is presenting a report entitled God in Love Unites Us to the Methodist Conference in July. The recommendations of this report are as follows (the bold is in the original):

‘That the Conference receives the Report and commends it to the Connexion for study and prayerful discussion.

The Conference adopts the recommendation that it affirm the following summary understanding of the principles or qualities of good relating:

All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.

  • It is through that self-giving, rather than through self-seeking, that the self flourishes and begins to experience life in all its fullness (though it needs to be recognised that the universal Church’s historic emphasis on self-sacrifice has often been misunderstood and misused [eg by abusive partners] in a way that is destructive of the wellbeing of the ones abused [often women]).

The Conference adopts the recommendation that it affirm the following summary understanding of cohabitation:

  • The Church recognises that the love of God is present within the love of human beings who are drawn to each other, and who enter freely into some form of life-enhancing committed relationship with each other, whether that be through informal cohabitation or a more formal commitment entered into publicly.
  • As a Church we wish to celebrate that the love of God is present in these circumstances, even if that grace is not responded to or even discerned by the people concerned.
  • The Church has an important calling, therefore, to point to the presence of God’s love within such relationships, and to encourage people to respond to it in the renewing and deepening (by whatever means) of their commitment.

The Conference directs that the Methodist Council, in consultation with the Faith and Order Committee, ensure resources be produced for the celebration of civil partnerships.

The Conference directs the Faith and Order Committee to explore producing liturgical resources and relevant guidance for use at the ending of a marriage.

The Conference adopts the recommendation that the Methodist Church offer more support for marriage, alongside other committed relationships; and directs that the Methodist Council ensure resources be produced to help provide this support drawing on the theological insights of the purposes, qualities and patterns for good relating set out in the report.

The Conference adopts the Guidance on the Understanding of Marriage and directs that it be included in the Guidance section of CPD.

G1       The Methodist Church welcomes everyone, whether or not a member, who enquires about an intended marriage in any of its places of worship. It looks for an openness to God in them, not necessarily a developed understanding of the Christian faith.

G2       Legally, marriage is a contractual relationship entered into by two people who make solemn vows and commitments to each other, without either the nature of the marriage or the nature of the commitments being further defined under the law of the land. In the understanding of the Methodist Church, marriage encompasses that but is also deeper and richer. The Methodist Church believes that marriage is a covenant relationship between two people, within God’s covenant of love with them. Through it, they may experience, explore and express God’s gracious love.

G3       The Methodist Church believes that marriage is an exclusive relationship, freely entered into with a life-long intention of uniting two people in body, heart, mind and soul in ways that are appropriate to each partner. In it, God’s Spirit enables both partners to know the security of love and care, bringing to each other comfort and companionship, enrichment and encouragement, tenderness and trust. Through such marriage children may be nurtured, family life strengthened, and human society enriched.

G4       The Methodist Church recognises that amongst its members different views are held about the interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition as to whether those being married may be any two people, or may only be a woman and a man. The Methodist Church has decided to respect and make practical provisions for both positions.

G5 A marriage service or a service of blessing of a marriage that has been previously solemnised may only be conducted in a Methodist place of worship when it can be shown that the requirements of the legislation in the appropriate jurisdiction have been met.

G6 Where there is a desire to use places of worship for marriage services or for services of blessing for a marriage previously solemnised, the managing trustees of those premises should actively consider whether they wish to do so solely for marriages of mixed-sex couples, or for marriages of same-sex couples as well as mixed-sex couples. The managing trustees should re-consider the question of the use of the place of worship for such services every five years or sooner.

G7   Where the managing trustees wish to use a place of worship for marriage services, and the legislation of the relevant jurisdiction requires church buildings or personnel to be registered or authorised for the solemnisation of marriages, the managing trustees should take the relevant steps to comply.

For the purposes of section 26A of the Marriage Act 1949 (as inserted by section 4(1) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) the Conference consents to the marriage of same sex couples and accordingly authorises the managing trustees or, if none, the trustees, of any Methodist building in England and Wales capable of registration under section 43A of the Marriage Act 1949 (as amended by paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013) to register that building under that section. ‘[2]

The report also recommends that Methodist ministers and churches who are conscientiously unwilling to marry same-sex couples should have a duty to refer them to the minister of a Methodist Church (preferably within the same Methodist circuit) that is registered for same-sex marriages. [3]

The theology underlying the report.

The three main points in these recommendations are:

  1. That all forms of sexual relationship can have equal value regardless of whether they take place within marriage or not.
  2. That sexual relationships have no necessary relationship to procreation.
  3. That marriage should be open to both opposite sex and same-sex couples.

The theological underpinning for these three points are set out in three key paragraphs in the Task Group’s report.

Paragraph 2.4.7, which is concerned with relationships and sexuality in general, states that what matters is the quality of a relationship rather than the form of sexual activity involved and whether or not it leads to procreation:

‘To bring together and summarise some of the points we have been making, sexuality and sexual intimacy are part of God’s gracious ordering of things, and are also capable of being affected by our sinfulness. What matters is whether we use them for God, and for God’s purposes, or for our own selfish ends. This moves the emphasis, from a Christian perspective, from a narrow concern with particular sexual acts or focus on the outcome of sex in procreation, to a wider recognition that sexual intimacy is an important element in the way that couples relate to each other; that the ways in which that intimacy is expressed can vary greatly (and may or may not include sexual intercourse); and that sexual expression is best directed towards enhancing the relationship between a committed couple and thus enabling their good relating to one another. Then in turn the couple can offer a stronger contribution to community and the care of creation, thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for relating.’

Paragraphs 4.3.19-20 then go on to argue that because Methodism has developed a ‘companionate’ view of marriage in which what matters is the loving support a couple can give to one another rather than having children it should now go on to permit same-sex marriages.

‘The Task Group believes that the ‘companionship’ model of marriage that the Methodist Church has developed over the years in terms of mixed-sex relationships, applies, theologically and practically, just as well to the same-sex marriages that are now permitted by the law of the land in most parts of the United Kingdom. The purposes, qualities and practices of marriage relationships that we have identified in this report as enabling those relationships to flourish can be applied to same-sex committed loving relationships as well as to mixed-sex relationships.

Consequently, we believe that, in awe and humility, the Methodist Church needs to recognise that it is being called by God to take the next steps in the development of its understanding of relationships and marriage. Those steps include enabling people of the same sex to commit themselves to each other in Christian marriage services. There is a strong case that, if marriage is what the Methodist Church says it is, and is as wonderful as it says it is, this Church cannot remain true to the God of justice and love by continuing to deny it to those same-sex couples who desire it so deeply.’

What will happen to the report?

According to the Methodist media briefing, the report will come to Conference this year. If it is approved it will go out for consultation to the Methodist district Synods in Spring next year before returning for a final vote at the 2020 Conference.

What should Anglicans make of this report?

First, they should acknowledge that there are things said in the report which are correct:

  • All significant relationships should be built on self-giving love, commitment, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, mutual respect, equality and the desire for the mutual flourishing of the people involved.
  • Human beings flourish best through self-giving rather than self-seeking;
  • Sexuality and sexual intimacy are part of God’s gracious ordering of things, but are capable of being affected by our sinfulness;
  • Sexual intimacy can take various forms;
  • Sexual intimacy should be used to strengthen the relationship between a committed couple;
  • Procreation is not the sole end of marriage and each individual act of sexual intimacy does not need to have procreation as its purpose.

Secondly, however, they should also note that there are a number of central parts of the teaching of the Bible and the orthodox Christian tradition concerning sexuality and marriage that the report rejects or underplays:

  • God has created his human creatures as male and female and given them a command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:26-28, Matthew 19:4).
  • God has ordained marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between one man and one woman, as the sole legitimate context for sexual intercourse, and as the appointed means for the procreation of children (Genesis 2:24, Genesis 4:1).
  • It is the form of marriage that God has ordained that bears witness to the love between God and his people in this world and to the eternal relationship between God and his people in the world to come (Hosea, Ephesians 5:21-32, Revelation 19:7).
  • All forms of sexual activity outside of marriage, including same-sex relationships, are types of sexual activity that are contrary to God’s will for his people and exclude people from his kingdom (Leviticus 18:1-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
  • A sexual ethic involving sexual abstinence outside marriage and sexual faithfulness within it is an integral part of Christian discipleship (Matthew 5:27-30, Ephesians 5:3-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
  • Furthermore, because marriage is something created by God and not be human beings it is not something that human beings can change. What marriage is, is what God has ordained it to be. Consequently, the act of the British parliament in establishing same-sex marriage in 2013 has no validity from a Christian perspective.
  • God is a God of justice and love, but we reflect his justice and embody his love by living according to his will ourselves and encouraging others to the same. To love God is to obey his just commands (John 14:15, 15:9-10). [4]

Overall, there are three big issues that lie behind the specific weaknesses in the Methodist report.

First, the report takes a generic, ‘one size fits all,’ view of human relationships that fails to recognize, as the Bible and Christian tradition  do, that there are many different forms  of relationship that call for different kinds of behaviour, including different kinds of sexual conduct.

Secondly, the report fails to take seriously the huge amount of scholarship undertaken over the past sixty years that shows that the traditional pattern of Christian sexual ethics is the one that best reflects the teaching of Scripture.

Thirdly, report fails to recognize that what God has laid down is for our good and that the abandonment of traditional Christian patterns of marriage and family life from the 1960s onwards has caused enormous damage, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. This last point means that the report fails to reflect the traditional Methodist concern for social justice and the welfare of the poor.

Because these things are so, the claim in the Methodist report that God is calling the Methodist Church to affirm sexual relationships outside marriage and marriage between two people of the same sex must be wrong. It also has no support from the teaching of John Wesley who held an entirely biblical and orthodox view of sexual ethics.

What the report is actually calling for is for Methodists to turn away from God’s truth in their theology and to act in a way that is not in accordance with God’s will in their practice.

How should Anglicans respond to this report?

Anglicans should respond to this report in there ways.

First, they should pray for their Methodist brothers and sisters who are being so misled.

Secondly, they should provide any assistance they can to faithful Methodists (such as those in the Methodist Evangelicals Together group)[5] to prevent this report being approved by the Methodist Conference either this year or next.

Thirdly, the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, and its representative at the Methodist Conference, should make it clear to the Methodists that the report contravenes the Anglican-Methodist Covenant of 2001 (I say this as someone who helped to draw up the Covenant). The Covenant is based on the two churches having ‘full agreement in the apostolic faith’[6] and if this report is accepted by the Methodist Conference this will no longer be the case.

If the report is accepted and implemented:

The Church of England should formally announce that the Anglican-Methodist Covenant has ceased to be in effect and withdraw from all activity related to the implementation of the Covenant.

Only those Methodist ministers who are prepared to disassociate themselves from the Methodist decision should be allowed to minister in Church of England churches under the terms of the ecumenical Canons B43 and 44.

Ways should be sought to sever the links between Anglican-Methodist Local Ecumenical Partnerships and the Methodist Conference. Such LEPs could not be registered to celebrate same-sex weddings because this would be against Church of England policy, but differentiation would still be required as a form of public witness against the Methodist decision.

M B Davie 15.5.19

[1] ‘2019 General Conference Passes Traditional Plan’ at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2019-daily-feb 26.

[2] ‘Marriage and Relationship 2019 – media briefing’ at https://www.methodist.org.uk/about-us/the-methodist-church/marriage-and-relationships-2019/marriage-and-relationships-2019-media-briefing/.

[3] God in love unites us, para 5.3.8. at conf-2019-10-marriage-and-relationships-task-group-2019.pff.

[4] For a more detailed explanation of these points see Martin Davie, Glorify God in your body (London: CEEC, 2019) and S Donald Fortson III and Rollin G Grams, Unchanging Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic 2016).

[5] Methodist Evangelicals Together at https://www.methodistevangelicals.org.uk/.

[6] An Anglican Methodist Covenant, (Peterborough and London: Methodist Publishing House/Church HousePublishing, 2001), p.60.

 

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