General Conference 2019: A Failure of Theology

In a previous post, I began to sketch out some parameters for a conversation I very much hoped we might have within the United Methodist Church. My hope has always been that our very polarized and politicized discussion of human sexuality might become a deeply theological conversation that would edify all, regardless of their ultimate theological opinion when it comes to the definition of Christian Marriage and Holy Orders.

I have said very little publicly about the debate over human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. I have, however, led multiple groups through a study of this issue centered on a Wesleyan way of reading the Bible and a theological and sacramental overview of marriage and ordination. The purpose of this exercise has always been to give people the opportunity to see for themselves the complexity of this issue and to invite them into a conversation that seeks to plumb the depths of Christian theology in order to understand how we, as a Church, might find a way forward that is faithful to the historic traditions and teachings of the Church while being open to how the Spirit might be speaking to us in community today.

I don’t describe these efforts as a way of patting myself on the back. Leading these studies was very hard, as well as emotionally draining. I am certain that I did an imperfect job as a leader and as a teacher. Nevertheless, I am happy that I did it. It was, I believe, a constructive project undertaken in a time of great anxiety over what destructive outcome this debate might ultimately have. My previous article on this subject was a further attempt at offering a constructive alternative to the debate that has been raging over this issue. One consistent frustration I have experienced in leading my studies, and in attempting in my own small way to open a theological dialogue on this issue is the fact that, as a Church, we have no robust teaching document on either Christian Marriage or Holy Orders.

I believe that marriage and ordination are sacramental. In fact, I am prepared to go so far as to call them sacraments, even if they are not, perhaps, to be equated with the Dominical Sacraments—that is to say, Baptism and Holy Communion, the two sacraments historically understood to have been instituted by Jesus himself.

This is not current United Methodist sacramental theology, and I admit that my interpretation would be considered novel. However, I have studied extensively the Articles of Religion. This foundational document for both the Anglican and Methodist traditions offers a definition of the sacraments; and it separates the two “Sacraments of the Gospel” from “those five commonly called sacraments” (Article XVI). I have also read carefully Resolution 3144 (in the United Methodist Book of Resolutions), which enjoins us to interpret things like Article XVI “in consonance with our best ecumenical insights and judgment.”

In other words, we are invited as theologians in the United Methodist tradition to seek to understand and interpret the Articles of Religion without any of the polemical subtext of the era in which they are written and with the benefit of ecumenical dialogue and understanding.

I feel I am standing on firm ground.

Further, I believe that if the United Methodist Church had taken these two seriously as sacraments—had we issued white papers offering theological grounding for why we solemnize marriages and why we ordain persons to ministry; had we adopted resolutions that augmented our doctrinal standards with robust teaching on these sacramental actions—we might have avoided what amounted to theological what-about-ism, name calling, and genuine rancor that the world witnessed at General Conference 2019.

In other words, in absence of documents similar to “By Water and the Spirit” and “This Holy Mystery” dealing with ordination and marriage, what the world witnessed was argument on the basis of emotion, personal preferences, and a view of the Bible that many will see as laughably simplistic.

It seems inevitable now that we are going into a period of schism, uncertainty, and—very likely—more loud and rancorous disagreement. And I believe that much of it could be avoided by simply doing what the Church has done for centuries: thinking theologically and sacramentally about what it means to be human and alive in God’s world. I sincerely hope it isn’t too late for some serious theological reflection, discussion, and perhaps even the publication of a robust theological statement on what we, as the United Methodist Church, believe about Christian Marriage and Holy Orders as unique and wonderful callings in which we live out our Baptismal promises.

That would truly be a resurrection moment.