The retired bishops’ statement

February 2, 2011

Here we go again… Today a group of 33 retired United Methodist bishops released a statement urging the repeal of ¶304.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which includes these words:

The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

Since this paragraph has been and will continue to be the source of much unchristian behavior on all sides of the issue of homosexuality in the United Methodist Church, we need to work harder as a church to figure out what we believe about human sexuality and why we believe it—and why it matters in the first place. (I even contributed what I hope was a thoughtful reflection on the subject a while back when we were doing our “Tough Texts” series.)

As I was reading the retired bishops’ statement, however, I was reminded of of something Christian ethicist (and estranged United Methodist) Stanley Hauerwas wrote in response to a pastoral letter that the United Methodist Council of Bishops drafted regarding the threat of nuclear war in 1988.

I am not convinced such statements foster the sort of moral discourse necessary for the church to sustain an ongoing witness. Indeed, I suspect there is almost an inverse ratio between the undisciplined character of the Methodist people and the radical nature of our social statements. We draft radical statements as a substitute for being a radical people pledged to witness to the world that God’s peace is not just some ideal but a present possibility for us.

In our present case, could it not be said that our retired bishops have drafted a radical statement as a “substitute for being a radical people pledged to witness to the world that God’s way of being human is not just some ideal but a present possibility for us”? As I wrote in that earlier post,

Does our sex-worshiping culture commit idolatry—even if we understand sexuality differently today? Is it possible for gay and lesbian Christians to affirm the truth of this scripture (and others) if they are in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship? What changes do all of us—gay and straight—need to make in our lives in order that our sexual conduct not become destructive, idolatrous, and life-denying?

These are not rhetorical questions. I’m not sure how to answer them. If I were a retired bishop, however, I would at least want to engage these questions (and others) deeply before proceeding with what amounts to a radical change to our Discipline and our church life. Until we do engage these questions, how do we know for sure that we’re not just selling out to our sexually pathological culture?

If we’re going to be good Methodists, let’s please follow our Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture first, then tradition, reason, and personal experience. I fear the bishops are letting personal experience short-circuit the other three. Sentiment and fear are not a sufficient basis for making this change.

Stanley Hauerwas, “On Being a Church Capable of Addressing a World at War: A Pacifist Response to the United Methodist Bishops’ Pastoral In Defense of Creation” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 429-30.

One Response to “The retired bishops’ statement”

  1. Susan Taylor Says:

    Standing with you on these comments, Brent.

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