What Counts as "Traditional"...

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Reflections of A Methodist Historian on GC 2019

The debates and decisions made at the recent special session of General Conference in St. Louis have further highlighted deep seated divisions within the United Methodist connection.  In its aftermath, there have been many opportunities and avenues, both public and private, for Methodists to discuss the conference from our various perspectives.  As an United Methodist elder and American religious historian who counts courses in Methodist history and doctrine and the history of Christianity among those I have taught on the seminary level, the events in St. Louis are yet another indication of the ignorance many church members—clergy and laity—have about Christian history in general and Methodist history in particular.  Though it may provide little comfort for those who are especially pained by recent church events, as Qoheleth, the world-weary preacher of Ecclesiastes proclaimed two or three centuries before Christ, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  

As a historian, I offer here a few observations about the language being used in connection with The Traditional Plan.  Supporters of the plan claim it to be in conformity with “traditional” or “historic” Methodism.  The first mention of homosexuality in the Book of Discipline is in 1972, almost two hundred years after the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, and more than two and a quarter centuries after John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience.  Although the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) does not permit same-sex unions, it has no stated prohibitions on the ordination of gay clergy.  The Methodist Church in Great Britain condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation, allows for the ordination of gay persons and permits a diversity of opinion on biblical interpretation related to these matters.  If the centuries of Methodism and American Methodism are taken into account, “traditional” Methodism has had no explicit prohibitions against LGBTQ persons.  Furthermore, in considering 2,000 years of Christian history, “traditional” understandings of homosexuality have changed considerably; John Boswell, the distinguished late professor of history at Yale University, has uncovered texts at the Vatican that were used by the church in the performance of same-sex unions from the 8th through the 16th centuries.  These facts may or may not be seen as relevant for informing our current views on homosexuality and the Christian faith, but they certainly call into question what counts as “traditional.”

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The history of Methodism makes clear that at every point in which the church made a choice to exclude. diminish or otherwise inflict pain and suffering on a portion of its membership, time has revealed the error of that choice.  Early American Methodists refused to treat its African-American members with equity, and hence spawned the creation of the UAME, AME and AME Zion Churches (later racism helped create the CME Church, and the 30 year history of the Central Jurisdiction remains a source of shame).  For years the church excluded lay persons from having a role in church governance, which prompted some to leave and form the Methodist Protestant Church.  Methodists were frightfully slow in acknowledging women as appropriate participants in church governance and as clergy; though the Methodist Protestant Church extended full clergy rights to women as early as 1889, that right was revoked as a condition of the 1939 merger that created the Methodist Church.  In time, the overwhelming consensus has been that each of these positions caused needless pain for many and denied the reality of the imago Dei that is our common birthright.  I have no doubt that the actions of General Conference on the status of LGBTQ persons in 1972, 1984 and now 2019 will be similarly judged and overturned as prior exclusionary decisions have been.  It may well be that, in time, the proposed prohibition on performing same-sex marriages will be remembered as well as we remember the Methodist ban on performing marriages for divorced persons.

History has more light to shine upon recent church developments.  There is yet room for a serious debate on the notion that John Wesley’s approach to scripture would have inevitably led him to endorse the so-called Traditional Plan.  Although we may never know for certain Wesley’s views on homosexuality, it is absolutely clear that the hermeneutical approach “traditionalists” glibly ascribe to him would have led him to unequivocally endorse slavery instead of devoting the last decades of his life to being an anti-slavery champion.  A sober consideration of the historical record may well strip aside biblical and theological pretense and lay bare an ugly irrational prejudice at the heart of our current debate.

Rev. Dr. Ian Straker

Rev. Dr. Ian Straker