February 7, 2001
In his January/February 2001 column in Zion’s Herald, Steve
Swecker calls The Coalition for United Methodist Accountability “good
people” but a “bad idea.”
As some of those “good people,” please let us explain why we
think CUMA is in fact a good idea.
CUMA wants “doctrinal, fiscal and procedural accountability”
within the church, as Mr. Swecker noted. This would hardly seem a
controversial idea, wanting the employees and agencies of our church
to be accountable to the teachings of our church, as ratified by
But it is controversial. Many clergy, church agency employees and
some bishops would prefer to ignore some of our church laws,
especially pertaining to human sexuality.
Mr. Swecker believes CUMA’s “obsession” with homosexuality is
beginning to appear “unhealthy.” And he worries that CUMA is
really out to suppress dissent and diversity.
But homosexuality as a flashpoint within our denomination was not
created by CUMA. This issue has been debated at every General
Conference for 28 years. (CUMA was founded just last year.)
Homosexuality has become the chief litmus test by which liberals are
divided from conservatives, the most hotly debated topic not only at
General Conference but also at numerous annual conference and district
events, and the issue that both church and secular media have
described as the one most likely to enflame schism within United
The fissures over homosexuality are not really over just the do’s
and don’t ’s of sexual propriety. It is rather a reflection of
sharply differing theologies regarding scriptural authority,
christology, the nature of humanity, and the meaning of salvation.
So even if we could paper over our differences about sex, the sharp
divisions within our denomination would remain. Often these divisions
are sugarcoated as “diversity” that we should celebrate. But an
organization that is bound together by no substantive common beliefs
hardly has much of a future.
The governing body of our church has repeatedly affirmed that
United Methodism is bound together by some common beliefs. Among them
is the teaching that sexual practice outside of heterosexual marriage
is wrong. This teaching is profoundly counter-cultural, especially in
our age. But this understanding of sexuality and marriage also links
us together with all but a tiny handful of the world’s Christian
communions today, and across the centuries. If the Body of Christ were
ever in consensus over an issue beyond our ancient creeds, this is
Despite this consensus, and despite the repeated votes of our
General Conferences, usually by significant margins, numerous clergy,
some in senior positions, continue to treat church teaching regarding
marriage and sexuality as optional.
You have heard of countless such incidents. Dozens of clergy
convene before the media at a convention hall in Sacramento to bless a
same-sex union. A Denver pastor tells the local newspaper that she
regularly conducts same-sex ceremonies. A Spokane pastor openly
cohabitates with a same-sex companion in the parsonage. Hundreds of
clergy across the church publicly signify their willingness to break
church law by celebrating same-sex unions. Bishops issue public
statements, perform at demonstrations, and even invite arrest by
secular authorities so as to publicize their disagreement with church
law. General church agencies openly oppose church law or support
caucus groups that do.
Yet there are no repercussions. Bishops are silent. Sometimes
charges are filed but ignored by bishops, in further defiance of the
Discipline’s requirements. The issue is treated as one that merits
at best more dialogue, as if it were still an open issue, never to be
But the issue has been settled. Several attempts were initiated at
last year’s General Conference to dilute our church’s teaching on
marriage and sexuality. There was a proposal of a moratorium. There
were fuzzy language suggestions that would in effect allow each church
to decide for itself whether to celebrate same-sex unions. All of
these proposals, which were offered as “compromises,” were soundly
rejected. Church prohibitions remain firmly in place.
These prohibitions are not likely to change. Demographics are on
the side of supporters of current church law. Regions that are deemed
conservative are growing or holding steady. Regions that are more
liberal, and more dissatisfied with church law, are the most prone to
membership loss. The margins at the next General Conference are likely
to be even greater. And in 2008, greater still.
Yet the enforcement of church teaching remains elusive in too many
cases. Those who have successfully worked to reaffirm the church’s
stance on sexuality at General Conference have not had similar success
in affecting the staffing decisions of church agencies, the faculty
selections for church seminaries, or even the election of bishops.
So there is the perception, not without considerable evidence, that
while mainstream Christian beliefs predominate at the local church
level, liberalism continues to hold the reigns of power throughout
much of the hierarchy. Church teachings are ratified every four years
but enforced unenthusiastically, if at all.
What is the majority then to do? Is it “vigilantism,” as Mr.
Swecker suggested, to seek the upholding of church teaching by working
through appropriate church channels? Is it uncivil to expect clergy
who have pledged to uphold the doctrines of our church to in fact to
And is it evidence of a lack of love when church members act upon
their deepest convictions, based upon traditional Christian
interpretations of the Scriptures, but also upon the evidence of our
own experience, that homosexual practice is profoundly harmful, both
spiritually and physically, to those who practice it, to their
families, and to their wider society? Indeed, we believe that we would
betray our Savior Himself if we compromised on the definition of
marriage that He gave us. Believing this, can we be faulted for
speaking and acting accordingly?
How does any organization, church or otherwise, operate without
standards? And what meaning has law without some effort at
We appreciate that Mr. Swecker acknowledges that CUMA is comprised
of “good” and “serious” people who are motivated by sincere
convictions. Many of our critics have not been as gracious in their
descriptions of us. But we challenge Mr. Swecker to suggest
alternatives to CUMA.
If the governing body of our church ratifies a church law,
repeatedly, but some bishops and others in authority refuse to uphold
that law, what are the proper options? How can love operate without
faithfulness and integrity?