Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 18, 2000
The head of United Methodism's ecumenical agency proposed a compromise on homosexuality that would allow liberal local churches to celebrate same-sex unions while allowing conservative churches to withhold funding from denominational activities with which they disagree. Bruce Robbins, who leads the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, was speaking at the annual "Week of Lectures" at United Methodism's Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
"Many people feel we are forced to participate in persecution," Robbins observed of pro-homosexuality advocates within the church. "Many feel they are forced to pay apportionments for leaders who are an offense to the Gospel," he noted of conservative United Methodists. Robbins said he expected no resolution of the controversy at General Conference. And he doubts that medical evidence will persuade either side to abandon its views about homosexuality.
"We need an outlet for conscience," Robbins said. "For conservatives in our church there must be some space to be United Methodist without contributing to activities or leaders that are believed to be in violation of the Gospel." And likewise, "Liberals need sanctuaries where out gays and lesbians can exercise their call of ministry and where holy unions can take place."
Robbins acknowledged that where he has broached this compromise approach so far it has met with "abysmal failure." Conservatives will not tolerate same-sex unions, and liberals will not abide the non-payment of apportionments. He suggested that the denomination needed eight years of formal dialogue about homosexuality. Otherwise, he foresees that controversy and the "huge" expenditure of time and money over the issue will continue.
A few other speakers besides Robbins commented briefly on homosexuality. Retired Bishop James Armstrong, who pastored a United Church of Christ congregation, said it was a "liberating thing" to operate in a denomination that does not have a "litmus tests that invade privacy of one's bedroom and personal life." The United Church of Christ accepts openly homosexual clergy. Armstrong urged United Methodists to "gain perspective and go beyond the obsession that is undermining the health of the church."
Tex Sample, a retired professor from United Methodist St Paul's School of Theology, said a majority of General Conference delegates "has known for some time that the official [church] position [on homosexuality] is wrong. People felt they could not vote what they believed." Addressing those people who were afraid to vote their conviction, Sample said the "practice of hope says the church of Jesus Christ does not have to fear crucifixion."
Sample urged conservatives to "stick" with the church if and when the denomination switches its position on homosexuality. "There are conservative people of conscience who believe in the other side. That is to be respected and honored."
Retired United Methodist Bishop Leontine Kelly lamented that "we continue to institutionalize our racism and our anti-homosexuality." She insisted: "God is saying embrace, do not oppress." Citing what she claims is an increase in "hate crimes," Kelly quoted visiting German tourists who told her that Americans are becoming "fascist," and live in a climate similar to the one that produced Adolf Hitler.
Retiring Iliff president Don Messer noted that "long oppressed persons," including "gays and lesbians," are indeed "singing the Lord's song."
Speakers also addressed topics other than homosexuality. Former Iliff dean Jane Smith spoke of her current work in Christian-Muslim relations. She predicted that ecumenism and inter-faith relations will increasingly blend together. "Simply thinking of other Christian denominations is not going to cut it," she said. Smith encouraged local churches to in engage in interfaith dialogue. "Don't talk about theology. It's a dead-end. Talk about community."
On a similar note, Bishop Armstrong encouraged interfaith relations to address the destruction of forests, air and water pollution. "We must address mother earth," he insisted. "If the earth is to survive we must learn how to share its resources."
Thomas Trotter, former general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, called the Ministerial Education Fund one of the "great gifts of the denomination." This Fund subsidizes United Methodism's 13 official seminaries. Trotter noted that over the last 30 years it has produced almost half a billion dollars for theological education. But he also noted that the seminaries' dependence on the fund has declined from 30 percent of their budgets to only about 12 percent today.
Thomas Frank, who teaches at United Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, called United Methodism's Articles of Religion a "valid doctrine worked out at enormous cost by an earlier generation." They established the basics that we do not have to debate, he said, such as a trinitarian God, the definition of two sacraments and the practice of infant baptism.
He likened the Articles to a spacious mansion, where we "can live and move freely.Adding on as needed, renovating as necessary. Welcoming new people to the house. But still living in this house of wisdom." Frank said United Methodism has "never tried to write a confession of faith, thank God."
Iliff's "Week of Lectures' took place January 24-27. Other speakers included Bishop Roy Sano of Los Angeles, mystery writer Diane Mott Davidson and theologian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago.