UMAction Briefing HomepageIra Gallaway and Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy



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 General Conference.

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 Methodism.

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 one.

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 settled.

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 do so?

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 enforcement?

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?

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