The people called Methodists are feeling the pressure right now. We are just over a month away from a special session of General Conference called to settle our decades-long conflict over the matter of human sexuality. Folks familiar with this conflict likely already know that a proposal known as the “One Church Plan” is being promoted with vigor by a number of bishops and a group known as the “Uniting Methodists.” In fact, the so-called One Church Plan is said to have the support of a majority of bishops, which is unsurprising, though the exact number of that majority is unclear.
Among other things, this plan would remove the current restrictions on UMC clergy and churches from blessing same-sex unions. It would change the definition of marriage from the union of one man and one woman to the union of two persons. It also provides protections for clergy who choose not to solemnize same-sex unions. The plan is supposed to be a compromise because it removes restrictive language without adding an explicit affirmation of same-sex unions. By neither condemning nor approving same-sex unions, this plan gives the appearance of neutrality and offers freedom to clergy to follow their convictions. In this post, I will argue that such neutrality is a myth. If the so-called One Church Plan passes, it would constitute a full-affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex practices.
Is Neutrality Possible?
The notion of neutrality in the so-called One Church Plan comes with the newly proposed definition of marriage. The imprecise “union of two persons” allegedly steers the narrow way between condemning same-sex unions and affirming them. When inquisitive souls ask what the UMC stance on marriage is, proponents of the so-called One Church Plan want to be able to say that we’re not taking sides. You know, like Switzerland. The truth is that neutrality – like so much else – is easier said than done.
Ecclesial Sleight of Hand
There is a simple reason United Methodist neutrality with regard to sexuality will be impossible (despite the definitions in the so-called One Church Plan). The reason is that neutrality isn’t real. It’s a myth. There’s no such thing. “Why is that?” you ask. Because the proposed and allegedly neutral definition of marriage invites us to put all our attention on one question without considering another. Consider an analogy. The so-called One Church Plan is like a magician asking school children to look at his left hand while his right hand drops a rabbit in a hat. What I mean is this. While it is important, the key question is not how the UMC defines marriage (the magician’s left hand). The key question is what General Conference authorizes clergy to do (his right hand). What pastoral authority does General Conference authoritatively grant?
Remember that line you used to hear near the end of a wedding ceremony: “…by the power vested in me by the United Methodist Church…” It isn’t said as often anymore, but you’ll understand the point. When a United Methodist clergy person performs a wedding, she or he is acting as an instrument and on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Clergy do not have the inherent authority to solemnize a marriage covenant. That authority is delegated. The body that delegates that authority is responsible for defining how it is used. And if the General Conference authorizes United Methodist clergy to solemnize same-sex unions, the the General Conference is giving it’s blessing to those unions. And it is giving that blessing on behalf of the global United Methodist Church for which it speaks. To summarize the point, if General Conference authorizes clergy to perform same-sex unions, then General Conference is offering positive affirmation to those unions. There is no neutrality there.
Don’t Believe the Myth
Whether you like the so-called One Church Plan or not, you need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Don’t believe the myth. The plan is not neutral. Rather, it constitutes an affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex unions as good, holy, and right in the eyes of God and the Church. If you have difficulty understanding why traditional folks refuse to abide the so-called One Church Plan. This is why. We see through the myth of neutrality.
If you’d like to read more, consider Matt’s chapter “What Makes Sex Beautiful? Marriage, Aesthetics, and the Image of God in Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Sexuality (IVP Academic).
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.