The Grace of Doing Nothing – Again: A Defense of the UM Bishops’ Call for Silence

D. Stephen Long

I interrupt my intended discussion of the Neo-Augustinian and Neo-Anabaptists’ interpretation of the command to love enemies for a more immediate application. How do we love enemies in the church, who view us as faithless, and whom we view the same? At the recent 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, our bishops were tasked to give decisive leadership and their response was to ask us to be silent, to wait on God. I find wisdom in this judgment. In 1932 after Japan invaded Manchuria and everyone demanded action, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested there can be grace in doing nothing. Whether Niebuhr was correct on that occasion, his summons that sometimes doing nothing can be deeply faithful seems to me correct. Let me explain why.

First, let me address a somewhat compelling objection: Martin Luther King Jr’s powerful words: “justice delayed is justice denied.” He was clearly correct about the Civil Rights of African Americans in the 1960s. Clergy who counselled the “grace” of doing nothing were submitting African Americans to unspeakable abuses. Our situation differs. The Supreme Court has ruled and, thanks be to God, the kind of oppression I witnessed as a child of gay and lesbian persons is no longer the order of the day. Gay and lesbian persons have protections. I am profoundly grateful for all who made that possible. There are countries in which that is not the case; the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United Methodist Churches have rejected such discriminatory policies. Protecting minorities abroad is neither colonialism nor imperialism.

So why would I defend the UM bishops for doing nothing today? The presenting issue is not the state’s extension of human and civil rights to all persons, but deliberating the nature of Christian marriage and ordination. Our deliberations lack theological direction. They have occurred in a context of coercion where strategies arise to force the other side into submission, either through voting or protest and disobedience. Rather than loving one another, we reflect the “world” to which we are not to be conformed. We seek to destroy the other. Christ’s church cannot be built on the destruction of one’s enemy. There is no way forward by protesting and dividing yet again.

We have no consensus on whether the blessing of a same-sex couple constitutes Christian marriage or the ordination of a partnered gay or lesbian person constitutes ordination. We cannot say yes, and we cannot say no. I am fully aware that there are two constituencies in our church who are absolutely convinced, dogmatically so, that they can say yes or no. But my point is that we cannot say yes or no because all the means of grace that we have for discerning an answer, acknowledging that discerning an answer is always filled with conflict, error and revision, have failed us. We have not been able to say, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” We can say, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and them,” but that only means that like-minded folk think alike. A sign of the Spirit would be that someone be able to provide a way forward that would include “we” and not just “them.” Following like-mindedness is easier, but the history of Protestantism has universally demonstrated that its long-term consequences are disastrous. The bishops’ call for silence reminds us that we do not yet have a way forward. So we must wait.

Waiting provides space and time to gain clarity on what we are discerning. Let me suggest the primary, but not exclusive, issue is this: how does the practice of sexuality sanctify the body, both individually and communally. Unfortunately, we have isolated homosexuality as the fulcrum point for this deliberation. Their sexual practices have been under the microscope and those who are straight have not subjected ours to the same scrutiny. We cannot discuss affirming or rescinding the negative prohibition: “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with …” without a positive affirmation: “the practice of sexuality sanctifies the body by….” Utterly confused as to how to respond to the latter, our prohibition of the former lacks intelligibility. If we are to love one another in the body of Christ, we can no longer proceed by alienating “them” and not asking some difficult questions about us. When was the last time someone was not ordained or removed from orders because he or she failed to practice celibacy outside heterosexual marriage? How many marriages have been blessed without the question arising? What about other practices readily accepted today among straight people that were once rejected as porneia or as sexual vice and are now no longer subject to scrutiny – not only remarriage but also masturbation (mutual or individual), felatio, cunilingus, birth control, and marriages intentionally opposed to welcoming life? Perhaps we should discuss the use of Viagra and porn, or even the titillation our television watching creates. I think St. Paul would have something to say about those matters. I do not raise these issues to make sexuality private and argue that it is an indifferent theological matter, but to seek the truth of holiness that puts us on a level field for Christian conferencing.

Tradition remains constant as it develops. Consider how long it took for the Nicene Creed to become the most inclusive, ecumenical creed used throughout the holy, catholic church? What some saw as innovation became the faith once delivered. There is no need for impatience. We have made progress and we can do so by sustaining the witness of Scripture and tradition. Perhaps we can find agreement on these issues: What has changed is something Scripture never addresses – the origin of same sex desire. As the Roman Catholic Catechism states, it is not a matter of choice. If it is not a matter of choice, then we have at least three options. First, we require all who have this orientation to maintain celibate lives. Although orientation is not a choice, sexual activity is a human act of will and asking for celibacy is not in itself oppressive, but it is a major burden and one the Reformers thought produced deceit when it was required of clergy. Should we reopen that question as well? Celibacy asks nothing less than for gay and lesbians to be heroic in their sexuality in a way we ask of no other people. A second option: we privatize sexuality and make it indifferent to theological scrutiny. Then we simply affirm desire qua desire and provide it no orientation toward sanctification. Let us be honest, contemporary practices of heterosexuality have already done this and so we merely extend to gay and lesbians the entrenched culture of straight promiscuity. A third: we provide some form in which same-sex desires can be exercised that reflect the love between Christ and his church. Perhaps there are other options. The bishops have given us time to consider them and continue to discern together what they may be. Four year General Conferences complete with voting machines and Robert’s Rule of Orders do not provide sufficient time or space for discernment. I hope we have the grace to continue to do nothing until God shows “us” and not just “them” how to go on.

Posted May 30, 2016

7 responses to “The Grace of Doing Nothing – Again: A Defense of the UM Bishops’ Call for Silence”

  1. […] the wake of the United Methodist Church’s recent general conference, D. Stephen Long wrote a short, thoughtful piece defending the proposal of the Council of Bishops that the conference formally adopted. That […]

    • Skepteon, I agree that we have failed to develop a coherent theology of marriage in the Wesleyan tradition. This deficiency hobbles the UMC in taking any compelling stance on same-sex marriage, and this is why I devote an entire chapter to the history of teachings on marriage in my recent book, Methodist Morals. As Methodists, we’ve a lot of theological work to do.

  2. Darryl Stephens says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary. Niebuhr was very clear about advocating for not just any kind of inactivity but rather a very specific kind of meaningful inactivity: repentance. You imply a repentant posture, but what, exactly, would you have the UMC repent of?

    It is my prayer that we United Methodists can us this time of inactivity to repent of our proclivity to treat opinions as essentials and essentials as opinions, to use Wesley’s terms from Catholic Spirit. We have a Constitution for essentials of polity and doctrinal standards for essentials of faith, yet we have failed to use these appropriate venues. Instead, we have legislated by simple majority what we treat as essential, holding this church captive to our opinions. I elaborate in a recent commentary for UMNS:

    Decades of doing so has allowed divisions to fester, and we have treated each other as enemies of the faith rather than sisters and brothers in the faith. May we forgive each other. May God forgive us.

    • D. Stephen Long says:

      Darryl, Thanks for your response. To be honest, I had not thought about repentance, but you are correct. It is repentance HRN called for, and it would be good for us to consider it now. I also think you are correct that we should repent for treating each other as enemies of the faith. I would add that we repent for bringing the “world” into the church through acting like culture warriors. I also think we need to discern a positive way forward and do so recognizing a number of things. 1. The arguments we have used do not work; repeating liberal inclusion or using biblical passages deductively for ethical action has failed us. Give those arguments up and try new ones. 2. Let us be more direct about what are we actually asking of our LGBT friends, parishioners, family members? They are not going away; nor are they going back into the closet. I fear some think this is still possible, and I find it frightful. 3. Let us realize that the way forward is not to affirm a break with the tradition, but find what is right about it and how we move it forward. Do you think if we kept these three things before us we could have a better conversation?

      • Stephen, yes, for those of us interested in a better conversation, your suggestions would be fruitful. However, there are many power dynamics driving the institutional discourse. Good theological reasoning–even compelling theological reasoning–will likely not change hardened hearts nor will it likely sway those who have already bet the house that their side will win and who are determined to do so at any cost.
        To rise above this battle, we need conversion accomplished only through grace and accompanied by genuine repentance.

  3. D. Stephen Long says:

    Skepteon, I appreciate your reply to my article; it was thoughtful and fleshed out more fully the “somewhat compelling” objection I noted in the piece, but then dismissed. More needed to be said about that and you have said it well. As soon as I wrote that sentence, I thought of NC’s HB2 — a horrible law that forces an issue in which there is none only to inflame passions. I find it discriminatory and I’m glad it is being challenged. I agree there are still matters of justice before us and they are important. I think the UMC, Anglican and RC are all agreed that gays and lesbians must be treated with dignity and protected from harassment and abuse. I cannot imagine we would go back on that momentous decision. It is a change that has occurred in my lifetime. I remember attending an Anita Bryant tirade against gays in the city I grew up in as a boy. I was horrified then, and I’m horrified that such sentiment still exists today. Fortunately, it is a residual element that I think has little political power. We must be vigilant that it gets closeted and remains in the closet.

    I would not argue that the church’s issues are in any sense less important than the civil and political issues. Marriage and ordination are both transnational and diachronic ecclesial political matters. They are distinct from civil rights issues, but they do matter. How we order the church and live together sexually may not be as essential as some doctrinal issues, but they are crucial. We understand there are impediments to ordination — for instance, education is one such impediment, a rather class-based impediment about which I am uncertain. I do think an educated clergy matters. There are other impediments. It used to be that if you had killed anyone in warfare you could not be ordained. If you are so in debt as to embarrass the ministry you might not be ordained. I think those kinds of impediments are proper and should be assessed. Ordination is not a “civil right.” Should partnered same sex persons be an impediment? Cleary there are some forms of sexual activities that would scandalize the church and should prohibit ordination. Who would not agree with that?However, Jesus offered no specific interpretation on this aspect of Jewish law (homosexuality) like he did divorce and remarriage so I think the latter should be more of an issue before the church than the former. If we have found a way to interpret Jesus’ statement charitably and graciously to allow for remarriage in exceptional circumstance — both for clergy and laity — then perhaps we can find a way for the former as well. My point is that we have not found that way and I don’t think we have the arguments for such a way because the issue has been understood primarily in terms of civil rights. The arguments we have used (see my previous reply) are not cogent. They should be abandoned. Now that in the US the civil rights issues have more or less been settled, and I support SCOTUS’ decision, maybe there is some breathing room for the hard work of spiritual and theological discernment about the ecclesial matters.

  4. Rebecca McClure says:

    The Supreme Court has ruled and, thanks be to God, the kind of oppression I witnessed as a child of gay and lesbian persons is no longer the order of the day. Gay and lesbian persons have protections. I am profoundly grateful for all who made that possible.

    Really. How many Stephen Longs can dance on the head of a pin? Your article just dresses up an us v. them judgement re gays in supercilious theological clothing. In view of what happened this morning in Orlando do you not get that this sort of attitude contributes to those 50 deaths?