Review of GBHEM'S Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality
By Scott Hughes
Instead of a formal book review of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry resource Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, I thought I would present what I appreciated about the resource, offer some additional ideas I would recommend if you choose to use it, and provide some additional ponderings. Whether you choose to use this resource or some of the resources I have provided on the Courageous Conversations website or something else, I highly recommend that churches be thoughtful, careful, and strategic in holding conversations that are as highly charged as the topic of human sexuality. While I sincerely hope churches are willing to have these conversations, to do so without guidance can unintentionally lead to more harm to the church and Christ than good.
What I appreciate…
- First and foremost, the attempt. It’s not an easy assignment to take a discussion among scholars and put it in a form that will be a study guide for local congregations. (“This resource is the fruit of colloquy from a specific event entitled The Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, a collaboration between the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the American Association of United Methodist Theological Schools, and the Commission on a Way Forward” [2-3].) And it is a needed attempt, especially as our society seems more prone to distrust anyone who is deemed an “expert.”
- The invitation and optimistic tone without being naive about the division that exists in the UMC. “Fear and suspicion put us on the defensive rather than opening a way forward…It is up to us to move beyond our fears and anxieties to a deeper faith and a more perfect love of God and neighbor” (45).
Fear and suspicion put us on the defensive rather than opening a way forwardIt is up to us to move beyond our fears and anxieties to a deeper faith and a more perfect love of God and neighbor. Dr. Charles Woodbr
- A focus on our witness as we have this conversation.
- While brief, there is depth – both theologically and in terms of Methodist history.
- The focus and reminder of what is of most importance: “So however we organize, we must not obscure people’s view of Jesus. The United Methodist Church matters only to the degree that we bring people to the healing and wholeness that Jesus offers” (38).
- Exploration of the concept of conciliar fellowship over against denomination. “A question…is whether, or to what extent, the denomination is a serviceable institutional form in a worldwide context…As noted, Anglicans and Catholics, who see themselves as members of worldwide communions, would not apply the term [denomination] to themselves…” (89).
Perhaps it is my perspective as someone who has been part of a denomination that thinking in regard to a conciliar fellowship is just the sort of out-of-the box thinking that we need further information and frank discussion about in our United Methodist churches. For many, the splitting of our denomination into separate conservative and progressive wings would leave them unsure to which branch they belonged. This thought leads Charles M. Wood to ask, “Can we, by the grace of God, come up with a way to allow adequate diversification that does not involve division, and that, over time, permits a fuller realization and witness to genuine unity?” (92-93).
- Wood’s exploration of four ecclesiological concepts: subsidiarity, reconciled diversity, differentiated consensus, and reception. There are other suggestions for new structures briefly mentioned such as the conciliar fellowship model and preconciliar model. Now is the time to explore new models of the Methodist connection to help prepare our congregations for whatever new reality we will live into beyond the special called General Conference of 2019 and the General Conference of 2020 (assuming there is one).
- Bishop Kenneth Carter’s Afterword, which concludes, “I share this pastoral experience with the conviction that God calls us to lean into our differences and to listen more closely to our convictions. We are being led from our silos and divisions into creative collaboration and possible new construction” (63).
I share this pastoral experience with the conviction that God calls us to lean into our differences and to listen more closely to our convictions. We are being led from our silos and divisions into creative collaboration and possible new construction. Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr.
What I would add…
- Although I appreciate an invitation to “holy conversation,” this phrase is left undefined. Just being willing to have a conversation about holy topics does not make the conversation holy, nor does it mean the conversation will happen in ways that glorify God. If your church is to use this resource (and I hope it will), it should add guidelines or a covenant to guard the conversation. It would also be beneficial to distinguish between the goals of a debate (winners/losers) and dialogue (willingness to learn/growing in perspective).
- I appreciate the variety of questions at the end of each chapter. If you are using this resource for your congregation, try to focus on no more than four questions per session. Our tendency too often is to look for surface answers instead of seeking in-depth conversation. To allow as many voices to participate as possible, be willing to focus on getting depth and quality of answers instead of getting through a quantity of questions. A last bit of advice is to strategically ask the questions by beginning with questions that address personal experience and then move into more reflective and speculative questions.
What I wish…
- I wish a glossary of terms had been included to help those new and newer to Methodism.
- As much as I enjoyed Dr. Charles M. Wood’s plenary paper “An Ecclesial Vision for the United Methodist Church” reprinted as Appendix A, I think an essay written for the average United Methodist layperson would have been more beneficial.
- Perhaps this is a “what I look forward to,” but I am eager to read the colloquy papers that were presented by such noted United Methodist scholars as Ted Campbell, Ken Collins, Anne Burkholder, Jack Jackson, and many others.
The fact that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has made this resource available as a free download shows the agency’s commitment to local churches. This resource is intended as a four-week study. The four chapters are: “The Conversation Matters,” “Loving God with Our Mind Matters,” “The United Methodist Church Matters,” “Finding a Way Forward Matters.”
I urge local congregations to have the courage to engage in these difficult and needed conversations. I believe the local church is the optimal place to have these conversations, as participants will often share a common history and be more committed relationally to one another (than is true, say, at the general church level). Planning and preparation for these conversations is as important as having them. For more resources on Courageous Conversations, see https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/topics/courageous-conversations.