07/01/2013 10:03 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

The Moral Arc of the Universe and Marriage Equality in the United Methodist Church


In the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, many media pundits used Theodore Parker's assertion (made famous in the 1960s by Martin Luther King, Jr.) that the "moral arc of the universe bends toward justice." While the media's tendency is to see the issue largely in political terms, we cannot forget that the campaign for gay-lesbian rights, including marriage equality, remains contested in many American institutions, including its religious bodies. My own faith tradition, in which I am an ordained minister, the United Methodist Church, represents one of the staunchest holdouts among mainline Protestant churches by its ongoing stance since the early 1970s that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." Sadly, the recent decisions of the Supreme Court make it clear that churches like the UMC stand in opposition to Parker's moral arc.

In making this assertion, I recognize that I'm stepping upon a slippery slope. Americans have had a troubled history with the whole notion of using God to seek divine favor for any sort of cause. We see countless examples of how the effort of religious leaders to connect historical events to divine providence has led to tragic consequences. In reflecting upon the Supreme Court actions, I am not arguing that God is taking a particular position on a moral-political issue. I am arguing whether or not one agrees with the Supreme Court, change is occurring and it cannot be halted by simply arguing that homosexuality is "incompatible" with one's faith.

The United Methodist Church's longstanding opposition to gay-lesbian rights has a complex history (as I've discussed in a previous blog). However, many within the UMC who oppose the rights of gays and lesbians (including the right to be married within a United Methodist Church) will inevitably turn to the source that can be hard to refute: the Bible. Historically, Methodists have attempted to balance the classical Protestant notion of "sola scriptura" with a desire to mediate their interpretation of scripture through other forms of individual and collective discernment (such as a reliance on reason, tradition, and personal and collective experience). Yet unlike more conservative churches, much of the "incompatibility" language in the UMC's Book of Discipline is not centered upon specific proof texting of scripture, but upon vague and generalized assertions that homosexuality is aberrant behavior.

The question facing the United Methodist Church as it wrestles with its stance on GLBT issues is not to discard a reliance on scripture, but to recognize that scripture can only take us so far. On the eve of the American Revolution, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (and no friend of American independence) wrote a scathing indictment of the American slave trade. In that time, many Christians in Europe and North America were relying solely on scriptural proof texting to frame arguments for or against slavery. However, Wesley refused to get pulled into a tit for tat debate of biblical proof texting. He argued that slavery was evil not through appeals to scripture, but because it was a violation of one's basic human rights. "Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air, and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature." Wesley recognized that one didn't need to rely on the Bible to see that slavery was evil. The question for us in the UMC today is to make a similar stand on the side of justice for GLBT persons, including affirming the liberty of persons to choose who they love. The current stance of the United Methodist Book of Discipline on marriage says that the only valid type of marriage is defined around a heterosexual union ("we support laws in civil society that define marriages as the union of one man and one woman"). This exclusionary position is no longer legally tenable in the United States. It should no longer be tenable in the United Methodist Church.

At a time in the early 1970s, when the topic of sexual orientation was largely muted in public discourse, it may have been possible for denominations like the UMC to get away with blanket condemnations of homosexuality, while also making general statements that GLBT persons are children of God -- they just don't have any authority to lead the church. With public opinion in favor of gay marriage now over 50 percent (and over 70 percent among Americans under the age of 30) and with more states likely to pass measures legalizing same-sex marriage over the next few years, it is hard to justify the shaky theological rationale for this institutional exclusion.

Many who will continue to argue for maintaining the UMC's current prohibitions against homosexuality will likely argue that the church must not succumb to the whims of culture. Others will make the point that the general conference (the chief legislative body of the UMC) has spoken on the issue and that nothing can be done (or even said) about this issue until this body meets again in 2016. However, if the United Methodist Church refuses to concede that American institutions, including many churches, will continue to open up their doors to GLBT persons in upcoming years, fewer and fewer persons may be paying much attention if and when the general conference finally does change its position. To paraphrase John Wesley, the UMC might very well resemble a dead sect, as opposed to a vital religious movement that has its fingers on the pulse of the culture.

I remain hopeful that one day I may be in a position to officiate at a wedding of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and have the blessing of my church. Until the time, however, I lament that the church that I cherish finds itself on the wrong side of history.