by Wayne Rhodes*
WASHINGTON, D.C. — At the 26th annual Lifewatch Sanctity of Life Service Jan. 22, Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr. declared that the mission of a radically inclusive church must include the unborn in its inclusiveness. The bishop issued a call for United Methodists to seek a coherent social teaching, a consistent ethic of hospitality, and a compassionate witness to and for life.
Carter, the episcopal leader of Florida Annual (regional) Conference, made his remarks in the Simpson Memorial Chapel of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill as a part of the annual Lifewatch Sanctity of Life Service of Worship. This service is traditionally held on the morning preceding afternoon rallies in the nation’s capital both for and against the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark abortion decision Roe vs. Wade.
In preaching at the annual Lifewatch worship service, Carter joined United Methodist bishops, Timothy Whittaker, Will Willimon and Scott Jones who did so previously. The service is sponsored by the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion & Sexuality. Founded in 1987, the taskforce’s goal is to work to create in church and society esteem for human life at its most vulnerable, specifically for the unborn child and for the woman who contemplates abortion.
Carter described The United Methodist Church as having “incoherent social teaching” that stems from “theological chaos.” “We are polarized,” he said, “and here we mirror the culture, as Methodists so often do.”
The result of this polarization is division, according to Carter, into two theological camps: one a theology of prevenient grace and social holiness; the other a theology of repentance, justifying grace and personal holiness.
The first leads to “a kind of works righteousness,” which the bishop said is a difficult path. “The world resists all of our efforts to bring about change,” he said, “and a malaise or depression ensues.” He said some observers point to this as what’s “killing the mainline church” in the United States.
Carter explained that the second approach takes one aspect of the evangelical movement, then “separates it from the necessary social and contextual realities that shape us.” He said those realities undergird a call for engagement that “runs like a thread” from the eighth century prophets to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Letter of James to the journals of John Wesley.
Neither approach “captures the fullness of our rich and robust theological tradition as Wesleyans,” Carter said, “which includes a grace more pervasive than we can imagine, in space and time, and a holiness that is more comprehensive than we are inclined to grasp.”
Carter asserted that recovery of a coherent theology of grace and holiness, and a rejection of the partisan political captivity of the church could lead to a coherent social teaching. “I do wonder if Methodism could abandon its present partisan political captivity and join the evangelical and catholic consensus in regard to life?” he asked.
The bishop explained that a consistent ethic of hospitality “represents a continuum from conception to death, from the individual to the creation, from interventions in and support of the lives of unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend.”
A consistent ethic of life cuts across political proclivities, according to Carter, and moves to a deeper level of values and principles. “The gospel is always on the side of life because God is creator of life,” the bishop emphasized, “Jesus comes so that we may have life, the Spirit descends to renew the face of the earth.”
Carter asked whether the rhetoric of inclusion would be more coherent, possess more integrity and “become more cruciform” if it were to include all the strangers we are to welcome according to the example of Matthew 25.
“A consistent ethic of hospitality would call us to welcome the unborn as the stranger,” Carter said.
The bishop added a caveat. “We must acknowledge the complexity in calling women to be agents of hospitality in making space for the unborn,” he said, when they have often been the victims of brutal hostility.” It is important to confess that this context is present more often than is acceptable, he pointed out.
“Violence toward women demands our systematic, communal and individual responses,” Carter stressed.
The bishop said he reread the Social Principle on abortion in the “Book of Discipline,” the denomination’s book of laws. Carter said he read the 1988 and the 2012 versions. In those ensuing years, he said the statement has gone from one to nine paragraphs.
“It is more nuanced,” the bishop said, “and yet it is an imperfect statement. We have not adequately examined what it says about creation, covenant and context.” He said the denomination would benefit from the language of gifts instead of rights, for example.
“There are aspects to this work in progress for which I give thanks,” Carter said, and cited those as encouragement of adoptions, lament of high abortion rates, opposition to late-term abortion, affirmation of crisis ministries.
The bishop said it nonetheless could be more coherent with who we are. “The statement [¶162J] is silent on the role of Christian community in welcoming children,” he said, “and it fails to reflect on the context of violence and poverty that shape the lives of expectant mothers across the planet.”
The church can and must pay more attention to contexts, among the violation of sexual boundaries, violence and poverty, according to Carter. “And we need not pit these against one another,” he said.
The bishop called for a renewed engagement with the very ground of the abortion argument. “To offer a compassionate witness in word and in action,” he said, “is to come alongside persons in their season of greatest vulnerability.”
Carter said the sanctity of life is so important. “We must find a coherent way, as United Methodists, of bearing witness, of, in the language of the New Testament, ‘giving an account for the hope that is within us’ (1 Peter).”
“A consistent ethic of hospitality is possible only as it is set within the context of a compassionate witness to and for life,” Carter said, “which we believe to be a gift, a fragile and sacred trust.”
*Wayne Rhodes is the Director of Communications for the General Board of Church and Society, located in Washington D.C.