by Dr. Maxie Dunnam
Editor’s note: On February 3, 2014 Bishop Grant J. Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area published a post on his blog titled “A Way Forward,” in which Bishop Hagiya reflected on the actions of Bishop Melvin Talbert and the ongoing debate about the United Methodist position on same-sex marriage. Dr. Maxie D. Dunnam’s response below is in relation to that post.
What constitutes true marriage? Does marriage really have to be between a man and a woman? Or is love between any two adult partners all that is needed?
Ironically, there is significant confusion in our United Methodist Church. A number of our ministers have performed marriage ceremonies between same sex couples, knowing this is a violation of our understanding and doctrine of marriage. At the 2012 General Conference (the only body in our church that speaks for the whole church), the policy forbidding the blessing of same-sex unions was challenged but upheld. The conference delegates also upheld the church’s official doctrine declaring support for “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
At this same 2012 General Conference, it was reaffirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman, stating: “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
Additionally, the UMC’s Judicial Council ruled in 2009 that church law prohibits clergy from performing same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies. Thus, the denomination does not sanction civil union ceremonies or weddings conducted by UMC ministers or in UMC churches, despite appeals from some regional congregations and clergy that it does so.
Though numerous clergy have violated the position of the church on this issue of marriage, recently it reached an almost unbelievable level of violation, requiring that the Council of Bishops had to deal squarely with the issue. Retired Bishop Talbert disregarded the request of the Resident Bishop of North Alabama, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, and performed a blessing of the wedding of a same gender couple in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s area. The Council of Bishop’s Executive Team had also asked Bishop Talbert not to be involved in this same gender blessing, but Bishop Talbert, acting, he says, out of his personal convictions, went ahead with the blessing. It was an action that the Council of Bishops could not ignore.
Two issues were at stake: One was the issue of the bishops’ covenant with each other, as what it means for a retired bishop to disregard the request of an active bishop in whose area of responsibility an action is taken. The second issue was the Council of Bishop’s action when a bishop commits an act of blatant disobedience of the Discipline which in his consecration to this office he pledged to uphold.
This action of Bishop Talbert heightened the tension inside and outside the church, with responses coming from every direction. Last week, Bishop Grant Hagiya, Bishop of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, wrote a blog suggesting “a way forward” in dealing with the tension and what is an obvious threat of schism. Three items in his blog were of special interest to me.
First of all, according to the Bishop, the Council chose to deal with Bishop Talbert’s violation disregarding the request of a fellow residential bishop not to come into her area, not with Bishop Talbert’s performing a same gender wedding.
Second, Bishop Hagiya responded to the whole issue by acknowledging that we United Methodists are divided in our understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, and pleading that we live civilly with our differences. The way he stated this was shocking to me.
“As I have stated many times in the past, I acknowledge my human sinfulness, and do not presume to believe that my position is the unequivocal truth. I cannot know God’s Truth on this issue, and can only stand on my limited conviction of what I believe. I will not force my convictions on those who believe the opposite.”
My question to the Bishop is, given your admission that you “cannot know God’s truth on this issue,” why can’t you trust the Church? And if you can’t trust the Church on this issue, how do you determine when to trust her and what you can trust her with?
Bishop Hagiya confessed that he believed the issue of Bishop Talbert violating the governance covenant was more important to the Council than his violation of the Church’s understanding of marriage. I hope he is wrong in that assessment of the mind of the Council. Who are our chief shepherds and teachers in United Methodism? Our pastors and bishops. What is the purpose of the General Conference and the Discipline of our Church?
We don’t need theology based upon our opinions. As Martin Luther once pointed out, the human heart is an idolatry factory. If we are going to be the Church, what we need is Biblically informed theology so that we can stand against the tide of secularism as the “people of God” set apart to represent God’s Kingdom.
It is clear: most Christian authorities and bodies view marriage (also called Holy Matrimony) as a relationship instituted and ordained by God for the lifelong relationship between one man as husband and one woman as wife. They consider it the most intimate of human relationships, a gift from God, and a sacred institution. This is what we say we believe as United Methodists. Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith. Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider it a Sacrament. Biblically, it is to be “held in honor among all….”[Heb. 13:4]
Jesus Christ underscored the importance and sacredness of lifelong marriage in his own teachings. He stated that God had created mankind as male and female, [Genesis 1:27] and that in marriage “‘the two will become one flesh’. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”[Matt. 19:5b-6]
This is the corporate, and continuing witness of the Church. We need to keep in mind that how we think must not be restricted to random feelings and even individual interpretation of Scripture; We need to be in harmony with the whole Body of Christ and all the saints now and forever.
I have appreciated my relationship with Bishop Hagiya through the years, having served with him in different areas of the Church’s life. I experience him as a deeply committed Christ follower. I am certain he is earnest and sincere when he says,
We cannot resort to beating each other up because we are on opposite sides of this issue. We need to model the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ in our relationships. This means we need to do the hard work of sharing openly how we disagree, not to try to convert the other, but to work to a greater understanding and acceptance of our differences. This is what it means to be unified in Christ Jesus: It is not a bland acceptance of everything, but to hold together even when we vehemently disagree with each other.
Thus my third concern. We have worked hard in sharing openly, we have conferenced (albeit, I’m not sure how holy), we have had special task forces to work on our unity–all of this processed by the only body in our church that can make official decisions about who we are and what we believe (the General Conference), yet he (even as a bishop) seems unwilling to trust the church in its decision making. Seemingly, he is saying he will not trust the church and abide by the church’s decisions until the church decides to affirm his own personal beliefs about marriage and ordination. In all due respects, this does not seem like a way forward to me.
I submit that Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Conference is forging a better way forward. In a January 15 gathering of all ministers (elders, deacons, licensed local pastors, and associate clergy members) of his conference, he addressed the challenge our church is facing. He insisted there were three non negotiable and basic characteristics of unity: doctrine, our mission (to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world), and the UMC’s Discipline. He said, “power is lodged in our conferring together” While there will inevitable be disagreements with General Conference decisions, Bishop Jones explained that the denomination’s connectional, discipline-shaped identity means that “we are [nevertheless] loyal to the decisions we make together” and the process by which we make them.
Again, I ask Bishop Hagiya, why can’t you trust the Church? And if you can’t trust the Church on this issue, how do you determine when to trust her and what you can trust her with?
Too many in Methodism, Protestantism & evangelicalism think of the marriage issue, as nearly all issues, as one of private conscience plus the Bible. But we as Christians cannot think and reason apart from the universal church. We need a reminder of how we are to think in sync with the whole Body of Christ and all the saints now and forever.