The fundamental question for Methodism


The Churches have been struggling with the inclusion of open LGBTQ+ Christians for fifty years and more and many are still struggling. Since the introduction of legal same-sex marriage in many jurisdictions about the world, the churches in those places especially have been forced to address the question of whether they would bless or solemnize such unions. For the most part, with some notable exceptions, churches have either said an outright 'no' or 'can we think about it?'

For my own tradition, two of its branches are currently in the throes of debate about the next steps forward. The United Methodist Church, based in the US but covering 54 countries, is about to release its report on the Way Forward and take it to a vote next year. In the British Conference, a debate is scheduled for this July on the definition of marriage. I have been involved in numerous conversations about this over the last few months and get both frustrated and concerned that the question is framed around a zero-sum choice of yes/no to same-sex marriage with a consequential schism in the church, one way or the other. As in the past, when issues such as women's ordination or attitudes to race or war have been debated, this framing is intended to polarise opinion and create battle cries, not Christian conferring.

The fundamental question is not whether people are in favour of same-sex marriage. Recent consultations have clearly shown that a significant proportion of British Methodists are indeed in favour, with many others undecided. The question therefore really is: can you live in the same church with people who fundamentally disagree with you? A vote on the floor of Conference may affect our practice to a certain extent, but it will not change the reality of a Church whose members hold contradictory convictions. We have placed such emphasis on the vote itself that we fail to take seriously how we live the day after it.

This is not to say I will give up campaigning for recognition of same-sex marriage in British Methodism - far from it! But I would be happy to live with an 'official' position that says that Methodists disagree about these things. With pacifism and alcohol and abortion rights and remarriage after divorce and cohabitation, Methodists hold positions that are Biblically-based, theologically-reasoned and pastorally-informed, but often contradictory. Yet someone whose grandfather was imprisoned for conscientious objection and someone whose father flew bombing raids over Dresden sit next to one another every Sunday in chapels across the Connexion.

Twelve years ago, when it became clear that opinions on relationships were not going to converge, Methodism began talking about 'contradictory convictions'. To live well together with those with whom we disagree, we need ground-rules. Here are six assumptions to make about the other person that might help to form them:

  • that they have read their Bible, prayed and thought through their position;

  • that they have heard most or all of the arguments and don't need to be 'enlightened';

  • that they are trying to live as faithful and authentic a Christian life as you;

  • that their views and convictions shape them but do not completely define who they are - people are much more than the views they hold;

  • that they are open to listening and discussion with good grace and Christian love and will give you the same respect and courtesy as you give them;

  • that they want to be part of a Church that is faithful to the gospel and shares the love of Christ with all.

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