Google GMC and you get a car company. Spell it out and you get the Board of Global Ministries of the UMC. And yet, it is easy to find information about the new denomination called the Global Methodist Church. There are many remarkable, even shocking, things about this proposal. Here are a few personal observations.
To start with, the word “homosexual” is not used anywhere, nor is the word “incompatible,” even though this has been at the center of the struggle for years. I applaud this positive and progressive move. No one should be defined by a “single story” of their lives, especially with a word that was listed as a psychological disorder when originally put into the Book of Discipline and is still misused in some translations of scripture to connote abusive, promiscuous, and hedonistic behaviors. All agree that such behaviors are incompatible with Christian teachings and not to be “practiced.” The irony here is that the UMC could be left with the baggage of this language.
In this struggle, we now read this from the GMC: “We believe that human sexuality is a gift of God that is to be affirmed as it is exercised within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.” This statement begs questions like, can human sexuality not be affirmed in any other way? What about a kiss on a date? Is human sexuality not expressed through the way we present and see ourselves? And with these high ideals of legal, spiritual, loving, and monogamous, why is divorce not mentioned anywhere?
The very next statement reads, “We are saddened by all expressions of sexual behavior that do not recognize the sacred worth of each individual or that seek to exploit, abuse, objectify, or degrade others, or that represent less than God’s intentional design for His children.” This statement starts so well, but then ends with code-words that lump a lot of faithful people into this list of truly harmful behaviors, as those in need healing because of “brokenness in their sexual lives.” This is “saddening.”
In a similar vein there is an explicit call to inclusiveness. Again, it starts well, inviting openness and acceptance of many. And then it comes to gender with an explicit definition that leaves no room for anything other than a strict binary understanding. Gender is defined “by a person’s immutable biological traits identified by or before birth.” Many would use the term “sex” in this way, with gender referring to self-identity, and how one fits into expected roles within a particular culture. This statement, however, draws a hard line, alienating and singling out some who do not “fit.”
And then it goes further. While all may “participate in the spiritual life of the Church…inclusiveness means the freedom for the total involvement of all persons who meet the requirements of our Book of Doctrine and Discipline in the membership and leadership of the Church at any level and in every place.” Suddenly it becomes very exclusive! I wonder who can stand up to this scrutiny and who gets to be the judge! In terms of policies, the move to a congregational system of selecting leaders might also delude commitments to inclusiveness at other levels as well – for women and minorities. (There are lots of policy implications to consider around this – term limits, trust clause, no guaranteed appointments, etc.).
In terms of doctrine, the similarities with the United Methodist Book of Discipline are hard to miss. There are certainly not enough differences to warrant schism. One big difference is the inclusion of creeds more directly into doctrine. This is a shift since John Wesley removed the creeds from statements on doctrine and put the Apostle’s Creed into the official liturgy. In the UMC, we are to be formed and transformed as we affirm the creeds together in regular worship. Is there danger in separating them from this context and using them to enforce “right belief” independent from worship? It seems to me that such questions could bring us into conversation rather than pull us apart.
In the UMC, the Social Principles are not law. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive, while “acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel.” In the GNC, the statements of “Social Witness” do seem to be enforced at a stronger level. Yet, once again we see a softening. In earlier drafts, the “Social Witness” represented a “clear and unified voice,” with direct implications for policy. In the latest version, it now reads, “As a global church, our Social Witness represents a consensus vision transcending cultures…It is a summons to prayerfully consider how to “do good” and “do not harm…” It almost sounds United Methodist!
Don’t get me wrong, there is much in place to make change difficult, including a threshold of a three-quarters vote to change the social witness. And there is talk of strengthening stances at a convening conference. That seems to be part of the strategy. But, as the saying goes, “life finds a way.” We might add, “Love finds a way.” Our living God finds a way. As a new denomination is being proposed, they seem to be leaving room for change, perhaps struggling with how to be a global church built around one perspective or “party,” and recognizing the overtones of colonialism in this attempt. Perhaps God is getting in, through the cracks, and revealing the harm that is inflicted when a party forgets that it is “part” of a larger whole and tries to become a whole unto itself. All of this leads me to wonder, what is this really about? And, can the UMC be a church where all are welcomed and honored and where our willingness to engage in hard and holy conversation is a part of our witness to the world?