In the wake of the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference, D. Stephen Long wrote a short, thoughtful piece defending the proposal of the Council of Bishops that the conference formally adopted. That position, in brief, is to table the discussion and deliberation about the church’s position on sexuality until a special committee can be formed to study the issue. The Council recommended that a special general conference be called when this committee reaches a conclusion.
Long’s post is a defense of waiting on this issue, of holding off a decision. He explains that there can be wisdom in waiting for clarity to emerge, for deeper reflection and discussion to occur. As of now, Long correctly asserts, the church cannot speak with one voice on this issue. Any decision is therefore divisive. I must say that on many issues that afflict the church, I can see considerable wisdom in such an argument. While I have a ton of respect for Long as a theologian and ethicist, I’m not convinced by his argument here.
First, I am not persuaded that the wisdom of waiting is appropriate for issues of justice. When the dignity of individuals is being undermined – which I grant is only one perspective on the issue, but it certainly is a legitimate one – waiting is morally charged because it perpetuates the problematic standing rule or decision. Long seems to recognize this sort of argument when he mentions Martin Luther King’s powerful response to those who told him to slow down and be patient for social change. Yet he is quick to point out that the issue before us is not the protection of individual rights but the nature of ordination and marriage. On the one hand this is obviously true: we’re debating ecclesial concerns and not legal ones. On the other hand, however, Long almost seems to imply that therefore the issue before us isn’t a justice issue, that issues of human dignity aren’t at stake. The stakes are lower, he seems to argue, because the issue is an internal, ecclesial one rather than an external, social/legal one. Now, it may be more pressing or immediately important to cement social and legal protections before sorting out our ecclesial views on the issue (although it shouldn’t be overlooked how the latter can influence the former). Ensuring protection from violence and broad discrimination is critical. But, even then, how important is the ecclesial issue? Because all I seem to gather from a piece like this, and I’ve heard similar things from others, is that the ecclesial issue isn’t as big a deal as the social/legal one. Or, its cousin, that it isn’t important enough issue over which the church should split. Even if that’s true, it isn’t enough of an answer.
Responses like this can come across as dismissive. Instead of arguing why it’s an important issue and what’s at stake, even if it is less pressing as the legal one, moderates (like Long seems to be) end up making the case – implicitly if not explicitly – that it isn’t important enough for anything drastic to happen. What goes completely unmentioned, if not unrecognized, is that some people’s call to minister the Gospel, and some people’s desire to marry the ones they love within their faith communities, are being denied. That isn’t incendiary language. It’s the fact of the matter.
Second, while Long is correct that no consensus on the issue currently exists, it seems an unruly precedent to establish that decisions can only come by way of universal agreement. Not to mention, it isn’t the way the church works when it comes to countless other issues – including the passage of the Council of Bishop’s proposal to wait. Again, intentionally or not, such a move preserves the status quo. It may be that no other way forward is possible, but it has to be recognized that waiting is not neutral in effect.
Finally, though I think Long is correct to push for theologies of sexuality, I think we also need more robust theologies of marriage. I’m not convinced that we’ve done enough thinking about the nature and purpose of marriage. The more I reflect on the issue, the more I think clearer thinking about marriage might help lead the way.