By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)
Yet again, a Western Jurisdiction bishop is using his position (subsidized by the other four U.S. regions of the United Methodist Church) to promote an end-run around established church policies and biblical teaching on sexual morality.
Bishop Warner Brown presides over the California-Nevada Conference, which encompasses the northern portions of those two states. After the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively allowing the legal redefinition of marriage in California to encompass same-sex pairings, Bishop Brown released a public response later the same day.
The focus of Bishop Brown’s statement is “what this ruling means for United Methodism, and specifically the California-Nevada Annual Conference.” He does not use this opportunity to issue a strongly worded, very explicit endorsement and celebration of this landmark victory for gay-rights advocates. He does remind readers of our denominational rules prohibiting the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” and notes that all United Methodist clergy have covenantally committed themselves to following our democratically established denominational rules, even when they may personally disagree. He also admits that the California-Nevada Conference includes members with a range of views on such issues, in refreshing contrast to how the oppressively dominant heterodox faction there has spoken and acted as if the evangelical United Methodists in the conference do not exist.
But the framing and trajectory of the statement leaves little doubt about Bishop Brown’s own liberal views on sexuality, juxtaposing today’s struggle for gay rights with yesteryear’s struggle for civil rights. The bishop also avoids any mention of the most directly relevant official United Methodist position, our “support [for] laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” which IRD President Mark Tooley submitted into the Book of Discipline at the 2004 General Conference and about which our U.S. United Methodist bishops and other church officials have remained steadfastly silent for nine years.
Bishop Brown even uses sloppy language suggesting that all those created in God’s image (i.e., all human beings) are “God’s children.” While all people are certainly preciously loved by their Creator, and made in His image, the New Testament describes “children of God” as persons who have by grace come to faith in Him.
To his credit, Bishop Brown does not join recent dissident calls for United Methodist clergy to personally perform same-sex union services in defiance of church law. But for United Methodist clergy asked to lead such ceremonies, he “encourage[s] pastors to reach out to their ecumenical partners” and help the same-sex partners in question find clergy of another faith community to wed them.
Bishop Warner calls non-Methodist clergy offering same-sex blessings for homosexual partners a form of “pastoral care.” Since the bishop apparently does not share the church’s view that sex outside of marriage between husband and wife is inherently sinful, he does not counsel encouragement of repentance, self-denial, and taking up one’s cross to follow Christ as the proper form of “pastoral care.”
I realize that some may see relative value in such nudging of heterodox clergy in a slightly different direction than very direct defiance of United Methodist Church law. But the Brown Proposal has the same moral consistency as saying that it would be wrong for me to sell drugs to someone who wanted them but it would also be a moral obligation for me to help them find a willing drug dealer.
(I understand that many self-identified gay and lesbian people find such an analogy to be offensive, and it is not my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings. But it is worth pressing the question of why this is offensive. If you really listen to the rhetoric of pro-homosexuality activists in our denomination, you will notice that the outrage expressed against listing homosexual practice alongside other sins sounds like they are saying, “How DARE you compare us to THOSE people??! THOSE people are SINNERS, and thus so obviously inferior to us!” But anyone who thinks of sinners as a category of other people either does not understand or does not believe in the Gospel at the most basic level, as we are all sinners equally needing God’s constant grace.)
Bishop Warner portrays the introduction of legally recognized same-sex marriage as a new situation for ministry in the conference, since now pastors may be approached by same-sex couples seeking to be married. But such changes in civil law change nothing about the biblical or church-law requirements for United Methodist ministers. As far as the church is concerned, all United Methodist ministers and congregations asked to conduct or host “[c]eremonies that celebrate homosexual unions” (prohibited by Discipline ¶341.6) face the same situation, regardless of whatever sort of legal status the civil authorities may or may not bestow on such a union. Attempts to pretend otherwise are ploys of pro-homosexuality advocates to pressure the church to reconsider its alignment with biblical teaching.
Bishop Warner oddly asserts that that his exhortation to seek ecumenical assistance in working around clear biblical and United Methodist teaching is something that he “must” do. But he vowed in his ordination and consecration fully to uphold United Methodist belief and practice.
Sadly, Bishop Brown is not alone. Too many United Methodist bishops, for the most part, have shown little evidence of courage in promoting accountability to biblical teaching and our covenantal church policies among themselves. In fact, they unanimously elected Brown as the Council of Bishops president, for a two-year term beginning next year.
In related news, in the past year of Bishop Brown’s leadership, congregations in the California-Nevada Conference saw attendance drop by a whopping 9.2 percent.