Homosexuality will divide Methodists, theologian tells world gathering

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Dozens of demonstrators, including Steve and Leigh Dry of Lexington, Mass., took over the floor of a May 3 session of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla., demanding a more inclusive church. The group and others like it may soon be getting their wish. | UMNS/Paul Jeffrey

HOUSTON (Christian Examiner) – Division among the congregations of the United Methodist Church over homosexuality is now unavoidable, a church elder and professor at Southern Methodist University has claimed before a global gathering of church leaders.

Rev. Ted Campbell, professor of church history at SMU's Perkins School of Theology, said during the church's World Methodist Conference Sept. 1 that "the question at this point is not whether we divide or not."

"That, I fear, is a given now," Campbell said, according to the denomination's official news service.

[T]his matter now has the functional status of an 'essential' or 'necessary' teaching alongside the teachings of the ancient church and the Reformation and the Wesleyan movement as something that unites and divides us.

Methodists have been struggling to find a unified voice on the issue of homosexuality for more than a decade, but the debate heated up in July when Methodists in the church's Western Jurisdictional Conference elected their first openly-lesbian bishop, Rev. Karen Oliveto, in defiance of the church's long-standing teaching that homosexuality is at odds with Scripture and the church's Book of Discipline.

"I think at this moment I have a glimpse of the realm of God," Oliveto said after the election. "I want to thank the candidates who I have journeyed with these past few days, for the grace with which we walked with each other. And know I stand before you because of the work and prayers of so many, especially those saints who yearned to live for this day, who blazed a trail where there was none, who are no longer with us, and yet whose shoulders I stand on."

Oliveto said the church, by her election, had taken a step closer to "perfection."

At the time, Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the UMC's Council of Bishops, said Oliveto's election "raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity."

While Ough said the council does not have any authority to intervene in the placement of the bishop, he added theat "being a self-avowed, practicing homosexual is a chargeable offense for any clergyperson in The United Methodist Church, if indeed this is the case."

Campbell addressed the issue at the conference, the news service said, largely through the lens of church history. He said the church should have unity in beliefs that are "essential" and liberty in those that are not.

However, due to the fact that so many Methodists are willing to defy the ban while others are willing to uphold what Scripture teaches, Campbell said they have already suffered a de facto separation.

"So this matter now has the functional status of an 'essential' or 'necessary' teaching alongside the teachings of the ancient church and the Reformation and the Wesleyan movement as something that unites and divides us," Campbell said.

Church doctrine on human sexuality always has been an essential. 

The early church's teaching, explored in the Didache (teaching), prohibits homosexuality, as does the Apostolic Constitutions, an early fifth century document. Early churchmen such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Novation, Arnobius, Basil the Great, Cyprian of Carthage and John Chrysostem, all figures from the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Periods (the Council of Nicaea was held in A.D. 325), also wrote about the sinfulness of homosexuality. Augustine, the great doctor of the Latin church, wrote that God "has not made men to use one another in this way."

Ough told the meeting of Methodists that he was preparing to name a commission which would examine revisions to church policies on homosexuality. He also expressed his appreciation for Campbell's frankness, but also concern at the tone of hopelessness.

"I believe it's important that we not start the work of the commission making assumptions that we're already divided and there's no way back," Ough said.

"I think it's far more helpful, and also far more faithful, to assume that God's imagination is greater than our impoverished imagination, and that if we surrender to that we might discover ways to be together that might look different, but nonetheless continue and affirm our unity."