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UM Bishops' Silence On Homosexuality, Puzzling?  Not!

Why the Silence?

The puzzling question is: why has the Council of Bishops remained silent about The United Methodist Church and homosexuality? The Order for the Consecration of Bishops, in The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 700-710), clearly urges the bishops to speak up. At one point, the Order describes the ministry of bishops: "You are called to guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church... As servants of the whole Church, you are called to preach and teach the truth of the gospel to all God's people..." In addition, bishops promise to "accept the call to this ministry...and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ." Furthermore, they vow to "guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God's Word." To be sure, bishops of The United Methodist Church have all they need to accomplish this high calling and these difficult tasks. They have been blessed with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Scriptures, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, the Great Tradition, the episcopal office, the church's doctrine and discipline, theological education, resources for communication, and on and on. And yet, the Council of Bishops remains silent on this essential issue. Why?

Three Possible Reasons

One reason often given for the silence of the Council of Bishops is that the bishops themselves are not of one mind with regard to homosexual behavior. That is undoubtedly true, as was demonstrated once again at this General Conference. However, The United Methodist Church has doctrine and discipline (decided by many General Conferences) on this matter, and all bishops have vowed to teach and practice what the church teaches and practice. Therefore, the bishops in dissent should not be allowed to set the agenda for the Council of Bishops. Indeed, they should keep their personal opinions on this matter, which are out of sync with historic-ecumenical Christianity, to themselves; then the other bishops on the Council can "guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God's Word." (Also, it could be noted that United Methodists are not of one mind about, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. Does that stop the church from teaching Trinitarian doctrine? Of course not.)

Another, more political, reason might be given for the silence of the Council. A political saying, from decades ago, claims that there are "no enemies on the left." That is, there is tendency for some to see no problems on the political-cultural-theological left. Such folks perceive problems only on the right—and there are many!—with ease. But these same people have difficulty mustering the will and the arguments to critique the church's challengers on the left. If that is the case, the Council will simply have to get over its ideological bias and gain the courage to assert the church's doctrine and discipline in our day.

A third reason might help to explain the Council's silence. A particular theological tradition, Liberal Protestantism, might be an unacknowledged block to the bishops teaching the Christian truth about human sexuality. Especially when Liberal Protestantism is distanced from the Church's Great Tradition of doctrine, morals, and theology, it fosters habits of heart and mind that resemble elite culture (which is made up of academic currents, entertainment fashions, and prestige-media assumptions in the West) and that let the autonomous individual make more and more choices based on prevailing elite culture. That is, Liberal Protestantism can demonstrate difficulty in decisively saying No or Yes; furthermore, it can have difficulty in giving reasons for its positions or lack thereof; thus, it can remain silent. In other words, this style of thinking advances a doctrinal, moral, and theological timidity in some crucial areas of church life—including moral teaching on human sexuality. If Liberal Protestantism is indeed silencing the Council of Bishops on human sexuality, only one or two courageous bishops might well challenge the Council's theological captivity and lead the Council to teach the church on sexuality.

Real Teaching, Real Leadership

Were the Council of Bishops to address the matter of homosexuality, in a loving, truthful way that is consistent with United Methodist teaching and with historic-ecumenical Christianity, the pressing dissent in the church would not simply vanish. Such teaching would not be a silver bullet for our denomination. However, such teaching would most certainly recast the atmosphere within the denomination, remind the church of its moral and ecclesial foundations, place those who object to the church's teaching in the role of dissenters, and bring a modicum of peace and unity that the church has not known for some time.

The issue here is leadership. The Council of Bishops seems very concerned about the local church's pastoral leadership and lay leadership; and that is good. However, at the same time, the Council might also pay attention to episcopal leadership and what that might require of the bishops. On his recent trip to the United States, Benedict XVI set an excellent example for all church leaders to ponder. Though tempted to do otherwise, Benedict did not avoid the sad, disgusting matter of priests' abuse of young people. He did not call this matter a "non-essential issue." Instead, he stepped up and addressed this situation in a direct, loving, and truthful way; and he met with several victims of the abuse. That is leadership, real leadership, in the Church.

United Methodists, laity and clergy, can and should expect no less leadership from the Council of Bishops in response to the rejection of the church's doctrine and discipline on homosexuality. The same Holy Spirit who empowers Benedict XVI also empowers the Council of Bishops and its members.

So, Council of Bishops, teach the gospel truth, in love, about human sexuality. Your teaching will help unify the church for the sake of The United Methodist Church's mission and ministry in the world.

Source: Lifewatch Newsletter, June 2008

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