Legislation in a Post-Modern Church
This is the third part of a seven part series in response to Adam Hamilton’s proposal, A Way Forward.
Let us now focus on the actual legislative aspect of the proposal. The proposal seeks to keep the current Discipline language which states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.” According to the proposal, this language is retained and remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. Then, in a strange legislative vision, it goes on to create a second level of legislation which would allow Methodist churches to legally disobey the Discipline and, with the support of their pastor and a 66% vote, formalize same-sex marriages. Likewise, annual conferences could vote and choose to ordain and appoint gay and lesbian pastors. So, legislatively, the UMC would be put in the unenviable position of having to write legislation whereby, on the one hand, a law was established, only to be followed by another law which would allow people to disobey the earlier law.
We end up with two completely different “orthodoxies” – one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One church would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other church would teach that it is a sacrament. One church would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other church a sign of wholeness.
The fact that the document actually proposes this without blinking just might be an indicator that we have now embraced post-modernity. Indeed, this just might be one of the clearest examples of a truly post-modern document in the contemporary United Methodist Church. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become, in their view, a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known. Let’s not forget that there has been precious little haggling over the meaning of actual texts in this struggle. The loss of energy for the real serious exegetical work has demonstrated the new meaninglessness of such an endeavor in a post-modern world where everything is possible and nothing is certain.
Alas, why would we think that the epistemological crisis which has engulfed post-modernity would only influence the way this generation reads the Bible? If the Bible is now read as nothing more than 1st century “perspectives” where nothing can be truly known for certain, and we have no objective revelation from God, then why wouldn’t we expect that this is how the Discipline might be regarded as well? Now, even morality is market driven, commoditized, and, distributed by “supply and demand” through a super majority vote to the church nearest you. What is moral on main street just might not be regarded as moral across town, but, ne’er mind, everyone gets what they demand.
The document is highly pragmatic, even though it is clothed in religious language. Truth as truth (revelation) has been deposed. We are left with seemingly endless shades of personal opinion and personal preferences, all equally legitimate, with no way to adjudicate anything. So the only thing left to do legislatively is to legislate endless accommodations.
The tragedy of this epistemological collapse is that not only can we no longer read the Bible with confidence; we can’t even get guidance from John Wesley or Phoebe Palmer. But, take heart, the church has seen much darker days than this. In times of difficulty God always raises up better hearers of the gospel. Never forget that the gospel of Jesus Christ is still true and the pre-eminence of the light of Christ will guide us to better days.
Tomorrow’s blog will explore whether this “Third Way” can actually work.