This is the second in a series of responses to a statement Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church shared with a LGBT community near Orlando and the greater Church. RMN seeks foster a continuing conversation, and is grateful for Bishop Carter's willingness to engage in sharing his own perspective and listen to the voices of others.
- by Dr. Leland Spencer -
I write with deep ambivalence about the statement made by Florida Bishop Ken Carter, which was posted on this blog last week. I concur with Mary Ann Kaiser’s celebration that the bishop made a pastoral statement as a leader in the church. I am glad the tone of the statement is grounded in love and grace. Yet, I grieve that I have to feel relieved when I discover that such a statement is loving and graceful. How are we doing if we celebrate a statement simply because it isn’t explicitly harmful?
In response to the details of the statement,
1. I agree entirely with Bishop Carter’s first section, where he celebrates the centrality of grace in the United Methodist tradition. Indeed, the grace we profess is a primary reason I remain United Methodist. My hope is that we one day live out the grace the affirm theologically in our polity and practice.
2. The framing of, in Bishop Carter’s words, “the gay/lesbian question” in the life of the church as an instantiation of a larger “culture war” is somewhat troubling for me. If we are talking about “an issue” or “the gay/lesbian question,” we may forget that these conversations and rules are in fact about people’s lives. The language in the Discipline is no less than an act of violence on our lives, bodies, relationships, and calls to ministry; as such, we must resist attempts to depersonalize the conversation into a debate about “issues” or “questions.” Further, the construction of a continuum with justice on the “left” and judgment on the “right” and grace as a middle ground between them strikes me as reductionistic. I have always understood Reconciling work as proclaiming the Good News that God’s grace is more available than the church imagines. The struggle is not between judgment and justice, but between withholding grace or offering it abundantly.
3. I’m largely in agreement with Bishop Carter’s third, fourth, and fifth sections. Again I celebrate that he brings a Wesleyan understanding of grace to talking about the church’s position on human sexuality. In his application of sanctifying grace, Bishop Carter tries to summarize the scriptural understandings of people with varying levels of agreement with the church’s current stance. While I would write such a summary differently, I don’t have any serious concerns with his. The heading of the fifth section is especially encouraging to me, and I agree that exclusion is an obstacle to mission.
4. In the sixth section, Bishop Carter urges patience. For those with privilege and power, calls to patience seem reasonable, but I would be remiss if I failed to point out the parallels between this call to patience and a similar appeal by seemingly progressive Methodist Bishops in 1963. Responding to Bishops Hardin and Harmon (and six other white clergy), the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” The United Methodist Church has for more than 40 years denied the full humanity of lesbian and gay people, yet many of us remain. We have been patient. We have waited. How much longer, bishop, should our patience endure? In this same section, Bishop Carter appeals to Wesley’s sermon on the catholic spirit, the limits of which I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog.
5. Bishop Carter’s concluding sections note that everyone lives in ways that incompatible with Christian teaching. While he wants to deny that sexuality ought to constitute anyone’s identity, such a position reflects heterosexual privilege rather than the reality for people whose bodies, lives, relationships, and call to ministry are threatened by the church’s policies and teachings. I am encouraged, though, that Bishop Carter is “convinced that welcoming gays and lesbians will open us more fully to their gifts, among them testimonies of courage and patience, faith and grace.” I have a similar conviction, but I doubt that patience will get us there. The church is never truly open to the gifts of people its Discipline defines as incompatible with Christian teaching.
I conclude, then, that a benevolent ambivalence is one appropriate response to this statement. Do I wish bishops would take riskier, more prophetic stances? Yes, but I also recognize that bishops are supposed to be pastors for the whole church and are committed to uphold the Discipline, even if they might disagree with it in part. Benevolent ambivalence means I’m torn, but overall, positively disposed to the bishop’s statement: it isn’t a step backward, and it’s probably not much of a step forward, but it is some kind of movement. We can work with that.
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Leland G. Spencer IV, a lifelong United Methodist, holds a PhD in communication studies from the University of Georgia, where he teaches classes in communication and women's studies. Leland holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Cincinnati (2009). While in Cincinnati, Leland served as the worship intern at the Wesley Foundation. Leland is a 2007 graduate of Mount Union College, a United Methodist-related school in Alliance, Ohio. Leland served as a part-time local pastor at Mapleton United Methodist Church in the East Ohio Conference from 2005 until 2007 when Leland withdrew from the candidacy process because of the United Methodist Church's exclusive position about the ordination of LGB persons.