Following one of the most extensive consultation exercises ever undertaken by the Methodist Church, the Conference meeting in Derby in 1993 expressed its mind on the issues relating to Human Sexuality. There were six resolutions approved by the Conference in all, but the two which are most pertinent regarding homosexuality are resolutions 4 and 6.
Resolution 4 reads:
The Conference reaffirms the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality; namely chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it. The Conference directs that this affirmation is made clear to all candidates for ministry, office and membership, and having established this, affirms that the existing procedures of our church are adequate to deal with all such cases.
And resolution 6:
Conference recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church. Conference calls on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights, and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality.
During the eleven years since those decisions were taken I have often been asked how these two resolutions relate to one another. For those experienced in the workings of the Methodist Conference this is very clear, but for others it is not so. Let me try to explain.
When the issue came before the Conference there was a whole host of resolutions for consideration. Ordinary Conference members had tabled most of them. They expressed a wide variety of opinions. These were presented in the debate in such a way that there was no risk of Conference approving contradictory resolutions. So, for example, when one resolution was passed others were not placed before the Conference if they were clearly contradictory of the ones already approved. It was on this basis that resolutions 4 and 6 came before us. Resolution 4 came first and, having passed it, Conference then went on to approve resolution 6. It is clear, therefore, that resolution 6 with its affirmation of homosexuals cannot contradict resolution 4 but only operate within the boundaries which resolution 4 had already marked very clearly. Had it been seen to contradict resolution 4 it would not have been placed before the Conference for a decision.
In the two years following the Derby Conference this understanding was challenged and on several occasions Conference was asked to clarify its position. It always refused to do so. It did not need to. The position was very clear and to return to this issue again and again would have been to rub salt into the wounds of some who were already hurting. Outside the Conference, however, a whole variety of interpretations were being made and the Methodist people were at risk of dividing over this issue. It was at a subsequent Conference, meeting in Blackpool, that the President made a statement acknowledging this risk, making the position clear and confirming this interpretation.
So that is where we are, like it or not. The Methodist Church makes a clear distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual practice. It believes the Christian attitude to human sexuality is best described as chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it. Having said that, it acknowledges that there are Christians who are of homosexual orientation. This ought not, in itself, to be a bar to membership, office or ministry. Indeed it affirms and celebrates such ministry, but it does not condone homosexual practice. It is this position that has safeguarded the unity of the Methodist Church for the last eleven years.
Since 1993 much has changed. The social climate in which we live is much more open to committed homosexual relationships than it was eleven years ago. This is reflected in national and European legislation. And there has been a change in the minds of some Christians. For some the issue does not seem as important as once it was, and the views of others have been challenged by the friendships which they have had with homosexual people.
It must also be acknowledged that within the Methodist Church the interpretation of these resolutions has not been universally accepted. There is a real danger that some have understood them to mean whatever they want them to mean. Part of the problem we face is that the way they are upheld and enforced seems to depend on which District of the Methodist Church you happen to be in.
Further, an atmosphere has been generated in our church which seems to suggest that it is just a matter of time before homosexual practice within committed relationships is acknowledged as acceptable Christian conduct. The pilgrimage referred to in Resolution 6 has been seen as one from the traditional position to one which acknowledges homosexual practice as an acceptable Christian lifestyle. The journey is designed just to give us time to catch up with the rest. This view is sometimes promoted in Methodist publications where more coverage is given to the pro-homosexual view than to the position traditionally occupied by evangelical Christians. I would like to see evidence that the conservative evangelical position on this issue is given an equal emphasis in our theological colleges and on ministerial training courses, because all the anecdotal evidence I hear is to the contrary. Those who believe that on this issue the Bible says what it means and means what it says are made to feel as though they are the odd ones out, rather quaint, and misguided. Within the church as well as in the world the legitimacy of a traditional understanding of scripture on this matter is widely seen as prejudiced. To challenge homosexuality or to uphold a traditional understanding of biblical teaching is labeled homophobic.
The unity of the church will not be safeguarded in that way. Those evangelicals who may already feel isolated are being more and more marginalized. So let us be quite clear. We do not need to apologise for agreeing with scripture. We do not need to feel threatened by agreeing with the interpretation of scripture which has been widely accepted for twenty centuries. We refute any accusation that we are rocking the boat when we share the same view as the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world church today. We will not apologise for holding a view which safeguards the unity of the church when the clear evidence is that where a church has modified that view it has resulted in schism.
But all this belies a deeper issue. It concerns how we safeguard the unity of the church when its members hold divergent views with very strong convictions. How do we continue in fellowship, holding one another in love, acknowledging the sincerity of the other person yet disagreeing profoundly with what they say? This too is a question that has exercised the church from the very beginning. It led to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, lay behind the formulation of the major creeds of the church and, where it has not been answered satisfactorily has resulted in untold hurt and pain.
To put it the other way round: what constitutes an issue so serious that it should rightly divide the church? The Methodist Conference has made statements about a whole range of issues: Freemasonry, pacifism and civil disobedience to name but a few. I may or may not agree with them. If I disagree with the Conference does that give me the right to break fellowship with my sisters and brothers? What makes human sexuality so different? These are very real questions. They cannot be avoided. The unity of the church is of primary importance, as anyone who reads the New Testament knows. We cannot contradict one New Testament principle by upholding another.
Speaking personally, I believe that the current position has preserved the unity of the church for eleven years and ought to be maintained, even though a wide variety of people find it less than ideal. I am called to serve Christ as a Methodist minister and that is what I will do until God tells me otherwise, the Church throws me out or a position is created whereby it is impossible to uphold biblical truth and remain within the Methodist Church - something which I do not anticipate. If I did not leave Methodism when it was unpopular to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, I am not going to leave over this issue. I am here to stay. I’m in for the long haul. I will continue to proclaim biblical truth, as I believe it to be, when it is popular and when it is not, when it reflects the majority view and when it does not. If that proves to be an embarrassment I am sorry, but I did not write the New Testament. Yet through it all I will recognize that I am called to offer that truth in the most loving and winsome way possible. Only the Holy Spirit can convict of sin. I will not try to do his work for him. I will proclaim the gospel as I understand it to be, trust the authority of scripture and pray for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of preachers and hearers alike. And I have every right to expect the same kind of respect from those who disagree with me as they expect me to offer them.
One last thing. The Derby Resolutions are built on a foundation of honesty and trust. Within the Church we are trusting one another with regard to our conduct and whether or not that is compatible with the position which the Church had accepted as its own. The alternative, some kind of witch-hunt with everyone snooping on everyone else with a view to bringing charges, is totally unacceptable. When the debate was at its height, time and again the leaders of our Church addressed me and other leaders within the evangelical constituency by saying 'Trust us!' We have done so. We will continue to do so, though it saddens us whenever we hear evidence that suggests our trust has been betrayed. The trust we place in the officers of our Church requires them to act when they know that the decisions the Church has made are being ignored and when our agreed understanding is being contravened. Trust and trustworthiness belong together.
Rev D Paul C Smith is Superintendent Minister of Plymouth Central Hall and Chair of Headway
Headline Winter 2004/5 pp 13-14.