You need two wings AND understanding to fly #UMC [2of2]

Open Letter responding to Bishop Coyner's letter re: the Western Jurisdiction

This is a two-part series of responses to some high-level letters regarding our future in the United Methodist Church as a diverse body.

We must love them both, those with whom we agree, and those with whom we disagree. For both have labored in the search of truth, and both have helped in the finding of it.

~ Saint Thomas Aquinas

My first interaction with United Methodist Bishop Coyner of Indiana was General Conference 2012, a few days before he would preside over the session of GC that dealt with homosexuality. I had to leave early and was not present during the discussion and ensuing protest. Bishop Coyner presided over that debate, and then when the protest ensued, he infamously closed the conference floor to visitors (who outnumbered the delegates 2:1). This was voided by the following presiding Bishop Scott Jones (Great Plains), but it struck with me: how could a Bishop throw out all of the visitors because of the actions of a few?

Yesterday, Bishop Coyner again blamed the multitudes for the words of a few (or, as Spock would say, the one). This is the second time in a month that a Southern non-Western Bishop has criticized the Western Jurisdiction, by the way. In his regular email to his constituency, Bishop Coyner makes several claims about the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church that many others have already responded to:

  1. The Western Jurisdiction is engaged in Neo-Colonialism, citing the words of Bishop Carcano. For a response, read Bishop Carcano’s comments here and Anthony Fatta’s response here.
  2. The Western Jurisdiction is a shallow reflection of Dr. King’s “very poor substitute for the honorable practice of civil disobedience as expressed most clearly by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” For a response, read Andy Oliver’s post here and Bishop Hoshibata’s comments here.
  3. Finally, the Western Jurisdiction would have done better to invest in prayer and discernment and study. It’s this last point that I would like to respond to.

The presumption by Bishop Coyner is that the Western Jurisdiction is without “a time of prayerful discernment, study, and holy-conferencing on this issue.” Indeed, their actions clearly did not come “in an atmosphere of prayer, theological reflection, humility, listening to God and listening to one another.”

This reflects a common presumption: the Traditionalists take the bible more seriously than Progressives. That the reason the Western Jurisdiction has fallen off the ecclesial cliff is that they do not do the theological reflection necessary to stay on the rigid path.

However, that is not the case. Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, in her Boston University dissertation, analyzed ALL the recorded floor speeches that dealt with homosexuality from 1968-2008 and categorized them as appeals to one or more aspects of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If Bishop Coyner was asked, clearly he would think that those “more conservative” would appeal to the Bible more than those “more liberal.” However, that is not exactly the case. Here’s the graphic from her dissertation:

As you can see, Liberals and Conservatives used Scripture almost equally as a “point” in their sermons (Steinwert’s term for floor speeches). The bigger discrepancies come from Conservatives referencing “Tradition” more and Liberals using “reason” and “Experience” more.

So, those with understanding will see that the Bible grants inspiration to both sides of this ecclesial divide. Bishop Coyner, in his remarks, clearly believes that if those pesky Progressives read their bible more, they wouldn’t be on this path. But that is not the case–not today, and not when the good Bishop was in seminary.

Bishop Coyner, the good people in the Western Jurisdiction did not just wake up one day and throw a temper tantrum. Their stance on Biblical Obedience was reached as a collective whole by vote after individual reflection and journey…many of them decades in the making. To dismiss them as without reflection or dedication to biblical understanding is to fall far short of their mark.

Instead, through Reason and Experience (informed by the Bible) the Western Jurisdiction has determined that there is a way forward and they are offering Biblical Obedience as that path. Their way is essentially “Change the prohibition or ignore it. It is wrong.”

We need a left and a right wing to fly. That is true. But we also need understanding as to how the two wings work together and coordinate to help the bird soar. The Western Jurisdiction is claiming that perhaps the two wings do not have to have the exact same polity to be in the same mission and the same church together. That uniform expression of mission is a hindrance to unity in mission, and the Western Jurisdiction is tired of being out-of-touch with the creeping secular culture that will have a strangehold on the Bible Belt in a decade or so…and it can’t wait. Diversity in mission is already unofficially the case as our United Methodist Church has strong regional differences (and I’ve served in three jurisdictions now…it’s true) and varying degrees of theological concern…this Biblical Obedience movement just makes plain what is already in practice.

This is an offered way forward (contrary to Bishop Coyner’s claims), and it will be the path for the next three years until General Conference 2016 (which will be hosted JUST down the road from my church in Portland, Oregon) or until the Judicial Council strikes it down. Either way, it is a way forward, it is offered after intense theological and biblical reflection, and it is offered in the United Methodist Spirit. Time will tell whether it was the best way forward or not.


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  1. says

    Not to be too picky, for I agree with much of what you say, but it’s wrong to call Coyner a southern bishop, for he resides in the North Central jurisdiction rather than either of the two southern regions. Certainly his opinion resonates with some in the south, but not all by any means, and to focus on the regionalism is to fall into the same trap that my colleagues in the south wander into when they suggest that everyone in the Western Jurisdiction is liberal (something that I know folks in Cal-Nevada might bristle against).Yes, Coyner represents a particular theological perspective, but it isn’t necessarily a “southern” perspective. Again, I may be being too sensitive and picky about this characterization, and if so I apologize, but let’s try not to fall into the trap of generalizations in our critique of others.

    • says

      Whoops! Thanks for the correction. I fixed it in the post. However, I do believe regionalism is a valid component of discussion given te vast differences I’ve seen serving in 3 jurisdictions.

  2. Tiffany Steinwert says

    Perhaps the most important finding out of the analysis of the data was not the insignificant difference between appeals to Scripture by those more conservative and those more liberal (statistically the 5.3% difference is not *technically* significant), but rather the overall infrequency with which appeals to Scripture were made by people on all sides of the debate. Scripture was the least cited norm. In fact, agruments from Scripture do not reach the General Conference floor until 1980.

    The 40 year debate, as a whole, has focused more on issues of tradition…that is ecclesiological issues thaht pertain to the nature and identity of the Church itself.

    To say this conflict is a result of conflicting Biblical interpretations is an oversimplification that at best presents the conflict as an irreconcilable difference (something we simply have to live with) and at worst maligns and marginalizes certain people (portraying progressives as devoid of Scriptural authority). This type of reductionism is a cheap rhetorical trick that does no service to the denomination.

    The real debate is not over hermeuntics, but rather over who the Church is and ought to be.

  3. Sean Johnson says

    While Bishop Coyner’s choice of words, especially the use of the phrase “neo-colonialism” might have been poor, I do support his point. The action taken by the Western Jurisdiction was one that seems to disregard the beliefs and voice of Methodists worldwide that disagree with them. You wrote: “Their way is essentially “Change the prohibition or ignore it. It is wrong.” While the United Methodist church is a broad body, it is clear that many segments of the church, especially African Conferences, would sharply disagree with the assessment that the prohibition is wrong.

    While I do disagree with their decision and strongly disagree with the theological backing behind their decision, I can not doubt their sincerity that they were doing the right thing. However, it is the wrong way to go about it, and sets an extremely dangerous example. Why stop at a jurisdictional level? If a conference disagrees with the discipline, should they be allowed to ignore it as well? Why stop there? Should a district also be allowed to ignore the discipline? What about a local church? If we can choose to ignore that which we disagree with why be connectional at all?

    I do not wish to make sweeping generalizations of the Western jurisdiction, but from here in the Indiana Conference, their actions do come across as a self righteous temper tantrum. It feels as if people did not get their way at general conference, so they did what they wanted anyway in complete disregard to the rest of the community. I do not see how the action is a way forward, unless the way forward is division.

    • Gin Sawin says

      There are many churches in the Western Jurisdiction that will not side with the Jurisdiction on this policy of Biblical Obedience in terms of homosexuality. The State of Oregon is known for being a fairly liberal state. However, even here, I can honestly say I can think of at least half a dozen or more local churches who will not take up with ecclesiastical disobedience. Most of these churches are located in the more rural areas in the Eastern side of the state.
      One of the reasons that United Methodism appeals to many people is the little known Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I had not heard of the Quadrilateral until I started the process towards ordination. It was then that I realized this was exactly WHY I enjoy being a Methodist. We can look at scripture, experience, tradition and reason for any issue to decide where we personally are on an issue – abortion, death penalty, care for the environment, even education. I have friends whom I’ve agreed to disagree with over abortion and the death penalty – and coming from a conservative hometown, my views were not the norm there.
      I feel the Western Jurisdiction is well aware that not all local congregations will choose to ignore the Discipline on the issue of homosexuality. Yet thru using Wesley’s tradition of study, talking, experiencing, reading, and good old fashioned reasoning – the jurisdiction has given those of us who agree with them the opportunity to say “I agree”, and those who don’t can still say “I don’t agree”. That is part of the Methodist tradition. Even Jewish scholars in the time of Jesus, as now, will debate, and discuss the meaning of the Law, the Torah. They may not always agree but they will hear each other out because they might hear a point of view or a thought that had never crossed their minds.

  4. says

    I am suspicious of efforts to plot on a grid arguments via the quadrilateral; the four are intermingled more than we usually care to admit.

    As for an increase in regionalism as a key to holding together, I am skeptical. Most of the worldwide religious bodies experiencing growth (think Roman Catholics and Mormons) do so with a relatively uniform polity, mission, and doctrine.

  5. says

    Daily I thank God that I grew up in the days before our denomination considered God’s non-heterosexual sons and daughters to be second class members. If you read your baptism service carefully, you will notice that there are no foot notes saying that if, as you grow up, you realize that you are not heterosexual, then this service is null and void–that you are no longer a full son or daughter of our Creator….your tithe is welcome but if you want to open the “good gift of sexuality” and have a loving companion in your life, then you cannot be ordained.
    The people who wrote the anti-gay wording into United Methodist policy were bringing prejudice and unscholarly reading (translation) of scripture into their work. For example, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is about God disproving of inhospitality….if the drunken crowd had gotten their hands on the visiting angels, it would have been gang rape–to insult both the angels and their host, Lot. There was not any LOVE involved. Homosexuality is not just an act, it is loving someone of your own gender.
    And, for your information, there are homosexual men who do not practice anal sex; and there are heterosexual men who do practice anal sex with their female partners.
    Hopefully, the UMC will soon clean up its policy statements. Remember, once we approved of slavery: the buying and selling of people. Once we forbade women to vote–both in civil and church society. Once we refused to ordain women….solely because they were not male.
    Our denomination has healed herself from bad laws. We can do so again.

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