30 June 2006

Blessing Civil Partnerships?

Blessing Civil Partnerships? - Why I do not think that the theology of homosexual acts is a Gospel issue

I am going to attempt to briefly set out why I do not think that a person's theology of homosexual acts is a 'Gospel issue' from the point of view of British Methodist theology. In order to be brief, I will not be able to fully expand every point; otherwise, I would write an essay rather than a short article.

The Gospel Message - As Kim Fabricus so pithily articulated it in Ten Propositions on Preaching - is 'You are forgiven and therefore now free to repent'. That's about it. Accepting God's forgiveness and repenting results in what John Wesley would have called 'New Birth'.

I think that Methodist theology makes it very clear that the fact of God's forgiveness comes from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and not from human repentance. The idea that God's forgiveness comes first and draws out our repentance is made quite clear in Methodist theology in Wesley's affirmation of both prevenient grace and his affirmation of original sin. I'd argue that if you don't believe in prevenient grace or you don't believe that humanity has an 'inborn capacity for sinning' then you are not being faithful to Methodist theology.

I want to assert that:

1) The holy use of sex is a discipleship issue, not a Gospel issue.
2) Justice is a discipleship issue, not a Gospel issue.

1) The holy use of sex is a discipleship issue, not a Gospel issue.
Whatever you think 'a holy use of sex' is, I would argue that sexual maturity is a discipleship issue. If we do not agree on what a holy use of sex is, does God withdraw his offer of salvation from those who are incorrect?

I have heard some say, 'But at least we all agree, for instance, that murder is a sin.' OK. We might all agree that gluttony is a sin but how fat can a person get before it becomes a 'Gospel issue'? Do we really all agree that being fat is a sin? Does God withdraw his offer of salvation from people who think it's OK to be fat? If we think that this issue is not so clear-cut and that there is room for different opinions, might that not be the same for our debate with respect to the holy use of sex? Particularly since British Methodism has agreed as a body that promiscuity and adultery are sinful.

2) Justice is a discipleship issue, not a Gospel issue.
In forgiving us before we repent, God treats us better than we deserve to be treated. In thankfulness for this grace, we are called upon not only to be 'just', but also to be gracious in the same way that God has been gracious to us. However, again, this is a discipleship issue, not a Gospel Issue.

Working for Social Justice is the necessary response of the Christian who has recognised God's fogiveness; if we think that it's not necessary to work for Social Justice, we risk having missed the whole glorious point of God's free offer of forgiveness. The importance of social justice is as core to Methodism as is spiritual 'New Birth'. But Social Justice is not the Gospel message any more than sexual holiness is the Gospel message.

I think that we need to be theologically clear on these two points. When we begin to confuse either personal morality or social justice with the 'salvation' or 'justificiation' that we are freely and undeservedly given by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we turn the Gospel into the work of human hands rather than the work of Jesus Christ. To be blunt, we are committing idolatry. We are proclaiming salvation by works rather than salvation by grace.

The Gospel message is 'God forgives you, therefore you are free to repent'.

Personal morality is not the Gospel. Social Justice is not the Gospel.

Once we are clear on these issues, it is my opinion that we have a theological basis for being able to live together in disagreement. I would also argue that being willing to live together in disagreement is not a 'fudge'; rather it is agreeing to 'love our neighbour as ourself' in the knowledge that 'God first loved us.' There are many people with strong opinions on both sides of the issue who know what a difficult challenge this is.


Anonymous said...

Wonderfully clear resonded & right on the mark. Agree with you 100% #
Good to hear such a response from a fellow Methodist Minister!
Bless you.

Sally said...

thank you thank you Pam

Phillip Fayers said...

I like your fat/gluttony analogy but a bit of a stretch to that analogy illustrates the problem that a lot of us have with blessing of civil partnerships. Where the problem would come, to over extend the analogy, is where a church organises a service to bless people who are fat and to celebrate their gluttony.

If the church considers that homosexuality is not a "holy use of sex" then how can the church be seen to be actively blessing such a lifestyle?

[ To be clear about my own position I do believe that homosexuality is a sin and, admitting to a massive human failing where I characterise sins, I'd say its in the same category as adultery and other sexual immorality. I'm also encouraged, by comments made by people I admire, like Desmond Tutu, not to lump everyone into groups and then treat them according to the label on the group. ]

PamBG said...

If the church considers that homosexuality is not a "holy use of sex" then how can the church be seen to be actively blessing such a lifestyle?

Phillip, I totally understand why someone who holds this position would not want to bless such a lifestyle, but I don't think that's the question I'm asking - maybe I'm not making myself clear.

What I am talking about is whether people on each side of the issue can stay in the same denomination together if neither were forced to do something against their conscience.

Phillip Fayers said...

What I am talking about is whether people on each side of the issue can stay in the same denomination together if neither were forced to do something against their conscience.

Which is a very difficult question as it comes down to what each person feels and believes. Its a question I'm wrestling with myself at the moment on a different issue within my own church. At what point does a difference of opinion with the leadership of the church go from a matter of personal conscience to something which warrants the nailing of theses to the church door? How out of step with the leadership do you have to get before you march off to find a different set of leaders?

JayWoodhamTheMan said...

With due respect I think your live/let live model won't work. Homosexuality is not merely an issue of differing conviction on the interpretation of Romans 1:24-27 etc. It's a profoundly pastoral issue (as any issue of sexual ethics would be). If Paul was ready to hand somebody in Corinth, engaged in an unrepentant sexual relationship with his stepmother, "over to Satan" that his soul might be saved then doesn't that give us a strong signal about how we ought to handle unrepentant (not talking about "struggling") homosexuality?

My example, I confess, is without nuance, but it cuts to the heart of the issue, and why most of those of us who believe homosexuality is a sin in every instance couldn't go along with your suggestion. The disagreement at bar cuts to the heart of how we do church, and it's not just a dispute between differing theologies or schools of biblical interpretation.

PamBG said...

Jay, a number of points, not necessarily in any particular order.

I guess if a person thought the way that you did, they probably could not "live and let live" - as you say. I've Googled you as a UMC Methodist, however. If I'm mistaken about that, I apologise. My original post is addressed to the praxis of British Methodism and the view that you cite, in my perception of things, would be quite an extreme outlier in a British Methodist context. (I use the term "extreme outlier" in a mathematical sense and it's intended to be descriptive, not pejorative.)

Secondly, if "live and let live" implies the view "Let's all just practice a wishy-washy sort of niceness because I can't be bothered to care about Christian praxis" then you completely misunderstand my position.

In my view, the inability to tolerate someone with whom one disagrees is The (capital T intended) paradigmatic outworking of Original Sin. In a minor form it manifests itself as envy. In a major form, it manifests itself at murder.

My "live and let live" - as you term it - is more of an imperative to sit down and have the difficult and honest discussion with the person with whom I disagree. It means listening to them and not interrupting when I want to jump up and shout "Shut up!". It means being peacably in the same metaphorical room with them when I want to punch them in the face. It means not walking out in disgust because I can't be bothered to speak honestly with them any more. It is Difficult Hospitality rather than can't-be-bothered-live-and-let-live

I think that many/most British Methodists on all parts of the spectrum of this issue would agree with me to some extent on the value of Difficult Hospitality. There will be some extreme outliers on both ends of the spectrum who are fed up and just want to split.

But, to be honest, I don't see many British Methodists rejecting the value of Difficult Hospitality; it just may be that, sadly, in the end we will not be able to live it out.

JayWoodhamTheMan said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response. I did indeed start out as a UMC Methodist, but that hasn't been true for fifteen years. I went Presbyterian (PCUSA) for a while (ten years), and I am now attending an Anglican church in FL under the authority of an Anglican bishop in Uganda.

I don't know the praxis of British Methodism so I obviously can't speak to that. No offense taken at being an outlier.

I have time only now to re-iterate what I said before. Acceptance of homosexuality or it's forbiddance (is that a word?) simply has too many pastoral implications for one side or the other to live with for very long. If we define Difficult Hospitality as keeping these points of view within the same ecclesial body, as I'm assuming you do, then that position by default favors the accepting side of this debate who can forestall any move toward a resolution they don't like as a violation of that Hospitality. Churches, of whatever stripe, need to deal with this issue and move on.
Like angry teenagers and frustrated parents (not saying who corresponds to which in this analogy) I think the opposing sides are more likely to be friendly to each other if they go ahead and get different living quarters(not in the short run, but in the long run).

as they say on your side of the Atlantic,


jay woodham

PamBG said...


I could be wrong, but I don't think that the British Methodist Church is yet in a situation where the different sides have polarised so far that a split is necessary or inevitable.

It would be wrong to take the activities and passions of the Anglican Communion and directly translate them into British Methodism; no one has engaged in alternative ordinations or oversight, for example.

It would be wrong to take the activities and passions of the United Methodist Church and translate them into British Methodism; no one has engaged in dirty-tricks campaigns to smear the reputations of individuals who hold different views, for example.

To me, your analogy of petulant teenagers and angry parents suggests that "Well, the disagreements have begun, but they are going to escalate in the future. So no point even trying to talk. Just assume that there will be a lot of shouting and hitting in the future and split up now." Which, respectfully, I think is exactly the wrong attitude. (I appreciate that you may disagree.)

The conference decision is here: http://tinyurl.com/zcrwx. In my opinion, this is the correct and moderate position according to our polity and discipline. Many people with opinions on either side of the issue seem to think that 'the other side' has won the day. It seems to me that both sides thinking the other has won is what often happens when people are trying to broker difficult middle positions.

PamBG said...

A working link this time: