Adam Hamilton’s powerful communication gifts, his love for Christ and the church, and his notable leadership skills have placed him in a position of great influence. From this platform he appears to be doing all he can to sway us toward “A Way Forward,” the commonly-called local option on same sex marriage. I struggle with this proposal, somewhat like an unsure swimmer who cannot feel the bottom of the swimming hole. The promises to work out the bugs as we go don’t help. Adam’s blog post of Thursday past has provoked me to try to figure out this feeling of unease.
First, I want to summarize what seem to me the basic details of the proposal, something like this:
United Methodists are divided on the matter of same sex marriage. Because we are divided, let’s allow pastors and their local churches to decide whether or not to do same sex weddings. We already leave it up to them to decide whom to baptize and whom to marry. Let’s just extend this practice. That way we can quit tearing each other apart and get back to the more important matter of the church’s mission.
If this statement serves as a reasonable summary, then I can start to unpack my anxiety. When people disagree about this proposal, I cannot tell if the bone of contention is mainly about polity or mainly about the moral question regarding same sex marriage.
I can think of at least two points of view that can be shown to agree with the local option, but diverge on same sex marriage. What’s the problem? I’ll try to answer shortly, but first, the two views. I can imagine two people saying something like the following:
1. “I don’t myself support same-sex marriage, but since others do (and they are caring and intelligent people), we should make room for them to follow their conscience.”
2. “I agree with those who say that (monogamous) same sex marriage is a moral good, but I know some of my colleagues don’t agree, so let’s leave room for individual conscience.”
The two positions clearly agree as to the polity move, but disagree on the practice. “What’s the problem with people agreeing, but for different reasons?” someone might ask. My answer is that the local option is morally tilted more than it seems at first glance. I think this feature should be stated openly.
While both #1 and #2 agree as to the polity question, it seems to me that #1 also at least tacitly has to give ground on the moral question. That is, in order to see the local option as any kind of solution, #1. has to accept same sex marriage as morally justifiable at some level. That sort of decision is itself a moral one, not only a polity decision. #2 has already settled the moral question, so the local option does not require as much concession from #2.
In fairness, if person holding opinion #2 feels very strongly about the righteousness of same sex marriage, then allowing the local option can feel like an unwanted concession. However, since the church does not permit same sex marriage at this point in time, the local option must be considered progress for someone holding opinion #2. The local option allows for something while right now the church allows nothing.
As best as I can say, this is what makes me uneasy about “A Way Forward.” In a significant way it hides the unavoidable moral question about the practice of same sex marriage. Maybe in some way this is what people feel who can’t see their way to support the local option. It purports to avoid forcing someone to make a moral decision, but it doesn’t succeed, at least not entirely. We cannot use a polity decision to circumvent the moral question. And to engage the moral question, we have to ask some questions about the means by which we arrive at our opposing conclusions. This is a question of method, and it goes far beyond what the Bible does or does not say.
I’ll try some thoughts on that question in a subsequent post.