Same-Sex Relationships in the Methodist Church: This Year? Next Year? Sometime? Never?
It may be recognised that the four questions of the title were originally a counting game in response to the question “When shall I marry?”. The July 2014 Methodist Conference has resolved unequivocally “No!” to This Year and Next Year and at least the following year, with options thereafter on Sometime and Never. I am told that progress towards a church affirming of LGBTQI people and their relationships is to be seen in this. Maybe there’s none so blind as will not to see. Here’s my blindness.
In July this year (2014), the Methodist Conference appointed a “task group on marriage and relationships”(Conference Resolution 40/4 a)) with a remit to report to Conference in 2016 with (inter alia) recommendations on “whether to revisit the question of embarking upon a process of revising the Methodist Church’s definition of marriage” (Conference Resolution 40/4 b)(xi)ii). For all my felicity with the English language, I would be hard-pressed to include in a single sentence so many implications of delay and postponement as “whether”, “revisit the question”, “embarking”, “process of revising”. And in case that might be too hurried, the task group will also report its “proposals for any further work to be done”, ie to be done after the 2016 Conference (Conference Resolution 40/4 b)(xi)).
Appointing this task group and its remit were recommendations of a Working Party set up by Conference in 2013. That Working Party’s own remit was to consider “whether the Church’s position on marriage needs revising in light of changes in society, undertaking this consideration with reference to scripture, tradition, reason and experience” (Working Party Report to 2014 Conference (hereafter WPR), paragraph 2, my emphasis). However, the Conference 2013 Order Paper enabled the Working Party to re-interpret this as being asked to “recommend whether the Conference should set in motion a process to revisit its definition of marriage” (WPR, Summary, first paragraph, my emphasis again). Bringing forward recommendations on “revisiting” rather than on “revising” the definition of marriage is clearly a softening of the Working Party’s remit, but even then the Working Party could not make the diluted recommendations required of it, instead seeming to hide behind Conference’s assurance that the “working party need not feel that it must complete its work within that period [ie by Conference 2014]…”(WPR, footnote 1).
In the end, it is not clear whether the Working Party set up in 2013 was working consistently to the same remit. The summary of its report to Conference 2014 states unequivocally that “its conclusion is not to recommend that the definition of marriage be revisited at this point…” (WPR. Summary, second paragraph, my emphasis), but the only “conclusion” in the body of the report is in answer to the question “should the Methodist Church’s position on marriage be revised?” (WPR, heading to Section E, again my emphasis). That conclusion appears to arise from the Working Party’s finding that it “is obvious that at this time there is not…a consensus as to whether and how to move on this question” (WPR, paragraph 144), and the conclusion is that “this is not the time to recommend to the Conference that a group be appointed to work on a revision of our teaching on marriage” (WPR, paragraph 145).
The Working Party then went on to recommend that Conference 2014 appoint a “task group on marriage and relationships” (WPR, paragraph 157) – which is where we came in.
To see the progress that has been made, we need to go back another year, to Conference 2012. It had before it a Memorial from Birmingham District which requested “that the ruling of the Conference [as to not permitting the blessing of same sex relationships on Methodist premises] should be revisited through the appropriate councils of our Church, giving attention to our understanding of ‘marriage’, ‘partnership’, and particularly ‘blessing’,…” (WPR, footnote 1). The Memorial sought reporting on these matters to Conference 2013, “in the hope that we will allow the blessing of civil partnerships of gay or lesbian couples on Methodist premises” (ibid).
Some say it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Conference 2012 responded by referring the Memorial to the Methodist Council for consideration alongside any further issues then being raised by the Government’s proposals for same sex marriage. The Methodist Council in turn responded by recommending Conference 2013 to set up the Working Party. As we have seen, the Working Party has responded by asking Conference 2014 to appoint a task group to recommend to Conference 2016 “whether to revisit the question of embarking upon a process of revising the Methodist Church’s definition of marriage” (Resolution 40/4 b)(xi)ii).
Then what? Maybe the Conference 2013 Order Paper will be followed: “If a revision [to the definition of marriage] is thought potentially necessary, it is expected that a further working party would be appointed to examine the substantive issues” (WPR, paragraph 4). And when might that further working party report back to Conference – always assuming that it is set up in the first place?
Meanwhile, what is this prevarication doing to gay people? The Church’s message – that’s yours and mine, officially – is that they will wantonly live in sin if they do not deny themselves the ultimate union in love that straight people can take for granted through marriage solemnised and celebrated by the Church. I have asked before: is it imaginable – can you imagine? – what intense anguish that causes, to seek to ignore the love you feel in your heart for someone and the love felt by that person for you? Can you imagine the guilt and shame we are subjecting gay people to if they give in to their natural inclinations and heart-felt desires? What denial of their identity as children of God we are demanding of them? What rejection and exclusion by the Church – by fellow Christians, by us – they experience?
Some would say that the Resolutions adopted by Conference 2014 have at least conceded that blessing of same-sex relationships is no longer wholly prohibited on Methodist premises, because the guidelines that say “Methodist premises may not be used for the blessing of same-sex relationships” (CPD Book VII, Part 10, quoted at WPR, Appendix 4) have been replaced. What by? Guidelines that – to start with – are over twice as long, and much longer when you allow for the seven Conference documents and decisions that local churches are presumed to be intimately familiar with. “These documents and decisions together govern the practice of the Methodist Church” (WPR, paragraph 171: revised guidance adopted in Conference Resolution 40/5), so heaven forfend that any “decision of local church bodies or officers, ministers or lay persons regarding relationships or sexuality should contravene them” (ibid). It is the “responsibility of each presbyter, in conjunction with the Church Council, to ensure that this discipline is upheld in the life of the Local Church…” (ibid) As for the superseded guidelines, the reason for them was that “nothing should be said or done which misrepresents the Church’s beliefs or discipline” (CPD Book VII, Part 10, quoted at WPR, Appendix 4), enshrined then as now in those self-same documents and decisions.
So what’s new for the blessing of same-sex relationships on Methodist premises? Apparently this retreat behind documents that no one in local churches will have time to know, with the accompanying impenetrability of the new guidance, is “intended to reduce the possibility of hurt or distress that may be caused by rejection or misunderstanding…” (WPR, paragraph 171: revised guidance adopted in Conference Resolution 40/5). I fear the contrary: which church council is going to risk that its ignorance gets it on the wrong side of the Church’s (unchanged) beliefs or discipline? Which same-sex couple is going to read understanding and affirmation into this fudge? I can only hope – as an Anglican rector recently put it to me – that “we do get approached for Services of Celebration of same-sex relationships and just get on with it”.
The most urgent matter that Conference 2014 resolved upon is the “production and dissemination of clear guidance on what is, or is not, to be regarded as homophobia…”(Conference Resolution 40/3). This arose because the Working Party had encountered “too many instances” in the individual replies to the Working Party’s consultation exercise which could only be labelled as homophobic and were from self-identified Methodists (WPR, paragraph 71). These responses had “moved into what can only be termed rudeness and abuse  in referring in negative terms to homosexual people or conduct” (ibid). However, the Working Party was “far from saying that expressing opposition to same-sex relationships amounts in itself to homophobia” (ibid).
It’s difficult to see how opposition to same-sex relationships – the Church’s position – isn’t “referring in negative terms to homosexual people or conduct”, but apparently “homophobia” depends on how you say this. Maybe we should just drop the word, and talk instead in terms simply of discrimination. So as a matter of urgency, the Methodist Church is going to come up with clear guidance on what is acceptable reference to its discrimination against same-sex relationships (Conference Resolution 40/3). To paraphrase: How good to see you, my dear Mrs Parks, but will you please still sit at the back of the bus?
© Steve Lowe
 The Methodist Conference is effectively the “parliament” of the UK Methodist Church. It convenes annually.
 Standing Orders define marriage as the “life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman”.
 The Order Paper stated: “the working party’s terms of reference require it only to consider whether the Methodist Church’s position needs reviewing in the light of changes in society, rather than to make substantive proposals for change.”
 But he had prefaced this remark with “Although in theory the offer of a (proper and public rather than private and marginal!) Service of Celebration is on the table, the wider question remains as to whether or not any same sex couple would wish to associate themselves with any Church at all given all the negative signals”.
 Perhaps the Working Party didn’t realise that its own use of the term “homosexual people” instead of (say) “LGBTQI people” rather labels it as out-of-touch or even anti-gay.