Tuesday July 23, 2019
I was asked by my Dean at Candler School of Theology to represent the UMC’s perspective on human sexuality in a discussion with my colleague Kendall Soulen, who represented disagreement with the UMC’s perspective at a dialogue on Biblical interpretation and human sexuality at Dunwoody United Methodist Church on May 8, 2019.
To be honest, I was hesitant to accept this invitation. As I said at the beginning of my talk, talking about human sexuality and forthrightly representing the position of the United Methodist Church on marriage is uncomfortable. It is also not what I would most prefer to talk about at a church like Dunwoody UMC. I would much rather have a chance to talk about my passion for small group formation or the audacious optimism Methodists have that God’s grace can be hope and healing in radical and life-changing ways in the lives of every single person in every one of our communities. One of the main reasons I wrestled with whether to do this was because I worry that the more I talk about human sexuality in the current deep division and dysfunction of Methodism, the less I will be able to be heard on things I care more about and where there may be greater agreement.
I ultimately decided to say yes for three reasons. First, I said yes because my Dean, Jan Love, asked me to do it and I agree with her desire to see Candler become a place where difficult conversations are had across deep differences with respect and intellectual virtue. Second, I said yes because I trust and respect Kendall Soulen. Kendall was my systematic theology professor when I was in seminary and he has impacted my own theological education in important ways. Though we disagree here, I want to understand his thinking as well as I can to challenge and sharpen my own thinking. Finally, and most important for me, I agreed to participate in this conversation because I believe that the United Methodist Church’s position on same sex marriage is good and true. And I don’t see any United Methodist bishops, seminary deans or presidents, General board or agency heads, or hardly anyone in a strategic position of influence in United Methodism making the case for why the current position of the UMC is good and ought to be supported. I have started talking about this in my teaching at Candler because in my 14 years as a student and faculty member in theological education (12 of which have been as a student or faculty member in United Methodist seminaries), I have never heard anyone explain why the UMC prohibits gay marriage or ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And I have seen dozens of key leaders of United Methodism condemn this teaching in sermons, lectures, articles, press conferences, and so on.
This seems to me to be a serious problem, especially when all candidates for ordination are required to answer each of these questions in the affirmative:
Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
Will you preach and maintain them?
Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
Do you approve of our Church government and polity?
Will you support and maintain them?
If you’re interested in watching the discussion between Kendall and I, there are two videos. The first part has the main talk given by both myself and Kendall and a brief response and interaction between us. The second video includes a question and answer session where Dean Jan Love and Rev. Dan Brown moderated and asked questions submitted by the audience to Kendall and I.
I know that there are many people who deeply and passionately disagree with the United Methodist Church’s understanding of human sexuality. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the UMC position, the recordings of the event at Dunwoody UMC may be helpful to you as they are an example of dialogue between two people who are determined to see the best in each other though they come down on very different sides. For those who disagree with me, I get it. All I would ask is that you listen to my part with an open mind. Thank you for hearing me out.
For what it is worth, the main thing I remember about the event was feeling my energy drop in a way I’ve never quite experienced at something like this, especially in the last thirty minutes. When the event was over, several people came up to me to introduce themselves and chat a bit and I could barely follow the conversation I was so exhausted. (If that was any of you reading this – I am so sorry if that was obvious to you!) Though it was a draining experience in many ways, I am glad that I decided to participate in it. Dean Love and Rev. Brown did a great job organizing and moderating the event. And I learned a lot from Kendall and have continued to think about his argument.
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.