The Storyline of the Methodist Church of Southern African (MCSA) and the issue of Homosexuality and Same-Sex Relationships
The issue of homosexuality and same-sex relationships have been a major debate over the last few decades – threatening the unity of the MCSA. Many of the challenges are not unique to the MCSA, but are similar to other denominations. This storyline focuses on this particularly matter. It is crucial for all concerned to engage together in an on-going process of respectful dialogue and listening, seeking to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is a known fact that the greater percentage of the MCSA has been against such relationships. However, in recent decades gay and lesbian Christians, with the support of respected theologians, and many clergy and laity have been sharing their conviction that the Holy Spirit is leading the followers of Christ into a profound rethinking of this traditional thinking. This movement for change concerns issues of biblical interpretation, as well as fresh understandings and insights about God’s intention and purpose for the gift of our sexuality.
1. 1980 -1982
The dilemma faced by the MCSA regarding sexuality and homosexuality can be traced back to the early 80’s. Conference noted the establishment of the standing committee of the Christian Citizen Department (CCD) on sexuality and morality and awaited its findings and recommendations. Although this department did not ‘make laws’ for the church, it did set policy.
The Conference received the report of the Standing Committee and authorised it to continue with its work and report to the 1984 Conference
Conference received the report of the Standing Committee and referred it for clarification in certain areas. It further requested the committee to complete its work and report to the 1984 Conference through the CCD. The report highlighted the following:
Five sources were identified when thinking about sexuality:
- The Bible – the supreme rule of faith. The document advised against relying on biblical text in isolation; there are many sexual references in the Bible that are not consistent with the gospel; dependence on a verse here and there can lead people astray; the MCSA was advised to examine the great biblical themes – the heart of the Scriptural message.
- Reason: we do not believe that an analysis of sexuality can claim to be Christian if it is unreasonable.
- Guidance of the Holy Spirit was necessary.
- New understanding of the human condition has come to light through other sciences such as: Medicine, psychology and sociology
- Changes in society might challenge the Christian values & teachings. The church must neither accept uncritically nor inevitably reject them – but evaluate in terms of God’s revelation.
The CCD presented a follow-up document at the 1986 Conference (upon instruction from Conference, Minutes 1985 pg.241 No.29.3.23) with the view to get responses from a wider spectrum of the MCSA to formulate a better understanding for the church.
The document stressed the sharp conflicting views with regard to homosexuality and urged the church to seek a deeper understanding of the whole issue. They also suggested to do this, it would require an open dialoguein a climate of acceptance. Acceptance was highlighted as a necessity if they were to gain understanding –“if we condemn another man or woman we shall never be able to know what makes that person tick.”
The Conference thanked the Convenor of the Standing Committee on Homosexuality, the Rev T van Zyl de Bruyn, for the “INTERIM REPORT ON HOMOSEXUALITY” and commended it to their members for further study.Conference directed the Standing Committee to continue with its work.
The Cape District committee on homosexuality was appointed by the Connexional CCD as the Connexional commission on homosexuality:(Revs O F Calverly, I M Abrahams [Convener], K G Needham, A le Roux, D J Newby, C Richards M Stephenson, DR GA Lawrence). Their mandate was to rework the existing documents and to present them at 1991 Conference.
This committee met on Wed 19 September 1990. Their task was set out as follows: They were to gain understanding as to why the reports on Human Sexuality & Homosexuality were not accepted by conference;to gain information from other denominations & organisations on the subject. They were to gain understanding by co-opting gay people on to the commission, taking into account recent biblical, historical and scientific research available on the subject and to address the issue of Aids. They were asked to journey together as a group in their own response to homosexuality.
Further, they had to consider the original terms of reference given by the District Synod to initiate and nurture dialogue within congregations on homosexuality. Further, seek concrete and positive avenue’s through which ministers could be compassionate towards homosexuals. The commission and report had to clearly reflect their context and the constituency of MCSA.
Conference noted the on-going need for pastoral care for homosexuals and urgently requested the CCD to develop pastoral programmes for this purpose. Conference further noted the dissolution of the Pastoral Commission on Humans Sexuality, requested that all findings be reported to the CCD through the Standing Committee on Human Sexuality.
Conference received the report from the Standing Committee on Human Sexuality and requested the Committee to continue its work and report to Conference in 1994.
2001 marked the year where the topic of same sex marriages was introduced for the first time at Conference. Some reasoned in favour of same-sex marriages and those against argued for the expulsion of members who were in favour of same-sex marriages, arguing that it was against the teachings of the Bible.3 A foundational principle was adopted in the same-sex debate, as a church “we are required to be a community of love rather than rejection.” As a result, the church decided that it will accept all people into its membership, regardless of their sexual orientation. The MCSA Doctrine, Ethics and Worship Committee (DEWCOM) was mandated to continue the work it had begun on questions relating to Christians and same-sex relationships.
DEWCOM submitted a report on “Christians and same-sex relationships” with the following key aspects (Kwazulu-Natal DEWCOM working group April 2002) at Conference 2002:
Recommendations were made to the working group concerned with further discussion and debate such as: “The focus must be pastoral; further discussions must also include an investigation of sexuality and sexual practice in general and all discussions must be firmly based in Scripture.”
DEWCOM believed it needed to make a clear recommendation to the wider church, one that will assist the church to engage in constructive debate in order for the church to come to a decision on the matter. Such a decision was necessary in order for the MCSA on the one hand to be able to engage, where necessary, with the State(s) within our Connexion on issues related to same-sex relationships (e.g. in terms of same sex marriages); and on the other hand for the MCSA to know its own way".
Conference received a guide on Christians and same-sex relationships by DEWCOM. It was adopted as a tool for the church’s engagement on the question and was referred to the Methodist people for their study and response. Six principles for constructive debate were highlighted, they were:
- seek the truth of Christ;
- seek to move beyond ‘corners of conviction’,
- seek first to understand and then to be understood;
- seek to see the human face of this issue;
- seek to be well informed and
- seek to celebrate the gift of diversity.
This guide was to be discussed (and feedback given to DEWCOM), at all levels of the MCSA. Conference resolved that DEWCOM should submit the Report to various sections of the MCSA for discussion, to consolidate any responses, and “develop a formal position paper for presentation and consideration by Conference 2005
No reference was made to the above “formal position paper” at 2005 Conference. Instead, Conference now instructed DEWCOM to produce workshop material for congregations in which the issues surrounding same sex orientation and practice are studied from different perspectives that represented the feedback received thus far. Such material had to be well balanced, to ensure continuing discussion. The material had to be produced during 2006.
Conference gave further instructions regarding the manner and sensitivity by which the matter could be dealt with within the church. The Connexional Executive (CE) was charged with monitoring the progress of the process and “if need be, make proposals to Circuits regarding possible legislation.”7 Conference further resolved, to “not attempt to arrive at finality or legislate on this matter at this stage.”
In 2006, the CE failed to comply with the instructions given to it by Conference 2005. Instead, the CE took it upon itself to reaffirm “the 2005 resolutions on the same-sex debate as recorded in the 2005 Yearbook, page 75, and paragraph 8 (It should be noted that no such paragraph is contained in the 2006 Yearbook)”8. DEWCOM was requested to apply its mind in view of the proposed legislation and bring recommendations to the 2007 Conference. They were encouraged to take into consideration the diverse theological viewpoints in their submission.
At the 2007 Synods, several ministers across the connexion qualified their response to the question of duly observing and enforcing the laws and discipline of the MCSA. Specifically with regards to same-sex relationships. In the Cape of Good Hope District 19 ministers were removed from the assembly and after several hours brought back into the assembly. A pastoral commission was to investigate the concern of these ministers after Synod. However, their concerns were never addressed.
Conference 2007 resolved not to permit the different viewpoints around the same-sex debate, as these different viewpoints further divide the church. They sought a new way forward to hold the tension between the differing views among ministers and people.It further resolved, “… any decision and subsequent action on the issue of civil unions between same-sex partners, must await the outcome of the on-going process of engagement as specified by conference 2005… And in the interim expects Methodist ministers to continue to offer pastoral care to homosexual individuals”.9 In other words, with regard to gay clergy, “the don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was adopted.
Rev Ecclesia de Lange announced, in Dec 2009, her intended marriage to her same-sex partner. She was charged and suspended for being in breach of the Laws and Discipline of the MCSA ( paragraphs 4.82 & 11.3)
Rev de Lange was discontinued on 20 February 2010. The matter was referred to arbitration. Conference 2010 reaffirmed the current theological position of MCSA: Affirmed that the MCSA is seeking to be a community of love rather than rejection. It recognised the diversity of conviction within the church when it came to same-sex- relationships, and celebrated this diversity as a challenging but potentially life-giving gift;
Conference called for an on-going process of respectful dialogue and truthful engagement between those holding differing views – not with the intention of ultimately having one mind on the issue – but rather to come to a deepened understanding of what it means to be the one body of Christ and to take seriously the church’s on-going pastoral responsibility to homosexual people.
Conference noted the following:
- MCSA has divergent convictions on the issue that has theological integrity;
- There is a current theological inconsistency within the MCSA where it allows this divergence of conviction to be held without the freedom for such divergence of conviction to be exercise
- The Study material “In Search of Grace and Truth …” was adopted as a discussion document of the MCSA and referred to the Methodist people for their study and response.
- Districts were instructed to find ways in which the material could be engaged with and bring suggestions to the 2012 Conference as to how the MCSA could create space for such disagreement of convictions to be exercised in ways that will preserve the integrity of the church.
- There was also a request to translate the material into various languages for accessibility.