THE Methodist Conference has welcomed proposals to “re-examine” and redraft its official position on marriage before the 2019 Conference to include a more “adequate” position on both same-sex and heterosexual couples in the 21st century.
The Conference, the governing body of the Methodist Church, meeting at Nottingham University this week, was presented with an interim report on marriage and relationships from a task group that was set up in 2016 to discuss the issues.
The report was discussed in small groups after a presentation from the chair, the Revd Kenneth G. Howcroft, on Monday, and received without debate on Wednesday afternoon. The plan was to have a new marriage statement by January 2021. A draft would be produced next year in consultation with the faith and order board followed by a two-year consultation period.
The vote to accept the report and this timetable was followed, however, by an emotional debate on a last-minute notice of motion to allow Methodist ministers to conduct same-sex marriage in churches.
The notice of motion was proposed by the Revd Mark Rowland, seconded by the Revd Delyth A Liddell, and signed by four members of the Conference. It expressed disappointment at the slip in the timetable from the task group.
The motion stated: “The Conference believes that the missional imperative of this question, and the need to give a clear message of continued affirmation and love to LGBT+ members of the Methodist Church, require that this question be clearly answered before 2020 or 2021.
“It is already five years since legislation to allow Same-Sex Marriages was passed in England and Wales and legislation in Scotland was passed the following year. The Conference is aware that there are some ministers, members and probationers and churches who would gladly participate in the solemnisation of same-sex marriages as well as those who would not feel able in conscience to do so.
“The Conference believes we must try to honour the consciences of all in this area. This could be done by allowing those ministers and churches who feel so called by God to solemnise same-sex marriages, whilst protecting the right of those who do not wish to do so to refrain.”
It also included a resolution to allow nominated Methodist ministers to conduct same-sex marriages in churches. A point of order was raised requesting that the vote to accept the resolution be not put, however. This was narrowly accepted by a counted vote of the Conference, 170 to 110. This meant that the Conference was not required vote on the resolution on same-sex marriage.
The work of the task group will therefore continue as stated in their report. It states: “The task group recognises that many people, representing a wide spectrum of opinions, are concentrating their attention on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“There often appears to be an underlying assumption that the Conference already has an adequate definition of and statement about marriage from a Christian perspective as it applies to heterosexual couples in the 21st-century; and that the decision to be made is essentially one of policy as to whether that understanding can and should include the possibility of it being applied to same-sex couples, or must necessarily exclude them.”
METHODIST CONFERENCEBishop of Aston, the Rt Revd Anne Hollinghurst, addresses the Methodist Conference
The group had agreed that the current 1992 Statement, “while containing much that is still relevant and helpful, is no longer adequately guiding the thinking and practice of the Methodist people even in so far as it applies to heterosexual couples. . .
“The whole of the Methodist Church’s understanding and practice with regards to marriage and other significant personal relationships needs to be re-examined and, where necessary, restated.”
Listed in the report are questions on how gender, sex, sexuality, marriage, cohabiting, and other forms of relationship might be understood in a Methodist context, including sexual relations outside of marriage. It also explores “what God is doing” when two people are married, and whether Church statements on marriage have “any effect” on how people behave privately.
The group had been unable to produce a proper draft statement in time for the meeting this year, as previously agreed, the report says, due to the unforeseen disruption caused by a change of chair and “several bouts of significant ill-health” among its members.
The Conference also welcomed the document Mission and Ministry in Covenant, which calls for the ministries of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to be interchangeable (News, 28 June 2017). It was produced by the faith and order boards of the two Churches.
The Secretary of the Conference, Canon Gareth J Powell, said during the debate on Monday: “These proposals seek to articulate common ground and to honour the differences between our Churches. This is not about each partner becoming more like the other, but about discovering ways of being in a closer relationship with integrity, grace, and generosity.”
The ecumenical guest for the C of E, the Bishop of Aston in the diocese of Birmingham, the Rt Revd Anne Hollinghurst, agreed. She said in her address to the Conference: “Both our Churches are grappling with sharp questions about how we respond to God’s mission in a context of apparently accelerating secularization.”
This meant embracing the proposals and being willing to shift the “tradition, culture, and self-understanding” of the two Churches. The document, she said, “would take down barriers between us without weakening the boundaries that give our two Churches their distinctive shape, their distinctive life in the family of faith.
“We are family, and we belong together.”