The following review was originally published on The Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Heartlands editor, Alex Joyner.
What if questions of human sexuality are not something that the United Methodist Church (UMC), like other mainline Protestant denominations, have to settle and get past, but rather are the foundation on which the structure was built? It’s hard to escape that question reading Ashley Boggan Dreff’s new book, Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality.
United Methodists are preparing for a special meeting of their main legislative body, the General Conference, in February 2019 to consider proposals designed to give clarity to their positions on same-sex marriages and LGBTQ ordination, both currently forbidden by the denomination’s Book of Discipline. In the anxiety of the moment, many United Methodist leaders, myself included at times, are singing from the same score—“Let’s resolve this question so that we can get back to the mission of the Church, which is making disciples.”
The assumption behind the sentiment is that our never-ending debates about sexuality are a distraction from our historic norm. Boggan Dreff, Director of United Methodist Studies at Hood Seminary, does us the service of exposing the myth behind the assumption. Sexuality, and the political movements associated with approaches to it, are not the exception. Contentious debates, the rise of General Conference as “the only official voice of the denomination,” proliferating caucus groups, mailings and magazines designed to influence perceptions? These are not flak; they’re what the UMC is.
Of course, there is more to the story. There is a Wesleyan doctrinal base and a distinctive history to which United Methodists often appeal. But Methodists have often downplayed the theology and claimed a gauzy commonality in order to allow for structural union. This was the case in 1939 when northern & southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church joined the Methodist Protestants to form the Methodist Church. It was also the case in 1968 as that denomination joined the Evangelical United Brethren to become the UMC.
The churn and turmoil of the late 60s was not just a backdrop for the formation of the UMC, according to Boggan Dreff. The debates of the era between a new morality and a rising conservative backlash to it were baked into the new denomination. And with its defining statements on sexuality at its 1972 General Conference, “for the past forty-six years, United Methodists have placed sexuality as the primary lens through which they have discerned how to be in ministry with one another and the world.” (6)
Margaret Sanger and the Methodist Family of the Year
Entangled reaches back beyond the Uniting Conference of 1968 to tell a more detailed story of changing American attitudes toward sexuality and how Methodist bodies responded to it. The book begins with Margaret Sanger and the movement for affordable and available contraception in the early 1900s. Countering the lingering Victorian opposition to even discussing contraceptives, Sanger appealed to Protestant clergy to see birth control as a moral obligation that would improve marital life, family life, and the health of women and children.
By the 1930s, the movement was beginning to find acceptance in Methodist circles. Along with it, a “new ideology of healthy sexuality” was emerging in which sexual relations were affirmed and encouraged as a way of increasing marital happiness and closeness. By the 1940s the Methodist Publishing House was producing pamphlets supporting contraception.
The new “healthy sexuality” ethos bloomed into a Cold War ideal of family togetherness. Boggan Dreff begins a chapter on the sexual revolution with a portrait of the Detweilers of Burbank, California, who were chosen as the “1958 Methodist Family of the Year” by Together magazine. The Detweilers embodied the idealized family—white, middle-class, with children (three of them), and all with lives centered around the church and the family. All of the “families of the year” chosen during this period looked the same, emphasizing that the “white, heterosexual, middle-class, Protestant family was not only a beacon of cleanliness; it was portrayed as America’s best weapon in the fight against outward threats,” like Communism and worldliness. (72-3)
The “cult of togetherness” excluded a lot of other types of families and single people. In fact, Boggan Dreff argues, liberal Protestantism’s attachment of “healthy sexuality” to this type of family created a new definition of non-normative sexuality, and thus “an ‘other,’ the unhealthy or deviant sexual person, the homosexual.” (206) There were several other pieces to this story. Methodism had to grapple with changing views on divorce, premarital sex, and abortion—all of which are detailed in this book. But the culminating story, and the story of United Methodism, related to how the denomination began with the debate over homosexuality.
The Shipwreck That Formed an Island
There is a small island here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia that is now part of the chain of barrier islands that front the Atlantic Ocean. It began to form, so I’ve been told, when a ship wrecked in the shallows of the opening to the Chesapeake Bay some 200 years ago. The ship is long gone, but the island is now substantial.
In many ways the collision of an emerging new morality and a new Methodist evangelical voice in the late 1960s is the figurative shipwreck around which the new denomination formed. Boggan Dreff uses two prominent figures from the period to illustrate the divide. The Rev. John V. Moore, senior minister at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, is the representative voice of Methodist openness to the new morality, which he defined in a landmark 1965 sermon series. To “act ethically,” according to the new morality, Moore said, “means to take the insights of others, [and] to make our own decision in the situation in which you find yourself.” (220) It also meant recognizing that there were “multitudes of sexuality” including homosexual persons.
Illinois Methodist pastor Charles Keysor becomes, in Entangled, the primary representative of the evangelical movement. His 1966 article, “Methodism’s Silent Minority,” lifted up the perception by many conservatives that “many Methodist leaders in the 1960s accepted the proposition that ‘the world sets the agenda for the church,’” including in the volatile area of sexual norms. (139) Keysor went on to found the Good News movement, which remains a major voice of the evangelical wing of the church.
The clashes between these perspectives broke out on the floor of the 1972 General Conference of the 4-year-old UMC, which inserted, in a paragraph of the denomination’s Book of Discipline affirming the worth of homosexual persons, the now infamous clause declaring “the practice of homosexuality…incompatible with Christian doctrine.” Boggan Dreff details the parliamentary debate of that day in a way that emphasizes how chaotic and messy the discussion was. As a lifelong United Methodist, I nodded my head in recognition of the way our momentous decisions often emerge from such confusion.
For Good This Time!
And yet here we are again. Boggan Dreff’s narrative drops off significantly after the turn of the 21st century, but interest in this book is clearly whetted by the prospect of a special General Conference in February 2019 that is aimed at resolving (for good this time!) the debate that has been rejoined every four years since 1972 at General Conferences. “United Methodism today is anything but united, for it cannot agree on what it means to be a sexual human being,” Boggan Dreff concludes. (268) But neither is she optimistic that the UMC could reform in such a way as to stop the formation of “political caucus groups” and the use of “political rhetoric” imported from the culture. (269)
I still have hope that United Methodism retains enough of its Wesleyan and Asbury-ian DNA to write a new chapter. But this very useful book reminds me that, whatever the outcome of the February General Conference, a great task will remain: leaving 1968 behind and moving into a future where United Methodism is not defined by that past. That will require a struggle for identity and clarity of mission that is long overdue. Stay tuned.