Chaos, Sexuality, & Politics in the UMC: An Interview with Ashley Boggan Dreff, part 2

Dreff, Ashley (2)
Ashley Boggan Dreff

In the first segment of my interview with Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff, author of Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality, we discussed the origin of United Methodist language around homosexuality at one of the first General Conferences of the new United Methodist Church in 1972. (We also talked about George Whitefield’s knuckle, so there’s that.) In this segment we pick up with the “incompatibility clause” and talk about some of the larger forces in the church and society that set the stage for the forty years of debate about ordination and marriage as they relate to LGBTQ United Methodists.

Alex: So, there’s a moment [at the 1972 General Conference], and you describe it really well as being a confused and chaotic moment, where everybody is not sure what they’re voting on and the idea that it came up at all was a surprise to some folks and yet, on the other hand, you also describe how this was really the collision of two movements that had been building—the New Morality and also the evangelical push back to that represented by the Good News movement. So [the language from 1972] is both inevitable because of the trends but also popped up in a moment and we’ve been living with both the language and the movements ever since.

ABD: If you’ve been to any General Conference, there’s always a bit of confusion as to what is on the floor. We’ve gotten a little bit better with technology in that some sort of summation or title is put up on a screen. So people have a better idea of what they’re voting for. But due to its confusing nature of parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules  of Order, when you make amendments and substitutions to amendments, it gets entirely confusing. With this one paragraph [on human sexuality in 1972] there are six or seven different amendments, and each one of those is either further amended or substituted.  

I went back and color-coded the Daily Christian Advocate [with its transcript of the General Conference] and there’s like 14 different colors I used to try and keep track of what’s being amended and what’s the original amendment to the motion and it’s so hard to read and follow. I can only imagine being there. And when you add the emotional aspect to it, as well as people being shocked by language or people being offended by language that’s being used…There are a few times in the Daily Christian Advocate where it talks about disruptions or division or applause and when you add all of that emotional aspect on top of the political or legislative aspect, it creates this chaotic atmosphere. 

Yeah, I was sitting there as a reserve delegate at this 2019 General Conference and I created a chart just to track where we were and it’s pages and pages long. And it’s not complete because a side conversation can pull you out of the flow so quickly. So, it’s very difficult. 

The lens of your whole book is that sexuality is not just an issue about which United Methodists have struggled, but it is the thing that other Methodist divisions are built on. Is that fair to say?

I would say it is the most recent manifestation of our divisions. I think the thing that undergirds our division is how we approach Scripture. That’s built into the history of the Methodist tradition.

We split in 1844 over differences of how Scriptures spoke to slavery—whether it defends it or whether it doesn’t. In 1939 those two denominations merged but they didn’t unite. They didn’t do the hard work of reconciling their different interpretations of Scripture, which, in that 100 years of division, only got more further apart as theology in the South took a more fundamentalist approach and the theology in the North was more easily influenced by the rise of German criticism. You can see this when you look at seminaries and how the seminaries developed. 

So in 1939, when they came back together, they didn’t take that moment to reconcile their understandings of Scripture, especially when it came to understanding the social construction of race.  Instead they institutionally segregated African-Americans into the Central Jurisdiction. 

In 1968 they had another moment to do that reconciliation—to apologize for the institutional segregation, to figure out how we, as the United Methodist Church now, were going to approach Scripture, how we were going to understand Scripture as a united denomination, but we didn’t do it then either. We instead upheld theological pluralism and recognized that as a United Methodist, you can have a theology that is from A to Z, as long as it upholds Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.  

We just haven’t done that work of reconciling our different approaches to Scripture and it’s one of those things that is the beauty and the bane of the United Methodism. We can encompass vast theological and political spectrums but when it comes to how that works out on the ground, especially when it comes to sexuality, that creates real problems. Because when you have a sexual ethic it has to be grounded in some sort of theology and when your theology is from A to Z and your sexual ethic is A or B, then someone is getting left out.

In your book, you say “For the past 46 years, United Methodist have placed sexuality as the primary lens through which they have discerned how to be in ministry with one another and the world. The way United Methodists understand sexuality has affected the denomination’s history, doctrine, polity, mission, and evangelism.” That’s a pretty bold statement.

Yes. The lens that this book takes is through a history of queer theology where you naturally start with sexuality to look at other things.

Right.

Sexuality has encompassed and/or limited so much of what the church has done for the last 51 years now. It’s either embraced certain groups or it’s excluded certain groups. It’s prevented missions to certain areas. It has turned Scripture into a sort of weapon where if you don’t agree with how I understand sexuality then you clearly don’t understand Scripture. Or if you don’t agree with how I understand sexuality, then you take Scripture too literally. So, it’s drastically changed how Methodists talk to each other now. It’s prevented some of us from being in community with, not only the world, but also with each other because of that division. 

Part of that statement also has to do with my personal lens into United Methodism. In researching and studying sexuality, whenever I look at anything United Methodist or whenever I hear someone say something that might not have to do with sexuality, I automatically assume that it does, because I read into language that I’ve heard used. When people say ‘historic Methodism’ or ‘orthodox Methodism,’ they might not be talking about sexuality, but that’s the language that more conservative caucus groups might use in order to make statements against LGBTQ inclusion.  So I see sexuality and how people understand sexuality as United Methodists undergirding a lot of the language and the lenses that United Methodists use.

Another big part of your argument though is that we have also imported all the political methods of this late stage American democracy into our polity. It’s kind of built into Methodism from the beginning—we’ve always tried to be democratic and episcopal in some weird mix. So if the lens that you’re using is sexuality, when we import stuff from the political culture and the culture wars around us, are we importing just the methods or is the debate over sexuality in the culture around us too, and in that politics?

Yes, I do think that it is. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the new Christian right and the Good News movement both came to power in 1972. That’s just too coincidental not to mention. 

The new Christian right has been garnering evangelical support since really the 1950s. There are various American religious historians who will make the argument that it’s desegregation of the public schools in the 1950s, and in the 1960s, it’s taking prayer and Scripture reading out of the public schools and putting sex education in, it’s those things that really bring the beginning of the new Christian right to the forefront of American politics. But those aren’t things that a lot of people can get behind, they aren’t things that people can rally behind.  

“We just haven’t done that work of reconciling our different approaches to Scripture and it’s one of those things that is the beauty and the bane of the United Methodism.”

What people could rally behind was abortion, because when you market abortion as murder, as murdering children, then that’s something that most Americans could easily get behind. Whereas with desegregation there’s this implied notion of racism.  With getting rid of sex education, there was putting sex education into public schools and getting rid of Scripture. With Bible reading, you can easily call people puritanical, so those aren’t really good rallying cards. So they have this building up in the 1950s and 1960s and come to power in the early 1970s around abortion. 

You could say the same for the Good News movement. While they weren’t an organization until the late 1960s, you can see the evangelical discourse garnering support within the Methodist Church in the 1950s and 1960s, around the same issues, around this idea that “modernism” was taking over the denomination. You can see it through the writings of early conservative leaders where they are going against the Course of Study, and they’re going against the Biblical criticism, and they’re saying that Methodists don’t believe in the fundamentals of Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Christ.  

But their rallying cry became homosexuality after 1972 because they felt that that was something that most United Methodists could get behind.  So they are using the same methods, they are using the same rhetoric, and something happens in America in United Methodism after the 1960s where we had a vast sexual revolution of people of color, of women, of gay communities, and there’s this backlash in the 1970s against that. That is why sexuality and the upholding of sexual morality becomes a political and religious rally. Because it’s seen as the anti-1960s, as a way to correct what happened in the 1960s. 

Click here to go to Segment 3 of the Ashley Boggan Dreff interview on Heartlands.

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