Holy Matrimony? Recognition of same-sex marriage in the Methodist Church

Holy Matrimony? Recognition of same-sex marriage in the Methodist church

Mark Rowland is a PhD student at Leeds researching a queer theology of holiness. He has been a Methodist minister since 2009 and currently also serves as Free Church Chaplain at the University of Warwick. He is a founder of Dignity and Worth and a trustee of OneBodyOneFaith.

The Conference of the Methodist Church in Britain took some historic decisions when it met in the summer of 2021, which opened the possibility of being married in Methodist Churches and by Methodist ministers to all couples, not just men and women as was previously the case. The position that the Conference has now adopted creates a mixed approach within the church: local churches and ministers are free to form their own policies, so in some places, LGBT+ couples will be able to marry and in others that will continue not to be possible. It is still early days in terms of the making of those local decisions, but the signs are encouraging and there are churches all across the nations of the UK deciding that they will opt-in.

I’ve been working, alongside many others, on this decision for several years now. At one level, it’s a triumph of the pragmatism of the Methodist tradition, which is often ready to roll its sleeves up and try and find something that will work. At another level, it embodies a deep commitment to freedom of conscience which has been a strain in Methodism from its beginning. John Wesley wrote in the Character of a Methodist that a Methodist was not defined by their ‘opinions of any sort’ but by their love of God and of neighbour.(Wesley, 1989, p. 33) While we recognise that there are many subjects on which Methodists have different views and beliefs, this will be perhaps the one where the Methodist Church has to do the most work to embody a respect and allowance for those differences in its life.

One of my passions throughout the process has been that those of us who work for greater participation of LGBT+ people in the Methodist Church (and indeed this applies more broadly, in my view) should speak of that theologically and biblically. The theological and biblical resources of the faith are as much ours as they are any other Christian’s. It was this passion that led me to choose the topic of a queer theology of holiness for my doctoral research. Holiness is one of Methodism’s historic emphases and is still very much part of our understanding of faith today. Holiness is, in our understanding, a possibility for everyone. In my research, I look back to Wesley’s teaching on holiness – as expressed in his sermons, tracts and other documents – and seek to read it from a queer perspective. At one level, this is quite distant from the marriage question, but it is connected in that many opponents to the changes cite our call to holiness as an argument against and because the view that Wesley himself might take is often assumed and called upon as another argument against.

Wesley, meanwhile, would be wondering why we were talking about marriage at all. He largely took the view that the preferable option was for Methodists not to marry so as better to serve God. (Abelove, 1990, p. 49) Given his own rather unsuccessful marriage and other attempts at relationships, it’s not surprising that he took a dim view of it. However, Methodists then generally didn’t take any notice of him on this point and in the following years have continued to marry if they see fit. If LGBT+ Methodists depart from Wesley for wanting to have the possibility of marriage, then so do all the others.

Responding to the decisions of the Conference, the Prelate of Methodist Church Nigeria, His Eminence, Dr Samuel CK Uche said:

The Church in Nigeria believes in the doctrine of the Bible as promulgated by John Wesley. We believe in holiness. We believe that we worship a holy God. We believe what the Bible says that marriage is between man and woman and not between man and man or woman and woman. We believe the Bible can’t be re-written. We can’t go back to Egypt. (Gay: Methodist Church Nigeria dissociates self from UK Methodist, 2021)

We believe in holiness too and for Wesley, holiness is found in love of God and love of neighbour – that is what it means to be holy. He taught of Christian perfection: not a freedom from mistake or ignorance but a profound depth of that love. Wesley’s commitment to the reality of this holiness transformed his ministry, made a significant impact on both Church and society and gave birth to what we now know as Methodism. He faced controversy, opposition and even ridicule and violence. He drew on the resources of faith that he had and at the same time radically reshaped them. A queering approach to holiness does the same thing and to hold open the possibility of a queer holiness attracts controversy and opposition. However, it also gives a way to understand decisions such as the Methodist Conference made this last summer not as simply a capitulation to the inevitability of a secular rights agenda but as an expression of that deep love of God and neighbour that Wesley knew constituted holiness. It is my hope that the decisions taken are transformative for couples who have longed to be able to be married in church and for us as a Methodist Church as a whole: that we might gain a new appreciation of what it means for queer people to be holy.

 

Abelove, H. 1990. The evangelist of desire : John Wesley and the Methodists. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Gay: Methodist Church Nigeria dissociates self from UK Methodist. 2021. [Online]. [Accessed 12 December 2021]. Available from: https://www.churchtimesnigeria.net/gay-methodist-church-nigeria/

Wesley, J. 1989. The Works of John Wesley (vol. 9). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.