Thursday, April 23, 2015

This is what the marriage debate looks like in Liberia

You've heard the story before: A United Methodist conference is debating whether or not to change its policies regarding marriage.  There is a debate about sexual morality.  There are protestors that disrupt the conference with singing and handmade signs.  There are debates about who can qualify for ordained leadership positions.  The Book of Discipline and the global nature of the church are invoked to support positions.

The above description would fit any of the many General Conference or American Annual Conference debates about homosexuality, same sex marriage, and ordination of LGBTQ persons.  Yet the story I had in mind is actually a recent one from Liberia's 2015 Annual Conference, where the question of whether divorced clergy could be eligible to become bishops was hotly debated, as you can read about here and here.

Some background: The Liberia Annual Conference has for a long time barred divorced clergy from running for election as bishop.  This provision is unique to Liberia; it is not part of the Book of Discipline.  Thus, a number of laity representatives to the Annual Conference petitioned to have the rule changed, arguing that Liberia should use the same standards for bishops as the rest of the UMC.  The clergy dissented, arguing that it was necessary for bishops to adhere to a higher standard of sexual morality.  While those in favor of changing the rule protested at Annual Conference, ultimately the final vote upheld the rule.

There are several interesting things about this story.  First are its parallels to American arguments, but parallels that scramble the American alignments between existing policy, the Book of Discipline, and views about sexual morality.  The second interesting facet is that those in favor of the change were initially almost entirely laity, whereas those opposed to the change were initially entirely clergy.  It's rare to see that sort of total clergy/laity split in American Methodism.  Finally, it's a good reminder that the contours of debates about marriage and sexuality vary by context, as this blog has previously pointed out for Kenya.  That doesn't make American debates unimportant, but it should help Americans put their debates in perspective.

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