Friday, March 29, 2019

Why United Methodists need to better understand straight marriage

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In the wake of General Conference 2019, The United Methodist Church has seemingly reached an impasse in its debate over gay ordination and gay marriage. It is possible that the impasse means it is simply time for those of differing viewpoints to go their separate ways. Yet for those who want to remain and continue the dialogue, it seems another way to approach the topic is necessary.

One perhaps counter-intuitive possibility would be to talk more about straight marriage.

This is not an attempt to center straight people in a debate that is fundamentally about LGBTQ persons. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that whatever views one holds on gay marriage, the "marriage" in the term "gay marriage" is understood by analogy with views on and practices of straight marriage.

Moreover, a thorough examination of straight marriage in the church would likely reveal that there is less consensus on this concept than many might initially suppose. In particular, a cross-cultural conversation about straight marriage might reveal that some of the differences between many Americans and many Africans over gay marriage stem not just from different understandings about homosexuality but different understandings about marriage itself.

US Americans, both traditionalist and progressive, often forget how significantly American views of straight marriage have shifted over the past two centuries. Books like Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz and A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition by Elizabeth Abbott describe some of the ways that Western understandings of straight marriage have shifted significantly over the course of history. In particular, they highlight the shift from viewing marriage as an arrangement to promote group economic and social well-being to viewing marriage as an arrangement to promote personal emotional and sexual fulfillment.

And if views of marriage have varied significantly over Western history, it is safe to say that views of marriage likely vary significantly across cultures today. Not everyone in the world understands marriage in the way that most Westerners, traditionalist and progressive, do. Personal emotional and sexual fulfillment are not the primary goals of marriage in all places in the world. Marriage serves different personal, familial, social, religious, economic, and even political purposes in different contexts. Yet whatever purpose it serves, marriage often carries the weight of a lot of personal and cultural expectations. A broader exploration of views on marriage may help reveal why this issue has also become loaded with such theological weight, when it is far from the only one over which United Methodists disagree.

Moreover, a more thorough discussion of straight marriage is likely to lead to a more thorough discussion of gender, since straight marriage is a primary way in which societies assign and carry out gender roles. Understandings of gender are linked to understandings of LGBTQ persons, and thus more discussion of gender is likely to serve the causes of both women's rights and LGBTQ rights.

Until United Methodists from around the world can come to better clarity on the diversity of the ways in which they understand the term "marriage," especially in its predominant form of straight marriage, it is likely that they will continue to talk past each other on the topic of gay marriage.

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