Kenneth H. Carter: We live in the tension of law and love

In the midst of the polarizing debate over human sexuality in the United Methodist Church, the bishop of Florida talks about his new book, which calls for unity and an embrace of “generous orthodoxy.”

How will the United Methodist Church treat its LGBTQ members and pastors? That’s a question the denomination has been fiercely debating for years -- and what’s at stake at the February special session of the UMC General Conference, the denomination’s governing body.

Bishop Kenneth H. Carter is in the midst of that debate. Carter, who serves as bishop of the Florida Conference and president of the UMC Council of Bishops, spent two years as one of three moderators of a 32-person global Commission on a Way Forward that looked at human sexuality, LGBTQ identity and the unity of the church.

Embracing the WidenessIn his new book, “Embracing the Wideness: The Shared Convictions of The United Methodist Church,” Carter tries to avoid polarization and instead argues for a “generous orthodoxy”: “not the elimination of our differences but the calling to live together faithfully in the midst of them.”

“We are seeking to try to do a couple of things: to find a way forward that honors the dignity and the identity of brothers and sisters in Christ who are in the LGBTQ community and to uphold and maintain the unity of the church,” he said.

Carter holds degrees from Duke Divinity School, the University of Virginia and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before he was elected to the episcopacy, he served as a pastor in churches and as a judicatory leader in North Carolina.

Carter spoke to Faith & Leadership about his work with the commission and his thoughts on the February gathering. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Your multiple roles give you responsibilities both global and local. How do you balance those roles?

Ken CarterIt’s a rhythm; there’s a gathering that’s more global, but then you’re quickly taken back into what’s local.

About a year ago, I had spent a week with our bishops in Africa, primarily listening to their context and talking with them about the LGBTQ conversation and the importance of the unity of the church.

Then as I was getting back, that was exactly when Hurricane Irma was starting to hit. So we had this intense few weeks of traveling around the state and listening to people who had been through this hurricane. About 2.5 million people in Florida were affected.

Then three or four weeks later, there was going to be a Commission on a Way Forward board meeting in Berlin.

It’s a both-and. I do remind myself that it’s a leadership role for a season and then that season will end. And so it is -- I wouldn’t say it’s a balance, but it is a trying to attend to two different contexts.

I would say that I tend to see my local responsibilities first. I see Florida from Jacksonville and Tallahassee to the Keys as my parish. I think any denominational structure exists to help things flourish at the local level.

Q: So what’s at stake at the February General Conference of the United Methodist Church, for those who aren’t familiar with the details?

The conversation around LGBTQ identity and the church is happening in every church. It’s happening in mainline denominations. It’s happening in evangelical institutions like Baylor and Wheaton. It’s happening in movements like Hillsong. Every form of Christian church is having the conversation.

We [United Methodists] have over 12 million members on four continents, and we’re democratic. We’re a global church, and we’re a democratic church.

Some churches are global but they’re not democratic, like, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Some churches are democratic but they’re not global, so they exist within primarily one ethnic group or one region of a country or one country.

We have both the blessing and the challenge of being in the Philippines and in many vastly different parts of Europe -- very traditional parts of Europe and very progressive parts of Europe -- and in Africa. We are more dispersed across the U.S. than some churches.

That’s the basis for our conversation. But we are seeking to try to do a couple of things: to find a way forward that honors the dignity and the identity of brothers and sisters in Christ who are in the LGBTQ community and to uphold and maintain the unity of the church.

Q: What’s the recommendation of the commission on this issue?

The Council of Bishops -- which includes bishops from across the world -- overwhelmingly affirmed what is called the One Church Plan.

What the One Church Plan does is it removes the language about homosexuality from our Book of Discipline, which is restrictive for persons in that community in terms of ordination and marriage.

But it allows space for conscience among traditionalists -- and I guess I would say that’s the attempt of the United Methodist Church to be a big tent.

One of the key words is “contextualization,” and the idea there is simply it’s very hard to have a book of discipline that will allow the fullness of ministry in, say, Liberia and the Philippines and then in, say, Miami, Florida, and Montgomery, Alabama, and San Francisco and Scranton.

The context really matters, and the commission understood that. I think the bishops understand that. That was the plan that was affirmed.

There will be two other plans that we wanted to carry forward, recognizing that they express values of many people in our church.

One is called the Traditionalist Plan, which simply maintains the present language about homosexuality, which is about 50 years old, in our Book of Discipline.

Then another plan almost creates three churches within one larger church and gives each church the space to have kind of the purity of its theology.

Q: People have raised the question of a schism. Is that like a divorce? How likely is that as an outcome?

If a person has a steady diet of social media, they might think that is the likelihood, because the voices in social media are just the most angular, one-dimensional kinds of voices.

But no, I think we are much more interdependent in terms of our polity, in terms of our resources, in terms of how we do mission together, in terms of how we share relationships with institutions.

I think at a personal level, sometimes a person gets frustrated and thinks, “I just want to walk away.” But upon reflection, they realize our root systems really have grown together. I think people are searching for a way to remain united as a church.

At a more practical level, what the Commission on a Way Forward tried to do was to bring all of these people together and have a lot of listening around the world about what are the resources that would help us to remain together.

There are many people who are very much centrist, and there are many people for whom this is not a church-dividing issue and it is not their most important concern.

It is very complex. It’s a church with billions of dollars of resources around the world. It’s a church in many countries with many different legal systems, tens and tens and tens of thousands of churches.

The idea that this is like one human being and another human being who might decide to get a divorce -- that’s just not a great analogy. But it is one that appeals to the imagination, because the person can understand it.

Q: There has been a lot of heated rhetoric in this debate. How has social media changed the discussions and debates about sexuality in the church?

I would say that positions in social media are much more angular, much more -- they’re more polarized.

I find that when I’m actually having conversations with people, it’s very different.

I have had a number of conversations with activists and LGBTQ persons and their allies and also some of our most traditional voices in our denomination. They often say very different things when you’re sitting down and having a meal with them, or coffee.

One of the ways I think about that is to try to listen for the interest underneath the public position and to try to figure out what does a person really want or need. I think that listening is really important.

We did a lot of work with a resource called “The Anatomy of Peace,” which is from the Arbinger Institute. It talks about having a “heart of peace,” not necessarily as being nice to people, but as not exaggerating the differences. To go to war with people, we have to exaggerate the differences.

There’s a chapter in the book on trying to resolve complaints and conflict through the principles of restorative justice, so that people can be restored to each other rather than punished.

Q: What do you hope people take from your book?

That the faith we share in common and the basic relationship with Christ that we share in common, which is rooted in God’s grace, is a more significant resource than we sometimes imagine. And that God’s forgiveness of us, God’s willingness to be reconciled with us, gives us the basis to be reconciled.

We are all tempted to arrive at closure. It’s like, “This is over. There’s nothing else to say.” But I think the gospel continues to have the power to make all things new.

So it’s my hope that we, myself included, would lean more heavily into that kind of generous orthodoxy and the grace of God that sustains us, and that would be the basis for our seeking of unity.

Q: “Generous orthodoxy” is one of the core ideas of the book. How does that idea come into play here?

I’ve been very influenced by people like Hans Frei of Yale and the priest Fleming Rutledge and her work. And there’s a great episode titled “Generous Orthodoxy” in the Malcolm Gladwell podcast “Revisionist History.”

Orthodoxy is a wonderful thing -- to have right beliefs, to have right convictions. But if you were on the shadow side of that orthodoxy, it could be a very cold and hard place to be.

I have met many people who hold traditional Christian convictions and yet have found themselves on the outside of the church. What I’m trying to do is to retrieve that idea of a generous orthodoxy as being rooted in the Scriptures, in the creeds, in the hymns. I don’t think I have to abandon those things to find my way toward a more inclusive, generous church.

Q: You don’t have to give up orthodoxy.

I don’t have to give up orthodoxy. Tom Langford is very prominent in this book. He was the dean of Duke Divinity School when I began there, and later was the provost of the university. And his work on the grace of God has stayed with me.

I think people really hunger for the grace of God, and that’s really what we sing about when we’re in worship. That’s what we preach about. In our best evangelical selves, that’s the gospel we offer.

Yet when we move to a conversation like the one related to human sexuality, it’s like we lose that resource, and all of a sudden we become very legalistic. We become at times very constricted.

I’m simply trying to retrieve the good news. A question I have in my mind always when I’m preaching or writing about this is, “Will this be good news to an LGBTQ person when they hear it?”

That’s not so much about ideology as it’s the way we would want to treat anyone. We would not want to put obstacles in the way of persons finding Christian community, of discovering their gifts and their calling.

So generous orthodoxy for me is just trying to expand the space where the grace of God can work throughout our lives.

Q: You write, “What if the center is not a mushy middle but the cross of Jesus that is strong enough to hold the tension of the opposites?”

I think the idea is simply that the gospel or even the cross, the reconciling cross of Jesus, is able to hold the tension of the opposites. It’s a challenging place to be.

When we get to the bedrock of all of this, it is the grace of God and how the grace of God does call us on a journey toward fully loving God, fully loving our neighbor -- and, as I say in the book, the journey to holiness, which I think is reclaiming the image of God in us.

Q: In what ways have your personal attitudes about LGBTQ persons changed over the years?

Where at one time I might have thought, “This is a distraction; this is not the main thing,” I’ve come to believe that the center of all of this is the gospel and the grace of God. I do believe for younger generations this is kind of a litmus test, and the litmus test is, “Are you really a church that will offer the grace of God to all people, and would you welcome someone like me?”

People transfer that. If they’ve been through a divorce, they wonder, “Would you accept me?” If they’ve been in prison, “Would you accept a person like me?”

I try rarely to talk about this as if it is an “issue.” I tend to see the faces of people.

I think about people who were in churches I served, very rural churches and very urban churches -- these were all in North Carolina. These were people who were baptized in our churches and confirmed in our churches and were in youth groups and confirmation classes and choirs and went on mission trips and contributed money to the church budget. And they’re wondering, “Is this really my church? Am I really welcome in this church?”

My mind has changed simply in that it’s made me wrestle with the theological implications of how the church can really try to be the presence of Jesus. My plain reading of the Gospels is that Jesus constantly crosses all kinds of boundaries and shares meals with all kinds of people. That’s part of the criticism of him in Luke 15, why he tells the prodigal son story.

For me, it’s not about a political agenda or an ideological spin. I started with a question about the local and the global. Even the global church is always local. It’s some local community. It’s some group of 25, 50, 75 people showing up for church.

Church is at its best, at its healthiest, when we just try to get out of the way and offer the gospel to people and allow God to do God’s work with us in reforming us and accepting us and changing us and reshaping us.

Q: What are the Scriptures that guide you in thinking through this conversation?

A part of the Scripture I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately has been the great commandment of Jesus, the great commandments of Jesus, which are in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 and Luke 10. Richard Hays, in his “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels,” talks about [the Matthew passage] where [Jesus] says that the two great commandments are to love God and love our neighbor; [Jesus’] insight is that everything really hangs on that.

He always interprets the law through love, through the call to be more loving, and so I think we live in the tension of law and love. We need both, but it seems to me the Gospels always err on the side of love and mercy.

Q: What do you hope will happen at the gathering in February?

God can reshape things and make things new -- but I do see a lot of the good that happens through our denomination.

A lot of my agenda is to try to help the church be resilient and sustainable and flourishing for people at the local level, so that people called to ministry can have places to serve. I also care about the institutions that are at the heart of this, like seminaries. Our church also has hospitals and foundations, and we’ve done a lot of [good] work with our institutions as well.

So my hope is that we don’t do harm to each other and we don’t do harm to the mission and we find a way to be united as a church. Not because we agree with each other. But that we find a way to be a part of God’s mission in the world from the local to the global levels. That’s my hope.