Note: In my work as a student of political opinions, processes, and behavior, I  have learned a few things about determinants of abortion attitudes, the strength of ideology and partisanship among elites and the mass public, and the complex and often reciprocally causal relationship between individuals' religiosity and their political attitudes. I'm happy to talk about those issues any time. Here, however, my aim is to reflect on the implications of a United Methodist bishop's recent sermon at a pro-life worship service held in conjunction with the 2014 March for Life. Though I have no formal relationship to the UMC, I am a friend and fellow-traveler of the great United Methodist tradition.

This the 4th in a 5-part series on abortion.
Sanctity of Life Sunday: A Modest Critique
When Life Began to Begin at Conception
The Impossible Middle Ground
A United Methodist Bishop's Pro-Life Witness
Challenging Liberal Christians on Abortion

Every January 22, thousands of pro-life advocates participate in a March for Life on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. Initially dominated by Catholics, the march has become very ecumenical and has included many evangelical leaders and activists. While Mainline Protestant laity and some clergy undoubtedly come to Washington to march, Mainline denominational heads are never among the organizers, leaders, and speakers. After all, Mainline institutions cheered the Roe decision and in the 41 years that have come and gone, elite Mainline enthusiasm for abortion rights has not wavered. If anything, it has intensified.

Thus it was kind of a big deal, symbolically if not substantively, that a United Methodist bishop preached at a pro-life event in Washington on January 22. Each year, an organization of pro-life United Methodists called Lifewatch holds a worship service in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. The Revs. Paul Stallsworth (North Carolina) and Paul Crikelair (Eastern Pennsylvania) served as hosts and presiders. Ken Carter, elected to the episcopacy in 2012 and currently serving as resident bishop of the Florida Episcopal Area, preached the sermon.

The Sermon: "A Consistent Ethic of Hospitality"

Bishop Carter's sermon manuscript is published here.

Nodding to Hans Frei, the bishop suggested that the UMC's present ecclesial crisis is rooted in theology, preaching, teaching, and belief that is neither generous nor orthodox: "Our current incoherent social teaching is the result of this theological chaos." He argued that if United Methodists are to be serious about inclusiveness and hospitality, they must include the unborn in their circle of concern in order to make their ethics consistent. Bishop Carter held out Roman Catholics and progressive evangelicals as traditions with consistent life-affirming ethics. He approvingly cited Professor David Gushee, a moderate Baptist who has criticized both Mainliners and white evangelicals for not completely affirming human life and dignity. Though he laid a compelling groundwork rooted firmly in Wesleyan theological distinctives, the bishop was short on particulars about how precisely the UMC should be more pro-life on the issue of abortion. Given the Church's muddled position on abortion and the apparent reality that relatively few UM bishops publicly affiliate with pro-life organizations or caucus groups, however, the bishop's mere presence at this gathering may have been as important as anything he actually said.

Accordingly, I'll resist the temptation to share some of my own ideas about the Church's ecclesial crisis, theological chaos, and incoherent social teachings. Perhaps another day. For now, I'll focus on the implications of Bishop Carter's comprehensive pro-life witness.

It strikes me that this was a sermon from which people on both sides could take bits and pieces that affirm their priorities. Pro-life United Methodists will say, "This is great! It's wonderful to hear a UM bishop so strongly affirm unborn human life!" But pro-choice United Methodists could say say, "We all want fewer abortions. The bishop said little to imply that the procedure should be criminalized."

Activists at either extreme of the abortion issue will find much they dislike in the sermon. Advocates for criminalization will note that the bishop did not employ the rhetoric of genocide or mass murder. He did say that while some may pursue activism, activism is not the only way to be pro-life. I did not hear him call for United Methodists to rush into the mainstream pro-life movement, which advocates for criminalization in most (if not all) cases. I did not even hear an implicit call for UM agencies to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). Surely the most ardent pro-life activists wish the bishop had gone farther.

Pro-choice United Methodists should hear in Bishop Carter's message an implicit challenge: On what grounds do we break with the ecumenical Christian consensus on this issue? What is our biblical and theological justification for condoning the widespread destruction of unborn human life? In our concern for the vulnerable and marginalized, why exclude the unborn? Breaking with secular conservatives, many pro-life Christians hold progressive political views on some, if not most, issues. Yet religious liberals tend to hold the same political positions as secular liberals. On most issues, it's easy and natural (in my view) to offer religious justifications for progressive politics. What's the religious justification for supporting abortion on demand?

For me, the most pastoral and prophetic moment in the sermon came when Bishop Carter discussed the need to systematically address the context of abortion and reflected on this quotation form David Gushee's new book: "In the United States, as long as our cultural sexual ethic is so libertine, as long as our social safety net is so fragile, as long as the relationships between men and women are so tenuous and as long as poverty and helplessness continue to enfold at least half the population, demand for abortion will be high, especially among those whose bodies and spirits bear the costs of most of our other social dysfunctions."

Indeed, here is a call for those who usually emphasize personal holiness to acknowledge the cultural and economic forces that conspire to make too many pregnancies occasions for despair rather than joy. Likewise, those who usually emphasize social holiness must concede that greater personal responsibility and a revival of unfashionable virtues like chastity and self-control would go a long way toward reducing the incidence of unintended pregnancies.

Critics may say that the bishop gave a muddled response to a Church with a muddled position on an issue that should be crystal clear. I see it differently. Taken together with Bishop Carter's statements last year on homosexuality and immigration, we see an episcopal leader striving for compassion and coherence in pastoral and theological engagement within and beyond the Church.

The Worship Service

Lifewatch hosts its annual service in the Simpson Memorial Chapel on the ground floor of the United Methodist Building. Located across the street from the Supreme Court of the United States and in plain view of the Capitol, the UM Building has been a hub of Mainline political engagement for nearly a century. Other denominations and advocacy groups rent office space in the building. The National Council of Churches is now headquartered there. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was a tenant for years. For Lifewatch supporters, holding a pro-life worship service in the very building where liberal Protestants have conducted religiously-inspired pro-choice advocacy for more than 40 years must feel like being in the belly of the beast!

In the absence of a musician, the service began with our a cappella rendition of "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty." Rev. Crikelair read several scripture lessons. Rev. Stallsworth then introduced Bishop Carter, noting that they first met during the Durham Declaration project nearly 25 years ago. Stallsworth also noted that Carter was the fourth active bishop to preach the Lifewatch sermon, after Bishops Timothy Whitaker, Scott Jones, and Will Willimon.

Following the sermon, Rev. Crikelair led the Communion liturgy. Bishop Carter joined him in serving Communion. The hymn of dedication was "Be Thou My Vision." Then the bishop gave the benediction, borrowing from the UM Service of Christian Marriage: "Go now in peace to serve God and your neighbor in all that you do. Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends."

The service was simple, dignified, and not the least bit partisan or ideological. In my judgment, it reflected well on all who took part. On a personal note, the Eucharist was quite meaningful. Though I have many UM clergy friends throughout the connection, I have seldom met a pastor with as compelling a personal story as Rev. Paul Crikelair, who consecrated the elements and offered the bread. Likewise, as a former Florida United Methodist who essentially lapsed over the years, I was so pleased that a bishop from Florida offered the cup. Florida United Methodism mediated to me grace upon grace for many years and I felt as if its bishop had come to me across years and miles to share the means of grace yet again. In addition, let me say (perhaps to the dismay of many friends) that I was moved by the experience of receiving Communion with Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy. I'm a nobody in Washington and I disagree with Mark on many things that matter deeply to each of us. Even so, Mark has been kind and helpful to me. I was struck by the experience of divisions dissolving at the Lord's Table. A Holy Mystery indeed. For the first time in a while, I felt that there is something besides the pension fund holding the UMC together.

Since the other published accounts do not number the crowd, it may be worth noting that there were only 11 people at the service: 10 men, one woman, all white. Aside from the bishop, the presiders, professional observers, and journalists, there were only three: a pastor and his wife from Virginia and a layman from Maryland. In fairness, the service was on a weekday morning and literally the coldest morning Washington had seen in years. But I was shocked at the low attendance.

Brief Observations about Lifewatch

Lifewatch is an organization of pro-life United Methodists. Arising out of the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality (TUMAS), which convened in the late 1980s, Lifewatch circulates a quarterly newsletter to 4,000 UM clergy and laypeople. The group has no money and no staff, and is in large measure a labor of love by Rev. Paul Stallsworth and a devoted core group of supporters. Lifewatch has an advisory board and remains as active as it can be, but cannot match other caucus and watchdog groups in terms of finances or personnel.

I am personally grateful to Paul Stallsworth for sharing the Lifewatch story with me and showing an interest in my work (I am writing a doctoral dissertation on religious elites in American politics). I sometimes imagine myself to be a moderate, but I realize I am liberal compared to most. Even so, Paul was gracious and generous with me. I was momentarily shaken when I made the connection that this was, of course, the very same Rev. Paul Stallsworth who, as an expert witness for the prosecution during the penalty phase of the Frank Schaefer trial, urged that Schaefer be "openly rebuked" as proscribed in the Church's Articles of Religion. (I've written about that issue previously, to no one's liking I'm afraid.) Still, Paul is a jovial pastor and was a gracious host for the day.

Moving Forward

I hear Bishop Carter calling social-gospel liberals, personal-salvation conservatives, and everyone in between to open their hearts to deeper compassion, understanding, and engagement as we reflect deeply about the sanctity of unborn human life. I sense growth opportunities for people all across the spectrum. As with homosexuality, United Methodist teaching on abortion is complex, controversial, and contradictory. In a sense, it says nothing. Yet it says so much. The plain reality is that sincere United Methodist Christians of good faith and good will disagree about both issues, whether we acknowledge it or not. Yet no one is threatening to split the Church over abortion. No one is clamoring to end pastors' careers over it. We would do well to reflect on the difference between these two issues that we address the only ways we can: legislatively, imperfectly, and often without definitive guidance from the bishops.

United Methodists will continue to become more pro-life. They will continue to become more accepting of homosexual relationships. Traditionalists should hear the cries of gay and lesbian United Methodist who want only to invite God into their marriages and life partnerships. Progressives should hear the cries of life at its most fragile -- developing in a womb just as Jesus himself was carried and nurtured by his mother. In a world where all sexuality -- male and female, straight and gay -- is commodified, cheapened, and degraded, all United Methodists should ponder what kinds of physical intimacy and sexual expression we should affirm, what kinds we should reject, and on what grounds we can be so certain our judgments are correct.

Let's ask ourselves: Are we doing everything we can to make the world hospitable and compassionate to children waiting to be born? Are our churches and homes havens of blessing and peace?

Is there room at the table for people who think differently? To be honest, for most of my adult life I have assumed the answer was no and that the UMC was headed for schism. But Bishop Carter's call for an inclusive ethic of hospitality offers a challenge to everyone and a welcome distraction from fighting the same old battles. Frankly, I didn't get the feeling that anyone at the Lifewatch service was "my kind of United Methodist." But who am I to deny the grace they have received, their callings, their vocations, and their long years of service and devotion to a Lord who probably sometimes seems near and sometimes seems far away? (And who are they to deny me?) I was grateful to take part, and I sincerely hope the challenge to be a more comprehensively pro-life church brings about renewal, revival, and restoration.

This the 4th in a 5-part series on abortion.
Sanctity of Life Sunday: A Modest Critique
When Life Began to Begin at Conception
The Impossible Middle Ground
A United Methodist Bishop's Pro-Life Witness
Challenging Liberal Christians on Abortion

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