Friends, I am grieving today because the United Methodist Church’s governing body approved a plan that intends to drive progressive Christians from the denomination by strengthening prohibitions against gay clergy and same sex weddings. I am angry about the harm this causes. I am ashamed and embarrassed that our United Parish of Auburndale bears the name of both the United Church of Christ–which affirms the sacred worth of LGBTQIA+ people–AND the name United Methodist, which now most certainly does not. Many will no doubt consider whether such an abusive marriage should remain between UCC and UMC.
BUT even as I grieve, I don’t do so as one without hope. That conference was not the real United Methodist Church but rather a narrow-minded convention of mostly conservative delegates. They do not reflect a majority of Methodists (whom I no longer consider “United”) who are people of deep love. We can now begin conversations about affiliating with such people. Will we remain both United Church of Christ and United Methodist? We need to make that decision eventually. But the more important question to ask is whether we remain convinced that God calls whomever God chooses to ministry and marriage. My answer to that question is an emphatic yes!
For those with questions about how such a thing could happen “in this day and age,” I gently remind you that the feeling many Methodists have today is akin to the feeling a majority of Americans felt the day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. We were shocked and saddened, wondering how such a thing could happen in this day and age, but we also realized deep within that an ideological divide had opened and been exploited for years. The fear is the same beneath national politics and Church politics , both in the U.S. and globally.
Still I think it is helpful to understand why this particular tragedy has befallen the United Methodist Church.
WHAT DID THE CONFERENCE ACTUALLY APPROVE?
Alex Shanks offered this helpful, concise, overview.
1). Wespath petitions passed. Exiting churches must pay their fair share of pension liability. Exiting clergy retain their pension but it is converted to limit further liability to the conference.
2). Current language around sexuality and restrictions on same-sex weddings and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals is retained.
3). The Traditional Plan passed except for the main petition. This means there will be no required certification by annual conferences and bishops that they will follow the Discipline and no method for annual conferences to leave the denomination.
4). Eight parts of the Traditional Plan passed and have previously been ruled constitutional by the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council will consider their constitutionality again in April but are not likely to reverse their decision. This means that the definition of self-avowed practicing homosexual now includes those who are in a same-sex marriage. Bishops cannot commission or ordain lesbian or gay pastors or consecrate them as bishops. Boards of ordained ministry must do a full examination of clergy candidates including whether they are a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Pastors who perform weddings and are convicted by trial will have minimum penalties of suspension (1st offense) and surrender of credentials (2nd offense). Bishops can only dismiss complaints for reasons of law or fact. Just Resolutions must acknowledge all harm done and be agreed to by the person bringing the complaint. The church can appeal a decision for egregious errors of law.
5). One part of the Traditional Plan passed but it may or may not be constitutional and awaits the decision of the Judicial Council. It would require all members of the board of ordained ministry to certify they will follow the Discipline.
6). An amended exit plan for churches passed but it may or may not be constitutional. It would allow for local churches to exit with their property and assets if 2/3 of the members vote to do so and they care for pension liabilities and one year of apportionments.
So now we wait for the results of the Judicial Council. Legislation is not official church law until January 1, 2020. We will elect delegates to the 2020 General Conference at annual conference in June.
I am grateful for the tireless work of theologian Tex Sample, whose 2000 book “The Loyal Opposition: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality” has been a helpful resource for me. He posted the following on February 27th:
I am livid. The hypocrisy of the African delegates when they argue marriage as between a man and a woman and live in a context of polygamy, which is practiced widely across Africa by many in the churches there, with one bishop who is in a polygamous relationship, as reported on good authority.
I do understand that if polygamy were ended today, it would throw millions of African women into literally “a no man’s land” and deepen the poverty and desperation so many of them already face. So I understand that such a sudden and disastrous change would be wrong.
And the reactionary church leadership in the U.S. who won’t even talk about polygamy but are quick to condemn and ready to dismiss those in Christian LGBTQIA+ marriages.
I know dozens of Christian marriages between gay and lesbian couples. Some of them are among the best marriages I know. But for the Christian Right neither morality, Christian devotion, committed discipleship, or fidelity count in their minds. They give five allusions and references to same sex practices in the biblical text an absolute authority that these texts cannot sustain. See my article in the book Defending Same Sex Marriage, edited by Traci West.
Today, I am thinking about “the church in the catacombs” where we do what is right even if it must be done in secret. I feel absolutely no moral or theological obligation to the “power take all” mentality and strategies of the radicalizing right in our churches. They got their way, now let them enforce it. They are losing this battle in the wider culture and doing great damage to the witness of the church.
We struggle against the principalities and powers in the church. RESIST!!!
Tex suggests conservatives have given a few Biblical texts “absolute authority that these texts cannot sustain.” The texts often used by conservatives are Genesis chapter 19, Leviticus 19:22 and 20:13, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 6:9-10, Romans 1:26-27, and First Timothy 1:9-10. Added to these are dubious interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis and hackneyed presumption that Jesus, quoting Genesis, insisted on marriage as one man and one woman. By highlighting polygamy, Tex is illustrating conservative hypocrisy. One man and one woman? An African bishop and many African delegates do not insist on marriage between one man and one woman! So the reason for the recent split is deeper than reliance on some Biblical standard.
RIGHT WING HOSTILE TAKE OVER
Homosexuality is nothing more than a “wedge issue” employed by right-wing operatives seeking to dislodge the Mainstream, liberal, religious voice from American politics. If you can get your hands on the 2003 book “United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call” by Leon Howell, you can appreciate the nefarious work of conservative, Washington based think tank, The Institute for Religion and Democracy, whose stated mission is:
The Institute on Religion and Democracy is a faith-based alliance of Christians who monitor, comment, and report on issues affecting the Church. We seek to reform the Church’s role in public life, protect religious freedom, and support democracy at home and abroad.
The United Methodist Church is the largest piece of the puzzle to fall into place. And as my friend Jeremy Smith writes in his blog “Hacking Christianity,” conservatives at this latest General Conference simply used African delegates (an investigation has been called into the rumored practice of paying them for votes) to approve the elimination of rules preventing congregations and pastors from taking church property from the denomination when they exit. Some may genuinely wish to exit in order to be free of homosexual clergy, but most are caught up in a larger scheme orchestrated by groups like the IRD.
HOPE in the MIDST of a FLOOD
I rely on the promise spoken of God by the prophet Isaiah who said,
“When you go through deep water, I will be with you.” –Isaiah 43:2
Growing up in hurricane lowlands of Louisiana I am acquainted with seasons of flooding which are always followed by dry seasons of repair. This is a time of repair for folks betrayed by those who supported the “Traditionalist Plan” without fully appreciating how it would harm LGBTQIA+ people and salt the ground for anything good to grow in the name of “Methodism” for years to come. And that is a shame, of course, because both the true Methodist tradition and LGBTQIA+ pastors and prophets are tremendously fertile gifts “in this day and age.” So we weather this change and then we work with the soil until Love prevails.
Grace and Peace,