July 18, 2016 Letter to the Bishops of the UMC

The following letter was sent to the Bishops of the United Methodist Church. See the PDF attached for the exact letter sent.

July 18, 2016

To the Bishops of The United Methodist Church:

We rejoice at the election of seven women (including four African-Americans) to the episcopacy—more than at any other time in our denominational history. This is all the more significant as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the removal of the categorical exclusion of Methodist women called by God to ordained ministry from The Book of Discipline.

In the more than 200 years of Methodism in which this renewal movement has transformed into a settled institution (Mr. Wesley’s worst nightmare), we have run into a number of impasses that took seismic shifts to move us away from discrimination and toward a focus on gifts and graces—not the least of which were centered around women and people of color.

And now similar shifts are occurring again regarding the lives of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Christians. We are experiencing a kairos moment of change within the church. The self-avowing of more than a hundred Queer pastors, conferences committing to non-conformity with exclusionary church polity, and the election of an out, partnered Lesbian to the episcopacy are tremblings in the foundations of institutional violence and discrimination. Deep tectonic shifts are creating new revelations as the plates of law and the plates of grace collide.

Regrettably, The Council of Bishops’ first response to the election of the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto to episcopal office appeared more interested in advancing a unity built upon the invisibility of LGBTQ people, whose grace-filled lives you never mentioned. Additionally, in a recent “Pastoral Letter”, the Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops refused to rightly identify heterosexism as the cause of division in our church, and instead relied on the well-worn tactic of scapegoating the lives of God’s Queer children and the ministry of their allies. In their letter, they wrote, “We view the acts of nonconformity [to The Book of Discipline] as divisive and disruptive.” To this classic reaction of the oppressors to the liberatory activities of the oppressed, we respond with the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action [and non-conformity] are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

You seek to bring about change through unity. We understand that this is your burden. However, what is before you is not a balancing act to mollify the politically left or right regarding “human sexuality.”  The healing, reconciliation, and liberation needed will come from a basic return to gifts and graces to build a renewed body that honors the mystery of Spirit, blowing where it will.

We will communicate with you at more length about the Council of Bishops’ “Offering For a Way Forward” once meaningful action has been taken and those decisions and actions have been made transparent to the connection. Prior to your executive committee meetings on Tuesday, we would like to make a few points clear.

  • Be explicit about the work of the Commission. “Human sexuality” is code language for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer. Do not use coded language when speaking about our lives. The Commission is gathering for the sole purpose of determining whether and how the United Methodist Church will continue to discriminate against LGBTQ people in its life and ministries. You will not have meaningful conversation about the full and healthy spectrum of human sexuality and gender identity – for that, justice for LGBTQ people would be mandatory.
  • There can be no discussion of LGBTQ lives without our bodies and voices present at the table. Love Prevails demands that a full majority of the members of the Commission be LGBTQ people. Those chosen must represent the broad spectrum of LGBTQ people, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, class, ability, geography, ordination status and tactics of engagement. Tokenizing a small number of Queer people who are moderate and acceptable to your vision of polite conversation and debate does not do justice to our full lives.
  • The only merciful and just outcome of the Commission will be the full removal of all language from The Book of Discipline which categorically discriminates against and punishes LGBTQ people, as well as policies which penalize those who seek to be in ministry with and for LGBTQ people. There is no “just resolution” short of this one goal. Our burden is not church unity, but justice for God’s Queer children.

Remember, there was fear in the air as disciples begged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem. There will be many begging you not to go in the direction of love and justice. But, it will only be as you are willing to join countless others, lay down your lives and be, yourselves, crucified on the current cross of ignominy and incompatibility that resurrection will be possible. Are you able?

Love Prevails

PDF of the letter can be found here

Response to Bishop Coyner

Bishop Michael Coyner preached at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference Consecration ceremony July 16. The following is the body of a letter written by Love Prevails member, Mary Lou Taylor, detailing the harm he has done. (Here is a link to the archive of the livestream from the Consecration Service, viewable on July 18, 2016)

“Bishop Coyner:

Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ.

You won’t remember my name, but I am the woman who came up to you after your sermon during the consecration of bishops for the North Central Jurisdiction on Saturday. I am the woman who told you that your words wounded many people in the sanctuary, especially Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer people, and that they were not reflective of the love and hospitality of Jesus Christ. I would like to say a little more about the damage that was done. Forgive me if I do not quote you with 100% accuracy: I believe I have come close.

Your sermon was ostensibly directed to the newly-elected bishops, giving them a little fatherly advice from a seasoned veteran. But in doing so, you took every opportunity to say, in code or in very clear language, that you do not value LGBTQ people and that you favor their exclusion and the harm it does to them in the United Methodist Church. You began by warning them not to try to be “relevant,” not to “change with the culture,” but to “stick to Scripture.” We all know what you meant—everyone in that church knew what you meant. But I’d like to ask you, which Scripture? Why do you put more weight on eight “clobber passages” than you do on the teachings of our Lord? And why is it more important that we maintain positions that were informed by a culture 2000 years old, a time, place and understanding that was dramatically different than the one in which we find ourselves today? What is it about demonizing and excluding LGBTQ people that is so important to you that you had to include it in your sermon?

But that was just a warm-up. Next, you warned the new bishops, “don’t let what the Western Jurisdiction did be your guide.” Again, your position that the Book of Discipline must be upheld even when it contradicts the teachings of Christ is clear. Do not let the Spirit of God to sweep into the life of the church, your words intoned. Follow the rules, even when they are harmful.

But the heart-breaking moment came later, when you were telling the bishops that they will be criticized, and used as an example that after 49 primarily Latino, primarily gay people were horribly slaughtered in Orlando, you and other bishops got letters calling them co-murderers because of the church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships. Was there really no other time you were criticized that you could have used as an example, one that was not so pointedly meant to harm?

Please, Bishop Coyner, think for a moment of the opportunity for compassion and healing that you missed in that sermon. Forty-nine people whom our church condemns as “incompatible with Christian teaching” and excludes from full participation in our denomination were slaughtered and you used that event as an example of how hard it is to be a bishop. Can you understand how hurtful that was? Do you understand why there were people crying in the pews?

There is so much work for the church to do in this world. In just the few days leading up to your sermon, we had police murdering black men, police being murdered, 84 men, women and children literally mowed down in Nice, and a coup in Turkey. And yet none of that—nothing—was lifted up in your sermon. The message you could have given to the new bishops about the need to work ceaselessly for the healing of a broken world went unspoken.

You display a hardened heart, I’m afraid, and your sermon reflected more concern for yourself than for the beloved United Methodist Church or the work of Jesus Christ. I am thankful that the words that we sang during communion were so much more reflective of the Christ whom I follow: “And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace.” May it be so.

May God be with you,

Mary Lou Taylor”

Self-Avowed, Practicing Ambiguity: NEJ Episcopal Interview Reflections

By Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
July 13, 2016

Yesterday, the Love Prevails Team listened to interviews with eleven candidates for the episcopacy in the Northeast Jurisdiction. The group we attended asked the following question of every candidate:

“Please answer this as an either-or question. Recently, three annual conferences decided to stand in non-conformity with the discriminatory language in The Book of Discipline with regards to LGBTQI people. As a bishop, where will you stand? Will you uphold the current language of The Book of Discipline or will you stand in non-conformity?” This group was the only interview group (of eight groups) that asked about the practice of LGBTQ discrimination with such clarity.

Two of the eleven candidates clearly stated that they would stand in non-conformity. One stated clearly that they would uphold the current rules. While speaking with a range of support for LGBTQ people from sympathy to solidarity, the rest of the candidates did not answer the question as an either-or.

After the interviews, Rev. Will Green noted that “not one candidate invoked the incompatibility language or said they agreed with The Book of Discipline’s statements on sexuality. Not one candidate showed up to hate on queer people. Not one person thought it would be wise to align their candidacy with the denomination’s policy.”

The reality Will Green described felt like some disorienting kind of progress toward LGBTQ inclusion.

Yet Love Prevails claims that the baseline for supporting any episcopal candidate is the willingness of that candidate to unequivocally state and practice 100% non-conformity with the anti-LGBTQ policies of the United Methodist Church.

The avoidance or outright resistance of the majority of the candidates to answer this question in the either-or fashion in which it was asked amounted to stating the moderate-to-liberal status quo in the United Methodist Church.

There were only two real and tangible differences in this particular group of episcopal interviews in the Northeast Jurisdiction concerning LGBTQ exclusion. First, TWO candidates said unequivocally that they will not conform with anti-LGBTQ policies in the UMC. This is real change and it should be lifted up and celebrated. Second, eight moderate-to-progressive candidates willingly and publicly articulated what has been the mostly unstated, current practice of the majority of U.S. bishops.

This practice was variously stated and interpreted. No candidate actually said what follows, but here is what I heard, and which seems consistent with what has been the de facto practice of most moderate-to-liberal U.S. bishops. If an openly LGBTQ person comes to a bishop, the bishop would not file charges against them. If a complaint is filed by another United Methodist against a clergy person for a violation of some anti-LGBTQ prohibition, the bishop will try to resolve the process through a “just resolution.” There seems to be a difference among the moderates and liberals how far any given bishop would take a complaint beyond a private conversation with the bishop, or how quickly any individual bishop would deliberate before moving to a “just resolution.” Regardless of how far or quickly the process would proceed, the bishop will do everything to avoid trial and use the “just resolution” process.

Conversation, dialogue, relationship building, being a shepherd for the whole flock, holding disagreements in tension, we must value all perspectives – we have heard the rest of all of these approaches to change before. As platitudes, they are merely ways of side-stepping conflict. Just resolution is not just. It is a way to avoid dealing directly with the Christian oppression of LGBTQ folks, which most episcopal candidates and current bishops alike fail to identify as the heart of the matter.

From the majority of candidates, the reasons given for shifting exclusionary practice away from criminalization and punishment for LGBTQ persons and their allies were not theologically or prophetically oriented towards the gospel demands of love and justice, but towards the avoidance of conflict, costly trials and time-and-resource-wasting litigious procedures.

A number of the candidates answered that if they were appointed to an episcopal area where non-conformity was the ethos of that context, they would support non-conformity. If they were appointed to more conservative areas, they would conform to that context. There is no theological center to candidates who, on the one hand, state that they absolutely believe that the current stance of The Book of Discipline towards LGBTQ persons is wrong, yet who will uphold the processes and procedures that are outlined there, or not, based on context.

“Just resolution” has been fashioned as the current, acceptable compromise with injustice. Self-avowed, practicing ambiguity about the practices of injustice and discrimination towards LGBTQ persons in the UMC has become the new status quo.

Among the majority of candidates’ responses, there was much affirmation of the integrity of non-conformity with LGBTQ discrimination. I suppose this is progress in the Northeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

But as progress, perhaps it is something also something else. Processing the interviews with Dr. Dorothee Benz at the end of the day, she reached for a saying, something to the effect of, “Hypocrisy is the first concession to virtue.” Concessions and compromises with injustice, while appearing as progress and virtue, nonetheless smack of hypocrisy are, unavoidably, still oppression and injustice.

Rev. Cathy Weigand at Wisconsin Annual Conference

IMG_1018 (1)Cathy Weigand, Elder

Algoma Boulevard United Methodist Church, Oshkosh

Bishop, I’d like to ask for a moment of personal privilege.

I was asked to attend General Conference to witness what happens to people who are marginalized by our church. It was awful.

In 20 years of ministry I have done almost nothing to make a difference for LGBTQ people in our church or in our world. We’ve seen the news. People are being targeted and murdered, 50 dead and 53 in the hospital. And what have I done? I have quietly thought good thoughts. I have carefully said well intended words in safe audiences. But I have not bothered to witness the harm being caused by our church. I have not risked anything.

I am sorry. I have allowed damage be done. I have considered myself an ally, but in truth, I’ve been a complacent bystander. My silence has been betrayal. My calm has caused damage. My theology means nothing without word and action. And so, I ask for forgiveness.

My witness and my apology mean nothing if I continue to speak safely and quietly; if I don’t work to make a difference.

There must be substantive action and risk.

I take this risk today and ask for forgiveness for causing harm. I challenge you to take a risk today and stand with me. Stand with me and sing Jesus Loves Me, that safe, sacred song from our childhood that reminds us of God’s love, a love that has been compromised by our use of the word “incompatible”, a song that many who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer can no longer can hear as truth for themselves because of what we’ve said and done as a church and because of what we haven’t said and haven’t done.

Instead of Jesus Loves Me, can you offer your prayers for the victims in Orlando as well as your apology to the LGBTQ people among us, take a risk, stand up, and sing with me, “Jesus Loves You”.

[Most at Annual Conference stood and sang.]

Cathy Weigand, Pastor

Algoma Boulevard United Methodist Church
1174 Algoma Boulevard
Oshkosh, WI 54901

Rev. Janet Ellinger’s Statement

A complaint was made in 2015 against Rev. Janet Ellinger of the Wisconsin Annual Conference for officiating at two same-gender weddings. The Book of Discipline was followed in response to the complaint. When it appeared an agreement had been reached Bishop Hee Soo Jung concluded the process with a decision communicated to both the complainant, Rev. Gilbert White, and Rev. Ellinger. Rev. White indicated he did not agree with the decision but did not respond to where it fell short for him or how it might better represent his understanding. As a result of Rev. White’s not continuing toward a just resolution, Bishop Jung’s decision stood and Rev. Ellinger spoke at the June 10, 2016 Clergy Session of the Wisconsin Annual Conference.

Photo courtesy of Edwin Varggas

Photo courtesy of Edwin Varggas

Rev. Ellinger’s apology (in the church use of that term, not the cultural sense) for her actions follows:

(This reflection on my thoughts and feelings began after clergy colleague, Gil White, filed a complaint against me with the bishop on May 13, 2015. The substance of the complaint was that, 1) I had officiated at two weddings of same gender couples, and 2) the complaint requested the removal of my clergy credentials. This writing has been an ongoing editing process, looking toward being shared at the June 10, 2016, clergy session at Annual Conference.)

Bishop Jung has communicated to you his ruling on the complaint filed against me by Gil White, now a retired elder, requesting that my clergy credentials be removed because I officiated at two weddings of same gender couples. The bishop’s ruling on this complaint has directed me to speak with you today, offering my admission and an apology if my actions have harmed our clergy covenant. I did officiate at the marriages referenced in the complaint. My apology is in the spirit of Christian apologetics, offering an explanation or defense of my faith that grounded my actions, intending that this statement might be an additional source for respecting and understanding our unique gifts and perspectives as clergy colleagues.

I grew up in the church, experiencing God as a presence of loving kindness, a purposeful energy of both compassion and justice. I have no memory of ever being taught that God was judgmental or punitive.   I have never feared that a lack of faithfulness or repentance on my part could make God’s love conditional.

Though probably unaware in my early years of the impact of this grounding, I experience it now as a consistent spiritual gravity pulling upon the words, deeds and engagements of my life. It is this experienced Divine essence I strive to express in my life and to which I believe I am accountable, and by which I am held responsible when I find myself complicit with violence, injustice, personal harm and systems of oppression.

I remember reading William Sloan Coffin’s words about creed, dogma and church law. He called those the signpost – and then said that love is the hitching post.   I think that captures my relationship to the Book of Discipline.   The Book of Discipline is the signpost. But the unconditional love expressed in the Gospel is our hitching post. The Church’s task is to consistently express this love in how we order our ministry in the world. Our United Methodist orderliness is not an end in itself but a means by which the Gospel is to be set free in our shared life and witness.

All of this is what informed my decision to preside at these weddings. The couples are church people and when one couple decided to have children, they wanted their family to be grounded in a spiritual community and to be married in that same community. Their pastor and United Methodist congregation chose not to be that community.   The scenario was similar for the second couple.

Prior to my learning that the complaint had been filed against me, Gil White had not talked to me about his concern. Later he said he didn’t do that because he was sure he couldn’t change my mind and he wasn’t about to change his. Rather than seeking agreement, I would have welcomed a conversation for understanding, no matter the outcome.

When Gil and I did talk as part of the just resolution process, I learned of his 20 years of service in the Navy. He shared that in the Navy, there was zero tolerance for disobedience. One strike and you were out. So maybe that influences the lens through which he sees discipleship. In baseball you get three strikes before you are out. I have coached basketball where you get five fouls before you “foul out.” I will let you do the math on seven times seventy.   But we aren’t in the Navy and we aren’t playing baseball or basketball.

We are the church. And from where I sit, this incarnational community, flawed yet faithful, is about personal spiritual growth and deepened relationships with God, neighbor and stranger…more than it is about rules based on a majority vote. It is about faithfully navigating our way in the world together, rooted in the Gospel.

The bishop suggested in his ruling that my actions may have had a negative impact on our covenantal relationship as clergy so let me speak to that. Over the past couple years many of us have been exploring our clergy covenant.   In practice, I think “covenant” has come to function among us mostly as a means to hold us obedient to the Book of Discipline.   It is that use of the Book of Discipline I find most harmful to our covenantal relationship. I deeply regret the harm and spiritual violence that pollutes the air we breathe in the United Methodist Church because of our ongoing discrimination that excludes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people from participating in the full ministry of the Church. Until the Book of Discipline changes to truly welcome the God-given gifts of all people, I feel our Book of Discipline will continue to be a barrier to an authentic clergy covenant.

To me it seems more demanding, and I would say more faithful, when covenant, tethered to the strong love and justice of the Gospel, is understood as a relationship of chosen accountability with no partiality. The resilience and capacity of this experience of covenant is not found in the teeth of a rulebook. Rather, it is found within an ever expanding embrace of compassion and justice – hitched, if you will, to the heart of the Gospel.

I have been United Methodist since my conception, literally. When I made a conscious choice to confirm that identity, a significant part of that decision was because of the quadrilateral – which I understand to be a process of spiritual discernment used in community, not in isolation – to gain understanding, guidance and correction. So when I considered all four – scripture, tradition, reason and experience, for me it was a faithful decision to officiate at the weddings of these couples. It was both my honor and my joy to do so.

In Matthew 5 Jesus is represented as saying repeatedly, “You have heard it said of old”…about murder, divorce, bearing false witness, loving your enemies to name a few…and then the words follow, “but I say to you,” and then Jesus offers a broader faithfulness to the listeners on that hillside, just west of Capernaum.

Jesus’ radical witness still compels us all to wrestle with where we do stand and what we do take to heart so that compassion and justice come to life in and through us as we live our lives every day. May it be so among us.

Will Green on the Council of Bishop’s Meeting

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by Rev. Will Green
(compiled from Facebook posts)

Post 1: The morning after General Conference I went to the hotel where the bishops were staying with this sign that reads “Press 1 for Unity. Press 2 for Incompatible. Please vote now.” The UMC has created a situation that guarantees failure. They can promote their version of unity, which leaves many of us incompatible with Christian teaching. Or they can support the church’s current statements on sexuality, which means we are not united. There is no more time to figure this out. The General Conference decided to follow the leadership of the Council of Bishops, which means deferring all actions and decisions for several more years. This leaves gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other queer people incompatible and outside of the UMC’s unity. It is obvious to everyone that we need other options. I have chosen to continue using my power by disregarding the church’s unjust rules and applying pressure on the people who are upholding the institution.

Post 2: Friends who are trying to put a positive spin on the Bishops’ Commission or figuring out how we can use the system and the process to our advantage… we can’t! If you think we are going to get the best of the system if we get the right people in the right seats and get them to vote the right way, then hope will die again and again and again. We have been doing that for 44 years and we have lost, lost, lost… Our power is not in the system. Our power is in withdrawing our support from these systems and joining together in collective action that challenges the institution. (Coming out, not just as GLBTQ, but also coming out as ones who will continue to defy injustice! Ordaining GLBTQ people! Performing same-gender weddings! Being in meaningful relationships and ministries with queer people! Learning to tell the truth and not repeat popular lies!) The institution is powerless without our complicity. That is why we disregard unjust laws, refuse to comply with attempts to intimidate and practice solidarity with others. (Go ahead and refer to it as the Book of Disregard when we are taking about the hateful parts that are written to hurt people!) We are strong when we act together for what is right. God will keep doing beautiful things through our faithfulness.

Post 3: Today the Council of Bishops voted to refer setting up the special Commission to their Executive Session meeting in November of this year. This means it will be 2017 at the earliest before the Commission even meets… General Conference adjourned less than 24 hours ago and I hope that people can now accept that this Commission is not going to both organize a special session of General Conference AND create comprehensive reforms to every paragraph in the Book of Discipline that deals with “sexuality.” The bishops’ plan worked very well – business as usual! Who was it who thought the Bishops would “lead” us forward again?

 Thoughts on the Final Day of UMCGC

Love Prevails members Rev. Will Green and Laura Ralston share their thoughts headed into the final day of the United Methodist Church General Conference. These were originally posted on Facebook.

IMG_4216Rev. Will Green: On my way to the last day of the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. All that remains to be seen is whether or not the right-wing will be able to bring forward the legislation that begins to undo the trust clause. But it seems that the Bishops will simply not allow that happen since the presiding officer has total discretion to control the floor. Regardless, the denominational schism will continue. And soon the United Methodist Church will be left with nothing but theology it does not believe, debt it cannot afford and a need for forgiveness it has been too proud to ask for. We are being lead by two generations of leadership who have been trained to lie about who they are and what they actually believe. Our greatest skill is our willingness to fight with ourselves, which is why the only new idea that is coming out of these two weeks is the possibility of having more frequent General Conferences. It is going to be sad to see this day end, as I’m sure it will, with another resolution supporting “unity”.

 

FullSizeRender (1)Laura Ralston: This morning on my last run along the Willamette River I thought through some of my uneasy feelings about the last 10 days. For me today, I am specifically thinking about the lists that have floated around. The queer UM clergy list, followed by a queer clergy list of support from other denominations. That was followed by a list of UM clergy allies, followed by a list of lay people who also call the church to be inclusive.

I am not on any of those lists. I don’t have the privilege of clergy orders, I am seminary educated and not ordained. I don’t really feel like a lay person, even though I am. I made the decision to not pursue ordination because I wasn’t sure I could do that without going back in the closet and goodness knows I have spent enough time there. That would ruin my marriage and lead me down a path I do not believe I could recover from or live with.

Tomorrow I head home, back to my life in Denver with Erin. Working with friends to imagine a new faith community in Denver. Walking alongside people as they discern their next steps in their call to ministry.

I do not throw my hands in the air because my name is not on one of those lists. Instead, I will continue to work for justice in the United Methodist Church to remove the discriminatory language against LGBTQI people in the Book of Discipline.