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

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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.