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by Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
In an article on Monday, veteran Methodist activist and lesbian Sue Laurie described how in settings like the pre-General Conference briefing, LGBTQ folks take verbal and emotional beat-downs by their Methodist kindred, while being accused of being the ones wielding the weapons.
This is a classic projection of the violence that is deeply embedded within dominant groups in all forms of oppression, wherein the perpetrators of violence are reversed. In the church, queer folks, who are the actual objects of Christian violence, are portrayed as the problem.
Laurie wrote that Queer Methodists are not the threat they are portrayed to be. LGBTQ Methodists come to the church with band-aids, songs and rainbows, asking for a place at the table. What Laurie means by “a place at the table” is ordination and marriage for LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church.
We hear that the demand for equality is what is “hurting the church.” How many times have we heard it? “We are all hurt by this debate.” No, we are not all hurt by this debate. As Laurie points out, while many people may be made to feel uncomfortable by the demand for lesbian and gay equality, the discomfort of having one’s opinion challenged and privileges shaken is not the same as the daily violence experienced by LGBTQ persons. The equation of these harms is yet another form of violence.
What Laurie does not mean primarily by “a place at the table” is having a place on a panel. I’m sure that she was very glad that Dr. Dorothee Benz was invited to the human sexuality panel at the briefing. Because when Laurie went to the briefing four years ago, they had a panel on human sexuality; that is, a panel about gay people, with no gay people on it.
In her opening remarks, Benz was quick to point out that the subject matter of this year’s panel was not, as it was titled, “A Conversation About Topics Related to Human Sexuality.” The subject matter of the panel was “in blunt terms, about whether and how the UMC will continue to discriminate against LGBTQI people.”
Though Benz was invited to this particular table, it was not as an ordained United Methodist minister. The year Benz came out as a lesbian is the same year that United Methodists decided to bar gay men and women from ministry. Benz went on to provide examples of how the pain of her own personal experience “does not begin to capture the pain of UMC policy for LGBTQI people.”
After the pre-conference briefing, when an LGBTQ ally suggested on Twitter that Love Prevails members should go on a mission trip with the IRD to “swing hammers” together, just not at one another, LP member Alison Wisneski responded. She requested well-intentioned allies to think about what it means for a queer woman to even consider the notion of spending time with “groups that so openly hate me for my body and everything inside of it,” and with “those who seek nothing but death for me and my family.”
Liberals tend to think that any form of inclusion is good, as an end in and of itself. Inclusion on a panel is better than exclusion from a panel and therefore it is a good thing, right? Under the same logic, “both sides” dialogue is always an unmitigated good. Methodist holy conferencing is especially good, because it is holy.
In fact, this logic is not good. This kind of thinking is lazy analysis that fails to include the dynamics of power and pain. Such inclusion on panels and in debate does not, in fact, create good, nor does it necessarily even mitigate pain. It may, in fact, cause it.
This most recent panel, and virtually all panels that seek to provide “balanced viewpoints” are full of verbal and theological violence directed at gay people. They are also undergirded with infuriating claims: “how much we all love the church”; how important it is that we share the value of God’s grace; our agreement over the centrality of our mission of making disciples; and, above all, the importance of our unity in Christ. The head-nodding and sighing moans of agreement with these declarations only serves to make the hypocrisy of them all the more sickening. Very few see it or feel it, but it is violence. Not the violence of swords or fists, but violence nonetheless.
Recently another UM blog suggested that the “leading champions” of five “major” legislative proposals on human sexuality coming before the General Conference “owe” United Methodists the favor of conferencing together over their proposals.
The author notes that the makeup of these “leading champions” – five straight, white men – “lacks global, racial, gender, and orientation diversity–the lack of which, in-and-of itself may tell us something.” Here the author makes his most truly useful point. The makeup of this group tells us not just something, but everything. There are no gay people in this group of leaders.
Here is a central part of the problem. Whether LGBTQ people are invited to tables or not invited to tables to discuss their very own lives and the life-and-death consequences of our anti-gay policies, the results in the United Methodist Church have remained the same or gotten worse. Violence is perpetrated and injustice remains.
Here is the harsh reality that we who desire and are working for LGBTQ justice in our denomination must face. None of these panels nor proposals to General Conference, not holy conferencing nor the invoking and implementing of a Rule 44 alternative process for General Conference – none of this has anything to do with the true welfare of LGBTQ persons at all. None of this is about “balanced views,” respectful dialogue, shared Christian values, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. All of these efforts are about how to maintain the institutional church at the expense of queer people.
It is especially painful when allies to LGBTQ persons simply do not understand the levels of harm and cost to queer bodies, hearts and minds that are actively and passively perpetuated by such proposals, panels, conversations and conferencing. There are many different versions of the violence that cries “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”
Traveling about the country at the highest levels of the church over the last four years, Love Prevails’ has encountered a deep and insidious kind of violence inherent in dialogue (panels) and so-called holy conferencing, efforts which have resulted in a deadliness that the vast majority of people in our church simply fail to acknowledge that is real.
The only solution to even begin to repair the harm we have done is to take all of the anti-LGBTQ language out of The Book of Discipline, putting LGBTQ folks as equals at the table. It is the only just and right place to begin.
The following blog post is written by Love Prevails member, Alison Wisneski, in response to a recent tweet after the pre-General Conference meeting. The tweet referenced below suggested that the UMC boards and staffs of IRD, Good News Magazine, Reconciling Ministries Network, and Love Prevails take a mission trip together.
Sometimes I see fellow Tweeters and, through following their hashtags that led me to their page in the first place, find out that we like many of the same things. I get excited and I want to follow them so we can share in things other than agreement that the United Methodist Church’s harm toward LGBTQ+ peoples needs to change or we will watch our church crumble to the ground.
This is not one of those situations.
When I am told by straight white men (which is unfortunately too often) that I need to take a deep breath, pause, and then intentionally put myself in harm’s way for the sake of their and other’s comfortability, I cannot agree with them (even if we both get excited at listening to the same music and love the same Netflix hits). It opens up topic for a conversation that, though I am sick of having, I will have until I am blue in the face. Ask me what I need. Stop telling me.
I am flooded with the words of so many who spoke of oppressors before me. Of Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared in the Letter from Birmingham Jail that direct action is the means to the end of negotiation where an oppressed people are heard. Of bell hooks, who says that domination is successful when an oppressor decides in order to love me, they must make me something else. Of Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized, who says that when there is no justification for hatred from an oppressor, the oppressed have no choice but to revolt; to break the condition.
I have been called names by people who work for Good News Magazine and The IRD. I have no interest in spending time on a “mission trip” (which, I apologize, is problematic in its own right – as a justice-seeking space and church, maybe we find new language and ways to travel with our youth that are not focused on going in to help the people we deem need help, no?) with people who do not seek for me to have a life within my beloved church. The hateful words in Good News Magazine, which used to be delivered to my office door for distribution, made me feel like I was choking. Like I was buried under an oppressive Church that did not want me to thrive, it wanted me to suffocate and wither to nothing.
I do not live in a place of safety within the United Methodist Church. Currently, I am bound to a book that says my body is useful for the head count at the door but I had better not stand at that pulpit, the faggot that I am, and preach the words of Wesley and Jesus who may have struggled with my identity but would have no doubt let me have a seat with them at the table because they were a people who spoke of forgiveness – oh, no – my body can be counted but it cannot be recognized for what it is. It is strong, ravished by a bone disease that should have stopped me from walking in my teen years but worked through immense physical pain and suffering to get to a point of safety; it is wise, the first of its family to go to college and graduate school and now teach at the college level, moving its way up from homelessness to home ownership; but by in large it is queer, it so fiercely loves a woman who has coincided in the heart that beats in its chest for so long it feels like it has been in love with her since its formation…this body will not be recognized. Just counted in the pew as it sits silently, waiting for pastors and lay people and fellow good-hearted Christian folks who tell it to wait for the right time, to keep its voice down, to have conversation with those who oppress it.
I will not swing a hammer and share in meals and have silly car-ride singalongs with those who want to stifle who I am for the sake of being a hollow shell to fill the space of a dying church.
I will not do something to make you more comfortable when it comes to my distaste for being called a radical sexual liberationist activist (which was fabulous, by the way, when we chose to co-opt it for our own t-shirts and not allow anyone to claim it but ourselves, a decision we are allowed to make as the holders of the name).
I will not be your hollow body to shove full of your ideas of what is the right thing to do before General Conference.
I will not go inside of your church walls, no matter how reconciled the are, to guest preach about my ideas that mean absolutely nothing in a space that so blatantly disallows me to have power.
I’ll be swinging my own metaphorical hammers beside those who seek immediate change. We seek it with our words, through song, through letters like this, through conversation with those who are actually open to hear my words and not fight with me over Twitter like I’m not a real person. I will hold hands with my fellow queers and those who truly seek to see people like me and those I love have power that we so deserve in the United Methodist Church and not with those who will wash it afterward, hoping to get the gay off.
Let this be a request to all of those who want to include themselves in the LGBTQ-inclusivity conversation within the United Methodist Church, or even involve themselves in communities that are marginalized to which they do not belong: do not make suggestions for me. Ask me what I need next time. And before you respond, listen. Don’t say a word. Hear the words I say, listen to my pleas. Because had you asked me what I needed from groups that so openly hate me for my body and everything inside of it, you would know that I sure as hell don’t need to waste my time with those who seek nothing but death for me and my family.
November 2, 2015
At exactly what point
does it become enough?
To put down the sword;
not because the choice
to spare the ear of the opponent
saves the other pain.
But because the choice
to put down the sword
& walk away
gives you peace?
At what point, exactly,
does it become enough?
At what point do you see the stripes
by which we are healed
for what they also are:
When do you finally decide
to no longer be complicit with beatings?
When light breaks on the cross at dawn
& you see it for what it is.
Is there a time
when is the best form of resistance
is turning your back
on death and violence?
At what point does it become enough, exactly
to agree with Pilate?
In washing our hands,
answering Jesus’ question:
“What is truth?”
& in all sincerity;
in the institutions of deceit
“I do not know what the truth is,
But I know the truth is not found here.”
Rev. Evy McDonald is the recent past co-chair of The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities (UMAMD). She has been a member of UMAMD for about 10 years, and is the group’s official representative to the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC). She is also an elder in the New York Annual Conference.
According the UMAMD’s website (http://www.umdisabledministers.org/210.html), the organization has a three-pronged focus:
- Advocating: raising awareness regarding persons with disabilities and how ministries might be enhanced by the challenges that ministers work with in everyday life;
- Educating: helping others to understand disabilities and the way in which such is a means of being “otherly gifted” for serving God in ministry;
- Supporting: being together in an association to support one another and provide community wherein we join together to address the needs and opportunities that are presented by disabilities.
For General Conference (GC) 2016 in Portland, Oregon, UMAMD and multiple annual conferences together wrote and will offer five pieces of legislation. This legislation includes a number of topics.
- Removing discrimination toward ordination candidates with disabilities; confirming that the ordination process ensures non-discrimination;
- Dealing with discriminatory actions that occurred in the 2012 GC in regards to mental-emotional disabilities;
- Securing non-discriminatory insurance coverage in relationship in to long-term disability policies and disability compensation, as well as non-discrimination in the UMC’s denominational employee disability benefits;
- Ensuring accessibility at all annual conference meetings. Current legislation in The Book of Discipline only guarantees accessibility to general agency meetings.
The Association’s primary goal for GC 2016 is to get this legislation passed, and participation in LYNC assists in this potential passage. McDonald also said that UMAMD’s participation in LYNC broadens every member’s “overall sense of how much discrimination is out there” and how “discrimination comes guised in many different forms.”
McDonald described that the particular aspect of discrimination that people with disabilities face is silent. “It’s the largest unspoken discrimination in our country. Discrimination happens every day, so many times in our lives. People don’t want to admit it and they don’t want to talk about it.” Many times people with disabilities feel they are invisible.
She described the some of the deep-seated, unconscious ways people in the church think about people with disabilities. Church-goers may think about ending discrimination against people with disabilities by doing things that make it possible for people with disabilities able to sing in the choir and read from the pulpit, making the bathrooms as accessible as possible but, far too often, they believe that such changes will cost a lot of money that they will not get back. In talking with people in churches there is an unconscious belief that most people with disabilities are poor and uneducated. McDonald explained that as a group, one of the largest percentage of people who live below the poverty line are people with various disabilities. The stereotype, however, is that “we are not talking about people who can’t be employed, but rather people who can work but aren’t working, for whatever reason.”
Then the discrimination moves into “What about the safety of our children? There’s an unconscious, media-driven fear that people who deal with intellectual disabilities are dangerous people and people who have emotional-mental illness are all going to be mass murderers. People still pull their children away from disabled people in the grocery store without recognizing what they are saying non-verbally and the discrimination they are perpetuating.”
The primary challenge of working in Coalition is “learning to trust one another. As that trust has grown we have discovered that all of us are desirous of finding ways to support one another that will enhance the whole.” McDonald expressed that at the last two General Conferences the LYN Coalition felt less viable. It was not truly working together across issues. Increasingly the Coalition feels like it is coalescing around a larger agenda. She said, “The way we’ve be talking about working together is that as each of the many issues come to the General Conference floor [for voting], the Coalition will be ready to support or do whatever is necessary at that time.” She further commented, “I see this coming into reality. When we work together, we are stronger. And it’s biblical. When one group is honored instead of ignored, it strengthens other groups, because it opens GC’s eyes about discrimination. We are creating a unified effort that will startle the GC participants.”
The challenge of trust comes in “when we show up to support someone else, and then it’s our turn to be supported, there is a fear that others will not be there for whatever reason.” Individual and group members of the Coalition have all dealt with different kinds of pain and discrimination. That experience can help all parties to remember “that each of us will say and do something wrong. Together we can all learn.” When something difficult happens among group members our first tendency may be “to write them off and decide we’re not going to trust them anymore.” The harder task is “to learn how to heal and grow together. It doesn’t mean we won’t also unintentionally inflict pain on one another but we can model intentional healing for the whole denomination.”
Therefore, the other primary challenge is communication. “We need to communicate, communicate, communicate and not make assumptions; ask for clarification.” When there is conflict among parties working together across differences, all parties have to “see where our own prejudice and blocks are, and be willing to move through them, or at least put them down temporarily.”
McDonald thinks that the greatest challenge of ending discrimination against LGBTQ people in the UMC is dealing with delegates from other continents. She remembers hearing in 2012 from one of the African delegates, who explained, “You people came over and told us that we were wrong to have multiple wives. You told us it was one man, one woman. And now you want us to believe something different?” U.S. Christians created this problem. In McDonald’s opinion, if a portion of the delegates outside of the U.S. could be brought into a new way of understanding, there would be no problem with ending the discrimination. McDonald believes that we need to move all people “to fully realize that discrimination is discrimination is discrimination.”
Clearly, the matter of the exclusion of LGBTQ persons is a central concern of the Coalition. “The language in The Book of Discipline, particularly for an LGBTQ person who wants to be ordained, is atrocious and a black smudge on United Methodism. But if you don’t think there’s any chance in hell of that being removed this time, where in the heck do we put our efforts in order to have an impact? I don’t have an answer to that question.”
Everyone will know the Coalition works when it stands behinds whatever needs to be stood behind in that moment. McDonald described an example of this kind of Coalition work that happened early in this quadrennium. It was originally decided that the Coalition-based Convocation gathering would be held in Atlanta. The Native American member of the Coalition, said the Native American caucus wouldn’t participate because of the offensive native mascot used by a major sports team in Atlanta. So the Coalition decided not to have the meeting there. “And that’s how it works. Instead of saying “well, that’s just one part of the Coalition, the rest of us don’t have that issue. It’s really hearing someone’s issue at a point in time when it is critical to hear it. And then putting force behind doing what’s right.” When a coalition doesn’t work it looks “like we’re all just scattered behind our own issues and just gotten behind walls and hunkered down in our own little forts.”
This is the fifth in a series of interview reports that Love Prevails is conducting with representatives of every member group of the LYNC as a part of preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon. We share what each group brings to the Coalition, their particular emphases and concerns for GC2016, and the challenges and benefits of working across various kinds of differences related to identity, opinion and action. While Rev. McDonald represents the UMAMD to LYNC, the opinions expressed in this interview report are entirely her own.
Below are reflections on disrupting Bishop Dorff at Gather at the River by Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
Bishop Dorff and I know each other. We don’t have a close relationship, but we have a special one. He serves on the UMC Connectional Table (CT). At the first CT meeting Love Prevails attended (see http://umcconnections.org/2013/11/19/disruption-prompts-church-leaders-address-sexuality-issues/ ), I disrupted the meeting by singing a list of the names of leaders the UMC has lost as a result of our denomination’s anti-LGBTQ policies. In a time of public conversation after the disruption, Bishop Dorff shared his experience of my disruptive singing. I invite you to listen all the way to the end. Here’s what he said:
At that time, Bishop Dorff was about to make an official episcopal ruling on the matter of the candidacy of queer-identified M Barclay (formerly known as Mary Ann Barclay) for ordained ministry. He had previously refused to rule when the Rio Texas Conference Board of Ordained Ministry denied the District Committee on Ministry’s decision to recommend M to move forward with their candidacy for ministry, but had been ordered by the Judicial Council to reconsider his own decision. So after Bishop Dorff’s comments at the break, I spoke with him about his words and his coming decision. He told me that I had been an agent of the Spirit to him that morning and he asked me to pray for him, which I agreed to do.
Ever since that time, at every CT and Council of Bishops meeting that Love Prevails has disrupted over the past two years, I have made a point of greeting Bishop Dorff and reminding him of our connection. He is always exceedingly warm and gracious, and he gives me big, Southern hugs, which I actually do not mind. I don’t mistake our connection for anything like real knowledge of one another, but we do have a connection.
When I heard that Bishop Dorff was coming to bring greetings to Gather at the River 2015, held in San Antonio at Travis Park UMC on August 6-9, I wasn’t surprised. It is customary to invite the bishop of the resident area where these progressive UMC conferences are held. It is common knowledge that Bishop Dorff has not been a supporter of LGBTQ people, but is a supporter of the Disciplinary status quo that inflicts harm on queer folk. Some of those present at Gather at the River thought it particularly good of Bishop Dorff to come, even brave, considering his known stance. I thought it was presumptuous.
In the past two years of deeply disturbing contact with the highest levels of our denomination through the work of Love Prevails, I have seen the very ugly sides of the episcopal imaginings of their benevolent power. And their stated lack of power to make change. The leaders of our denomination do not see themselves as perpetuators of injustice against LGBTQ people in the midst of their maintenance of the institution, and yet they very much are. So I imagined that Bishop Dorff thought it would be really good and welcoming of himself to say something kind to queer people, something that would not be considered controversial by anyone else.
I didn’t want to let that happen without a marking of protest.
Some might think that the protest that developed during Bishop Dorff’s remarks was highly coordinated. On the contrary. The night before, I understood that some Love Prevails members and a few other people would hold signs within the sanctuary while he spoke. Nothing major, just a few pointed messages. I wanted to position myself somewhere where Bishop Dorff could really see me, because of our connection. I wasn’t sure how it would play out, but I knew I wanted to look him in the eyes and speak to him, because we have history. When I walked into the sanctuary late that Saturday morning, it seemed a few more people had become interested in the witness, and now there was talk of kneeling at the altar, preparing material to create gags, and hanging signs and messages to the bishop from the balcony.
I quickly made two signs that read, “FRIENDS LAY DOWN THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR FRIENDS” and “BISHOP DORFF IS NOT A FRIEND TO LGBTQ PEOPLE.” I didn’t hang my signs from the balcony. I took them with me. And when it was time, I knelt at the altar rail.
Conference leaders began to introduce the bishop. The next thing I knew, he passed by me and headed up the stairs. I didn’t think about it. I followed him up there with my signs. He saw me. I said, “Hi, Bishop,” and motioned for him to read my signs. He said, “Oh, thanks.”
While our leaders continued to explain the creative and important tension of the moment, I spoke to the bishop. I said things like:
“We’ve shared a Holy Spirit moment in the past, Bishop, haven’t we? I wonder if this is going to be one of those moments again.”
“I’m going to be really interested to hear what you are going to say to gay people here today. You know there are a lot of gay people here today, right?”
“There are a lot of people who have suffered an awful lot out there today. I wonder if you are going to say something meaningful to them.”
“I wonder if this is going to be a Holy Spirit moment. I wonder if the Spirit is going to use you right now.”
Except for acknowledging that we had shared a Pentecost moment in the past, he mostly nodded and smiled. I don’t think he was shaking me off; I think he was quite nervous and unprepared for what was transpiring.
Here is a video of his remarks:
For those of you interested in seeing the full length of the events that unfolded, here is the video:
Once it was Bishop’s Dorff’s time to speak, there was some shouting at the bishop on occasion. There was anger in the room and weeping at the altar rail. He finished his remarks, walked off stage, and returned to his seat. I followed him and sat down right next to him. He didn’t notice me right away. When he did, I said, “Hey.”
He smiled, shook his head at me and said, “You know I love you, Julie.” Which was a little gross, but I honestly didn’t take his words as insincere.
Then he hugged me, a hug that I somewhat returned while squirming and saying, “Don’t try to make this better.”
I continued, “I’m sure this wasn’t pleasant for you, but I could not let you come here today, deliver your episcopal pleasantries, and then walk away with credit for being the good guy for coming. You have caused a lot of pain to a lot of queer people and you need to know that. I’m not sure it was right for you to come today, but the Spirit is using the moment again. Do you see that?”
To which he said, “Yes, I see that. The Spirit is working within me, too, Julie, right now.”
My response was, “The problem with you bishops is even when you have these Holy Spirit moments, when you go back into your powerful church world, the spirit of the institution overcomes the work of the Spirit within you. That’s what happens to you bishops.”
He took some umbrage with that and said, “You don’t know what my experience is.”
I conceded that point, saying, “You’re right. I don’t know what your experience is. I take it back. But that is my experience of you guys. Seriously. But I take it back.”
During all of this there was ongoing kneeling, praying, weeping, singing and speaking by others in attendance.
Though this witness took place as a result of far more than the actions of Love Prevails members alone, what resulted felt like a classic Love Prevails experience. We #Showup prepared to seize prophetic moments of Spirit guidance. We #Disrupt. We are often perceived and described, as in this case, as disrespectful and bullies. We stand firm in the knowledge of ourselves as utterly authentic in responding to the Spirit as She reveals injustice and violence towards LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church. We understand that the expressed embodiment of our truths is difficult and uncomfortable for some people. As the saying goes, the truth hurts.
When Bishop Dorff saw me later again in the hallway, before we both left the building, he again hugged me and said, “I love you, Julie.”
My reply was, “I know. I am yours in Christ whether we like it or not.”
To which he answered, “Amen.”
I did not disrespect Bishop Dorff, and neither did the witness disrespect him. He himself admitted to the working of the Spirit in the moments of protest and afterwards. Ask him yourself. Nonetheless, injustice does not deserve our respect. All United Methodist bishops must be held accountable to whom and how they are agents of injustice in the ongoing perpetration of discrimination and oppression against gay folks in our church. Not one of them, including Bishop Dorff, can presume that their role or status as a bishop gives them the right to say a few words about inclusivity to gloss over the pain that they the bishops have caused by direct action or inaction, to a multitude of our LGBTQ family in Christ.
We need our bishops to stop throwing us breadcrumbs in the form of welcoming-sounding words, expecting us to keep waiting and praying for an end to discrimination within our church, when the power to end the pain and the hurt lies in their hands. Bishop Dorff said he believes that the UMC should be fully inclusive, so let’s see him bring full inclusion to the Rio Texas Annual Conference and work toward full inclusion in the connection. My sign said that Bishop Dorff is not a friend to LGBT people, because friends lay down their lives for their friends. Friends don’t let their friends get hurt when they can stop the harm.
One of the main arguments against removing all of the anti-gay language from The Book of Discipline all at once, or taking a prophetic word-and-deed stand of any kind for full justice and inclusion of LGBTQ folks, is that such actions are alienating and would split the United Methodist Church. Here Love Prevails’ member Rev. Dr. Julie Todd reflects on the way the argument for unity over justice makes her feel.
Poem: On Church Unity
By Julie Todd
the word unity
slips off the tongue
like a bad french kiss
from a teenage lover
leaving me feeling
sticky and gross.
the word unity
nasty cough medicine
my mother forced me to take
from a stainless steel spoon
its cherry “sweetness”
making me gag.
the word unity
looms like a jackhammer
held by a laborer
in the idle position
next to a crumbling urban sidewalk
the jackhammer mocking:
“hold it together, hold it together.”
body parts working harmoniously,
hands and feet needing each other
when injustice like gangrene
untreated and festering
implies an impending amputation.
holding fast to theological abstractions
the comfort of inaction
for those who refuse
to make a clear-cut choice
as Christ himself
no more stone-throwing
& cursing a courageous woman
comparing her to a dog
who begs for scraps
she does not deserve.
The following is a response to Bishop Kiesey’s message by retired UMC pastor Rev. John Ellinger:
Dear Bishop Kiesey,
I was hoping you would send a letter to Michigan Area clergy regarding the decision of the Supreme Court regarding same-gender marriage since it has been such a divisive issue in our church. However, with all due respect I must say I was very disappointed in the letter when it arrived. I think I understand, at least in part, the “no win” situation bishops of the church face right now in regard to same-gender marriage and how clergy can honor their calling to minster to all people and still “remain in compliance with The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church”.
What is troubling to me is how it seems, in our most complicated and uncertain situations, we in the church, reach back in an attempt to hold on to more “rules” in the belief that if we can just find the right list of “dos and don’ts” we will be saved from our fears. I found it interesting that your purpose in writing was to help us clergy be enabled to “remain in compliance with The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church”. I had expected we might receive some guidance on how to remain in compliance with biblical teaching on justice, equality, and the power of amazing grace, in spite of our denominational rule book.
One of my favorite passages in the bible is from the Gospel of Mark where a troubled Pharisee comes to Jesus wanting to know the answer to one “simple” question: What is the greatest commandment? He wanted to have the answer so he could presumably go home and tell people which one of all the rules was the most important. Jesus simply says there are two great commandments: Love God, and Love Your Neighbor. It would have been easy for him to say you can’t sum up the whole law in one or two commandments so here is a fine tuned list of “Do This and Don’t Do That”. He simply offered the Pharisee the opportunity to struggle with how best to live faithfully within the context of love for God and love for neighbor.
For me, the do’s and don’ts you suggest put a spotlight on what is wrong with a denomination that values its Discipline and denominational infrastructure more than the lives of the people we are asked to serve.
For me, to participate in preaching, praying, and reading scripture in celebration of the love of two same-gendered people and then “stand aside” so someone else can lead them in naming their love for each other, would be unthinkable and an embarrassment of the highest order. How can I be expected to be in compliance with The Book of Discipline at those times when the requirement is to “step aside” from celebrating that couple’s deep love for each other and the church?
For me, I would rather accept the challenge of Jesus and attempt to live faithfully by loving God and neighbor even if that requires me to be in non-compliance with parts of The Book of Discipline.
May we all continue to strive for deeper understanding in this and all matters.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. John Ellinger
Love Prevails member Wesley White has written a paragraph-by-paragraph response to Adam Hamilton’s most recent blog post addressing “A Way Forward.” Please read below. Hamilton is regular font, White is italicized.
A year ago, with input from others, I wrote a blog post called, A Way Forward for a United Methodism?. In it we offered suggestions for how the United Methodist Church might move forward as it relates to the divide over homosexuality. It was written in response to some who were discussing dividing the denomination. It was written in consultation with evangelicals, moderates and progressives across the country. Over 2,000 pastors and hundreds of laity signed the document that you can read here.
It is of note that “A Way Forward for a United Methodism” is described as having been vetted by three theological categories, but not by those over whom some theoretical divide continues to harm. No number of “evangelicals, moderates, and progressives” can have an equivalent voice to that of LGBTQ persons and their family/community. No number of pastors can speak for those being harmed. Look again at the story of Greek widows being harmed in Acts 6.
In the year since, there have been a host of other proposals that have surfaced as a way of moving our denomination beyond the impasse over same-gender relationships. I’ve been in dozens of conversations with various groups listening and looking for what might be a better way forward. I’ve yet to see a proposal that would seem to have a reasonable chance of passing at General Conference.
There has not been a host of other proposals that move us forward. They all fall under the same difficulty—they are not in the voice of the LGBTQ community. The voice there is universal in simply ridding the church of the single, named people who, claimed by some, stand outside the gifts and call of God and Christ to life and ministry within the church. Again wisdom from Acts is pertinent here (see chapter 10).
My assumptions about any proposed changes at General Conference include the following:
- The more complicated the change, the less likely it will pass.
- The more places in the Discipline that must be changed, the less likely it will pass.
- The more radical the change, the less likely that it will pass.
Thank you for naming your assumptions. However, they are simply that and not particularly helpful:
- It is a dangerous beginning spot, to think that United Methodists cannot handle complications in life or thought.
- This is simply a particular application of 1).
- This continues a limited view of the heart of United Methodists.
It also seems to me that conservatives are underestimating the number of evangelicals, including many pastors of our largest churches, who have come to see this issue differently in the last few years. Their changing understanding does not reflect a departure from theological orthodoxy or evangelical passion, nor does it reflect a reduced view of biblical authority. Instead these persons recognize the complexity of scripture and see the Bible’s teaching on same-gender relationships as similar to the Bible’s teaching on slavery, violence in the name of God, the role of women in the church and a host of other things found in the Bible but which we no longer believe reflect God’s will for us today.
It is not particularly comforting to think how long it has taken some number of “evangelicals” to see what continued discrimination is doing to our ability to evangelize. Like it or not, theological orthodoxy, evangelical passion, and biblical authority are, historically, the last roadblocks to the expansion of expressions of God’s ability to be a Living God and Jesus to welcome the most outcast, live among them, and witness God’s love through these acts. The Bible is no more or less complex than it was before. The slowness to see “God’s will for us today” is not helped with a continued slowness to wait for the last prejudiced person comes “to see this differently”. If you have come to see LGBTQ people differently, act on it.
It also seems to me that many of our progressives are underestimating the number of people in our denomination, and in most of our local churches, who are not ready to ordain persons in same-sex relationships, nor host same-sex marriages in their churches. In most United Methodist churches there are a significant number of people who lean conservative on this issue. For conservatives the question of same-sex relationships is not about justice, but about faithfulness to Scripture, as they understand it. To completely reverse the denomination’s position, even if progressives and moderates had the votes, would mean a significant loss of membership and vitality in many local churches, and across the denomination.
It seems to this liberal/radical that you may be underestimating the number of people in our denomination who ARE ready to ordain LGBTQ people gifted and called to ordained ministry and to see the marriage of their sons and daughters and nieces and nephews and friends duly celebrated in the church. As long as we leave this in the realm of “seems”, fears will always come to the fore. “Seems” always brings the worst speculation to the fore before we can look at the movement of Spirit through history and in our own time. We are a people who have added the gift of “Experience” to the previous trinity of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason to be an antidote to “seems” and present fears. When we separate “faithfulness” from “justice” we wound ourselves and the world around us.
Finding a way forward means we must see this issue through the eyes of the other. Progressives must see the issue through the eyes of earnest, thoughtful conservatives. Conservatives must see the issue through the eyes of earnest, thoughtful centrists and progressives. Even the terms we use to describe our own position might need to change. It is possible to be conservative on this issue, and still love justice and inclusivity. It is also possible to be progressive on this issue and still be theologically orthodox and passionately evangelical.
Yes, let us look through the eyes of the other. Note, however, that the “other” needed here is not a Conservative/Progressive difference where we somehow catch enough of a glimpse of our self in that “other” and budge ever so slightly. The “other” needed here is for everyone who is not LGBTQ in orientation, to look through the eyes of those who are discriminated against, castigated, described as “incompatible”, shunned, and even beaten and killed. Both Progressives and Conservatives have been complicit in delaying a transformation of the church, much less the world.
I continue to believe that the best way forward is to allow United Methodist pastors to determine who they will and will not marry, while allowing local churches to determine their own wedding policies as it relates to the usage of their building. This is currently how things are done for heterosexual marriages. Pastors meet with couples and determine whether they will or will not officiate, and local churches develop wedding policies for the use of their buildings.
The issue of local control is but another delaying tactic that allows theological orthodoxy, evangelical passion, and biblical authority to keep us from experiencing again how unsurprising it is for God to call for renewal from the most unlikely of places and people. Patchwork discrimination keeps the battle between “progressives” and “conservatives” boiling and even heightens it as it moves into local settings.
Under this scenario the current language of the Discipline regarding homosexuality and same-sex weddings would become the “historic position” of the United Methodist Church and the default policy of each local church regarding same-sex marriage. The Discipline would allow local churches to adopt a more permissive policy towards same-sex marriage. Only churches that felt compelled to change the default position would take a vote. Conservative churches would continue as they are. Moderates might spend several years in conversation before deciding whether to make a change to the default position. Progressives would vote right away to adopt a different policy. Likewise, while a pastor would be bound by the local church’s policies for weddings within the walls of the church, each pastor would determine who they would and would not marry outside of the walls of their local church.
This imagined move to “historic position” does not become an historic position until there is a change in The Book of Discipline. Until that time it divides our Method of engaging the “Nature of our Theological Task” laid out in The Book of Discipline—2012 (¶105, pp. 79–80). There is a naïve assumption here that there are conservative congregations, progressive congregations, and moderate congregations. This model forgets how we need each other and further divides us. We are in the business of revealing a Jesus Way together or we are not. More could be said to demonstrate how flawed this approach is, but folks either get it or don’t.
I believe we can trust local churches to make this decision. Some have suggested that allowing local churches to make this decision will be the end of connectionalism and will signal that we have adopted a congregational polity. But it is not our position on homosexuality that makes us a connectional church; rather, it is our shared ministry, our shared doctrinal standards, our appointive process, our episcopacy, and our trust clause that are the hallmarks of our connectionalism.
The trust clause is an indication of our lack of trust or it wouldn’t be there. The lack of leadership by the episcopacy in favor of some uniformity of response that reduces us to good-thoughts and prayers-at-a-distance has unconnected us from those we harm whether that be a recent statement about racism or lack thereof regarding orientationism. Doctrinal standards and ordination restrictions that are based on false witness are not places of connecting with one another.
If the General Conference (or under some proposals the Annual Conference) continues to adopt a one-size-fits-all policy forced upon local churches and pastors we can anticipate that this issue will continue to be our focus for the next twenty years, with continuing conflict year after year.
One size does fit all if we are talking about love and grace. No amount of tinkering with one or another proposal from strengthening the current sin of casting our family out and dividing ourselves, one from another, to more modest forms of the same will honorably heal us. The fault is in ourselves.
Regarding ordination, decisions are largely made at the Annual Conference level. Let’s let annual conferences make decisions regarding the ordination of married homosexual* candidates for ministry. Conservative conferences will not ordain married homosexuals. Progressive conferences will ordain such persons. Moderate conferences may come up with creative new solutions. These solutions are more likely to be developed at an annual conference than during the two weeks of General Conference meeting once every four years. Again, it seems that trying to create a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire denomination does not take into account the vast differences in different regions across the denomination.
Ordination decisions are to be made in the Annual Conference, except for those removed from them by The Book of Discipline. Playing the “married” card is but a variation of “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” game-playing that its authors have confessed to being code language for “keep the gays out”. It sets the bar at the wrong place—appearance rather than the call and gift of Spirit. How many of these appearance games have we already come through—dancing, smoking, divorce, etc.—and how many more are we going to have to go through before we are willing to submit our denomination to the Covenant Service we currently limit to individuals. John Wesley was right that reform of the nation begins in the church.
We are a denomination divided over how we interpret the scriptures regarding same-sex relationships; most of our congregations are also divided. Any possible solution must allow room for differences of opinion. What seems clear to me is that a viable long-term strategy cannot be found in a one-sized-fits-all policy imposed upon every church in every region and nation by the 800 delegates to the next General Conference.
Yes, our congregations are made up of many opinions. This is evidence that the conservative, progressive, moderate congregation argument above really doesn’t hold water. Intentionally harming LGBTQ people with our current legislation is a one-size for all and is imposed with many different rationales. Whether those rationales are conservative or progressive, they pale in the face of a Living God.
*I mention married homosexuals as opposed to “practicing” homosexuals as the Discipline calls for celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.
*There is no cute, linguistic way out of the corner into which we have painted ourselves. We are ever reforming or we end up on the dust heap of history.
You can download a PDF of this response in a side-by-side printout here: Hamilton Response.
We recognize the Connectional Table’s attempt to expand two areas of church life to allow for more inclusivity of LGBTQ people (clergy-based decisions regarding marriage and Annual Conference-based decisions of ordination). We honor that there has clearly been struggling and creativity applied. However, in light of forty years of ever increasing draconian restrictions, we remain convinced that these sorts of moderations are too little, too late.