By The Numbers
“This poll shows what really matters to the members of The United Methodist Church,” the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications, said in a statement. “It also clarifies that the people in the pews are more concerned about faithful living and changing lives for Christ than they are about some of the other issues that we hear so much about.” . . .
On May 22, a group of 80 United Methodist pastors and theologians in a press release suggested an amicable split of the denomination, saying differences over homosexuality and other issues are irreconcilable. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 United Methodist clergy have expressed a willingness to officiate at same-gender weddings in violation of church law.
First of all, let me just say up front that I am not a fan of polls. For all statisticians and poll-creators insist they can get a representative sample, when it comes to polls conducted on the Internet, there is just no control. Second, this was a poorly-designed poll; I took it, and can vouch for the fact that I and several others who took it were not happy with the way it was constructed. Finally, even at their best, polls are snap-shots, a moment in time rather than a representative of any larger reality.
With those caveats, the poll in question, the results of which you can find here, is more than a little interesting. What’s even more interesting, and telling (for me at least) is the content of the second quoted paragraph above. 80 anonymous men and women – at least one of whom now insists that while he was involved in the discussions, signed no document (well, he didn’t have to, because no one else did, either) – put out a poorly-constructed statement that includes theologies antithetical to good Scriptural hermeneutics as well as our Wesleyan traditions and Articles of Religion. On the other hand, 1,000 pastors have put their names down as being willing to conduct same-sex weddings in violation of church law. The Anonymous 80 whining; the 1,000 putting their money where their mouths are. Those are numbers – and attitudes – I respect.
I do not think any church can or should be governed by polling or popularity. What we do, who we are, is defined by our faithful living. The nice thing, of course, is this poll endorses the view that the United Methodist Church wants to be the United Methodist Church. We are worried about reaching a new generation for whom the language and life of faith is not just strange but meaningless. We seek to address matters of social justice.
Now, the issue of how the United Methodist Church relates to sexual minorities extends beyond how we minister to them through blessing their weddings. Do we include them fully in the life of the church, allowing them to become ordained as full clergy members of Annual Conferences? This poll isn’t clear, and, frankly, the statement from the 1,000 doesn’t address that matter. All the same, it must be addressed. The Anonymous 80 – or 79, or 72, or whatever it is – threaten to leave the church should we change our Discipline to except LGBTQ persons as clergy. The thing is, over the past quarter century and more we have already lost clergy, good, faithful, productive men and women all because the Discipline insists that their very existence is outside the bounds of God’s grace. I used to tell people that the United Methodist Church invented “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and in many ways, that’s true. It is only when an individual admits that he or she is gay or lesbian and in an active relationship with another person that charges can be brought against them. There are still sexual minorities among our clergy, either living celibate lives, or their relationships are quiet and unobtrusive. Still, far too many cannot make that compromise, and go. Others are forced out, whether through church trial or some other action. The end result has been a slow bleed over the decades of hundreds of men and women, lost to the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church because of bigotry and a policy of discrimination.
This change is going to come. The numbers, however you wish to read them, are there. Should we fear losing, perhaps, a few dozen clergy and even fewer congregations, considering all we can gain from welcoming – perhaps even welcoming back – faithful, committed men and women who will serve the church with love and care and integrity? When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted, I remember the story of a young man, a Marine booted out under the previous policy, who was first in his recruiter’s line, ready to join up and head back to war to be with his fellow Marines. That is a testimony of faith we United Methodists should embrace as we consider how we move forward. We should be ready, willing, and more than able to open our arms to those who wish only to come back to our Wesleyan traditions, to serve our people faithfully and lovingly, in the Spirit of Wesley, who sought to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.