With Respect, I Disagree
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:19-25
“Shame is not a tool or weapon to use against anyone.” – Bishop J. Michael Lowry, at yesterday’s panel discussion on human sexuality, held by the United Methodist Connectional Table.
To take up the cross of granting our adversaries their dignity and worth as children of God, no matter how badly they may have vilified us in the past for our attitudes and actions, even for our very identity. We all share the blame for the current state of disunity and threat of schism, but we can all share in the hope of new life as well. – Cynthia Astle, “Hopeful Signs Emerge From Sexuality Panel”, United Methodist Insight
I have nothing but respect, admiration, and even Christian love for my sister in Christ Cynthia Astle. She has consistently published material I have submitted to United Methodist Insight on a variety of topics, including our current heated discussion over the future of our denomination’s relationship with sexual minorities. Thus it pains me to disagree so strongly with the positions she lays out in the article from which the above quote is taken. It would be nice if it were as easy as all of us accepting “blame” for our current state. The facts, however, are otherwise. From talk of schism, to demands and even threats that the “right” kind of delegates to the 2016 General Conference be elected or threaten the future of the denomination, to the actual dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline, to the demands for a discourse both civil and umpired according to rules that would exclude any voices save those upholding the status quo, I would submit – as someone who has also followed this debate and discussion over sexual minorities in the church (including a long talk with a member of that 1989 panel who was a professor of mine in Seminary) – that it is now and has always been only one side of this discussion that threatens our unity, that demands the discriminatory and dehumanizing status quo remain as a reflection of True Faith, and offered as alternatives (“the local option”) “compromises” that not only threaten the integrity of our Connectional System, but seek to erase the reality that for more than a generation we have lived with an enunciated position that is not only discriminatory and dehumanizing, but unBiblicial, theologically untenable, and insulting to millions of United Methodists, clergy and lay. We are not all responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. If this discussion were held with any integrity at all, these facts would begin any such discussion, and those who support them in some manner, fashion, or form would be forced to admit not only their truth, but their role in continuing the United Methodist Church’s on-going discriminatory practices and policies, practices and policies that have caused some to leave the denomination and, yes, some even to die.
We cannot move this discussion forward unless these points are clear and accepted. That some people may object (“Shame is not a tool or weapon to use against anyone.”) or get their feelings hurt, or refuse to acknowledge these facts as facts is neither here nor there. We cannot evade reality because it is uncomfortable or others object. “Unity”, as Ms. Astle describes it above, is not a function of the Spirit or the Risen Christ but of Church Law to which all will give assent, and in which all can find space to live. Currently, millions of us are not so much asked as commanded to live with a unity that demeans the lives of friends, of family, of loved ones, of people with great gifts and imagination and even true callings by God to a life in ministry. Any threat to that “unity”, we are told, is a threat to the entire denomination, its connectional integrity, and the future mission and ministry of the church. It is not “both sides” or “all” who do this. As someone who has argued for nearly a quarter century publicly and unapologetically for direct action to remove the force of the Discipline language, and who has discerned in recent developments precisely that, I am not now nor have I ever been an advocate for disunity, for schism, threatened the integrity of our connectional system, or suggested that persons, congregations, or even Conferences withhold monies or ministries because of our current discriminatory position. Nor have any other people I’ve known who wish to change the current language in the Book of Discipline.
Also on a personal note, I have been invited by a former UMC pastor who now serves in the UCC, to switch my denominational affiliation. That would be impractical, married as I am to a United Methodist pastor in her 21st year of ministry, currently serving as a District Superintendent. More importantly, I was baptized, educated, confirmed, and married in a United Methodist church. I was educated at a United Methodist-related seminary. I was consoled at the suicide of a childhood friend by a local United Methodist pastor. I have had the privilege of coming to know many faithful, loving, grace-filled United Methodist congregations in many parts of the country. The teachings of Wesley, and of our current denominational formation, I find not only reflect the acts of God for the world, but the best approach to mission and ministry for the world. I cannot abandon the denomination because it is imperfect; I can only do my admittedly small part to change it for the better. Covenant and connectionalism, faith and history, Scripture and experience all call me to take my stand with the United Methodist Church, even as we struggle to come to terms with changing social and cultural and legal contexts, and live out faithfully new understandings of God’s grace moving in our denomination and in our world. No one will make me leave this church that has sheltered me, loved me, ministered to me, and upheld me just because it discriminates against a part of the people beloved by God.
As to the matter of the “zero-sum” nature of the legal language involved, I can only respond to Ms. Astle by noting that the whole history of the Christian faith is in no small part a struggle to reject legalism as dictating what makes us Christians, in this case a people called Methodist. As the Hebrews passage quoted above says, it is through our High Priest, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, that we have true faith, true hope, and true unity. The current language in the Book of Discipline is as much a zero-sum game as would be its removal; I am thankful that we United Methodists are not “United” because of words on a page, but through the Spirit of the Living God, whose Son Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice, opening salvation to all through faith. There is no via media, no local option, no “Third Way” that avoids politics, will not leave many hurt, and cause disruption among United Methodists across the country and world. That is the case now. Breaching our disagreements, healing the pain caused by our discriminatory practices, as well as the words flung back and forth will not be found in and through some legal compromise that cannot be accomplished. The removal of the current Discipline language on homosexuality will only be the beginning. We as a church will have to trust in the God who calls us, who saves us, who brings us together in congregations, in Districts, in Conferences Annual and General to bring the healing, to bridge the gaps among us all, and to hold us together even as anger, hurt, and even feelings of betrayal would move some to abandon the United Methodist Church. As I have made clear, politics is a practice of faith, one in which we must trust the Spirit moves, the Word is heard, and through which the grace that calls us, saves us, and perfects us will lead us to a future in which we United Methodists no longer need be ashamed because we insist that some persons, because of who and how they love, are incompatible with Christian teaching.
I appreciate the Spirit that moves you, Ms. Astle, to find a way around the thicket of anger, of hurt, the sometimes vehement and even noisy discussion we United Methodists find ourselves currently engaged. We must gird ourselves, however, and move through it rather than around it, always in prayer for all, with the faith and hope and love that same Spirit will move all of us to the other side. There is no other course, as unsatisfying as it might be.