I Didn’t Go To Church Yesterday; Here’s Why
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. – Hosea 6:4-6
It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Karl Barth
The first time I spoke out publicly against the United Methodist policy regarding sexual minorities was 1988. To say I was in a distinct minority would not only be accurate; it would perhaps demonstrate my embarrassment at my earnestness and honesty. Nonetheless, in the 27 years since I have not changed my position. I have not deviated from my firm belief that our lesbian, gay, other-gendered, bisexual, and queer/questioning brothers and sisters are of right and ought to be full persons within the life of the church. Our church has no business denying ministry and pastoral care to any of our members because of bigotry or blindness rooted in faile devotion to alleged Biblical injunctions or the arcana of church law.
I have allowed myself to continue being and worshiping as a United Methodist for all these years because I watched as we struggled and argued and charged and counter-charged. I saw our country opening itself to the possibility of full inclusion to sexual minorities; surely if our secular, godless society can be so open and accepting, a denomination that is rooted in an understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy can’t be far behind. All the arguments have been made and positions both well rehearsed and firm. We as a people seem to have been moving on to perfection in love on this matter.
Then came the widespread news of a woman from Western Michigan who, after receiving “ordination” from an online “church” not only was removed from candidacy for the diaconate; she was removed from membership in the United Methodist Church all together. Both actions were taken without the specific actions outlined in our Book of Discipline. There was no meeting with her District Committee on Ordained Ministry. Her local pastor did not meet with her, or research the charge thoroughly before writing “Withdrawn” after her name on her local church membership roll. Summarily cast out, she was for all intents and purposes excommunicated from our denomination for the crime of being audacious. She loved her clergy so much that rather than put any of them at risk, she received a barely-legal certificate – recognized only by county clerks around the country; something many people do to perform weddings for friends or family – so that two men she supported could be married surrounded by their friends and supporters.
Her removal was prompted from a complaint not made by anyone in her local church. It wasn’t made by another clergy member from Western Michigan. Three men from different jurisdictions wrote a letter to her District Superintendent. Three people who knew nothing of the facts, nothing of the people, nothing of the actual circumstances of the matter have managed not only to destroy a woman’s hopes for serving the United Methodist Church. In their zeal to uphold one part of our Book of Discipline, they prompted actions that violated other, far more important and central parts. In their desire to punish anyone in the United Methodist Church who might seek to be in loving ministry to sexual minorities, they have rendered our denomination a laughing stock. Not a laughing stock for the Gospel; this is no stumbling block for the earnestly faithful or foolishness to the wise. This action shows the world the hollowness of our alleged commitment to the expansiveness of God’s Grace and Wesley’s first rule: Do No Harm.
And so we arrive at yesterday. Angry and hurt, I prayed about how I could worship in truth and humility when I would be in a place that had not only committed this horrid act of injustice; I would be doing so in the full knowledge that there are people in our denomination who would not see any need to confess this sin and seek to change their lives so that no such thing would ever happen again. I would be approaching the table set before humanity by a prodigally loving God knowing full well that some in our denomination believe and have acted in such a way as to restrict access to a table that isn’t ours to begin with.
I wrote my thoughts on Facebook and many insisted that I should attend anyway; that all of us are broken and sinful; that we have unclean lips in a land of unclean people. All of which is true, of course, but also beside the point. Our worship is not about me or any other individual. It is about all of us. It is about us in our local congregation. It is also about all of us as we are connected through the Holy Spirit. The confession we make is not about how many times we’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain or looked upon another with lust in our hearts. Our confession is our failure to be the Church of Jesus Christ incarnate in the people called Methodist. We are all tied together in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; I can no more separate myself from other United Methodists around the world than I can separate myself from my arm or leg. The actions taken by those three men; the subsequent actions taken by the District Superintendent and Bishop in Western Michigan sit upon all of us. If not, then our profession as a connectional people is hollow and our confession of the communion of the saints is a lie.
That our church is broken is beyond question. I have told myself we have been moving slowly, inexorably, toward healing. The arc of history bends toward justice, even if that arc does indeed move slowly. I could not, however, worship in Spirit and Truth when I knew that I was part of a corporate body that had acted so cruelly, prompted by just a few people who sought punishment for others not because of who they are or what they did but rather because these three men consider themselves arbiters of who and who should not be a United Methodist. They would see no need to confess their sins. How, then, would our worship as a body be true? How would the sacrifice we offer – ourselves as a living sacrifice – be acceptable when we have not only permitted but participated in such injustice?
We will have much for which to answer. We’ve always known that. For the moment, however, it might yet be an excellent idea if we remembered that ours is a God of justice, not morality. Ours is a God of mercy, not arbitrary and punitive excommunication. When we gather and offer our confession to God, all of us no matter where we are, need to repent for being part of a body that would allow this action to take place, and seek repentance not only by preventing such a thing from ever happening again. We should actively seek to right this wrong. Until then, we show we don’t have love, and all our words are noise, the clanging cymbals of a faithless generation.