There’s been a flurry of activity among prominent spokespersons (all white men) from the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA) as the Commission on the Way Forward begins its work. With Annual Conferences scheduled to begin around the United States in a week or two, the pressure on delegates to act certainly seems to be rising.
There are several things I think all Annual Conference members, Bishops, members of the Commission on the Way Forward, and the average lay person in the pew should consider as the politicking becomes more intense and the rhetoric ramps up.
First, we need to be very clear what the WCA is and is not. It is a gathering of largely older, white, male clergy and academics whose goal is one thing alone:
“I think that the way ahead lies with an exit plan for those who cannot accept the canonical teaching and practice of the church rather than a plan for division,” Abraham announced, coining the term “Mexit” for this Methodist departure.
Abraham suggested “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.” – Mark Tooley, “‘Mexit’ For United Methodist Sexual/Theological Dissenters”, Juicyecumenism.com, March 29, 2017
There’s nothing Wesleyan or Covenantal about their organization. Indeed, I think it’s more than fair to say that, rather than the spokesmen for some silent majority, the WCA represents an ever-shrinking minority. Recent polling of the denomination, according to the linked Christianity Today article, has been consistent with a plurality favoring the removal of the discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline. The vast majority (90%!) want nothing to do with schism, split, or kicking anyone out over matters of sexuality, insisting the constant attention is diverting the larger church from its mission. So when Chris Ritter claims, “The majority of United Methodists believe what the Book of Discipline teaches about human sexuality whether they are vocal about this or not.” he is not only making an impossible, self-contradictory claim (how is it possible for anyone to know what the vast majority of any group believes if they also insist they are silent about it?), the claim is contradicted by actual surveys that show the UMC in America would far prefer we set aside the discriminatory language and lay the issue to rest to get back to being the Church.
From my own experience of more than four decades, I would venture to say the majority of United Methodists don’t even know there is a Book of Discipline or if they do know, only know it is a book of law for the denomination. I also observe that most United Methodists don’t live their lives on a denominational level but on a congregational level where they learn about and exercise their Christian faith far from any Book of Discipline.
This is a fair picture of my own experience as well. Which is not to say that church members consider matters of church law irrelevant. As they should be, and as surveys show, members of our United Methodists congregations around the country are far more focused on the mission of their local churches and how that fits into the mission of the United Methodist Church. Matters of human sexuality not only aren’t a priority; they’re a distraction.
The WCA claims to be the guardians of something one of their spokesmen calls “the Wesleyan/Evangelical/Orthodox tradition”. Yet none of the statements of the WCA regarding their beliefs – other than endorsing other statements of faith – has any theological content at all. Indeed, as I noted the other day in a piece linked at the top of this paragraph, what few statements I have seen are deliberately designed to be void of content while presenting to those outside the group a particular image: guardians of a tradition that is as old as the Church itself. For all they carry along a few big name United Methodist academics, there is nothing theological about their statements, about their attitude toward the larger denomination, and their insistence that either people who don’t accept the current Book of Discipline must leave or they will. They misrepresent who they are, who they represent, and how they should be perceived.
As we move into the always contentious Annual Conference season; as some observe from afar the working of the Commission on the Way Forward; as we all pray for discernment and peace; we need to bear in mind the WCA is the exact opposite of what it claims (as has its previous incarnations as Good News and The Confessing Movement): an aging conglomerate of the same older white men who have held far too much power far too long who deliberately mislead people regarding their intentions, often offering easily disproven claims as fact to bolster arguments that wind up being internally incoherent. They only have any power and authority because some people choose to grant it to them.
Their membership is relatively small, but there are members across the United States. We should love and honor these people who may have become members for any number of reasons all the while making clear they do not now and will not in the future represent some hidden silent majority of members of the United Methodist Church. They exist solely for the purpose of enforcing discrimination against sexual minorities, and will do anything to achieve their ends.
The easiest way to strip them of any power is not to grant them any; to speak plainly and honestly about who they are, how they operate, and that they just aren’t representative of even a large plurality of church members. Their goal, schism over questions regarding human sexuality, is rejected by the vast majority of the persons for whom they claim to speak. As they aren’t trustworthy conversation partners on a way forward for all of us, they should be rejected as part of that larger conversation.
I saw the image last night (the person has since taken it down). A quick check at snopes.com told me what I suspected – the image is fake.
Yet, it remains, as do all things on the internet. No doubt it will be resurrected at some point in the future when Ms. Grande, known for courting controversy, says or does something that upsets someone somewhere. That it’s an obvious Photoshop will always be beside the point. Like all the nonsense spewed on the internet, this fake picture – which libels Ms. Grande in a most crude fashion – will follow Cokie’s Law:
Cokie’s Law, in which she proved that truth and facts are rarely the issue when it comes to arcane Clinton scandals:
“At this point,it doesn’t much matter whether she said it or not because it’s become part of the culture. I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this was all anyone was talking about.”
Far deeper than this obvious problem, however, is the matter of why someone, anyone, would do such a despicable thing. What, precisely, would be the point of this? Because Ms. Grande (falsely) wiped her ass on an American flag, the dead and injured do not deserve our sympathy? That she somehow was in cahoots with a murderous suicide bomber, and she shares responsibility for the pain and suffering and loss? That fact that, according to the Snopes.com article, this image was shared over 40,000 times seems to mean there are tens of thousands of people willing to believe that a pop star is somehow complicit in a horrible act of murderous terrorism.
There is something wrong, something deep and ugly and hateful, with some people. Not only the person who created this image, but those who shared it and refuse to take it down (I’m sure Joe Abrahamson isn’t the only one). The image itself and its implicit message are ugly and hateful, do nothing but spread suspicion, division, and fear. As far as I know, the most offensive thing Ms. Grande has ever done is include obscenities and sexual references in some of her songs, neither of which is really that offensive. Why debase her in this way? Because she’s a woman? Because you don’t like her music?
I should note that I was chastised by several people last week because I was, ahem, disrespectful of Roger Ailes upon news of his death. One person even called the veracity of my faith into question. I made clear at the time that I had good reasons to speak ill of the recently dead, and while he might disagree with me, I wasn’t lying or doing so out of personal spite. So these same folks might think I’m being more than a little hypocritical when I sit and wonder why people do horrible things.
As with all things, the specific circumstances matter. In the case of me saying that Roger Ailes had started rotting years before he actually died, I wanted to remind people that Ailes’ life was not one people should celebrate because his professional life was dedicated to undermining American democracy. I feel no need to pretend otherwise.
Which leads me back to this image and its propagation. What the hell was Joe Abrahamson, and all those who shared his post, trying to achieve? The attack certainly wasn’t aimed directly at Arianna Grande. She certainly had no part in it. Even were she disrespectful of the American flag would hardly mean she would celebrate mass death and destruction. The dead and wounded, their friends and families, the larger British public, none of these are honored, helped, or comforted by spreading this image and its message. It’s gratuitous hate and violence, the very thing that created the conditions for someone to strap a bomb to himself and kill and wound dozens at a concert.
Sadly, there seems little to do to stop it. Which hurts my heart.
While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations. If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community? What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power? In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face? – Me, “Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence'”, No One Special, August 19, 2014
A torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans descended on a Charlottesville, Virginia, park Saturday evening, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Chanting “All White Lives Matter,” and “No More Brother Wars,” the crowd, which said they were protecting their “white heritage” from the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue in the Virginia town’s park.
They also chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Dozens of protesters also brought bamboo tiki torches to a second rally once it became dark out. . . .
No arrests were made and there were no reports of injuries. – Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protesters Against Removal of Confederate Statue,” nbcnews.com, May 15, 2017
I was surprised the other day to see someone recently read and liked my nearly three-year-old post on Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. Since my usual habit is not to go back and read old posts, and since I’d completely forgotten writing such a thing in the first place, I decided to give it a read. My general opinion is that it was a pretty average contemporary critique of Arendt’s essay. What surprised me, however, was a quite remarkable, not-fleshed-out set of ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence, particularly in regards to the racist structures of violence and repression that are the American norm. In light of the rise of Trumpism and the emboldened racist fringe, it seems more than ever we need to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of violence as a political tactic, whether on the part of the state or of groups protesting violence against them by the state and those supported by the state.
First, I neither know nor care whether Donald Trump is a bigot. While he talks like a pretty typical clueless, privileged white guy; while he took out a full page ad in The New York Times demanding the death penalty for the young men originally arrested in the Central Park jogger assault, a sentence to be carried out absent any trial; while he pretended not to know or care about the support he received – and continues to enjoy – among members of vocally racist groups; none of this interests me in the least.
What is far more fascinating is that, while such groups certainly became far more visible during the years Barack Obama was President, with Trump they obviously feel free to make their presence far more visible. Trump emboldened racists groups from the Klan to the Nazi’s and so-called “alt-Right” (nothing more than Nazi’s who hide their swastikas), for whom they worked during the Presidential campaign. While certainly never hugely numerous and obviously outside the “mainstream” of our public discourse, the rise in the visibility of these groups has posed problems for those who have tried to think clearly regarding protest and resistance to the Trump Administration.
Nothing exemplifies these troubles more than the reaction to the Inauguration Day assault on neo-Nazi Richard Spence while he gave a television interview on the streets of Washington, DC. Many, including me, saw this act of violence as a fitting response to the very presence of Richard Spencer. Indeed, the phrase “Nazi-punching” has entered our current lexicon thanks to this single act of violent defiance. Many liberals, influenced by the constant talk of “non-violent resistance” and the appeal of moral superiority in the face of intransigent resistance, continue to insist that any violence by those opposed to Trump, his supporters, or his policies is illegitimate. I have read more than one commentator insist that violence in the face of “differing political opinions” in unAmerican.
That last is so grotesque it almost defies comprehension. To make the claim that Nazism, gussied up with some other name but the same filth nevertheless, is a political ideology worthy of respect by anyone is both ignorant and disgusting. People like Richard Spencer embrace the idea of the mass murder of minorties – Jews, African-Americans, sexual minorities, Latinos – and they deserve neither our time nor effort at understanding. While verbal rebuke and rejection are always called-for, physical attacks should be considered a rational response, particularly when such attacks come from members of the very minority communities these racists would prefer disappeared. When white liberals insist that such acts of preemptive violence are inherently illegitimate, they are speaking from a place of privilege, removing a rational and viable response from affected groups to very real threats of violence and death.
There are other matters regarding the matter of violence, particularly the question of the state’s monopoly on violence, raised by last night’s protests in Charlottesville. While the linked article does call the group a “mob”, and note that later in the evening as counter-protests arose there were “scuffles” and the police arrived, that not a single person involved was arrested demonstrates the unequal treatment of racial groups by authorities. In my original essay on Arendt, linked above, I noted that the police response in Ferguson, MO to what were largely peaceful protests against a police department with a history of racism; a police department in a predominantly African-American city made up of white people; and a police department that was defending the shooting of a community member in a questionable act of self-defense; was beyond any rationally considered response. The famous image of a man facing police in military camouflage armed with automatic weapons exemplifies the police overreaction to peaceful, non-violence protests.
Both the shooting that prompted the protests and the reaction to the protests themselves, not to mention a long history of police harassment of the African-American population of Ferguson, exemplify “systemic racism” in America. It is the archetype of what people mean when discussing the matter of systemic racism in America. While the police in Ferguson outfitted themselves for urban combat, the police in Charlottesville did not. Numerous people were arrested in Ferguson. None were arrested in Charlottesville, despite the protests in Charlottesville being violent and those in Ferguson remaining peaceful.
For people, particularly those not living, say, in Ferguson, MO to speak about the illegitimacy of violence without qualifying that to be the illegitimacy of state violence is to ignore the very real situation our minority communities face on a daily basis. To insist on greater police presence in the face of racist protests and violence in Charlottesville is to demand the state stop deploying its police power only against groups from minority communities while leaving racist whites unbothered by the presence of armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and automatic weapons pointed in their faces. The systemic racism endemic to America, part and parcel of who we are as a country, is riven with violence, both state imposed and state sanctioned. When private groups whose very ideology is violence are not met with the same kind of armed response as peaceful groups of ordinary citizens demanding real justice for their communities, we are confronted with the reality both of systemic racism as well as the reality of state-perpetrated violence to enforce the racist status quo.
While non-violent confrontation with state actors certainly remains a live option for any group, to artificially limit such confrontation in such a way without taking into consideration the uses to which the state puts its monopoly on violence is to ignore the realities many communities face each and every day. As with everything, a consideration of the whole context is necessary, including the already-existing place of violence as a method of social control, before making any judgments regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of violence as a tactic in social protet.
So the Council of Bishops have called for a special session of General Conference for 2019. The reason for the session will be to receive the report of the Committee On The Way Forward and act on its recommendations. Of course, we all know the matter of the future of the United Methodist Church as a coherent denomination will hang in the balance. All over the matter of human sexuality. Precisely because we as a people called Methodist have no idea how even to begin doing a theology of human sexuality, we have been trapped for 45 years discussing a couple sentences in our Book of Discipline, which manage to reduce human sexuality to acts of sexual contact, rejecting some while implicitly accepting others. That these sentences contradict the assertion of human sexuality as a good gift from a good God should be clear enough; absent any clear understanding of what, precisely, human sexuality is, what it entails, and how it fits in the larger order of salvation, we have gone around and around this particular dog track so many times and for so long the runners have disappeared into the deep hole we have all helped dig.
It’s no secret what I stand on this matter. So I found myself in the uncomfortable position last year, watching proceedings on the floor of General Conference via live stream, agreeing in principle with those most vocal in their insistence that the language be removed, some sort of apology offered to those effected by the language, and we move forward affirming all persons and their place in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, however, I was also quite tired of their speech-making, their constant demands to be heard, their attempts to bully whoever might be the presiding Bishop, and their smug assurance that their own righteousness and the correctness of their position (with which I wholeheartedly agree!) would be enough to sway people voting on legislation. It was clear, however, from the very start this relatively small yet loud group had not done the one thing necessary in a political climate: they had organized no groups to side with them. In politics it is never about being right. It is always about power. In this case, what were these folks bringing to the table other than their sense of moral correctness?
They didn’t bring anything at all.
Meanwhile, the far right of the denomination was well-organized, working with delegations from African Conferences and others to block any attempt not only to change the language of the Discipline, but to alter the procedural method by which the Conference could arrive at some kind of consensus. Many people (including me) found it far too close to overstepping certain ethical boundaries, that Good News should not have been hosting these delegates, offering only a singular perspective on these important matters. All the same, it showed that while Good News, the Confessing Movement, and other such groups affiliated with our Church might well be bad at theology, they are most excellent at organizing. Looking at the final vote tallies regarding matters surrounding the removal of the questionable language from the Discipline, had General Conference only been an American affair, the language would have been removed. By wooing the delegates from the African Conferences, however, Good News managed to block any such change.
So, perhaps, rather than ask the same question – Should the language regarding the incompatibility of “the practice of homosexuality” and Christian teaching be removed from the Discipline? – perhaps because we know what the answer’s going to be, we should be asking a completely different question. That question should center on the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church; on the Biblical and Wesleyan mandate to preach, to baptize, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to work for the transformation of the world. Since we have never settled on the matter of what, exactly, constitutes “homosexual practice”, how it does or does not violate Christian teaching, or anything else pertaining to the place of human sexuality in the life of the disciple, we perhaps should be asking about how we move forward together, differing in our opinions regarding matters of human sexuality, yet unified in our mission to transform the world through making disciples. Perhaps we should accept the reality that we shall never, indeed, be of one mind regarding questions of human sexuality, and that as such they should be set to one side while we focus on moving forward together.
My experience as a United Methodist, particularly as a clergy spouse, is the matter is far less urgent among our church members. By and large matters of human sexuality in general and matters surrounding sexual minorities in particular are difficult ones about which to speak. I have heard from more than one lay person in more than one area of the country voice the opinion they would far rather the issues just go away. They don’t see it directly impacting their faith lives or the mission and ministry of their local church. Now many would put this down to a preference to avoid difficult matters for those about which discussion and consensus are far easier; that such a preference is passive-aggressive, avoiding tough matters.
Perhaps, however, we should listen to these voices. People want to talk about how their church is fulfilling its mission, both locally and within the connection. People want to share their stories, not talk in the abstract about what other people do largely within the privacy of their lives outside the work of the church. Even when the question is less abstract, such as a congregation member answering a call to ministry, seeking the endorsement of the local church through the charge conference, and matters of sexuality suddenly intrude themselves into the process (as it now seems the Judicial Council demands we do), I believe most churches would insist that regardless of their feelings on the matter, the question of suitability, of the reality of the presence of a real call, their support of this or that individual would not rest upon matters of the person’s sexuality. Certainly if the person before the charge conference was otherwise morally reprobate, perhaps including abusing the gift of sexuality in ways that have nothing to do with whether than person is straight, gay or bisexual, these are matters that need to be addressed with seriousness. If, however, a persons seeks endorsement as a candidate for ordained ministry, their life and actions demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit, whether than person were or were not straight might well carry very little weight in the eyes of the local charge conference.
Which is why, I believe, it is important to change the conversation. There are those voices that are insistent, demanding, uncompromising, going around and around the language of the Discipline without regard to anything else the Church is supposed to be about. They shall always be with us. Which is precisely why we need to listen to other voices, ask other questions, and perhaps move forward together in one heart if not one mind. Our conversation long ago ceased to have any meaning, to exclude all but those most firmly committed to one extreme or another. That is why I think we might yet have the opportunity to salvage something from our current wreckage, becoming again the people called Methodist, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
It’s one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies: Delta Chi fraternity has just had its charter revoked; the members are expelled with their draft boards being notified they are now eligible. Shocked and stunned, they wonder what, exactly, they can do now that they have nothing left. Someone says, “We have to do something!” One member pipes up, “What the hell we s’posed to do, you moron?”
I feel a bit like that guy in Delta House right now. Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, ostensibly for how he handled the release of information regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails (actually, it was Weiner’s emails, which included emails to Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin, who happens to be Anthony Weiner’s ex-wife). I largely agree with Josh Marshall’s assessment that, in the abstract, the arguments made in the letter to the President make some kind of sense. In the current context, however, in which the President and much of his campaign staff (who are now members of the Administration) are under investigation for their ties to the already-established Russian interference in our previous general election, this abstract argument is worthless precisely because it looks as if the President has something he does not want coming to light. Indeed, in the six months since the election, both Presidents Obama and Trump could have fired Comey for these very reasons. They chose not to do so for sensible if not necessarily good political reasons. Since the man who wrote the legal rationale for Comey’s firing was only confirmed two weeks ago with enormous bipartisan support, it looks clear both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were waiting for a person with a reputation for integrity, who had support among both Republicans and Democrats, to enter the Justice Department so that, on the surface, it wouldn’t appear as if either Trump was acting impulsively or Sessions – who has slightly more political sense than Trump, which isn’t saying much – was acting on standing orders. It gives them both the appearance of distance. Sadly for them, neither are adept enough to make such an appearance stick.
And so we are now in the strange position of witnessing a clear abuse of Presidential power – as much a political matter as a legal matter – and we all wait and wonder, What do we do now? I know people are contacting their elected representatives. I applaud the sense of civic duty. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for an end to investigations into the possible collusion of the Trump campaign with the Russians, and the House Republicans both spineless and hyperpartisan, the necessary political will for the submission of articles of impeachment just isn’t present. Both the House and the Senate have demonstrated their lack of any interest in the questions, comments, and other input from their constituents. Particularly the Republicans have often closed down their phone lines, their email, and refused to hold meetings in order to avoid feedback they won’t like. They have worked on passing legislation the public neither wants nor needs, particularly their “replacement” for the Affordable Care Act, the vast majority of Americans oppose. To further demonstrate the Trump Administration’s contempt for the Constitution, a West Virginia reporter was arrested yesterday afternoon after asking HHS Secretary Tom Price a question.
Impeachment is far more a political than a legal action. While it certainly involves matters of lawbreaking, most Presidents, at least since James Monroe, have violated one or another statute or Constitutional provision. The first President who faced an impeachment trial in the Senate, Andrew Johnson, did so because the Radical Republicans (they were the good guys back then) felt Johnson wasn’t pushing hard enough on their agenda for reforming the Southern States (Johnson was a former Democratic Senator from Tennessee who refused to join his state in seceding from the Union). Richard Nixon’s string of corrupt acts would most assuredly not only forced him from office had he not resigned, but landed him in federal prison had President Ford not pardoned him. Bill Clinton faced impeachment for the rather narrow and arguable crime of lying under oath. Precisely because the larger matters surrounding the question involved Clinton’s personal rather than professional conduct, the Senate found no reason to find Clinton guilty of anything. Just because a person may (or may not) have broken the law doesn’t mean they should be removed from office.*
Now we face a moment during which the question of the survival of our Constitutional order might very well hang in the balance. I know this sounds melodramatic. I happen to believe it’s true. That the Russians intruded themselves into our last election is a matter of fact, not of opinion. That there appeared, even at the time, to be some kind of links between the Trump campaign and the Russians is also a fact. Russian interference was discussed mid-summer, 2016, both publicly and far more extensively in meetings with members of the Obama Administration, senior Congressional leadership, and the Intelligence Community. None of this is arguable. What needs to be done is a thorough investigation into whether or not Trump or his campaign had any knowledge of, contact with, or cooperation with these Russian efforts to undermine our last election. Rather than not investigate, one would think an investigations in to matters of such profound importance would be welcome. That members both of the Administration and senior Republicans are now calling for an end into such investigations demonstrates that there is no political will to curtail abuses of power by this Administration.
So . . . what the hell are we supposed to do? Call, write, be vocal about the insistence this matter not rest: these are, I suppose, important things. I doubt their efficacy, even in the long run. So we are faced with an increasing dictatorial Executive Branch with Legislative Branch unwilling to protest abuses or power or assert their primary prerogatives as overseers of the Executive. The Judicial Branch can only do so much, and they certainly cannot bring action on their own that gets Trump and his Administration out of office.
What? Do? We? Do?
*I think the authors of the Constitution, particularly James Madison, couldn’t imagine someone holding the office of President who had so little personal integrity they would willy-nilly violate their oath of office. Alas, honor is a republican rather than democratic value.
So the Judicial Council’s decision came down late yesterday afternoon. I sure hope no one was surprised. Looking for a ruling of law on a matter clearly set out in law that is nevertheless contradictory to that law . . . Yeah, that’s not going to happen.
Who wants to be the first member of a Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to ask about someone’s sex life? How awkward is it going to be asking single ministry candidates if they’re celibate? If they’re a practicing homosexual (and Oh! My! God! what the hell does that mean?)? Who wants to be the first BoOM to codify such a set of questions?
How is this rule enforced? For decades people have gone through the process, and there are so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and othered clergy. Their ministries are not validated by any Board or agency, but by the fruits of that ministry. Does this ruling suddenly declare all those whose lives have been changed because of their servant leadership are not actually Christian? Are their baptisms null and void? Are couples not legally married? Are the hungry fed, naked clothed, lonely visited not actually fed, clothed, and visited? At what point does this absurdity end?
What happens when all the sexual minorities in a Conference declare themselves openly? Do we spend tens of thousands of dollars on useless, meaningless trials that have nothing to do with the efficacy of their ministry, but rather their very personhood? Do we degrade ourselves, weeding out any and all clergy who violate our rules regarding sexual morality? Do we declare that how an individual loves determines their worth to be bearers of the Gospel? Do we deny the reality of the call of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gay and lesbian folk? Our Boards of Ministry now know better than God?
Twenty-eight years ago, my ministry mentor said something that has stuck with me: Celibacy in singleness is a nice ideal. We need to stop thinking and practicing a sexual theology that understands this reality of our incarnated reality to be evil, or the source of sinfulness. Few things are as beautiful as sexual intimacy. Obviously, human beings have debased sex; we have also debased eating through gluttony. We debase ourselves with pride. How is any of this relevant? Does being a sexual human being mean one is incapable of serving the Church as one called out for the service of Word, Sacrament, and Order?
At some point, we need to stop, take a step or two back, and realize how absurd, how ridiculous, how unChristian our ongoing obsession over sex and sexuality is. Were we engaged in heated discussions regarding the abuse of human sexuality in all its various forms, that would be one thing. Sexual violence by clergy is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. We all know that. Rather than have a healthy discussion about that, however, we are actually insisting that the healthy expression of human sexuality in and of itself disqualifies some few among us from serving as called by God. It is, quite literally, an unrealistic set of demands that deny both the beauty of human love in all its forms and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers.
And garments will be rent. Hard words pass back and forth. People will line up against one another. Clergy and laity and congregations will threaten to leave, one way or another. Yet we do not once ask the simple question:
We have wasted so much time and money and energy on the impossible pursuit of enforcing rules that no longer make sense practically, theologically, or ministerially. We have destroyed the lives of hundreds of people whose identity was determined by others rather than themselves; we have declared them to be unworthy of the work of Christian ministry not because of anything they’ve done but because of who they are. We are destroying our denomination because of bigotry and sinfulness. Our obsession with human sexuality has become more important than anything else. It’s absurd. It’s nonsensical.
We all know what’s coming, of course. All of which was avoidable by the simple act of prayer and discernment. All of which was avoidable by a careful examination of the Scriptures, our traditions, our reason, and the experience of the Church in our world today. All of which was avoidable were we grown-ups and put sex in its proper place in the lives of individuals and the Church.
We deserve our death. We have committed suicide, a cowardly, prideful act that denies the goodness of human life (trust me, I’ve been suicidal; I know what I’m talking about). I do so hope all those sexually prurient moralizers are happy with what they’ve wrought.
As much as I’ve been very vocal over a quarter century regarding the necessity for full inclusion – it only acknowledges what is an ongoing reality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and other-sexed persons serving lives of faithful servant leadership across the denomination; everything else is just political jostling – I couldn’t care less what the decision will be. Not because I don’t care about matters of justice, particularly within the bounds of our church; not because I do not care about the integrity of the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church. No, I don’t care because I was confronted with the reality of a faith stronger than the vicissitudes of a history of conquest; stronger than the persecutions of sworn enemies; stronger than time itself and the folly of human forgetfulness. I’ve always “known” that ours is just one moment, a fleeting phase in the life of the Church Universal. It is one thing to read about it, and proclaim it. It is quite another, however, to stand in the presence of a living witness that has withstood the rise and fall of Empires, the defies the logic and rationality of our age as it declares the presence of the physical remains of a Biblical saint.
The Church of St. Lazarus in the port city of Larnaca, Cyprus is a living witness to the power of a living faith in the face of all that time and tide, human sin and folly, pride and violence can direct at it. In 890, a small church built over the tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was replaced by a larger church befitting an Episcopal Seat. Byzantine Emperor Leo, known as The Wise, took all but a few of the bones of Lazarus back to Constantinople in exchange for the new structure. Across centuries during which the Byzantine Empire weakened, Crusaders would come for pilgrimages on their way to the holy land; later Crusaders would sack Constantinople and steal the holy relics, only to lose them once they had brought them back to Marseilles. The ancient city of Kition, fallen into neglect and all but abandoned, couldn’t support the maintenance of the church building, so it fell into disrepair.
After the Ottoman Turks conquered Cyprus, local officials petitioned to have the church restored. It took 22 years – 1589-1611 – but the building was restored to its present state. Through it all, lying forgotten in the stone sarcophagus from which the rest had been stolen, the few remaining bones sat, only to be rediscovered in the late 20th century. They were placed in a reliquary and sit in the main sanctuary of St. Lazarus to this day for veneration by the faithful who still come from all over the world to pay homage to the Biblical saint of whom it is said in legend Sts. Paul and Barnabus, during their first mission journey to the island, laid hands on the raised Lazarus making him the first Bishop of Kition.
A worship space has existed on the above spot for roughly two millennia, with the current building dating to the ninth century, repairs here and there visible enough. Through centuries of the rise and fall of Empires, the folly of the human pursuit of power and the declarations of those who would pass judgment upon the propriety of veneration of Holy Relics and the foolishness of holding on to ancient legends, this holy space is a living witness to the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit who continues to breathe new life to the surrounding city through its ancient stones. Emperors have come and Sultan’s have gone, soldiers from Rome and Venice and Byzantium and Nazi Germany and the British Empire have died, their names long forgotten while the presence of St. Lazarus has endured.
So what if the United Methodist Church splits over the matter of homosexuality? Will the Gospel pass to dust? Will the lives changed by our work together become null and void? Will the self-appointed arbiters of heresy and orthodoxy look any less foolish than they already do? Even if the United Methodist Church, whose life and witness has been bound up with most of my adult life, were to dry up and blow away, would the truth of God’s love cease to exist? We are part of a living tradition that spans continents and oceans and centuries and confessions, that’s survived the tumult of human history only to continue as a living witness in the midst of our current moment. Should the Judicial Council declare that sexual minorities have no place in the life of the Church, does that really mean much of anything, considering the great cloud of gay and lesbian, bisexual and questioning witnesses who have already served faithfully and rest from their labors? Are we really at a crossroads in the life of the church Universal? Rather, are we so caught up in insisting we know who has the right to tell the story we’ve forgotten that the story needs to be told, and only God calls those to tell it, wherever they are?
We are far too self-absorbed to remember how insignificant we really are. We are only vessels, our life poured out in faithful witness to the power of the Gospel over all that continually declare themselves the true power of the moment. The Gospel will be preached. Gay ministers, lesbian clergy couples, trans and questioning people will as they always have serve the Gospel of freedom in whatever capacity they are called by God to fill. And that Gospel and the life it brings will sustain communities far beyond our current historical moment.
I don’t care about the Judicial Council’s decision because, in the end, only the power of God sustains the faith, and that power is not and will not be usurped by any institution or persons, no matter how powerful or correct they may feel themselves to be. The Gospel will out because there are living witness across the globe that testify to its ongoing presence and power over whatever stumbling blocks human beings place in its way.