The reality is, our connexional system was not made to take these strains because it is not built on individualism nor on the diversity of theology, much less mission, many of today’s United Methodists share. Another stark reality is this: there is a better chance that General Conference will do nothing, forcing people of conscience to leave The United Methodist Church, hurting our overall mission. A constitutional amendment, requiring a super majority, will not pass and any votes requiring a simple majority are either meaningless or impossible to predict and often distressing to the losers because of how close the vote was. Regardless, putting the future of The United Methodist Church to the vote — putting the histories, the hearts, and the loyalty of so many to vote – will continue to harm us, corporately and individually. Indeed, why do we vote on justice or righteousness? As such, we have to look at another way, a way of preserving the best of The United Methodist Church while allowing conscience. – Joel Watts, “No Vote, No Schism”, Unsettled Christianity, Jan. 26, 2015
We have, yet again, another proposal before us as United Methodists that seeks to avoid the one thing we most need to do: Confront our generations-long official policy of exclusion and practice of injustice toward sexual minorities. My good friend Joel Watts offers his proposal, detailed at the link above, that does everything except the one thing we as a corporate entity most need to do – confront the demons at the heart of our current malaise, name them, and exorcise them. By seeking to bypass our traditions of gathering in Holy Conferencing, trusting that even in the ugliness, rancor, and mutual distrust that always exist in politics of any kind that the Holy Spirit will move across the face of those chaotic waters and bring forth order and creation, Watts offers nothing more than a band aid. Worse, since the infection is deep and has metastasized, such a band aid will only make a few feel better as the rest of us continue to see the effects of the spreading sickness.
I will repeat it for emphasis. No one likes politics, except perhaps those who are powerful enough to work their will through the process. What is worse, church politics seems to violate our sense of what it means to be “church”, because it is little different in the passions it arouses, the enmities it creates, and the long-run bitterness that occurs, regardless of outcome. We would far prefer administrative processes, or at worst that should controversial matters be unavoidable that their outcome be predetermined in order to prevent the hostility and messiness of politics.
Alas, the latter has been the case with the Discipline language regarding sexual minorities, in particular at the last General Conference, and all it did was create the very bitterness, anger, and stubborn refusal to prevent the matter from disappearing with which we continue to live. As much as it might be nice to create systems outside – or perhaps even within – our current polity and practices that would avoid politics, the fact of the matter is we cannot avoid it. We cannot go around it. We cannot avoid looking our adversaries in the eye and speak the truth they already know: They’re continuing support for dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline, as well as the discriminatory practices that follow from that language demeans us as a body calling itself Christian; is antithetical to the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church, and violates the Great Commandments, in which the whole of the Law and the Prophets is summarized. That this is hard, to tell people – some of whom we might know, perhaps respect, maybe even love – that they are hurting not only our churches, but perpetuating an evil within our polity that is killing us. It is hard, but it is also unavoidable. All the other solutions save the not-yet-released conclusions of the Connectional Table seek to avoid this because it’s difficult, it will be painful, and it will create bitterness and anger for years to come.
Yet, we already live with bitterness and anger, mutual distrust and accusations of unfaithfulness, heresy, apostasy, and violations of everything from Biblical mandates to the Discipline. This isn’t going to stop if we adopt some magic formula that violates the one thing that keeps us in the Wesleyan tradition: Holy Conferencing. We will not be “church” if we refuse to face our collective sin, our rejection of an entire group of people, and the ways this rejection have hurt them and us, driving people away from what could be a fruitful encounter with the Living Crucified Christ while diminishing the pool of talents, gifts, and grace that could feed the stream of United Methodist ministry and mission for another generation.
As much as I admire Joel; as much as he has put thought and effort in to a solution that keeps to the Discipline, as much as it might seem a quick fix to a long-running problem, the truth is we have to confront this head on. We have to confront one another head on. We have to have this discussion, no matter how difficult it is. We have to be willing to speak our faith on this matter, because that faith is more important than the feelings of our interlocutors, or our own feelings of discomfort. It could very well lead to some leaving the denomination, although I still content that won’t happen in the numbers threatened, simply because that threat has been used for decades to prevent us from dealing with the matter of the sexual minorities in our midst, and I don’t see a whole lot of movement. No, we can’t avoid politics, however much we would prefer to do so. There is no way around, so we must go through and have faith that in the middle of our arguments and mutual denunciations God is present, moving us forward to be the church we are supposed to be. It isn’t a magic bullet, but there aren’t any.
Responsible thinkers throw caution to the wind
But I find myself speaking from within
I can’t live my life walking on eggshells
To stay on your good side
Using your words, controlling my life
Can’t you see it’s my words that gives you your life
So I hurt your feeling’s well, I’m really sorry
But I don’t give a shit, no – Dream Theater, “Burning My Soul”, lyrics by Michael Portnoy
When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. – Matthew 21:23-27
Looking around at various individuals, groups, caucuses, pastors, lay people, organizations, and others within the United Methodist Church, I am bewildered by what I read. Not because there’s so much of it; nor because there seems to be no consensus on matters of process, let alone goal; nor because the entire conversation is dominated by those who seek to control the content of the discussion in order to steer it toward their own, preferred, conclusion (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m bewildered, instead, because no one seems to have noticed how glorious, how open and wide ranging, how many topics are suddenly of grave importance, from doctrine through Biblical interpretation through our collective history to our current pastoral practice and its legal basis are all part of the mix. I’m wonderfully, happily bewildered because no one is celebrating the one thing in all this that is so obvious no one seems to have noticed: We United Methodists are showing the rest of the world just how diverse we are. For any group, caucus, petitioner, outside yet interested party, pastor, theologian, Bishop, institution, or organization to claim even a heavy plurality of support in the midst of the din would be ridiculous.
Such, for example, is the case with the folks from UMAction at the Institute For Religion and Democracy. A member of UMAction published an op-ed in the United Methodist Reporter that is standard (for them) boiler plate nonsense about doctrine and history, their version of which bears no resemblance to anything in the real world. But that’s OK. The real meat of the piece comes in one sentence:
I invite all those interested in the unity of our church to join UMAction in:
- Explicitly recognizing that any truly Christian church unity will ultimately insist on some firm communal boundaries;
- Insisting on meaningful consequences for clergy and other UMC leaders who willfully and recklessly attack our unity by openly opposing our Doctrinal Standards and/or disregarding our biblical, covenantal standards related to sexual self-control; and
- Opposing current efforts of progressive United Methodists to use the name and resources of the whole church to support very partisan, debatable political agendas issues on which faithful Christians can and do disagree, as this fails to honor our unity and diversity and suggests that only people of certain political persuasions are welcome in our churches. (Bold in original, but that’s the sentence I wanted folks to notice)
Isn’t that threat smoother than a baby’s butt? Forget the bullet points, which are meaningless word salad – firm communal boundaries? Really? In the Body of Christ? The only thing that matters in the whole long editorial is that single sentence, containing the threat of schism should “those interested in the unity of our church” not work toward UMAction’s goals. There is not a bit of effort to bless and praise our diversity; indeed, it is anathematized, particularly in that last bullet point, in which disagreement is recognized yet condemned at a “threat” to “unity”, as if our “unity” weren’t rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Then there are those for whom the messiness of church democracy is something to be scorned, even while claiming for one’s own some alleged middle-ground over and against two undefined yet similar extremes.
Some actions should simply be out of bounds, not just by all people of good will, but in particular by Christians ostensibly dedicated to a particular way of life called church. As I’ve said before, one of those tactics is threatening schism, which is that much worse when it is claimed to be backed anonymous minions. Another is straight from the Howard Stern school of political engagement: the shock tactic. In conservative Christian circles, one version of this is to show pictures of aborted babies as a way of convincing anyone in view of the horrors of the practice. While I believe Christians should be concerned with the rights of the unborn, most people of faith agree that using dead babies to win political points in such a fashion is not becoming of ecclesial discourse.
But progressive Christians sometimes sink to the same level. A video was recently made, occasioned by the Connectional Table’s request for input, that drew a straight line between a horrific, shaming event involving a youth pastor and the suicide of a young United Methodist college student. Many pro-LGBT supporters shared and commented on this video, with little critical inquiry given as to whether or not the story of the young man’s suicide might be more complex than one (admittedly awful) incident. Like pictures of aborted children, it is simply intended to shock into silence and consent.
Isn’t it terrible? A family communicating to the rest of the church how a leader in a local United Methodist congregation contributed to the suicide of their gay son? We have no need to hear about things like that! We have no need to hear schism talk!
We have serious matters before us. We should spend the lead-in to General Conference 2016 in prayer, fasting, and holy conferencing. Shock tactics and the politics of total surrender have no place in the Body of Christ, and all of us, no matter what side we are on, should demand better of one another. Our leaders, in particular, have duty to order the life of the church so that fear and intimidation do not replace prayer and discernment. In the words of Bishop Ken Carter, this is a call to do the work of Christ in the way of Christ; the aggressive politics of Congressional filibuster and campus protest has no place among those whose life is defined by the cross and resurrection.
The barbarians are at the gate, friends. They are left and right, Reconciling and Confessing (to name just two). We will either build walls and set some healthy boundaries agains those who wish to tear us apart, or we will be overrun by malignant forces among us who demand total surrender. The choice is ours.
Yes, serious matter indeed, which certainly do not include such unserious things as allowing the diverse voices of the United Methodist Church be heard. We should be praying, you know. And fasting. We shouldn’t be doing any actual arguing or disagreeing or celebrating our enormous wealth of talent and vision across the denomination.
Finally, there are those whose positions I just can’t quite understand:
First, I’m not sure most local churches or our denomination as a whole can state what it is that we are setting out to accomplish. We have things we say, but I’m not convinced we say it with the kind of clarity we need to actually judge our own accomplishments.
John Wesley said some vague things, too. You could argue “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” is not terribly specific. But he did flesh this out with quite a bit of detail in theory and in practice. Among his more specific statements was the word to his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.
What are we trying to accomplish?
Really? How long has the United Methodist Church been doing this dance, talking about Scripture, talking about tradition, talking about doctrine, talking about being in pastoral ministry to sexual minorities and including them fully in the life of the church? Is it really possible a United Methodist clergyperson could write that last sentence? It might well be time to take a deep breath and figure out why you’re writing such a thing.
Me, I’m happy to be a part of this great and multifarious chorus of voices, from the extremes through the muddled middle to the merely confused. I would love to see this reflected more in our more official discussions. Saturday, the Connectional Table held an event in which several Bishops and the head of the UM Publishing House sat on a panel and discussed a book. They took questions from Twitter, through a monitor, while barring the door both to the press and to outside groups demanding their voices be heard. I’m quite sure it was polite, except perhaps for that horrible video that upset Drew so much. I went to Facebook and spoke my desire to have the Connectional Table host an event in which lay persons, local clergy, mixed with theologians, a bishop or two, and maybe an agency head all sat on a panel, were given an opportunity for a brief (no more than two minute) statement, then the whole thing is opened up – to the floor, including the press (secular and denominational); to social media without a monitor; allowing protest groups to speak their minds. Let the Connectional Table see and hear what the real discussion is really like. Let the whole church see and hear the faces and voices from across the spectrum, from the polite through the formal to the outlandish. We are always talking about diversity. How about we live it through a Connectional Table-sponsored event?
No matter what, I shall continue on as I have, trying to get my tiny voice out there amid the din. Personally, I’m happy there are theologians and seminary Presidents and Bishops who are speaking out. I’m glad there are those who would prefer we stick close to certain issues in order to remain focused. On the other hand, I’m also happy there is a cacophony of choirs, from the dignified to the indignant, demanding their voices, too, be a part of the discussion. This can only help us as a people called Methodist. So, if I offend some folks, well, that’s part of the process, isn’t it? And if I refuse to answer a question, well, there may well be a good reason not for doing so. There’s room for all of us, and what sounds like Babel to us may well be a mighty chorus of the faithful to our God.
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.
Tuesday morning, the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church hosted and streamed a panel discussion on sexual minorities in the denomination. It was a good discussion, honest, fruitful, at times prophetic, and a sign of a willingness on the part of the leadership to open these meetings to the whole Body of the church.
One of the panelists was Prof. Mark Teasdale, professor of Evangelism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Prof. Teasdale began his talk with a story from his first appointment as pastor of a church in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. A couple things he related in that story were more than a little troubling for me. His subsequent remarks, moreover, demonstrated – to me, at any rate – that he might not have reflected as deeply on the experience he was relating as he could have. There was one major point in his presentation that I found even more troubling, considering he is a student and scholar of church history.
First, to his story. He related that on his first Sunday in his first church, a member said to him, “Remember: We’re Fundamentalists.” As a student of United Methodist Church history, doctrine, and polity, as all clergy are required to be, he made no further comment on this particular statement, not least an outline of how he spent some time and energy during his appointment helping the congregation understand that they cannot be a United Methodist congregation and “Fundamentalist”. They can be traditionalist, to be sure; they can be theologically, communally, and politically conservative in the several senses of that word*. Fundamentalism, as a movement, is foreign to the Wesleyan tradition, if understood and upheld with honesty and integrity.
Teasdale then went on to describe the arrival of a gay couple to his congregation. He described how they were welcomed, became engaged and committed active members. He related a talk with them, about the pain they had felt in trying to find a congregation that would accept them for who they were, and how happy they were at the church they were then attending.
I’m guessing the implicit lesson he was trying to get across to listeners was that even a self-avowed “fundamentalist” congregation could be open and welcoming to a same-sex couple; and that, in turn, a same-sex couple could find such a congregation a welcoming community with whom to worship. Except, I wonder just how open and out to how many in the congregation this couple were. While many may have wondered or guessed about the couple’s orientation, experience has taught me that there are many who can remain clueless to the sexual orientation of others, even if it is plain to many others. Finally, I think this anecdote, while a wonderful tale of the ability of a congregation to welcome all, was beside the point of the larger topic at hand: how do we as a denomination live with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in such a way as to honor their full humanity and dignity as children of God? That one self-avowed “fundamentalist” congregation could be open and welcoming to a gay couple does not mean that we as a denomination can uphold the full dignity and worth of all persons, including their call to ministry and presiding over and blessing their marriages. Teasdale’s story was little more than that oft-heard statement, “See? Even conservatives can be nice!”
Later in his talk, he mentioned that while John Wesley never touched on the subject of same-sex love – and why should he have? It wasn’t even a concept in the 18th century, at least in the way it is in the early 21st century – Teasdale insisted that Wesley would have supported the status quo of the denomination, limiting the participation of sexual minorities in the life of the church and refusing permission for clergy to officiate at legal weddings between members of the same gender. How such a statement is possible, coming from a church historian, is beyond me. It is impossible to know or even guess what a dead person might have said about a topic about which they neither wrote nor spoke. It may very well be true that Wesley, an 18th century Christian, would have been appalled at the thought that two men or two women would even consider loving one another as a man and a woman love one another; he might well have balked at the thought they would want the church to bless their union in the name of God. This may be true. That doesn’t mean it is true. Were Wesley “alive” today, he would not be the Wesley we know from history, and his attitude on all sorts of matters, not least of them how the church relates to and includes sexual minorities in the life of the Body, would be very different from what we have on the record. Precisely because we are dealing with a figure who was time-bound, our contemporary discussion is carried out in ways that were not even thinkable at the time Wesley lived. Any assumption about what Wesley might or might not say on such a topic is meaningless. It’s a bit like wondering what Wesley’s attitude toward electric guitars in church would be; how can we possibly know the answer to that particular question?
I was left troubled by Teasdale’s talk, for several reasons. Without for a moment doubting the seriousness or depth of his faith and commitment to the church, I nevertheless was left feeling he had not reflected on his experiences as a pastor. I felt he had not taken the time to make clear that, while tradition is important, it cannot bind us, especially if doing so creates conditions that dehumanize and limit the full participation in the life of the church of some class of human beings. Finally, I felt that invoking Wesley as he did was meaningless. We should, rather, focus on the words as they currently exist in the Book of Discipline, and whether or not they fit within the larger concerns of Wesley and his ministry, described by Bishop Reuben Job’s little book, Three Simple Rules, particularly the first: Do no harm.
*I count myself as theologically conservative. I adhere to the Trinitarian reality of the Godhead; the fully human, fully Divine two natures of Jesus Christ; the bodily resurrection from the dead of Jesus on Easter; and I look forward to the final consummation of Creation in the eschatological coming of the Kingdom of God and the dawn of the New Creation without sin, as all creation praises God.