I know I’ve written before about the so-called Memphis Declaration. It was a document, written by Maxie Dunnam – pastor of a large United Methodist Church and author of numerous well-done Bible Studies (he was kind of the Adam Hamilton of the previous generation) – it was intended to be a statement against changing the United Methodist Discipline to be inclusive of sexual minorities. When I first heard about it, a professor of mine told me he’d been sent a copy and asked to sign it*. He refused, and I had the audacity to ask why. He told me it had numerous classically heretical positions offered as doctrinal statements for continued support for our ongoing exclusion of LGBTQ folks.
I mention this only because it’s important to keep in mind when considering what’s happening right now. Around six hundred people have signed on to petitions charging United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, perhaps the most prominent lay member of the United Methodist Church, with promulgating false doctrine, among other things. “Liberals” and radicals are patting one another on their collective backs for their audacity, applauding their collective righteousness at calling out so prominent an individual within the Church for daring to use Scripture to defend morally indefensible acts.
Whatever else may be going on here, including both the justice of their claim and the probably “rightness” of the proposed action, it is one of the more stupid things going on in a denomination awash in enough dumb to drown an elephant. A few people see it; alas, those voices, including mine, tend to be overwhelmed by the cheers from the public, sacred and secular. So I’m repeating myself in order that no one misunderstands me: Bringing heresy charges against Jeff Sessions, at this particular point in our denomination’s history, is perhaps the stupidest thing we could waste our time, resources, and emotional energies upon. We are months away from what may be a schismatic Special Session of General Conference; even before the Commission on The Way Forward issues its final report, it has either been denounced or welcomed with equal vigor, depending upon which side one takes; we aren’t at all addressing matters of real importance for United Methodists, including changing demographics and generational changes that challenge our growth through this century; we have no idea how the secular and non-UMC sacred worlds will take our church’s Sturm-und-Drang over matters of human sexuality and gender. The last thing we need is to become embroiled in a situation that drags in our current dysfunctional secular political and social realities.
As I told someone yesterday on Facebook, Sessions is, all in all, low-hanging fruit. His statements regarding the relationship between Romans 13 and the Church’s relationship with our worldly rulers are, of course, nonsense. Finding him guilty of promulgating false doctrine should be an open-and-shut case. What we achieve by doing so, however, I’m not quite sure. After all, much the same could have been done to Senator, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In voting for the 2003 AUMF in Iraq; later pushing Pres. Obama to military action in the Libyan Civil War after the murder of Moammar Qadafi; these actions are also contrary to specific church teachings. She very easily could have had charges brought against her. Prosecution, again, would have been easy enough. Again, I have to ask: What would we as a church have accomplished has we taken such action?
Now let’s go back to 1992. Maxie Dunnam’s statement was, as my professor said, filled with classical heresies presented as doctrinal statements. Much the same could have been said over the years about the people writing for Good News magazine as well as the leadership of the Wesley Covenant Association and those who’ve signed its various declarations and statements. Way back when, the thought occurred to me that, along with direct action by clergy during sessions of Annual Conference, prosecuting a few of these people who shouted “doctrinal purity” while being unable to recognize how far outside our Doctrinal Statements and Articles Of Religion might go a long way to shutting them down. Of course, no one ever did such a thing. Not because doing so would have been “wrong”. Rather, the idea of what are, for all intents and purposes heresy trials in the late-20th and early 21st centuries are ridiculous on their faces.
Furthermore, such action would be little more than trying an end run around the realities of church politics and the messiness of coalition building. While it certainly would be a moment of Schadenfreude to make clear just how heretical our defenders of doctrine really are (honest to God, even the Seminary professors among them can’t theologize their way out of a paper bag; it’s actually embarrassing), nothing of substance would have been achieved. The last time a big time heresy charge was brought against a prominent Methodist, in the first decade of the 20th century against Boston University philosophy professor Borden Parker Bowne, it not only failed; it brought an end to the whole idea that political differences could be dealt with by declaring someone outside the bounds of church doctrine (in Bowne’s case, his creation and promulgation of Personalism as a religious philosophy was hardly heretical; it was just new at a time when lots of people thought new things in the church were bad; like most bad theologians, they forgot that God said, “Behold, I do a new thing.”).
I should also add that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of United Methodist Clergy over the past two generations have violated doctrine around issues regarding racial justice and gender equality. We have so much work to do atoning for our sins supporting Jim Crow, the division of the Church into white and black Churches with the creation of the Central Conference after the 1930’s union between the northern and southern ME Churches. While we have ordained women for over 50 years, there are those who not only oppose it; they demand we end it.
Any time anyone advocates a position in direct contradiction of one of our Articles of Religion or Doctrinal Statements, charges can be brought. I daresay prominent lay United Methodists over the years have done as bad if not worse than Attorney General Sessions. Yet not even one person thought it a good idea to bring up Maxie Dunnam on charges. Or the leadership of Good News. Or The Wesley Covenant Association. These last not only include prominent clergy rather than lay people. They involve clergy repeating statements over years and decades that violate our Articles of Religion and Doctrinal Statements. These statements concern real constituencies within the denomination, constituencies with long-unaddressed grievances awaiting recompense and atonement.
This is not to say what Jeff Sessions said was, “OK”. Obviously it was both morally vile and theologically repugnant. It is just to say that a church trial against a lay person for actions taken in the course of discharging his secular rather than sacred duties is a horrible precedent. At a time when “liberals” within the Church feel set upon all sides by forces of division and rancor, trying to alleviate that by a Pyrrhic victory over Sessions is only going to backfire.
After all, sexual and gender minorities, blacks and Latinos, and women within the church can rightfully ask, “Hey! What about when these people used gobbledygook to defend their hatred for us?” And it would be quite correct. We shouldn’t be using church law as therapy. The last thing we should be telling the world is that, hey, at least in this one instance, we actually care about false doctrine, while all these other things . . . well, you know, we were kind of busy doing other stuff to worry about them.
Jeff Sessions is a morally repugnant human being. I would far prefer not to have to deal in any way with a person such as he. Booting him out of the church over questions of heretical statements, however, is kind of 16th century, if you ask me. At a time when we should all be working on healing the divisions, we ignore them to make ourselves feel better about playing “Gotcha” against one man, whose actions had nothing to do with the Church per se. We have far more important things to do with our limited and declining emotional, financial, and political resources.
End this now.
*This gentleman, well known and regarded in the United Methodist Church, was someone socially conservative forces within the denomination long believed was one of their own. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why. Then it occurred to me they weren’t too bright, and that solved a lot of problems. Also, when I mused aloud as to Dunnam’s motives, this gentleman replied, “Maxie wants to be the Czar of the United Methodist Church”. Bad doctrine is very often the cover for even worse political action, at least within a sectarian setting.
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.
This morning’s General Conference day began with beautiful worship, a powerful sermon from Bishop Christian Alsted, and spiritual music leadership from a Danish Gospel choir. With presiding chair Bishop Hope Morgan Ward leading the way, early business moved quickly and decisively. Then came – yes; again – consideration of Rule 44. For the third day in a row, everything ground to a halt. First came a motion to overrule the chair’s decision from the previous day that only a simple majority would be needed to pass the Rule, thus requiring a 2/3 majority in order to implement it. That passed by five votes. Then came points of order, a motion to resubmit Rule 44 to the Rules Committee to be brought forward again in four years. Then more points of order. Declarations that motions were out of order. Demands to be called on by the chair despite the rules of the Conference. People so confused even the Chair wasn’t sure whether people should be speaking for, against, which motion might or might not be on the floor.
Finally, a delegate for Northwest Katanga Conference stood and said, “I’m confused. We’re all confused.” Another point of order asked for prayer, which received applause (even though it was out of order, technically). An exhausted and exasperated Chair called for a short recess.
In the midst of all the speeches, in and out of order, a delegate from Western North Carolina stood and, speaking against the motion to refer Rule 44 back to the Rules Committee, noted that, while Robert’s Rules of Order were intended to bring a measure of order out of chaos, they could also be exploited to sow chaos. He noted that Rule 44, being a different way of discerning among the gathered delegates, offered something other than doing the same thing the same way, which seems only to bring the same results.
The reality is simple: What was supposed to be a simple, direct move either to adopt or not adopt was diverted toward confusion, which is never conducive either to trust or humility. The first is sadly lacking; the second is obviously lacking. It would seem that, as much as people seem to love to worship together, to hear prophetic calls to act as the Church, and to sing our faith as good United Methodists should, we aren’t willing to trust, we aren’t willing to surrender our agendas and preferences and demands to speak and desire to toss proceedings off the rails. This is what we’ve always done. Thus the result that we’re getting what we’ve always received.
I wonder if there’s anyone in that crowd of over 800 delegates, various Bishops, special guests, volunteers, and observers who might yet help make the General Conference see what it looks like to those outside. Just one small voice to remind us all we stand in judgment before a world we are trying to serve.
This first full day (General Conference actually opened yesterday afternoon) of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference was greeted with a powerful call from Bishop Gregory Palmer not to surrender to our worst selves, but to be about the business of the church as stated in our Mission Statement. He reminded all those present and watching that we already have all we need: the promise of Christ’s presence as we go forth making disciples for the transformation of the world. He called out those who would dehumanize and banish from communion those with whom they disagree; he noted our current animosities are tearing the soul from the Church. His wasn’t a plea; his Word was a demand that we be the People Called Methodist for the 21st century.
After the Episcopal Address, most things would pale in comparison. When the morning plenary was called to order, after some other preliminary business was attended to, the Rules Committee once again brought forward Rule 44, a different discernment process in the midst of difficult and important matters, forcing people to face one another and speak honestly about the matters before the body. Only after a sense of the House has been determined would Roberts Rules be reinstated and proper consideration continue. This offers an opportunity for far more people to have their voices heard and considered than is allowed under standard Robert’s Rules.
After some back and forth over this, that, and the other thing, a motion to table Rule 44 was offered and passed by 8 votes. All the hullabaloo was over; despite the fact that, technically, a tabled motion could be brought forward, for all practical purposes tabling Rule 44 was done.
Then a gentleman from Europe stood and spoke for many who are not North Americans: They misunderstood what “to table” meant. In Europe, “to table” means “to discuss” rather than to remove from consideration until it might be brought forward again. He therefore asked for a reconsideration of the previous vote.
Now, Rule 44 is not the be-all and end-all of hope for something new to happen at General Conference. It is a procedural change that transfers power from a select few speakers and those who understand the intricacies of parliamentary procedure to any and all voices. It gathers people of diverse languages, cultures, local traditions, theological outlooks and makes them sit around a table and talk, face to face, openly and candidly. Some critics insist defenders of Rule 44 claim it is part of “holy conferencing” as John Wesley understood it. Except last evening’s presiding Bishop, Warner Brown, made clear Rule 44 is not and never has been considered “Holy Conferencing”. It is what it is, an opportunity for more voices to be heard, to move power to the whole body, to all voices, forced to face those with whom they might disagree and consider important matters before the whole body not as abstract pieces of legislation but as actions that will impact people around the world.
The chair ruled that, indeed, it was in order to vote to return consideration of Rule 44 was proper and in order. It passed by thirty votes.
This doesn’t mean Rule 44 is now in play. After being brought back for consideration, several amendments were offered that need to be addressed by the Rules Committee, and tomorrow morning the process begins again. There will be the opportunity to further amend – and therefore further delay – Rule 44. There will be a challenge to the chair’s ruling that Rule 44 needs to pass by a simple majority vote rather than a 2/3 majority; there will be a challenge to the chair’s actions recalling the Rule for consideration. And should it pass, Rule 44 can only be implemented with a majority vote of the whole body prior to its actual use. And Rule 44 hardly changes the world and universe and church as we know it.
What it does, however, is offer hope. By offering those who have not had a voice in previous years the opportunity to be heard by others; by offering the whole Body a sense of direction in which the body might yet move; by being different and new it offers a change from the way we have always done things; for these reasons alone, Rule 44 offers a chance not so much of change of outcome as change of process, the chance, perhaps, to face those with whom we disagree and see them, in the words of Bishop Palmer, as children of God. For this reason alone, taking Rule 44 off the table and offering it yet another chance for consideration might yet be that most difficult and invisible thing – a resurrection, a resurrection that brings hope, a resurrection that offers new life. That is, after all, what we preach, isn’t it? That Jesus rose from the dead, the first fruits of the New Creation, promising to take us with him?
Resurrection is the most implausible, impossible thing. Yet, just as will happen to us one day, Rule 44 was brought back to life, different indeed than it had been (but that, too, is part of our faith; it is part of St. Paul’s discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15), yet still bearing the marks of its prior life. Let us take this opportunity we have been given and embrace this moment of resurrection hope that we may yet do things differently than we have before in order that we may yet be more faithful than we have been before.
There are many voices within The United Methodist Church who want us to break up with them. From bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministries, and other leaders, we are told to simply leave. Is leaving home ever that simple? We are United Methodists because there is no other denomination with our unique connectional polity and distinctive Wesleyan spirituality. We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised.
We are coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex persons at this moment for several reasons. Foremost, we want you to know we still love you and seek to remain in relationship with you. Even if we should leave and you seek more restrictive language against LGBTQI persons, know that God will continue to move mysteriously in the hearts of LGBTQI young people and adults and will call them to serve within this denomination. You cannot legislate against God’s call. The “LGBTQI issue” is not one that can be resolved through restrictive legislation but instead by seeing that all persons are made in the image of God and welcomed into the community of faith. – Reconciling Ministries Network, “A Love Letter To Our Church From Your LGBTQI Religious Leaders”, May 9, 2016
It’s happening. What I have been advocating for 25 years is finally coming to pass. Over a hundred United Methodist leaders have signed an open letter to our denomination as it gathers for General Conference, making plain for all to see and hear they are both LGBTQI and not going anywhere. This mass self-outing challenges the stated preferences of at least some United Methodist leaders to hold trials for each and every person who violates church law regarding the ordination of sexual minorities or those who officiate at same-sex weddings. On the one hand we have the principle that those who violate church law in this regard be put to a church trial (even though the Book of Discipline doesn’t restrict administrative responses to legal action) and the reality that there are now, always have been, and always will be sexual minorities serving church, as District Superintendents, Bishops, youth leaders, seminary professors, and candidates for ordination. Even should those seeking not only to uphold our current language regarding the legal status of sexual minorities and those who officiate at same sex weddings get their way, that not only doesn’t guarantee a successful prosecution; it also doesn’t change the reality that people whose sexuality is different will continue to be called to serve in the United Methodist Church. Restricting the language even further only changes the perception of who holds power within the Church.
I’m sure there are some people gathering in Portland who feel blindsided by this open letter. Even if they support changing the Discipline, this letter would seem to force a quick and decisive decision upon what was intended to be a consciously deliberative process allowing all voices the chance to speak and be heard. This letter is a direct challenge not only to the current Discipline but a challenge to the 800 delegates in Portland to act rather than prayerfully dialogue and conference together on such a sensitive matter. Truth is, I have some sympathy with this point-of-view.
I think, however, that the delegates in Portland might be able to see this as just another part of the deliberative process, another piece of the puzzle they’re trying to put together that is the future of our denomination. Just as there are those, I am sure, who would prefer not to hear the story of Ben Wood, or would prefer we not use our Doctrinal Standards or our Articles of Religion as a guide through the thickets of deliberation, I’m sure that this open letter, precisely because of its audacity, is something delegates would prefer not to consider. It is every bit as relevant, however, as all the other parts of the matter, from Biblical interpretation through practical considerations. All of it must be in the mix, not least the potential future of our brothers and sisters who have dared risk so much so that others might benefit from their audacity.
We stand on the brink. All of us, not just the 800 in Portland, have the gravest of responsibilities: facing the future of our Church together, regardless of how we believe that future should look. I think it is important to recognize and name the courage, the challenge, the promise, the hope, this letter represents. Nothing is as fearless as Christian hope. We should honor that in our thoughts and prayers, our dialogue and arguments, in all that we do to see that the People Called Methodist continue to serve the world in our unique, evangelical, liberating way. Our moment of reckoning is upon us. Let us be the Church circumstances call us to be.
Simple Definition of sacrifice
: the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone
: an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god
a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice
Methodist seminaries train their pastors in critical methodologies for studying the Scripture. Those methodologies teach that the Bible’s inspiration is not undermined by acknowledging the biblical authors’ historical context, the ways in which the biblical text developed, and the process of its canonization. But it does teach us that the Bible is far more complex than the common dictum, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” allows. – Adam Hamilton, “The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC – Part One”, Ministry Matters, April 27, 2016
Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage . . . .
My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points – Ben Witherington III, “A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality”, Patheos, April 28, 2016
[T]he most we can say about Jesus’ position on queer identity is that we simply do not know. To say otherwise is exegetical malpractice, which results in bad ethics by promoting discrimination that isn’t explicitly sanctioned by Jesus. – Morgan Guyton, “Making Jesus Answer Questions He Wasn’t Asked”, United Methodist Insight, May 2, 2016
I’ve said it often the past few years: We have rehashed and rehearsed the same arguments concerning same-gender love so much seeing them, yet again, isn’t so much insightful as it is tiresome. The latest iteration of these arguments began between Rev. Adam Hamilton and Dr. Ben Witherington, with Rev. Morgan Guyton taking Witherington to task for yet another of the same argument. It makes me want to clap may hands over my ears and shout, “Enough!”
Ours is a faith that has at its heart sacrifice. The LORD called Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir – the heir, also, of the promise the LORD made to Abraham to make of his children a great nation. The Law of Moses has sacrifice-as-reconciliation at the heart of its priestly code. When challenging the priests of Baal, Elijah specifically used a sacrificial ritual to discredit both Baal and his priests. When challenging politically and morally corrupt governance in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophets would often declare the sacrifices – the heart of the national cultic practice for repentance, ritual cleanliness and reconciliation – were meaningless because of the lack of justice and pervasiveness of oppression in the nation.
Part of the way we understand Jesus death on the cross is as sacrificial death – what’s often called subsitutionary atonement. While we may have forsaken animal sacrifice, we Christians still call for “sacrifice” for the good of the ministry of the whole Church. Single people are called to a life of chastity (not celibacy; celibacy means they won’t ever get married, thus unmarried people are celibate by definition). We are called to sacrifice a tenth of our earnings to the Church’s work in the world. We are called to sacrifice the good opinion of our peers and the powers that be in order to stand firm in the faith. We are called to sacrifice our preferences and surrender to the Will of God, an odd situation for St. Paul to call “freedom”.
We are to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, if called upon to do so.
As General Conference approaches – yes, this is yet another General Conference post – perhaps we should remember this call to sacrifice. We should be willing to give up the urge, yet again, to say the same things to one another. These ways of dialogue and argument have achieved nothing. I don’t think, really, they’re at fault for the poisoned atmosphere between and among some over the matter of sexuality and sexual difference, precisely because they’ve become meaningless. Like reciting anything by rote, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer of the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning slips away when we mouth words without thinking they might actually be the most important words we may ever say.
When we gather as a denomination in Portland this coming week, perhaps we should give up the urge to start yelling at one another about Biblical interpretation, tossing verses at one another, saying that “liberal” Protestants are “the only ones” who seem to be OK with gay marriage and ordaining sexual minorities (part of Ben Witherington’s argument in the linked piece above; as if, somehow, that means anything at all, that different people in different places and living out different histories would understand the Bible differently). Perhaps, just perhaps, we should sacrifice our own desire to be right, to have not only the best argument but the best way of arguing, to show the gathered delegates just how smart and educated we are. Maybe it might be a good idea to start talking to one another in different ways, better ways, meaningful ways. Ways that build up the Body of Christ instead of seeking to silence, intimidate, and (best of all) defeat those with whom we disagree.
I know I’m quite tired of listening to people who say one way or another of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible to one’s life is either the best way, or perhaps the only way. To be honest, as soon as someone starts down this road, I’m quite convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about. There are as many varieties of Biblical interpretation, as many lenses of Biblical hermeneutics, as there are denominations, individuals, and congregations. Looking back over the complicated and varied history of the Church, it would be absurd to insist that the Church, at any historical moment, had a predominant hermeneutic. It might certainly at this or that time have offered an official statement regarding Biblical interpretation; in practice – and it is always in practice that these words have any meaning – the Church has always been “the churches” when it came to figuring out how to make those words in the text mean anything for our lives here and now.
So for the love of God please stop arguing about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, what Jesus did or didn’t say, about anything. My New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Sharon Ringe, said that starting down this road will always land you in trouble because, maybe just maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. It might be a good idea to give up our desire to be correct, to be right, to defeat and embrace our ability to be wrong, to be unsure, and to accept difference as just that rather than some ultimate divide that shall always separate “us” and “them”.
When I go to cross that river, She is comfort by my side
When I try to understand, She just opens up Her hands – Indio, “Hard Sun”, lyrics by Gordon Peterson
Yesterday, I wrote of my renewed hopes for the United Methodist Church going in to our General Conference in Portland, OR. The main point of the post was my hope that we may yet have a real, honest discussion of those words in our Book of Discipline, about “homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Today’s post offers a glimpse of part of what I hope and wish our delegates discuss and pray: That our words matter; the claim that our ethical stance regarding same-sex attraction or sexual otherness is rooted deep in our doctrinal affirmations do real, deadly harm.
I first wrote of William Benjamin “Ben” Wood’s suicide a year and a half ago. I think it’s more than fitting that this coming Sunday is the third anniversary of his death, seeing as it’s the eve of General Conference where the matter of those words in our Discipline will be front and center. Yesterday, his mother Julie Hilliard Wood, wrote a piece for the Reconciling Ministries Network. First, she recounts how our United Methodist Church failed her family, Ben in particular:
My son, had been teased and bullied periodically throughout his childhood. We changed schools from public to private, back to public, to private and back to public again. Through all of this, Ben was wounded but remained kind and grounded. He found pure joy and solid friendships in our United Methodist Church youth group. He was funny and his confidence grew with beautiful shared joy. Unfortunately, with a shift in the youth leadership, there was a change in the message. Ben was singled out by the leader while in a circle of his friends. In other words, the intimidation, the misuse of power, and the bullying began again. This time it was inflicted by an adult in authority representing the United Methodist Church. The unsaid message was eventually spoken in full ambush fashion. Ben was outed as gay (based only on suspicion but Ben did not deny), and was given the message that he did not belong. He was not worthy to be a part of the group and was no representation of Christ. It was announced that he was going to hell. His spirit was irreparably damaged for the remainder of his life. Each of us felt so many raw and difficult emotions. We, as his family, could not say enough, pray enough, love enough to undo the damage. Ben, his father, I and many others were changed forever because of that cruel and betraying message. This type of betrayal by the church which we had trusted, invested in, and loved, produced trauma to every cell of our body and being. This I know; our faith community seemed to have been paralyzed in addressing the abuse. I hold the Church responsible for not taking steps to safeguard our children and all who walk through the doors.
After telling a story of her experience at a meeting of the Western North Carolina Conference that further hurt and discouraged her, then how she was able to move not past but through that hurt, she writes:
Our Church as an institution is in a very odd and strange place. Some would prefer the noise to stop. Others, the harmed and the allies, are crying out for a simple application of the Golden Rule and for justice. The plea is an urgent one because we know that while LGBTQ persons are deemed “incompatible/unworthy,” the suffering continues. People are harmed and sometime lives are tragically ended. It feels strange to be a part of such fiery disagreements. It is uncomfortable and awkward. We even feel off balance.
Thank you God as you never give up on us. You help us grow and teach us as you reveal truths by expanding our view. We take in more and more of You. Insights change as words are changed to ensure that the sacred worth of each individual is tenderly held dear and understood as holy.
It is important to hear these words, the bitter words calling out betrayal and injury leading to death. It is also important to hear these words of hope, a call to faithful living. Bridging them is the faith that there can be no division within the Church that is not a division within Christ himself. If we take seriously our identity as a connectional church, that we are linked not only by institutions and laws but by the very Spirit that is the Spirit of Love between the Son and the Father, then we should also hear the confession I wrote back in 2014:
I am as responsible for the hatred and rejection this young man faced as are any who are a part of the United Methodist Church. I have not worked hard enough, I have not pushed hard enough, I have not yelled loudly enough to change who we are. For my failures, and those of the rest of us who have not been able to erase the hateful language from our Book of Discipline and prevent people like this young man’s youth leader from taking a position of authority in our churches, a young man who loved the church, who served others, who was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ transforming the world; that young man is dead. What’s even worse is I am sure there are more out there of whom we shall never hear or know, young men and women whose lives have been destroyed by the hatred and bigotry that we wear in our Book of Discipline, and express far too much in our ministries, and the people who carry out those ministries.
For the sake of William Benjamin Wood, and all the other gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and others who struggle with their sexuality and do not find sanctuary in our sanctuaries; who do not hear the Good News of God’s love for them, but rejection and condemnation for how they love; whose lives are counted as less and whose love is condemned as a sin and an abomination; for all of them, let us work to get rid, once and for all, of any statement that our church sees people who love differently than we do . Let us pledge, in memory of Ben Wood and all those whose lives have been impacted by what we do and what we say as a people, to perform acts of contrition, to ask forgiveness of those who we’ve hurt; forgiveness from the families whose members are lost in one way or another because the United Methodist Church turned its back on them.
Should anyone think I raise the tale of Ben Wood as some kind of bloody shirt to wave in the faces of some “other” or “them” distinct from myself and “us”, I believe Ben Wood’s story needs to be retold so that, as we move forward in our deliberations, we remember that all of us and each of us as United Methodists share responsibility for this young man’s depression and suicide. Not blame, because blame is for children. Taking responsibility for the harm we have caused, however, seeking both forgiveness and repentance, these are marks of a mature faith. Ben Wood’s story, and the ongoing story of his mother, these are reminders both of the failures of our Church as well as the hope and faith that lie at the heart of the Gospel. Death does not have the final word. It cannot, or else Christ rose for nothing.
All of us and each of us, whether delegates to General Conference, concerned United Methodists, or just your average Jane and Joe in the pews, whatever happens regarding our Discipline language should take a moment and pray for forgiveness for what we have done. You know, there used to be a commenter who would belittle my repeated claims that our Christian faith is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. The fact is that it is. We cannot sit in the luxury of distance or self-righteousness or callousness or a cowardly refusal to see what is before us. We must face this reality and act faithfully.