Monday, April 23, 2012
Thoughts on the Journey to General Conference
As I fly to Tampa for General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I go praying and hoping that at this General Conference the church will remove a line in The Book of Discipline that has caused 40 years of pain and debate: “We consider homosexual practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In 1972, when this line was added from the plenary floor to a paragraph that was neither condoning nor condemning of homosexuality, there was no discussion on what constitutes “practice” nor what “Christian teaching” this was based on. But with its inclusion, the UMC moved from a pastoral response to one of judgment. It is on this one sentence that the UMC has become increasingly anti-glbt in its own practices and ministries. Gay and lesbian persons who have been baptized and raised in the church are not acceptable as ministry candidates or ordained pastors, regardless of whether they are called by God to serve in the UMC or possess the gifts and graces for ministry. Gay and lesbian members are welcomed to join a church, but are sent to the back of the bus (or to the back pew) when it comes to receiving the full rites of the church: Gay or lesbian couples may not have their relationships blessed within the church or by their pastor. Funding restrictions at the General and Annual Conference levels limit the ability for faithful UMs to even discuss this issue fully and prayerfully, as there is a ban on the use of funds for programs that “promote” homosexuality.
So help me out, Church. Particularly those of you who want the UMC to retain these prohibitions because “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.” On what basis do you rest your convictions?
I’ve heard many people say that this is what the scriptures tell us. Really? Out of all the verses in the Bible, from the handful of times that homosexuality may be mentioned, you are going to make a whole group of people second-class citizens in the body of Christ? Do you hold as strong convictions on other parts of scripture: the Bible is very clear about what we should do with menstruating women and divorce. Where are our restrictions around these issues? The Bible advocates the stoning of children who swear at their parents and an economics that borders on socialism (check out Jesus, and the early church in Acts)—are we going to advocate for these? There are also prohibitions about eating shellfish, but I don’t see any petitions calling for a boycott of Red Lobster.
So my hunch is that the Bible really isn’t at the heart of this conversation. After all, the church has managed to move from an acceptance of slavery to seeing it as an abomination, and while scriptures say that women ought to be silent, woman preachers are now acceptable (although I know some of you still think this was a mistake). Why can’t our understanding of those few verses also be evolving, being reformed by the Holy Spirit as other verses have?
You often say this will break with church tradition. The church has broken with its own traditions over and over again as it seeks to be faithful to God in the challenges and opportunities of a new age. The Reformation and the ordination of women are but two examples of the church “changing its mind”. We do not require celibacy for our pastors, yet this is a break from Christian tradition. Tradition is always evolving as it encounters the realities of a new age. We all have seen Christian traditions reshaped over the generations, so this isn’t a strong argument, either.
You also say that accepting gay men and lesbians will make us out of step with mainstream Christianity. In the US, we are the ones out of step! As our Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Church of Christ brethren have discovered, God is still speaking and informing us on this issue. They have confessed their sin of exclusion and have reformed Christian teaching and tradition as they accept gay men and lesbians fully as members of the body of Christ. The United Methodist Church is increasingly seen as oppressive and bigoted as it rejects its glbt members and their families. Is oppression and bigotry what it means to be in step with mainstream Christianity?
You also say that accepting gay men and lesbians into the ministry of the Church will hamper and perhaps even damage its witness and effectiveness in countries around the world. Really? Help me understand this: welcoming faithful men and women into the life and ministry of the church can hurt the Church’s reputation (Hmm, I wonder what Jesus would say about this)? What I think is more deplorable is that in countries where gay men and lesbians are regularly beaten, tortured, raped and murdered, the Church is being a complicit partner in the violence and genocide. In countries which are criminalizing gay men and lesbians, the Church is deafeningly silent.
Homosexuality is found in every culture, regardless of whether it is “tolerated” or not. This is a fact. No matter what a country’s cultural understanding might be, there are gay and lesbian people who exist in spite of the culture’s repression. In whatever culture it finds itself, the Church ought to be a place where every child of God is welcomed and invited to grow into the fully person God created him or her to be.
So, help me out, what is really at the heart of your commitment to keeping the UMC’s stance on homosexuality?
Perhaps you feel this way because homosexuality is so different from your own orientation and experience. It is the “other” and hard to understand. Ask a gay man or lesbian (or bisexual or transgender person) about their life, how they came to understand their sexual orientation (and gender identity). Listen to how God has moved in their life, about their faith journey. Learn why the Church is important to them and how they live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Don’t tell me you don’t know any gay or lesbian people. They can be found among your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, co-workers and neighbors. Get to know them. Once you have heard their story, once you have seen their commitment to Christ, can you still look them in the eye and say they are not acceptable in the body of Christ?
The truth is, glbt persons have been serving faithfully in the church for generations: Sunday School teachers, choir directors, youth workers, UMW members, trustees, organists, pastors, and yes, even bishops. This isn’t going to stop any time soon just because of prohibitions in the Book of Discipline. God keeps calling glbt persons to serve in the UMC. The UMC has enjoyed the fruits of their labors, and will continue to do so. Can we at least agree on this truth?
As you debate the homosexual “issue” for these next two weeks, remember that you are not talking about some abstract thing, you are talking about your brothers and sisters, many of whom will be in the same room with you. The words you choose will carry weight and can either do harm or can build up. Choose your words carefully.
I am praying for you and with you, for all of us who dearly love this Church. Part of my prayer includes the words of this song of faith by Hezekiah Walker:
I won’t harm you with words from my mouth, I love you. I need you to survive.