Leadership from the United Methodist Church will gather this week in St. Louis for a Special Session of the General Conference. Usually the General Conference only happens once every four years, but the Council of Bishops can call a “Special Session” to have delegates from the church (usually about half laity & half clergy) tackle pressing issues. The issue they will be discussing and voting on at this week’s Special Session will be surrounding the UMC’s official position on matters of human sexuality… specifically reexamining the passages in the Book of Discipline which set a policy of exclusion from leadership for people who are openly LGBTQ+. And though I am not a member of the United Methodist Church (or ANY church right now, for that matter), my kids attend a UMC youth group, I have many good friends — both laypersons and clergy — who call the UMC their home, I have a great respect for the denomination, and I believe I have something of value to say about all this… And this is my blog, so deal with it.
First, let me say that even though I have personally come to a place of peace and clarity on the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusion within the church, I acknowledge that — for many — this issue is far from simple. The UMC is a giant denomination, with almost 7 million members in the U.S., and just shy of 13 million members worldwide… And this already divisive topic is made even more complicated by the presence of members from cultures and places in the world where LGBTQ+ discrimination and oppression is even MORE commonplace and accepted than it is in the United States. So it is no surprise that when they attempted to wrestle with this issue during the 2016 General Session, they basically kicked the can down the road by creating a “Commission on a Way Forward” to reexamine all of the places in the Book of Discipline (the BoD is basically the collection of official UMC law & doctrine) which address human sexuality. This Special Session is to respond to the Commission’s ideas and recommendations of a path forward which maintains church unity. I mean, it’s right there in the name: UNITED Methodists.
Right now, the Book of Discipline says (among other things) that “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” And without boring you with the specifics (you can read more about them HERE and HERE), they basically came up with four options…
- “One Church Plan” — This would remove the restrictive/exclusionary language from the BoD, while giving conferences, churches, and pastors more “flexibility” to make decisions regarding LBGTQ+ inclusion. Basically, it allows for local and regional groups of Methodists to be inclusive or exclusive as they see fit, and though there is would be nothing officially preventing UMC congregations from, say, performing and blessing same-sex marriages… There is ALSO nothing officially preventing other congregations from excluding LBGTQ+ folks from places of leadership and, for example, firing a worship leader who comes out of the closet. This plan was endorsed by the Council of Bishops, and is the one the Commission is recommending.
- “Traditionalist Plan” — This plan would keep things the same, basically affirming the restrictive/exclusionary language in the Book of Discipline.
- “Connectional-Conference Plan” — This is more complex, but my understanding is that it would sort of set up three different conferences with which local churches and congregations could affiliate themselves, assumedly with different conferences representing different places on the spectrum from Inclusive & Affirming to Exclusive & Rejecting … All under one connected & “United” Methodist Church. And then when people say, “I attend a United Methodist Church,” the follow up will be, “What kind of United Methodist Church are we talking about, here?”
- “Simple Plan” — Basically, this plan would remove the “incompatibility clause,” as well as all prohibitions limiting the roles of homosexual people in the church. It would allow, but not require, same-sex weddings in churches.
Notice there is no option for a plan which appropriately labels a policy of LGBTQ+ exclusion & rejection by the Church what it is: HARMFUL. HATEFUL. SINFUL. And DEADLY. There is no option for a plan which officially repents and asks forgiveness for the harm done by years and years of the Church’s LGBTQ+ discrimination. And there is nothing which rightly describes this policy of exclusion & rejection as “the deepest unkindness” and “horrid cruelty” and “barbarity.” And if you’re wondering why I chose these words, it is because these are the words John Wesley himself — The founder of Methodism — chose to describe the Church’s policy of exclusion & rejection toward THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN AS PREACHERS.
I don’t think most people know about the deep history and tradition of inclusion within the Methodist Church. At a time when most people in the world thought “the Bible was clear” about its instructions for women to be silent and the “sinfulness” of women in leadership, John Wesley was the first in the Methodist movement to authorize a woman to preach. In 1761. A full 159 years before women in the United States earned the right to even VOTE. He confronted traditional ideas about female submissiveness, and in 1784, he even removed the word “obey” from the marriage rite he sent to North America. After Wesley’s death, there was much division within the Methodist Church over the issue of women in leadership. You can read more about that timeline HERE.
And now the UMC wrestles once agains with the issue of INCLUSION. And there are many questions looming on the horizon… Who is “in?” Who is “out?” Who gets to lead? Who gets full privileges? Who is three fifths of a person? Which people deserve to be second class citizens/church members? Is the Bible actually as “clear” on this issue as we have been told? Are the “Traditionalists” actually confident in the infallibility of scripture… or are they simply confident in the infallibility of their OWN INTERPRETATION of scripture?
People act like LGBTQ+ Inclusion in the Church is some sort of “abandoning of scripture.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The story of the Bible has ALWAYS been a story of movement from exclusion to INCLUSION. Inclusion is the trajectory of the Bible. It is the story of a small tribe who thought that God was only on their “side.” It is the story of a God who sends Jonah to tell the sworn enemy of the ones who were “in” that God loves them too. It is the story of an Enemy-Loving God, who calls us to do the same. It is the story of a baby who would bring “good news of great joy that would be for ALL PEOPLE.” It is the story of a Rabbi who — when asked about how to inherit eternal life — pointed to a Samaritan who got all of the theology wrong, but wasn’t afraid to love someone who society said was “unclean.” And it’s the story of a Jesus who — as one of the last things he said to his disciples — said, “I have so much more to tell you, but you you wouldn’t be able to handle it right now.”
Yes, there are ways to read the Bible which would lead some to conclude that LGBTQ+ exclusion is part of “God’s Plan.” But this would be like citing Huckleberry Finn as a defense of using the N-word… Any competent reading of Huckleberry Finn would lead us to conclude that the text is pointing us in the direction of supporting the full humanity, respect, and inclusion of Jim. And all people like Jim. The real distinction between groups has less to do with differences in theology, and more to do with differences in an understanding of how to READ. When we read the Bible, we are reading a book which was written in a startlingly barbaric and misogynist time. Imagine reading in such a way that when you read about a small movement toward equality and justice, you decide that THAT amount of movement — and NO MORE — is all the author was advocating for. The Bible doesn’t provide a destination… It points us in a DIRECTION. And that direction is one of inclusion and respect and love.
What do we do about “the gays?” What do we do about women who want to lead? Or simply vote? What do we do about divorced people? What do we do about interracial marriage? What do we do about slavery? These issues are nothing new. The earliest members of the Church struggled with whether to include Gentiles (non-Jews). Many of the “Traditionalists” of that time thought you had to become Jewish BEFORE you were able to become a Christian. The early church leadership sided with inclusion.
What they DIDN’T do is they didn’t chicken out and say, “In the interest of ‘unity,’ if some individual ‘Traditionalist’ conferences, congregations, or pastors want to keep on excluding Gentiles from full membership, they can.” I’m sure some people at that time were upset. I’m sure there were some who were convinced the church leadership was “abandoning scripture,” and some of those people probably left. But… Oh well. I mean imagine the Church attempting to come to a place of “unity” around a decision to “leave it up to the churches” as to whether it was sinful to marry interracial couples during Jim Crow. The people who thought it was “sinful” for blacks and whites to marry thought they had a “Biblical basis” for that belief as well.
I realize that these things don’t change overnight. One thing is for certain: The current verbiage in the Book of Discipline is the stuff of Reparative Therapy and self-harm and suicide. It is the stuff of “the deepest unkindness” and “horrid cruelty,” and it needs to be changed. If the UMC can’t muster more courage than this weak sauce “One Church Plan,” then so be it… But the United Methodist Church has been far from “united” about the issue of LGBTQ+ Inclusion for quite some time… And regardless of how the Special Session of General Conference decides, that is unlikely to change. But the United Methodist Church wasn’t necessarily “united” around the issue of ordaining female pastors in the Methodist church either. There are always going to be people who are angry about letting others in. Regardless, there is a difference between Unity and Unanimity. And today, there are 16 female UMC Bishops, and over 12,000 female clergy.
In my last blog post, I wrote that “Unity is not the goal… Justice is the goal.” It is so interesting to me how so many of these things are connected… Political and Religious. It is Political Correctness, it is Heaven & Hell, and it is Trump’s Wall. It is everywhere, and it divides us… But make no mistake: It is a necessary division. This whole issue is really about The Morality of Inclusion… About whether Inclusion is better than Exclusion. LISTEN — If you’re part of an all-white country club that decides to accept black members, and some current white members throw a fit (citing “tradition”) and threaten to leave, you do the right thing, and you let them leave. See ya. Take your money… Take your bigotry… Take your Tradition… BYE. There are always going to be people who confuse their bigotry with their theology. I have been through the process of a church taking a stand for inclusion. It will not be easy. There will be people who are hurt. There will be people who will leave. LET THEM LEAVE. If this means a less “united” Methodist Church, then that’s what it means. At least there will be a place where LGBTQ+ kids can grow up knowing that a large part of the Methodist Church affirms and values and loves them exactly as they are. And that is more important than any cosmetic “Unity.”
Thank you so much for reading. If you are part of the UMC — both laity and clergy — I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter in the comments. And if you are a person who values this blog, I’d love for you to consider supporting it by BECOMING A PATRON. Or if you want, you can LEAVE A TIP ON PAYPAL. Now is a great time for that, because I recently broke my laptop (on account of plain old stupidity on my part), and that has made writing a lot more difficult. If you’d like to keep up with me, the best places to do that are ON FACEBOOK and ON TWITTER. Peace.