“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
— The United Methodist Church’s mission statement, found in the church’s Book of Discipline
United Methodist delegates from around the world are convened in Portland this week and next for our once-every-four-years General Conference--the meeting in which 500 clergy and as many lay delegates vote on church laws, budgets and other matters.
Inevitably, the delegates end up quarreling, sometimes bitterly, over the church’s longstanding stances in our Book of Discipline–our book of church laws and policies and such–that prohibit gays and lesbians from being fully included in the life of the church.
So I’m following General Conference via the web with much anticipation–and much hope against hope that the church will stop treating homosexuals in ways that are hurtful to them and their loved ones.
What follows are my own personal thoughts and opinions on it all.
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As a “cradle Methodist” from Wesleyan stock, I love God and people and my church to such an extent that I took vows to serve God and others and the church in ordained ministry.
But that doesn’t mean I like everything about this heavily institutionalized church I serve.
I don’t like that as an ordained UMC deacon I can bless your dogs and cats and even your slimy pet snakes, but I can’t preside at the wedding of two people who love each other if they happen to be of the same sex.
I don’t like that the UMC doesn’t allow “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be ordained.
A sidebar about ordination may be in order:
One feels called to ministry by God and the church’s role is to determine through a long and grueling candidacy process if the calling is an honest-to-God call. If the call is determined to be true–and if the candidate is found to have the unique “gifts and graces” required for United Methodist ministry–the church’s role is to affirm the calling and ordain the one called. Not everyone who feels called–or feels that he or she has the gifts and graces for ordination–makes the cut.
But anyone who is openly gay or lesbian and “practicing”–which means anyone who is out of the closet and openly in relationship with another gay or lesbian person–need not even apply, calling or no calling.
Some of the most devout disciples of Christ I know happen to be homosexuals. Churches throughout the UMC and every other denomination have these witnesses to God’s love, some who are in the closet and, increasingly, some who are not.
The United Methodist Church’s stated mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” So why can’t a homosexual as much as a straight person be a disciple of Christ committed to transforming the world and advancing the kingdom of heaven of which Christ gave us a foretaste?
I don’t like that my beloved UMC’s Book of Discipline contains language that is hurtful and condescending toward homosexuals and their families.
Our Discipline states:
“While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. (My italics for emphasis.) Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
Again, I know many and very many homosexual Christians in my denomination and others whose “standards of holy living in the world” are as high as the sky–higher than that of many prigs who are in church every time the doors are open. (C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity that a lot of prigs in church every Sunday are closer to hell than a lot of prostitutes. In my book, he was right, as usual.)
For the love of God, I don’t understand why anyone thinks a person who was created and birthed (and baptized, btw) as something other than heterosexual can’t live a holy and perfectly good life in obedience to Christ, who of course never uttered a word about homosexuality.
Mind you, Jesus may have been dead-set against homosexual coupling since he used language about love between a man and a woman. Be that as it may, homosexuality didn’t make the cut in his list of priorities. Either that or the gospel writers left out his commands against homosexuality, though I can’t imagine why they would.
Jesus did speak out forcefully against divorce, which churches and Christians opposed to gay rights don’t obsess over.
But my God, do they ever obsess over homosexuality.
Especially the 55 to 60 percent of United Methodists from around the world who vote every four years to keep gay-inclusiveness petitions from passing.
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I don’t even understand why “the practice of homosexuality” (all sexuality requires practice, practice, practice, I reckon–that’s how you get to Carnegie Hall) is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
At one time, it was “incompatible with Christian teaching, or perceived as such.
But times constantly and endlessly change. We are no longer living in biblical times.
We aren’t even in the 1950s anymore, or the sixties or seventies or eighties or nineties or the 20th century.
We’re in 2016.
Times have changed.
When I was growing up, getting divorced was deeply and harshly frowned upon in the Christian culture and only a slightly less degree in the secular culture. Divorce was what the weirdos in Hollywood did. Divorcees in Main Street, America were stigmatized and oftentimes ostracized, especially by righteous Christians.
Many if not most churches and pastors took a hard line in counseling people against divorce, even if a woman member of a church was stuck in an abusive marriage behind closed doors. But then, in those days, if a woman member of a church was stuck in an abusive marriage, she most likely would “suffer in silence.” She wouldn’t go to the pastor for guidance, much less to the police.
But times change.
Women have changed. They don’t “suffer in silence” and they don’t think twice about breaking their holy wedding vows if a husband beats on them or intimidates them at every turn–or they shouldn’t.
Churches awakened to the fact that there are things worse–in some but of course not just in any case–than a divorce.
So am I suggesting that Jesus Christ was wrong in speaking harshly against divorce except in cases of adultery?
No and a thousand times no, because we know that Jesus was on the side of life and it more abundant and healthy in every way. He was and is on the side of love that is healthy and whole, never on the side of abuse or violence or intimidation infecting a marriage or anything else.
We get so hung up on the words in scripture that we lose sight of the over-arching message of our Lord.
Yes, God is constant and everlasting and reliable, but the people created by God change–and that calls for changes in how we see others, engage others, even minister to others.
By and large, white Christians see and engage African-Americans today in a far different way than white Christians did 200 years, 100 years or 50 or 70 years ago, when they engaged African-Americans with segregation, violence and intimidation. You won’t hear many Christians outside of the most radical and extreme circles using the Bible to justify slavery or interracial marriage as in days of old.
Theologians say that “new times call for new duties,” meaning that as times change, we have to change the way we as Christians offer ministry. (And Protestantism 101 says all baptized believers all ministers.)
As times change we have to change the way we interpret scripture–but being careful not to change the way we interpret scripture with every trendy new belief that comes down the cultural pike. So please do not accuse me of suggesting that the church should surrender to the secular culture every time an immoral or unethical idea in secular culture takes hold.
Churches and denominations that already have changed their doctrines and policies to include homosexuals didn’t change overnight. Their leaders spent years testing and challenging each other, in prayer and discernment, to make sure that it was God “doing a new thing” through the Holy Spirit.
We Methodists have been testing and challenging and debating and arguing gay issues for 40 years and more, but change comes to the church two ways–slow or not all.
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The real need for change is discerned by being attuned to the Holy Spirit, the wind that “blows where it will.” Our God does do new and unanticipated things through the Spirit.
Times change and the grace and love of God is experienced in new ways.
And yet, my beloved UMC, in my opinion, keeps resisting the winds of what would be, in my opinion, a long overdue change.
And this I know–baptized homosexuals and their supportive loved ones feel betrayed and hurt by my church as a result.
I pray for greater unity and understanding, healing and reconciliation, and what I believe in all my heart is the need for change in my church in Portland in the coming days.
FYI: See more links here on:
An interesting take from an Episcopal priest at Huffington Post
And here’s an overview of the denomination’s beliefs, structures and most everything else you might want to know about the Methodist Church that grew out of a movement by John and Charles Wesley.