Friday, May 11, 2012

"Should I Stay or Go?" Why I'm Staying in the UMC

Following the end of the General Conference, the quadrennial meeting of the United Methodist Church, many of my colleagues are wondering whether they should stay or go.  This almost exclusively has to do with the church again not changing its position that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teachings.”  This has been the official position of the church since 1972, and there is simply no indication that it will be changing any time soon, although I have always found it interesting that we state it is incompatible with “Christian teaching” and not “Biblical witness” or something like that, since teaching can, and has, changed over time.

But the refusal of the General Conference to make any changes to this position, including one that said that we are not of one mind on the issue, has left many of the progressive members of the church looking at other churches which have changed their stance on this, looking at the hurt this is causing to many people who feel, at the very least, excluded from the church, and wondering what the future holds and why they should stay.  I have been thinking about this question and wanted to give my own answer.

At the heart of the matter is really the fact that I am a Methodist, or more specifically, a Wesleyan in my theology.  What that means the most is that I believe in universal grace and salvation.  That is not true of most denominations, including those who are considered more progressive on the issue of homosexuality.  Many of them are from a Reformed tradition, or have a theology which is exclusivist, and that simply does not work with my understanding of God or of Jesus’ salvific work.  (And yes I do recognize that there are many in the UMC who do not take this same view, but at least at the moment they are in the minority, and hopefully before they become the majority we will do a little educating about what it means to be a Methodist and what we stand for.)

Second, in many of these churches, changing their stance on homosexuality has not radically altered the church or the people in it, just look at what is going on in the Episcopal and the Evangelical Lutheran Churches and you can see that they are not at peace with the issue.  You can change the rules to say that you are welcoming, but if the people and the clergy really aren’t then it doesn’t really make a difference.

This seems to me to be more important and more damaging than what people are really talking about.  Our words must match our reality.  Rachel Maddow recently said "symbolic value is important, but we want practical policies that help us (the gay community)."  Talk is cheap, but actions speak louder than words.

Just as an example to illustrate.  We should ask our African-American brothers and sisters who remember the central jurisdiction, which was an annual conference based on race rather than geographical area.  This was the compromise agreed to, by majority white vote, which allowed the Methodist Episcopal Church north and south to merge.  At the 1956 General Conference, a vote was taken that condemned “racial discrimination and forced segregation,” and also one that called for the abolishment of the central jurisdiction. 

In 1964 segregation was still a reality, and a goal was set of abolishing annual conferences based on race by 1967.  With the merger in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church no language remained about the central jurisdiction, but the conference remained a reality until into the 1970s.  For well more than 15 years the United Methodist church said they were opposed to racial segregation but still practiced it themselves.  They were striving in the right direction and saying the right thing, but did that rhetoric really make any difference in the lives of the African-American congregations, clergy and laity who were still segregated in reality and denied positions and resources because of the color of their skin?  No.  It was simply something written on paper.

Another example would be female clergy.  Women were officially able to have full clergy rights in 1956.  However, I still routinely hear offensive comments made about clergy women by my male clergy colleagues.  Female clergy are also still subject to lots of things that I as a male clergy never have to deal with, including bad appointments (not that we can’t get bad appointments too).  I know of a church in New England which is known as a clergy killing congregation.  For nearly twenty years every minister who was appointed there left full-time ministry when they left the church.  It also happens that all of them were also women.  So for twenty years the cabinet continued to appoint ministers to a church they knew would drive them out of the ministry, but never once appointed a man.  And that does not even begin to deal with what some congregations have done, regardless of the acts of the cabinet.  Not very good, but yet female and male clergy are supposed to be the same.

The simple fact is we are a denomination made up of humans, that means that we are going to be inherently imperfect.  We are, in Wesley’s words, moving on to perfection, but we are nowhere close to that as of yet.

Now I am very glad that we have the position that we do in regards to racial integration and female clergy, and wish that we were there on the issue of homosexuality, but let us not begin to imagine that changing our position on the first two has changed the position of the church or of our congregations, because it hasn’t.  You cannot legislate these things and expect everyone to instantly change, there will continue to be hurts felt all around.

But I also trust the system (and if you know me I know you will be shocked by that statement) because I trust God and I trust in Wesleyan theology which has built into it the ability to make these changes.  We believe in universal grace, we believe that there is nothing which can separate us from the love of God, and we believe in the Wesleyan quadrilateral which says that we approach scripture using tradition, experience and reason.  These, I believe, will lead us there eventually.  Will it come as soon as it should? No, but if our actions don’t match our words then nothing else really matters.

If we say we are welcoming to our LGBT brothers and sisters, but then exclude them or treat them as second class citizens, or worse, then our welcoming is pointless.  But even though the words of the Discipline say one thing, we can also be welcoming and open and prove the Discipline wrong, which in some ways is even better.  Jesus didn’t change the laws of Judaism, but his actions showed a different way and that is what made all the difference.

Since I am now serving in a much more conservative area then when I served in New England, even though the Discipline says one thing, I can still be the progressive example because even with the Discipline we are still ahead of other churches in the area because we at least see the LGBT as people of sacred worth.  It may not be much, but it is something.

I do truly wish that the General Conference had done something, and sooner or later they will (we have to take into consideration that this is to a very large degree a generational thing, and look who has the time to take off two weeks to attend committee meetings, let alone who wants to.  Outside of younger clergy who have the time, because it’s work time, it tends to be dominated by those over the age of 50 or more.  Here is a poll from Pew on opinions on gay marriage based on age. )

I know that we, as a church, are causing pain, that we are not being the witness that we can be, but we can still be welcoming even if the Discipline says we aren’t, just like some won’t be welcoming even when the Discipline says they should.  I have been caused pain by this situation, which I will write more about in a few weeks after I am ordained, but I am not ready to leave the denomination because of it.  In fact it helped me to trust God even more in what is going on.

I would not leave the state in which I live because of its stand on this issue, so why would I leave the denomination?  Plus I can always do more good to make change from inside then I can from outside, and if people begin to leave in large numbers over this issue to go to other denominations then I fear for the future of the church universal in America. 

In the 1810s and 20s, you were just as likely to find anti-slavery people in the south as you were supporters, and the same was true in the north.  But as the arguments became more strident, people moved around and the country began to divide along this issue.  I hear people wanting to do the same thing in the church, but after the churches divided along pro and anti-slavery positions (the Methodists in 1844) most people knew that the union could not survive, because if churches couldn’t get along what chance did anyone else have?

I wish the church had changed its position, and I have faith that they will someday, in fact I know they will someday.  Will it happen very soon?  Probably not, but it will happen.  The question is will it still be the United Methodist Church when it happens, although that’s a question that’s only peripherally related to this issue. 

I know that I can do more to help in that by being inside the church then I can by being outside.  I cannot simply turn my back on the UMC, and that has more to do with my theology, and the theology of the church, then it does with anything else.  How could I possible go to another denomination that might be more progressive on this issue, but, from their reformed position, believes in limited atonement?  I don’t think I, or anyone else, gains something from that.  In fact I think I would lose. 

In addition, making this change will not radically alter the church.  We are not going to be suddenly flooded by members of the LGBT community because we’ve written something on paper.  Our actions will always speak louder than our words.  If we truly want to be welcoming, then let’s be welcoming, regardless of what the Discipline says.  If we want to offer Christ to the world then for God’s sake let’s do that, but it has nothing to do with being able to show someone some statement, but everything to do with modeling Christ for them, of giving them unconditional love, because that is what God has done for us. 

John Wesley said that the only appropriate response to accepting Jesus’ saving work on our behalf was to act on that in the world, so let’s act on that.  Let us be Christ to the world.  Let us welcome, no, let us invite, the “sinners and the tax collectors” to our table, or take the table to them, and offer them the bread of life and the light of the world.  When we do that then people will know what we are about. 

As Methodists we have always believed more in orthopraxy, right practice, than orthodoxy, right belief, so let us act on that.  Let us be Christ to the world.  Let us have people come to know us because of what we do not because of what we say.  Let us live into the hymn so that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”


  1. Thank you John for such a well-written and thoughtful post on this subject. I suppose churches are different from governments, but if we waited until the American mind and actions were desegregated, would we ever have desegregation in America/ I agree that we need to make our individual actions reflect our beliefs by welcoming and loving all our neighbors.

  2. As always, your insights and wisdom are a breath of fresh air. However, it is worth noting that desegregation was accomplished through federal legislation, whereas civil unions and gay marriage, access to women's health care and full services etc, are being slogged out state by state...I highly doubt desegregation would have happened if left to the same political processes that the LGBT community, and even many women's access to health care, is subject to on a state by state basis. And while many have faith that "someday" it will happen, the pain and injustices for those who wish to wed in the church now, baptise their children (as they were baptised)now, and at the end of their lives, being unable to have their lives and faith fully celebrated in the churches and faiths in which they were raised, borders on the unforgiveable....all those sacraments held so dear in the Wesleyan traditions are denied to thousands for some of the most important milestones of their lives. Karen Krone