A response to colleagues regarding LGBTQ persons.
The 2015 session of the South Carolina Annual Conference will include discussion of a resolution proposed for General Conference that is being put forth to voice support for removal of language in The Book of Discipline stating that we, as a denomination, do not “condone the practice of homosexuality and (the Church) considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching (¶161.F).”
In response to the proposed resolution, a statement from “several UMCSC large-church pastors on homosexuality” was published in the May Advocate. These pastoral leaders from our conference have concerns about the resolution, and I find it helpful to hear their collective voice on the document at hand.
Indeed, one of the ironies of last year’s annual conference was the lack of open dialogue related to our ministry with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) persons, even as our denomination was dealing with fallout from the national publicity of the trial of the Rev. Frank Schaeffer and the potential trial of Dr. Thomas Ogletree, both accused of violating the Book of Discipline for presiding at the same-sex marriages of their own children. It’s good to hear from these, my colleagues in ministry.
But I offer another perspective as a “large-church pastor” regarding the resolution before us.
My colleagues state, “The United Methodist Church, throughout its history, has been compassionate to, and inclusionary of, all people.” I recall years ago when church consultant Roy Oswald challenged a group of clergy to reflect seriously on those outdoor lawn signs in churches that often say, “Everyone welcome.” “Really?” he said to the group. And then he went on to describe in detail persons that would likely not be warmly received by our communities.
As we reflect on the proposed resolution, can we not begin with the truth that our church, like most churches, has not always been welcoming to all people? Can we not begin with the notion that the church has, throughout her history, used Scripture and tradition to keep women “in their place” and refuse equal access to persons based on race, class and other differences?
This, then, is my first disagreement with my colleagues: they see a denomination that has always been open and inclusionary, while I see a beloved community that has, in its long history, failed to live up to the universal welcome we have come to know in Jesus. We are a community that strives to be the perfect Body of Christ, but history shows us our shortcomings.
My colleagues also warn that we must not “ignore scriptural authority or the Christian tradition.” We are people of the Book, it’s true. So let me assure my colleagues that those of us who are advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church are reading our Bibles, too. We see that even though in places Scripture advocates for slavery, the oppression of women and particular forms of dress, when we look at these particular passages in light of the whole of Scripture as the story of God’s salvation history of all humankind and, indeed, the entire cosmos, we are able to release individual texts as the cultural-specific statements that they are. We are reading the Bible, and we are learning to listen to the very people who have been stung by the existing language in the church’s polity as we understand Scripture more fully.
I find it a bit odd and troubling that the statement my colleagues released did not mention at all the LGBTQ persons who are a part of the church’s life. Many of us who pray for the day when the Book of Discipline’s language is changed are doing so out of love for the people with whom we have been privileged to journey along the way. These are not outsiders; LGBTQ persons are the church’s children. And many of us have come to see, after having spent time with them, that words like “incompatible” are simply inappropriate and hurtful.
My colleagues are also fearful that if the denomination removes the disciplinary language as suggested by the resolution, that “many members” will leave the denomination. But fear of change is not a valid reason to continue a practice that isolates, excludes and harms. My own experience provides but one example of why their projections are wrong. Since my own “coming out” of sorts in taking a more vocal and public position of advocacy for full LGBTQ inclusion in the church, including access to all ministries and rites, I have seen more persons actually coming to join our community. It’s true; not everyone agrees with me. A few have decided to leave given my stance. But even more persons have come seeking membership in a church where we are living into an ethos of love and inclusion based on the gospel of Jesus. Our doors are open wide, and now even more people are coming through them.
I will always remember a Sunday morning after preaching a sermon that included my commitment to the full welcome of LGBTQ persons. A young graduate student from the Middle East, who was raised culturally Muslim but really had no professed faith, asked to be baptized. He had been exploring Christianity with one of our clergy for a number of months, and on this day when we proclaimed the radical love of God that breaks down even those barriers that have historically been justified with Scripture, he said, in essence, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And a few weeks later, with tears flowing, we baptized him into the community of Christ’s holy church.
Of course, upon reflection I was not surprised. It happened long ago in the book of Acts when some of the Christian leaders felt that God was incorporating Gentiles into the church, something that seemed to trouble even Jesus! And when the time came to make a decision at the Jerusalem conference, they looked at tradition. They considered their sacred texts. And then they took the time to look at the Gentile people themselves. And that’s when they saw it: the presence of the Holy Spirit. God was at work among the outsiders. And so the conference, in response to the Spirit, took the path of change and radical welcome.
So to my colleagues and anyone who will listen, I advocate for that same standard to be employed in our current discussions around LGBTQ persons. I see the Holy Spirit at work in new and powerful ways through these people who have been marginalized by the church. I see a younger generation that is able to bridge the divide between straight and gay that we have, to this point, been unable to do as a mainline church.
Partly I think it’s out of fear that we hold tightly to interpretations of Scripture that keep the church’s welcome limited. But God’s Spirit is at work in great and wonderful ways in the church universal and in The United Methodist Church.
And with confidence we move ahead as we remember that any time the church’s doors have been opened wider, Christ has been present.
Ray is senior pastor of Clemson United Methodist Church, Clemson.
Reprinted from the June 2015 edition of The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.