I’ve written and scrapped this post several times over already…it’s hard to know what to say in a way that won’t completely offend some people while still being comforting to others. And yet, I still feel like something does need to be said because to do otherwise wouldn’t be true to myself and my heart. I have prayed repeatedly for God to guide my words, so here it goes.
This week was a big one for members of the United Methodist Church. February 23–26th, a Special Session of the 2019 General Conference met in St. Louis to determine the future of the UMC in regards its opinion on and dealings with human sexuality-specifically, whether or not people of the LGBT community would be allowed to serve in positions of authority within the Church and whether or not gay marriages would be permitted. Historically, the formal UMC statement on the matter has been that people identifying as LGBT are welcomed to attend, but anyone who is openly gay cannot be ordained to serve as clergy and gay marriages are not sanctioned. Even within one denomination, though, it is hard to ignore that churches are influenced by geopolitical factors unique to their regions-so the issues of LGBT rights within the church have been contentious for many years to say the least.
Yesterday, a vote effectively put an end to some of the questions regarding the Church’s official position on the matter. The “Traditional Plan”, which affirmed the Church’s Book of Discipline’s traditional teachings about homosexuality, was its outcome. However, it was far from unanimous-the final count was 438–384 (or 53.28 to 46.72%), which reflects the general divided opinion across the denomination’s members. At this point, the plan will be sent to the Judicial Council, “which is like the denomination’s supreme court, for a review of its constitutionality under church law. The Judicial Council had already ruled pieces of the Traditional Plan as unconstitutional. On Tuesday, the delegates sent them an amended version for consideration.”
So what does this mean for the United Methodist Church as a whole? Basically, that there will likely be an exodus of the more progressive churches and members. However, if the alternative had prevailed-the One Church Plan, which “would have lifted the bans on LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage while protecting those who did not agree with the marriages”-the same could be said of the more conservative churches. Either way, about half of the churches and their members would have been unhappy with the outcome and would have considered leaving-something that I believe all of us should be grieving both as Methodists and as modern Christians in general.
It’s safe to say that neither outcome was going to sit well for me personally. As one of the more progressive members of a Methodist church in a small conservative town, I am very much in the middle of this issue conceptually. My personal relationship with God and the bible is such that I feel that the command to love supersedes all, period-and my view of the world and its innumerable issues is through that lens. I have read several articles in the past few days about the UMC General Conference’s decision, and something that John Pavlovitz said resonated with me:
Traveling this country and engaging thousands of Christians every month, I encounter local faith communities, both inside and outside the United Methodist Church-who claim to be LGBTQ-affirming or LGBTQ-inclusive, but who want to do so with all sorts of caveats or conditions in place. They aspire to see themselves as open to diversity in areas of sexuality, but with barriers in place that make those aspirations disingenuous at best.
If LGBTQ human beings aren’t able to fully participate in the life of your community, you aren’t affirming or inclusive or hospitable or loving to them, regardless of how you label yourself. Withholding aspects of community as a penalty or incentive, tells people they are not yet suitable for full participation, that they are currently unworthy-that they must be changed or fixed or “made right with God,” in order to find themselves suitable.
This is spiritual segregation; to claim equality with LGBTQ human beings, while not allowing them access to the totality of the community that others have as birthright.
Had the General Conference decided the opposite, I would have likely found myself in the direct tide of the upheaval and unrest. As it stands, I am disappointed at best and heartbroken at worst. I’m grieving for the people I love and respect who are going to be on the receiving end of these decisions going forward.
At this point in time, we have (generally speaking) ironed out the complexities of the roles of race and gender in society and Christianity; however, we still cannot seem to come to a consensus on the subject of homosexuality and how it applies to the world of Christianity today. Though there are certainly still some dinosaurs in the wider Christian world who view people of color or women as less-than or subject to arbitrary rules of leadership; as a whole, their inclusion in and appointment to roles within the United Methodist Church, isn’t typically questioned. Why, then, are LGBT members and clergy subject to questions of morality and ecumenical debate? In short, it’s complicated, and depends greatly on how you view the bible.
Some Christians see the bible as a “how to” manual, to be taken literally and conclusively applied to their lives in modern times. Others view it as the God-inspired Word to the first communities of Christian faith, in the context of their time, to be applied in broader strokes in their own lives in the present. The former group cites passages in both the Old and New Testaments as proof that God does not approve of homosexuality. The latter typically either interprets those passages differently, or sees them as applicable only in the historical context and/or as having been nullified by the coming of Christ to redeem the world. There is a fairly objective, in-depth review of the matter here.
Personally, I am conflicted on the issue religiously-speaking, just as many modern Christians are when it comes to the specifics of the bible and how they should be applied to our lives. I do not have all the answers, nor do I claim to. In my personal journey, the way I have viewed the various stories and edicts of the bible has changed according to the circumstances of life and my understanding of it. I think that most of us have things we question or struggle with in relation to the bible, and I also believe that there are some things that will always be beyond our understanding. That is not to say we should not keep trying, exploring, and questioning, but simply to acknowledge our own humanness. At the end of the day, I don’t know the specifics of how God views LGBT members of the body of faith or their role in it-and really, neither does anyone else. There are so many mysteries of life that only God Himself knows the answer to. Therefore, it is hard for me to understand the application of absolutes to the gray areas of our existence. And once again, I still firmly believe that the command to love supersedes all and transcends our understanding, or lack thereof.
As a social and political activist, though, I feel that regardless of the position the modern Church takes on LGBT issues, it is still my responsibility to advocate for the lives of the people of the LGBT community. In large part due to the social and religious stigmas related to sexual identity, the suicide rate among young people who identify as something other than heterosexual and cisgender is estimated at somewhere between two to seven times greater than their majority counterparts. When suicide is the “second leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 24 and the third leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 14” (according to the CDC, 2010), those numbers are heartbreaking. Our youth already deal with so much pressure from peers and society thanks to social media and technology, so the interpersonal and larger societal judgments in regards to their sexuality and/or gender identity only compound the issue.
I also think that fear has a lot to do with this topic, just as it does many others. We, as humans, tend to favor order and neat categorization and fear the things and people that fall outside of those constructs. I received a very apropos verse in my inbox today:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
- 1 John 4:18
So then, the question becomes more nuanced. Are we choosing to act out of objectivity and the unequivocal adherence to biblical law, or out of fear of the unknown and the different? I cannot answer that on behalf of anyone else, because it is a very personal, subjective question-but one that should be asked, nonetheless.
Issues like this are very simple in a way, for me. As a parent, I tend to filter everything through that lens. What if my child comes out as LGBT someday? How would I treat them, and how would I want others to? In that perspective, everything becomes much simpler. If my son or daughter were to tell me that they were gay/transgender, I know what my answer would be. I would love them just the same. I would grieve for them only because I know life would be harder for them as a result. No one wants our babies to struggle, to deal with those kinds of challenges, either internal or external…because regardless of their age, they are always our babies. I would want them to be happy. Knowing as I do that life often turns out differently than you imagine in your younger years, I would want them to find a way for themselves that brings joy and peace to their life. I would want them to know that God’s love, like mine, isn’t conditional or limited by circumstance…that regardless of their decisions or path in life, He (and I) will always be right there with them-because unlike mine, God’s love is perfect. I would want them to know that I will fight for them, and for the men, women, and children like them…that I will tirelessly come to their defense in every arena. That I will be an advocate for love above all else-because of, not in spite of, Jesus’ teachings for us. That my support will not waiver, even when it affects my place in society…because my love for them, like God’s, will never fail.
In closing, I want to again acknowledge the divide over this issue and others within the Church. When victory for one side means pain and sorry for the other, I think it is especially important to be respectful and empathetic in our conversations and actions…anything less would be a disservice to both sides. This is a reminder that God has placed on my heart recently, and that I feel is important to share. What some feel is a success in the name of God, others feel just as equally is an abject manipulation of His Word and name. Nothing I could say or do or that anyone else does can change that. We are broken, fractured, as a people and as a denomination as a result of this decision.
The only way we can move forward is to be sensitive to how the LGBT community, those most affected, are feeling and dealing with the consequences of it. Whether you agree with this decision or not, I think it’s imperative that all of God’s people be treated with kindness and empathy. Those of us who have the privilege of debating these matters conceptually are at least a step removed from the realities that the very people in question, God’s own children, deal with on a daily basis, and should be offering them love and empathy at the most basic level. To do otherwise would be to fall far short of Jesus’ repeated command to love.
There is also a great discussion on the matter, including a statement from the Young People’s Ministries of the UMC, here: