The Special-Called United Methodist General Conference concludes in St. Louis today (Tues., February 26), and the decisions that are made have the potential to split the denomination as we know it. For that reason alone, the conference is historic.
The question of how the UMC is to address the issue of homosexuality has been debated since 1972. In nearly 50 years, we haven’t come to a consensus. We’ve been “wandering” in the desert of indecision, much as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. Maybe GC2019 is what we need to bring the denomination into a kind of promised land. I believe we’re doing the right thing by coming together and saying, essentially, “Look, this back-and-forth, vague situation has got to be decided one way or the other. Who are we, and what are we going to do about our sense of inclusiveness? Let’s decide that once and for all.”
Given the fact that the two factions have had nearly half a century to dig in their heels, I don’t see how we’re going to come out of this without a split. Those on each side feel they’re right in their beliefs. They each believe their conclusions are biblically based. For those reasons I don’t see anybody attending this conference, listening to an opposing viewpoint, and suddenly saying, “Wow, I never thought of that before. I’m changing my mind after all these years!”
There are four proposals being considered, each of which has strengths and weaknesses. I can’t see how everyone is going to agree to adopt any one of the four.
Personally, I have the strong faith that God can redeem anything we mess up. If the church splits, then I believe God will take those shattered remnants and make something strong and effective from them. It won’t be the end of Methodist Church; it’ll just signal the end of the church as we know it. St. Paul wrote that before a seed can come to life, it has to die first. Perhaps we’ve come to the point where the United Methodist Church that was formed in 1968 has to die so a new Methodist Church can come to life. That’s entirely up to God, of course, but I like to think that a split will not be a death knell; rather a call to the “new thing” God said God was doing (Isaiah 43.19).
As for whether I believe gay persons should be accepted in the church — absolutely yes! If Paul had been aware that this controversy would rear its ugly head 2000 years after he wrote his epistles, I’m sure he would have included “gay and straight” in the list of labels that are done away with in Christ (Gal. 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). Paul did say “all.” No exceptions. No exclusions. I heard evangelist (and author and seminary professor) Tony Campolo many years ago. He said that every society has to have its lepers to ostracize, and for us, homosexuals are the lepers. I see no way to argue that point.
A very powerful story I heard years ago had to do with a soldier who had performed admirably and was highly regarded. That is, until it was discovered that he was gay. After being kicked out of the Army, he said, “I was given a medal for killing 100 men and a dishonorable discharge for loving one.”
I believe that love isn’t confined by the barriers we seem to want to erect around it: e.g., you have to fall in love only with someone of the opposite sex; etc. Who says love can’t be found between two people of the same gender? Where do we come off drawing the lines of where love can and can’t be found? If God is love, then love can be found anywhere.
And, really, is gender so clear-cut? The United Methodist total-inclusion advocacy group, Affirmation, reminded readers in a current newsletter that gender isn’t binary. Rather it’s a continuum, and we all fall somewhere along that continuum regardless of how strongly we feel we may be absolutely, totally at one end or the other of the spectrum. That being the case, how can we possibly declare certain people unfit to serve in the church — in ANY capacity (including the clergy)? I know that a large number of churches would be seriously lacking in their music ministries if they didn’t have gay musicians as organists and choir directors. I’ve served several churches with gay musicians and have appreciated their incredible gifts to the church.
One other thought. Many years ago I was invited to be part of a planning group to organize a week-long retreat for adults with HIV/AIDS at our church camp in Southern New Jersey. Naturally, most of those who came were gay. Also naturally, because it was a church camp, we made sure that we planned times for worship. I was deeply impressed with the depth of the faith that many of these folks espoused. Some were moved to tears when they spoke of their relationship with Christ. I came away thinking that this small group of often-ostracized persons were probably more committed to the Lord than most people who sit in the pew every Sunday. Gay people could be faithful Christians too — imagine that!
OK, one MORE thought: So many people are afraid that a gay person’s “gayness” is going to rub off on others if they get too close. We had an unfortunate incident in our little church here in Delaware last year. We had hired a youth director whom everyone knew. He grew up in the area, and everyone knew ahead of time that he was gay (in fact, he’s married and he and his husband have adopted two kids). I was so proud of the church for hiring him on his merits — he’s certified in working with special needs kids, which he does in a local elementary school — and looking past his sexual orientation. However, several people in the congregation were less than thrilled and left because of him. Eventually, he felt unwelcome in the church and, giving his new promotion at the school as a reason, resigned from his position in the church, never to be seen again. The people who left felt that his being gay would somehow affect (read “pervert”) the kids. They’re the ones who would say, “Our church is open to anyone who wants to worship with us. We just don’t think they should be in leadership.” So, there is still a lot of unfortunate discrimination going on.
I pray that the United Methodist Church finds a way to fulfill its own motto: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” As the conference delegates entered the Dome in St. Louis, this was not the case.