Archive for March, 2014

Does the Marginalization of LGBT People Hold The United Methodist Church Together?

Monday, March 31st, 2014

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Dodson Gray.  She uses the term “conceptual trap” to describe where we are and need to go as persons and as a church.  She says a conceptual trap is like being born into a room with no windows.  Social reality has already been named.  It has always been this way and always will be.  Just get used to it.  One way to name the task of the church, Gray says, is to break through these conceptual traps with alternatives faithful to radical grace and justice for all. (See Patriarchy as a Conceptual Trap, 1982, and Sunday School Manifesto, 1994)

The United Methodist Church (UMC) has made significant progress in breaking through the conceptual traps of racism and ordination of women while much remains to be improved.  During these times of change many claimed that the church would collapse or at least be severely damaged.  Instead the church became more faithful to the Gospel and gained new respect and loyalty both internally and beyond.

As I see it the basic question before the UMC is this:  Does the well being of the UMC, spiritually, membership-wise and financially, depend on marginalizing LGBT persons?   When those who oppose full inclusion call for ongoing resistance at all costs, they seem to be saying, “Yes, the well being of the UMC does depend on less than full inclusion of LGBT persons.  Their marginalization is what holds our denomination together.”  Is this the truth about the UMC today?

Rev. Dr. Bill McElvaney presides at the union of Jack Evans and George Harris

How can the UMC be serious about transforming the world through disciples of Jesus Christ (the UMC stated mission) when a whole group of people is treated as second-class citizens?  When we practice exclusion that is incompatible with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ?  The UMC would become a more faithful church by giving up an unwarranted interest in LGBT sexuality and concentrating on inviting and developing the “Beloved Community” (Martin Luther King Jr.) envisioned and empowered by Jesus.

Paragraph 363 in the UM Book of Discipline states that “ordination and membership in an annual conference in the UMC is a sacred trust.”  But how can this trust be more sacred than the Gospel of God’s love, than Jesus’ example of loving acceptance of marginalized persons?  When institutional covenants supersede radical grace, the church is protecting its own prejudice and inoculates the church against love in favor of law.  How can we not see the similarities of institutional priority in relation to Jesus’ struggle with the religious establishment of his day?

A fully inclusive church offers the opportunity for a deeper and more complete experience of the family of God.  Inclusion requires bold leadership.  Imagine bishops, cabinets and lay leaders taking initiative to reach out to LGBT persons, many of whom grew up in the UMC – baptized, confirmed, and eager to serve in our church in spite of being rejected at various levels of inclusion.  Imagine UMC leadership being proactive like Jesus and hearing the stories and pain of LGBT brothers and sisters.  And offering healing and welcome. 

I have long been convinced that rational thought is important in overcoming the “we” and “they” syndrome.  But what I think is even more important is personal relationship.  Making friends across racial division has been a key in changing minds and hearts.  I have no scientific survey on this, but my hunch is that many who resist inclusion have no gay friends to love or experience being loved by.  When the UMC becomes truly inclusive, leadership can make this a positive experience, turning fear into love. Our LGBT brothers and siblings must be seen and heard not only as marginalized persons but also as mentors who can lead the UMC to truly realize “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”

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Rev. Dr. Bill McAlvaney is the Le Van Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He served for 12 years as president of the United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, where the William K. McElvaney Chair in Preaching was established in his honor in 1988. In 2013, Bill received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Perkins School of Theology. Although retired, McElvaney is active at Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, TX.

Living Out Scripture: Who is my Neighbor?

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Who is my neighbor?  Not a question that hasn’t been asked before! 

Earlier this month,  Munther Isaac’s presentation at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem focused on this same question.  Dr. Munther is a professor at the Bethlehem Bible College and is one of the leading young Palestinian Christian voices. 

What was interesting for me as I listened to Munther’s talk is that I was experiencing the very thing about which he was speaking.  I have an apartment on the Jerusalem side of the Wall, just outside of Bethlehem.  The house where I live is owned by a Muslim family, and the apartment is located on the bottom floor.  It’s completely self-contained and very private.  I’ve been here now for 6 years and it’s definitely home.  Because of my schedule I rarely see anyone who lives here, and have often felt guilty for keeping so much to myself.

Two weeks ago, though, something happened to my knee and I wasn’t able to walk.  A volunteer from the Bible College had to help me home, and as I tried to maneuver around my apartment on one leg I got a sense of how alone I was, so far away from family and familiar surroundings.  The next morning there was a knock at my door and the son of my landlord came to ask how I was.  His father had seen me the night before being helped down the stairs to my apartment and wanted to make sure I was OK.  My landlord had suffered a stroke a year or so after I moved here and isn’t able to walk so I rarely see him, but he’d been looking out his window when I arrived.  His son, Ramzi, has been living here for the past 5 months, and otherwise lives in Sweden where he is working on a Master’s degree.  We talked a bit and I felt much better knowing that my condition was now known and I wasn’t alone.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the care that followed.  Less than an hour after Ramzi left, he reappeared with a plate of olives, cheese and bread.  An hour after that, my upstairs neighbor Arij, Ramzi’s sister-in-law, brought me a plate of chicken and salad.  I was overwhelmed and very grateful.  The next day, and the day after that, more food appeared along with offers of going to the grocery store and taking me to the local clinic.

A week later, I had an appointment to see an orthopedic doctor.  When I suggested to Arij that I ask a friend to take me, she responded emphatically that I shouldn’t do this, that I should “keep it in the family” and that she or her husband or Ramzi would take me.  I thought I was being thoughtful by not relying on them so heavily, but I realized that I was actually offending them by going outside the family for help.  I learned that taking care of family and neighbors is central to living the Muslim faith.  So, as it turned out, Ramzi took me to the doctor and stayed with me for 2 hours until I finished with my appointment.

It’s interesting how we, as Western Christians, hear the question:  Who is my neighbor?  If you’re like me, you put yourself in the position of the “helper” and wonder how you would respond to the other, the person who is in need, whoever they are.  This week, however, I realized that I was the neighbor.  I was the one who needed help and it was a Muslim family and friends who came to my aid.  Munther, at the end of his talk, speaks about the story of the Good Samaritan and asked, “what if we replaced the Samaritan in the story with a Muslim?”  I didn’t have to answer the question: I lived it.

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Tina Whitehead is a missionary from the Western Pennsylvania Conference who has worked at the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem

Mixed Messages

Monday, March 10th, 2014

The situations are similar: both are fathers with deep love for their children. Both have a long history of ministry – one in the local church and one in theological education. Both had complaints filed against them for doing their pastoral duty. One case ended in defrocking. The other has ended in just resolution.

Today’s press conference at the New York Annual Conference Center in White Plains, NY came with the announcement that counsel for Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree and counsel for the Church (on behalf of Bishop Martin McLee of New York) had come to an agreement of just resolution. Central to this agreement is that Dr. Ogletree participates in a public forum reflecting theologically, spiritually and ecclesiastically on the nature of the covenant that binds us together in the United Methodist Church.

We’ve heard this before: Let’s talk about things.

This time, though, instead of being a Church seeking punitive action for those engaged in ministry in healthy and life-giving ways, this just resolution provides a new way to the Church to engage in holy conversation rather through means of coercion.

You read that right: no admission of "guilt," no suspension, no defrocking, nothing that resembles what the Church has experienced in the past. 

The just resolution goes on to say that Bishop McLee calls for and commits to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Church trials are harmful to those in ministry with LGBTQ people.  They say, “Your ministry is not valid.” They say, “Your ministry should be guided by fear, not by hope.”

Church trials are even more harmful to LGBTQ people.  The simple fact that church trials exist (and have been used more often than not to suppress LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church) says “you’re not worthy of our ministry.” Trials reinforce the idea that queer people are tearing the Church apart – when in reality the Church is pushing queer people away. I wish it only took my fingers and toes to tell you the number of friends I have who have been brought to faith through the United Methodist Church but now fill the pulpits at Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ congregations.

I celebrate just resolution because it creates room for the Holy Spirit to do her work in the midst of God’s people. I give thanks for the words of Bishop McLee and pray for him in Christian love. I hope this model of just resolution will spread to more areas of the Church.  We must be careful, however, with mixed messages. Trials are not the real issue. Just resolution wouldn’t even need to be an option if the pages of our Book of Discipline didn’t mandate bigotry.

Homophobia and heterosexism are still encoded in our United Methodist Book of Discipline. This is not a victory until clergy are able to engage in ministry with persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and until the whole body of Christ can be welcomed at the font, the table, and the altar.

So friends, let’s celebrate, for this is good news. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize, too.  Let’s work together to make this spark of hope a burning fire.

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Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.

The Reality Gap: LGBTQ Inclusion and the Constant of Change

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Are You Ready for This?

As my father grew older and his four children found ways well into adulthood to dishevel the order that he seemed to crave for his family, we came to the wise conclusion that “the only constant in life is change.”  Of course if he was talking to one of his children he’d add in the parental warming, “so you better be ready for it!”  Now I’m not advocating for change, for change’s sake; nor am I saying that all change is good and or healthy.  However, history bears out the need for the Church to change as we Christians have continuously misappropriated scriptures and created “atrocities” that harm (or worse) others.  I particularly like the way Mark Sandlin expresses this in his article: Clobbering “Biblical’ Gay Bashing:

“We have used the Bible to support, promote and act upon some pretty un-Christian things: slavery, holocaust, segregation, subjugation of women, apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition (which, no one ever expects), domestic violence, all sorts of exploitation and the list could go onand on… More times than not, these atrocities are the result of trying to play God, pretending as if one group of people has complete knowledge of God's will and is more blessed or chosen by God. Not surprisingly, the people who see the world this way are always exactly the people who also happen to belong in the group they believe to be the uber-blessed.  Time and time again, Jesus made it clear that we should not put ourselves in the place of playing God and that, unlike far too many humans, God welcomes and loves us all equally. Period.”

When the Church realizes we are harming others for the sake of our own perceived righteousness it’s time to discern how God might be leading us to change – and do it.  We need to take action, or the harm continues!  I know we are often reluctant to consider changing our traditional views of where God might be leading us and our understandings of scripture.  However, if we remain faithful to allowing God to lead us, rather than trying to fit God into our boxes, then holy change and leadership are possible.  As Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice."

Yet change is exactly what has been occurring all around us in the United States.  Even within the religious communities the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons.  The most rapid change has been the growing support for marriage equality.  In fact, the change has been so rapid as of late that an interactive map from the Washington Post (“The Changing Landscape of Same-Sex Marriage”) two weeks ago is already 3 states behind due to DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) laws being overturned by the courts.

A Study from "PRRI"…
Public Religion Research Institute Chart on Changing Attitudes...
Last week, I attended the release of a study by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) – A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues.  I arrived early, looked over the provided materials, and immediately went to the section on “Same-sex Marriage and Religion” (pgs. 18 – 22).  What became very apparent is that there is an obvious reality gap between what people actually think and what they perceive their religious group believes about same-sex marriage.  The study reveals more than just changing attitudes towards LGBTQ persons between 2003 and 2013, but also the changing nature of religious belief -  “Nearly 6 in 10 (58%) of Americans agree that religious groups are alienating young people.”  Millennials (ages 18 to 33) may be the most telling generation in that those “who no longer identify with their childhood religion, nearly one-third say that negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people was either a somewhat important (17%) or very important (14%) factor in their disaffiliation from religion.”

The real perception/reality gap for United Methodists comes through exploring what individual Americans believe and how they perceive different religious groups.  While 53% of Americans support gay and lesbian couples being able to marry (a Gallup poll has those who believe same gender loving relations to be morally ok at 59%) and “White mainline Protestants” polled at 62% supportive; “Hispanic Protestants” at 46% supportive; and, “Black Protestants” at 35% supportive… Americans believe that “Non-evangelical Protestant Churches” are only  33% LGBT friendly.  Sadly, “Non-evangelical Protestant Churches” are perceived as the most supportive of the religious groupings.  I wonder, in light of the recent publicity around church trials, how United Methodists might be perceived if a poll were done to break things down to the denominational level?

The Dramatic Change…
"Are you ready for Change?" & "Inclusive Attitudes" rainbow-chart...One other very important factor the study shows us is that in 1993, only 22% of Americans said they had a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian.  In 2013, 65% of Americans have a close friend or family member that is gay or lesbian.  This dramatic change isn’t due to any percentage shift in the number of gay and lesbian people within the US population.  According to a major Gallup study, “among states, the highest percentage (of openly LGBT persons) was in Hawaii (5.1%) and the lowest in North Dakota (1.7%), but all states are within two percentage points of the nationwide average of 3.5%.” Could it be that as people in the US are becoming more willing to talk about issues of sexual orientation, that we are actually getting to know people as people and that is making the most significance in changing attitudes?  Maybe The United Methodist Church should revisit how its current policies have contributed to the silencing of truly holy conversations around human sexuality for the purpose of discerning where God might be leading us on these issues.

The Reality Gap of State Laws and the how the Supreme Court might bridge the gap…
What do Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kansas have in common?  Texas and Oklahoma are just two of many states where state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage (DOMAs) have been declared federally unconstitutional.  Arizona and Kansas are two of several states where the state legislatures have tried to enact “right of refusal laws” for business owners and in some cases, public servants, would be able to refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation.  If one of these “right of refusal laws” actually passes, it will surely be headed, like the state DOMAs, to the Supreme Court.  While there is no way to determine how this Supreme Court will rule, my hope is that the “right of refusal laws” will be struck down on the basis of their attempt at segregation based on sexual orientation.  The question of whether marriage is a federally protected constitutional right for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation; is the unfinished question that Supreme Court kicked back to the states last summer when it struck down the federal DOMA and marriage Prop 8 law in California.

The Reality Gap abroad and how the exportation of prejudice and hate might teach us that we are really a global village…
Russia now has the highest annual number (overtaking Jamaica) of those in the US seeking asylum on the basis of being persecution as LGBT persons.  Combined with increased criminalization laws in numerous countries (like Uganda and Nigeria – 80 countries total), we are most likely coming to see a dramatic increase of LGBT asylum seekers.  This is more than a prediction, as the State Department and new organizations like The LGBT Faith and Asylum Network are preparing for what is already happening.  

Raising more Questions than Answers…
The Reality Gap in The United Methodist Church has broad implications beyond a narrow understanding of discipleship and church membership – These contemporary political discussions lead to some questions about The United Methodist Church:

 

  1. Will we continue to operate under a system of punitive measures and trials when we are in disagreement as to how we are discerning God’s will for The UMC at this point?  
     
  2. Will we allow for Annual Conferences (the basic unit of The UMC) to have some regional flexibility around their understanding of LGBT persons and their role in the life of The UMC, or will we continue to water the seeds of schism that may be taking root?
  3. Now that the Book of Discipline is being turned into a “Global” rule book (¶101) for the UMC, will we start holding Episcopal and denominational leaders accountable for speaking out against anti-LGBT laws in the US and around the world that violate civil and human rights (something we strongly request all United Methodists do – ¶162J & ¶164A)?  
  4. Will the UMC be a place in which faithful Christians who are LGBTQ or who have LGBTQ friends and relatives be welcome to fully participate in the life of the Church and to be disciples of Jesus Christ who seek a transformed world?


I think I’ve created more questions than answers (as preachers often do), but I will leave you with some advice for the journey ahead: “the only constant in life is change, so you better be ready for it!”  However, I would add: Remember that if we remain open to the presence and leadings of God, the change we create, might become something precious and holy.

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Rev. Steve Clunn serves as the Coalition Coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Clergy in the Upper New York Annual Conference, Steve's work at MFSA focuses on coordinating United Methodist caucus groups in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the Church.

 

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