Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Name:
Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.

5/27/2005

Inch by inch - a report from annual conference

It is annual conference season here in the birthplace of American Methodism. We are meeting in a fine hotel in Baltimore, the city where the first Methodist conference in America –ever– was held at Lovely Lane Methodist Church in 1784. The accommodations back then were, I’m sure, less luxurious.

My congregation presented a resolution to annual conference this year. (For the text of our resolution, see p. 41-2 of the pdf here.) A group of our members started working on the resolution last summer after General Conference had ended. People from other churches joined in the work. Folk put countless hours into preparing and refining the resolution, garnering support for it, and planning for its presentation.

Our resolution passed, so I suppose I should be happy.

Because someone called for a vote count, we even know that it passed by a vote of 587 to 327 (about 63 percent of those voting). Yet I find myself somewhat depleted.

I know we should be celebrating. A lot happened here today that should encourage those of us who dream of an inclusive church. A group of bright, accomplished men and women, who had plenty of other things they could have done with their time, cared enough about the United Methodist Church to prepare a resolution for annual conference. They wrote clear interpretative materials and handed out leaflets to conference delegates. They prepared themselves to speak on the floor of conference and then spoke articulately and movingly. Some made themselves vulnerable far beyond the call of reasonable expectation.

Our folk, and all those who supported this resolution, should feel a deep sense of satisfaction and achievement. I do not mean to diminish what happened today in any way. Our folk did exceptional work. This was a great advance in the movement toward reconciliation. The angels are cheering.

But, still, when the well-deserved hoorays and yippees are over, I am left with a touch of pain in my heart.

One reason for this is that 327 delegates voted against our resolution even though we made it as mild, moderate, open and non-confrontational as we could imagine. Our resolution was practically innocuous. It simply called for dialogue within our conference about issues concerning people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender orientations.

This is something so mainstream that even the 2004 General Conference encouraged us to do it. General Conference passed the report of the Task Force on Homosexuality and the Unity of the Church which concluded: “Be it further resolved that the 2004 General Conference encourages further dialogue throughout The United Methodist Church designed with worship at the center to lead to greater understanding, love, and care for each other, and with the hope that our struggles with these concerns will take a more civil character to the benefit of all.”

Yet 327 delegates to our annual conference voted against “greater understanding, love and care for each other.”

Admittedly, we added a tad more specificity than the General Conference resolution had included, but nothing radical: Each district of our conference would hold dialogues; the first ones would be held in 2005; local churches would be provided with resources to enable dialogues; and LGBT people would be included in the dialogues so that United Methodists are talking with each other rather than about each other.

It was a tame, reasonable resolution. So how can it be that 327 delegates to our annual conference, almost 40 percent, voted against dialogue with other United Methodist Christians?

After listening to the discussion and seeing the vote, I have concluded that more than 300 members of our conference would have voted against any resolution whatsoever with the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender” in it. If our resolution had said: “Be it resolved that we smile at people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender orientations,” 300 delegates would have voted against it.

In some ways it feels worse than 25 years ago. The hostility and coldness on the part of these 300 delegates seems harder and meaner than it used to be. Or maybe I was just expecting people to have become more understanding and accepting by now. I suspect, however, some people have just become more autocratically doctrinaire, less thoughtful and reasonable, determined to “hold the line.”

The other reason I am discouraged is because so many of the speeches against our resolution were insulting and mean. There were a lot of references to “the homosexual lifestyle.” What’s that? Oh, I know –we all know– what references to “the homosexual lifestyle” are meant to imply: that gay people are promiscuous and intemperate, sex machines. This is a stereotype. This is a straight people's fantasy.

Delegates speaking against our resolution seemed to have no difficulty painting all LGBT people with the same brush. They mouthed stereotypes as their justification for why they did not need to be in dialogue with real people, making it obvious why dialogue with real people is so important. But they themselves could not see this. It is hard not to think that the reason they were resisting dialogue and conversation is because they have made up their minds and want to make sure reality doesn’t intrude.

Even more distressing and hurtful were those delegates who bluntly called LGBT people sick or immoral. Several speeches against our resolution went something like this: If we are going to have dialogue with gays, then why don’t we have dialogue with pathological liars, addicts, alcoholics, murderers, and adulterers? Now, personally I would not be opposed to having dialogue with any of these folk. In fact, I am pretty sure some of the above were in the room today.

But to thoughtlessly group sister and brother United Methodists who are prayerfully seeking to discern what it means to be followers of Jesus in their LGBT bodies with pathological liars and murderers is crude, mean, and mindless. It is –to use an old term– pharisaical. Save us.

One pastor who spoke against our resolution was poignant. Her son is, as she put it, “a homosexual.” She said she loves her son, but she is afraid he will go to hell unless he repents of his sexual orientation. “I love my son, but can't tell him I agree with his lifestyle," she said. "If I am wrong, I've lost nothing. If he's wrong, he's lost everything."

I fear she has misread Scripture. If Matthew 25:31-46 is right, we will be judged precisely by the way we have treated others and by whether we have been compassionate. To cruelly tell someone that he or she is going to hell for loving authentically just because she or he is different from straight folk may well be spiritually risky. Her assumption that she can say anything she wants about gay people, including her own son, and justify it by interpreting the Bible anyway she wants, no matter how facile, and it would not matter, seems to me biblically questionable.

Well, I need to remember that this is a long struggle, and we took a step forward today. I also need to remember that when you lance an old festering wound, what comes out is not always pleasant. So let me not get bogged down in the negatives.

We did well today and the church has moved at least a tiny step closer to the love of Christ.

5 Comments:

Blogger Douglas said...

Thanks, Dean, for your report and thanks to your church for sponsoring the resolution.

The incidences of stereotyping on the floor of Annual Conference are, as you know, nothing new. In fact, they reminded me again of Robert Gagnon's book "The Bible and Homosexual Practice." In the beginning he mentions the fact that an "out" gay man attends his church and comments that he (Gagnon) doesn't know "who is witnessing to whom." Later, when he talks about "doing the loving thing," he says that it's not loving to affirm "that lifestyle" that leads to early death as well as puts one's soul in eternal jeopardy. Never does he indicate that he has ever talked directly to his gay brother about homosexuality or his "lifestyle" to see if his assumption about the "gay lifestyle" can find any support from the empirical evidence close at hand. So stereotyping is clearly affirmed at all levels of the church, from the least to the most "educated."

I also experienced this stereotyping firsthand just within the last two weeks. I had come out three years ago in a previous church as a celibate gay man who is an ordained elder in the UMC. When I was introduced to the PPRC of my present church two years ago, I told them upfront that I am gay, that my "coming out" at the previous church had been covered in the Northern Illinois Conference edition of the UM Reporter (therefore, all clergy and many laypersons in the conference churches know about it), and that I would be sharing that information with this congregation more generally once they had had the chance to get to know me. The PPRC members responded with what I would call resignation, agreeing that, if it was so widely known already, it would be better for the congregation to hear it from me rather than to be blindsided by the information coming into the church from elsewhere.

Last fall, when I mentioned to the PPRC that I thought it had been long enough for people to get to know me and that it was time for me to share more widely about my homosexuality, the red flags went up and whistles blew, and I was warned that if I shared the information, key givers were going to leave the church, and I'd be responsible for closing the church because of that.

As a result, I waited until two weeks ago to share with the congregation, as they all know I will be leaving at the end of June; so if any of them leaves because they don't want to be pastored by a "gay pastor" (though they have been for the past 22 months!), they can stay away for the next 6 weeks, after which they will have a nice heterosexual man in the pulpit. (As it turns out, though, his mother is a lesbian in a committed relationship, but I don't know that any of them knows that yet.)

After coming out to the congregation on May 15 (yes, Pentecost Sunday - the Spirit just took hold of me, and I spoke the words almost in spite of myself), no one said a word, yea or nay, to me afterward. On May 22 I met with the adult Sunday school class (4 elderly women) and asked them directly what they thought of my sharing. One had been on the PPRC when I arrived two years ago, and she said my being gay doesn't diminish her appreciation for my ministry. The one that surprised me was a woman who has very much appreciated my ministry to her (and her husband prior to his death last fall). She seemed rather tentative in her comments at first, saying she was bothered by my sharing what I did, and after a bit of questioning, she said that she "just doesn't agree with that style of life." I pointed out to her that I am living my life in accord with the Book of Discipline, so I wasn't quite sure what "style of life" she didn't quite agree with; but she didn't have an answer for that. I knew, of course, exactly to what she was referring.

Last year I contacted the UM Publishing House for sales data on "The Church Studies Homosexuality". In the 11 years since the material was published, they have sold fewer than 30,000 copies of the student booklet in a denomination of 8 million. Interestingly enough, even Gagnon's book hasn't reached sales of 10,000 after 4 years on the market. What this suggests to me is that the Church *doesn't* talk about homosexuality - at least not in public. In fact, after that first PPRC meeting at my current church, the chairperson told me that "they" had always thought (erroneously, as I later discovered) that the pastor who preceded me was gay, because he was in his 50s and had never married, he was very close to his mother, he subscribed to the opera, and he had a cat. (That, I suppose, is another of those "gay lifestyles".) So the Church doesn't *talk* about homosexuality, but it *gossips* about it - a lot.

One thing I have come to realize about my coming out is that it is not that others are not talking, or at least speculating, about my being gay - they are. The thing I believe upsets people most about my coming out is that *I* am claiming the right to speak openly about my homosexuality, and I'm not letting them have sole rights to making it a topic of conversation on their own terms, which is what they have had up until I - or any of us - come out.

I will be interested to know how your resolution is carried out. My experience, and my conference's experience, with such discussions suggests that the people who most want change will come out to talk, and those (327) who don't, won't. It will take more than just passing a resolution to get our bigoted brother and sister UMs into a conversation with us, and yet I wish you well in the implementation phase.

Doug Asbury

8:10 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Douglas,

Thanks for your sharing and your willingness to be honest and vulnerable -- at personal risk and at the pain of experiencing the rejection of folk you care for. People's reactions are quite strange, it seems to me, and somewhat unpredictable. But I am confident that individuals like you will help us along the way more than anything. I will try to let you and others know how this resolution we just passed goes. Let us know about your new appointment.

Dean

9:32 PM  
Blogger Napoleon said...

Dean,

I have come to the conclusion that people are "dialogued" out. If one feels that everything that needs to be said has been said, then what are we still talking about? Are more words going to change your mind on homosexual ordination? I don't think so. Maybe if we said the dialogue will last only one more year, or two more years, and then it will be over, people would see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think we are experiencing dialogue fatigue.

11:55 AM  
Blogger John Wilks said...

Dean,

While I regret that some folks are blantantly homophobic rather than lovingly traditional, I suspect Napoleon is correct.

Our denomination has covered this ground again and again, with the same results every time. Given the growth in the South Central and South Eastern areas and the massive growth overseas combined with shrinking churches in the West and Northeast, I doubt the result will change.

I admire your passion, but the people of the UMC have spoken quite loudly and clearly on the matter time and time again.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Napoleon and John

I am reading U.S. Methodist history these days. It is amazing the number of issues Methodists thought we had settled that would not go away until we changed our minds. I suspect the work of the Spirit is in this. So I remain hopeful.

I do worry about the possibility that people are dialogued out. Certainly dialogue will not change my mind but it might help me understand why folk would not want an effective pastor who happened to be gay. Understanding this might help us address people's worries.

6:10 PM  

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