Facebook is blowing up…the Church is blowing up….ok, maybe not literally, but it seems like everyone is just on the edge of something big happening with all this talk of possible schism due to “irreconcilable differences regarding human sexuality”, those fighting for unity, and those who are standing in the middle wondering where in the world to turn next. And then there are those who are simply throwing their hands up about the whole thing and threatening to walk away altogether. I find myself in the midst of a personal struggle with the whole thing, really trying to figure out exactly where I stand as far as what the future of the church should be or will be.
For starters, I love the United Methodist Church. The theology, history, connectionalism, the joy I feel when I am surrounded by colleagues who love their churches and are excited about their ministries and what God is doing, the relationships that have kept me grounded and guided me because of the United Methodist Church, and the congregations that are all different, but are bound together by the Wesleyan spirit that connects us all…the fact that we still love each other even though we are not of one mind…I love my congregation that is inclusive and loving of our LGBT families…all of these things and more are why I love the United Methodist Church.
The one thing I do NOT love, however, is how the UMC has treated our LGBT brothers and sisters as a whole. In the end, it’s all about how we interpret scripture, how we understand human sexuality, and for some, what is understood as “sin.” It is about how we understand God to be at work in our lives and ever evolving culture today. This blog post is not about how I understand scripture or the other topics mentioned- rather, it is about what I hope for and wonder about for the future of the denomination. I pray for a church that will fully embrace and include these persons as sacred worth as our Discipline states, while welcoming and acknowledging ALL persons who are called to ministry and I pray for a church that will embrace the sacredness of marriage between heterosexual and homosexual persons and celebrates love in all its forms.
The reality is that I do not think this will happen. Every 4 years at General Conference, the global church meets to make decisions and changes within our polity and structure. In the over 40 years of this battle raging on, hardly a dent has been made. The reality is that the church has spoken, and again and again, we are back to where we started and the discriminating language remains. So where does that leave those of us who long for a fully inclusive church?
Over the past few weeks, there have been some interesting developments, starting with a document signed by 80 clergy from large churches who are advocating schism in the denomination over the issue. This started a series of documents being passed around and signed at Annual Conferences that are advocating for continued unity in the denomination despite the disagreements on the issue. Furthermore, 2 key pastors in the denomination, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, released their statement about a possible way forward, which would include local churches making the decision on whether or not to accept gay clergy and/or allow same-sex weddings within their own church. Many see this as a possible solution to stay together, but to allow some “wiggle room” perhaps. I’ve read these statements and still find myself yet to say, “Yes! This is it! This is what will fix everything!” I have no answers, nor do I think that anyone has THE answer or a great answer, but at least some are trying. I can find some hope in that.
I hear the prayer of Jesus that we may be one as he and the Father are one, and the quote of John Wesley, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
The church split before over slavery. Years later, we look back and those who split over that realized they were wrong in even fighting to keep slavery!
Will history repeat itself? Will we look back and realize that we were wrong in splitting over an issue that belittles and discriminates against others?
I don’t think I want the denomination to split. But I also don’t know if I can continue to be part of a denomination that actively chooses again and again to discriminate and exclude others. That’s not Jesus to me.
So I find myself somewhere in the middle, watching and waiting- praying for guidance. Praying for God to enter into hearts on all sides of the debate.
Right now, here are the options as I am seeing them:
1) The UMC splits. One group will becoming “Reconciling” or “Inclusive” or “Progressive,” whichever language works. The other will become “Confessing” or “Traditional” or to mirror what I said before, “Exclusive” (YIKES!) (Is my bias showing?) This will have a huge and lasting impact on the church as a whole, but most heartbreakingly, the people in the pews. My little church is an inclusive, progressive, loving and welcoming church. We are the only church in our little town who welcomes, invites, and embraces persons of all sexual orientations. If the UMC were to split, where would they go? What would they do? What would I as their pastor do?
2) The UMC finds ways to re-structure so that particular regions or parts of the country will become fully inclusive of LGBT persons in the church, including marriage and ordination. (Again, heartbreaking and messy for people in the pews).
3) The structure will change so that the Annual Conferences will decide in which direction they will go (this would probably come down to a messy and heartbreaking vote for many Annual Conferences.) This would allow current clergy to perhaps transfer conferences if they wish to be a UM pastor who is able to be a part of same-sex weddings and will open LGBT clergy with open arms. (Again, people in the pews would feel the brunt of this, particularly those who want a progressive pastor…in some Annual Conferences, for example, there may be no one to be found if people begin to leave for other areas).
4) As the Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter document suggests, the structure would change to allow the local congregation to make the decision on whether or not to accept gay clergy or allow same-sex weddings in the church. This document has many holes, and it neglects the fact that it would still come down to an Annual Conference vote (a messy one). It also negates the fact that UM clergy are expected to itinerate and this would be a mess for cabinets and District Superintendents to figure out where to put everyone while being sensitive to these issues. It would basically still be a split of the church- just under a smaller and more complicated umbrella.
5) The UMC stays exactly how it is, and we drop the whole thing altogether. There was an article out in the midst of this that people in the pews are more concerned about making disciples for Jesus Christ (which is, after all, our mission statement) than the topic of human sexuality. This says to me that perhaps we are neglecting our people in the pews who are simply tired of all the fighting between clergy and church leadership. They want their leaders to focus more on making disciples, rather than fighting over sexuality. Perhaps the whole debate has been one big distraction from our true mission. Perhaps. But I still think it’s too big to ignore or drop. Our culture and society is changing to the point where in 50 years from now (or even less), to be gay will be a non-issue. Where will the church be then? Still fighting over a non-issue? Sure sounds a lot like what happened when we fought over women in ministry and slavery. Again, history repeating itself.
I don’t know what the best solution is. But I do know that we have not stumbled upon it yet. Let’s keep trying. Let’s keep hoping. Let’s keep having faith in a God that can overcome all obstacles and look beyond our judgments and anger. Let’s keep being the church and not lose our focus in the midst of so much distraction. Let’s keep loving as Jesus loves. That’s a good place to start.
Other interesting reads about this topic: