I have not written a blog in quite a while. It takes time and we have been at work together on many other ministries. The sessions of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, however, have caused me to take pause to put down these thoughts.
If my sexuality or sexual orientation or gender identity stands between us in our ability to worship together, we must ask how this topic came up and which of us is making it an issue. If being homosexual is a sin, is it not the church’s role to be a place of invitation for the sinner where God’s word is taught? If being homosexual is not a sin, then it should not be an issue and persons should worship God together without sexuality being a topic. If you feel that you must make your sexual identity known to everyone around you, you should not be surprised when some speak against what you are expressing (in fact, I would suggest that was exactly the response you were hoping to elicit so you could make it an issue). These sentences are not intended to state that we should not be talking about the rights of LGBTQ persons, because the oppression of these persons is real and incompatible with the position of the United Methodist Church on human rights. These sentences instead intend to bring to the forefront the question of what is intended by resolutions being considered. If my race, ethnic heritage, or skin color stands between us in our ability to worship together, we must ask which one of us has the issue. If my past sins, such as immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these (Gal 5:19-21 NAS) stand between us in our ability to worship together, we must ask again, which one of us is making these an issue. Are we trying to decide whose sin is worse or which sins are socially acceptable? We worship a God whose word speaks of his everlasting love for his creation. As Methodists we have a heritage of stating we must agree on the essentials (belief in the Trinity and salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ) while being able to discuss the non-essentials. Declaring something to be incompatible with Christian values does not speak to the orthodoxy of the topic, but to an ethos. Our morals and values are significantly impacted by our cultures and societal norms and mores. Jesus Christ crossed cultural norms by speaking with sinners, gentiles, and the poor. Jesus Christ cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore persons to health and the ability to live in righteousness. Our church, like all churches, is called to be the body of Christ and to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God within our cultural contexts.
This statement does not help the church make a decision about who is qualified to lead as clergypersons, because we should consider that ethos within our cultural contexts. As I move through the process of ordination, I am painfully aware that in some Annual Conferences I might not be ordained because I could be viewed as “too conservative” and in others I could be viewed as “too liberal.” I would have a difficult time serving as the pastor of an ethnic church (written as if being white means I have no ethnic identity) because of my ethnicity, but that would not make me less qualified for ordination. If we understand ordination as something that God does and that is merely ratified by the people of the church, then the lengthy process of education and spiritual formation are ways to equip the ordinand with tools to improve success in speaking and living out God’s word. The tools for theological study permit those who wield them to reach their own conclusions. Within the body of Christ there have been and continue to be many theologians with varying opinions. As Methodists we study excerpts from the Patriarchs, from Calvin, from Luther, and from John Wesley because John Wesley read the works of these theologians, among others, and his ministry was influenced by them. Since John Wesley’s time we have been informed by other theologians, such as Barth, Niebuhr, Bultmann, Bonhoffer, Patinga, Outler, and more. These theologians guide us to new and deeper understandings of God through observations of how God works in human existence.
If we are not prepared to call homosexuality a heresy, what business have we as a church to call it contrary to Christian faith. If homosexuality is a heresy, then so ought divorce and adultery be considered heretical. If these are sins and not heresies, why do we struggle with whether the sinner should be permitted to lead a congregation? We can read in the New Testament (Romans 5:8 among other places) that we have all sinned (and perhaps confessing that would help the conversation), so it should not be news that we already have sinners leading congregations. Are we then trying to determine what types of sins should be allowed amongst our leaders? In our United Methodist tradition our bishops and superintendents determine who should be appointed to lead specific congregations. In our Annual Conference we have seen clergy of Mexican heritage appointed to historically white congregations for the purpose of starting a new congregation of Mexican immigrants and descendants as reflects the surrounding community. We have clergypersons whose sexual orientation is known among other clergy and laity, but is not discussed because that person is an effective spokesperson for God. The bishops who make appointments have many factors to consider in selecting who is the right leader for a congregation. One’s sexual orientation and how that would be received in the community are of relatively lesser importance among those factors.
In honesty, many of those persons who fear homosexuality are afraid of things that the vast majority of homosexuals don’t like either; exploitation of minor children, rape, undesired sexual advances, sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuity, infidelity, broken trust, abuse. There is a perception among some that homosexual acts are perversion of the sexual relationship intended by God, while there are others who do not hold that opinion. There is little scientific data to substantiate or refute predilection toward homosexuality and perversion is a judgment of morality (at one time and still in some communities, sex in a position other than "missionary" is considered perversion). There are real issues that homosexuals must deal with that heterosexuals do not; misunderstanding, bigotry, fear. Interracial heterosexual relationships were once viewed with the same misunderstanding, bigotry, and fear as homosexual relationships are viewed today, and while the vast majority of Americans have accepted the normalcy of interracial marriage today, there remain some people who will never accept it and will continue to teach their children in that way. As we listen to persons who speak of their struggles to reconcile their sexual orientation or gender identification with their Christian faith, we have to consider the implications of our own sexual orientation and decisions (premarital sex, extra-marital affairs, promiscuity, pornography viewing, masturbation, etc). Perhaps we have never given that thought, but the homosexual person has been forced to consider these because they are the realities of secular and spiritual life. Each of us should consider the implications of our behaviors in light of God’s word and make our decisions about how we will live out God’s love, seeking forgiveness for those times when we have missed the mark.
It is the prerogative of every organization to establish its own rules and guidelines. It is imperative for persons to make a decision about joining an organization based on its established rules. It is disingenuous to join an organization stating that one will uphold its polity but with the intent to change it. It is right, in fact imperative, for members to strive to change what is wrong within an organization or dissociate from it. While at General Conference we may not make the changes some would hope for and conversely we may make concessions and changes that some would oppose, may we strive to find the middle ground that expresses God’s love for us without judgment of morality? The bickering and name calling (from both sides) is contrary to our historical traditions and hurtful to the denomination as a whole. Pope Francis has given guidance to the Roman Catholic Church in his words that makes the church invitational to homosexuals without having given a moral statement about whether it is right or wrong. Should we be so different? Should we exclude from the church those who think homosexuality is a sin by making a statement that says it is not? Can we rightly continue to apparently exclude homosexuals? I don’t personally believe that I must plant a rainbow sign in front of the church building to be invitational to the LGBTQ community because it is simultaneously exclusionary to a larger segment of society that may also want to worship in this place. Instead, I believe the teaching of God’s word and a sincere welcome by God’s people will do far more. At all cost, let us not replace words that exclude one group with words that exclude another. In all things, let us Love Like Jesus.