Affirming Christianity

One of the benefits of having so many new visitors to the blog is that I am discovering broken links!

For a long time, one of the websites listed under “Sarah’s other writing” has been a blog that I contributed several articles to in 2012. This blog, “Affirming Christianity,” was convened by a seminarian in Wales, and I was the only contributor from “across the pond.” The common thread among the contributors was our hope for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life and ministries of the church.

Several people clicked through on this link, or tried to, only to discover that the link went nowhere. So I’ve deleted Affirming Christianity from my list of other writing.

The easy thing to do would be to just let this pass without mentioning it, given that I have so many new readers from across the United Methodist spectrum. But that would be dishonest.  Not that my convictions have not changed since 2012. Instead, I feel even more strongly that the church has too often offered a poor witness in its treatment of sexual minorities.

Particularly in this post, I’m focusing on the “LGB” in LGBTQ — same sex loving people whose love has been labelled “sin.”

The reasons for my convictions are many, but I began on this journey when I was in the third grade: I was given a Bible by my church, and I began reading it. I read it voraciously. And while I spent most of my time reading and re-reading the gospels and Genesis, I left no part untouched. And I discovered something in Genesis: we are responsible for one another. And I discovered something in the Gospels: Jesus put the real lives of real people above the strict observance of any rules.

Here’s one example of this: each of the four gospels records stories of Jesus healing people on the sabbath.[1] Arguably, if Jesus is God Incarnate, then everything he did in life is significant – he need only have broken the sabbath once in order for us to discern some lesson pertaining to this rule. However, Jesus heals on the sabbath so frequently, he seems almost to have gone out of his way to break the sabbath in this way, to the consternation of the religious authorities. On another occasion, when his disciples were plucking grain to eat on the sabbath, Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”[2] Keeping the sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and doing any kind of work on the sabbath was punishable by death.[3] But Jesus was repeatedly much more interested in what the impact of this rule was on actual human beings. (If you are interested in reading more about Jesus’ sabbath healings, check out this article by Morgan Guyton in Ministry Matters.)

There are a lot of “rules” in the Bible. And a lot of them we ignore for various reasons, and other ones we observe strictly. Now, imagining that there is a “rule” in the Scriptures against same-sex intimacy (which is arguable, but I’ll concede it for the purpose of explaining the first step of me getting to where I am with respect to same-gender loving people), Jesus’ regular refusal to strictly observe the Sabbath gives us a model for reading this (or any) rule: Following the example of Jesus, our first thought when we encounter a rule in Scripture ought not to be, “Obviously, God desires for us to always follow this rule!” Instead, Jesus’ own behavior invites us to ask, “How will the unilateral application of this rule impact the lives of actual human beings?”

If you have sat across the table from someone crying as she recounts having been rejected by her pastor as a teenager after confiding that she was attracted to other women…

If you have known someone abundantly gifted for ministry who could no longer serve because he wanted to marry another man (knowing that choosing between marriage and ministry would never be demanded of a person who wanted to marry someone of a different gender)…

If you have heard story after story of straight women who were married to closeted gay men (men who could not acknowledge that they were gay because they were good Christians, and “good Christians aren’t gay”)…

If you have encountered people with stories like these, then you know the answer to this question. How do the exclusionary policies of the UMC impact the lives of actual human beings? It separates them from their church community, it deprives the church of their good gifts, it alienates them from God. It is not the love of some people for others of the same gender that does this. It is the rule that calls this love “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Like the UMC Book of Discipline, the Bible can be read as a book of rules that must not be broken. When the Bible is seen as a rulebook, then prooftexting is bound to happen – Christians will read for the rules. Perhaps it is not surprising that a denomination with so many pages of rules tends to view the Bible as a book of rules when it comes to determining whether it is a sin for two people of the same gender to have sex. Finding a place in the Bible where this kind of sex is apparently forbidden or labeled as sin makes rule-oriented Christians feel more comfortable – they feel they have a clear “answer.” But what if “sin” does not mean “breaking ‘the rules’”? What if sin is something else altogether? What if sin is about our relationship with Jesus? What if we sin when we obstruct others’ relationships with Jesus?

Long before I had heard the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual, long before the word polysexual had even been coined, my scripture reading was informing my answers to those last four questions. It still does.

[1] Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:2-5; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-11; 9:1-16

[2] Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

[3] Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14-15

Homecoming

Two years ago, when I decided to take a break from the United Methodist Church, I wrote about the decision both on this blog, and on another blog convened by a friend of mine from Wales. I also wrote about my feelings of being “in exile” in the Episcopalian church – still identifying with the theology and history of Methodism, but unable to continue participating in a church culture that denied many called and gifted friends of mine – denied them an opportunity to use their gifts in service to the United Methodist Church. They needed to be honest about their desire to partner with someone of the same gender, but the church denied that it was possible for their relationships to be as blessed and life-giving as the best partnerships between men and women.

That is, the church denied it in a legal sense. The question was put to a vote – are United Methodist Christians, after prayerful scriptural discernment, still divided on “the issue of homosexuality” ? The majority at General Conference 2012 voted to deny that this is so. And since, by the law of the United Methodist Church enshrined in the Book of Discipline, one can only speak for the United Methodist Church by using those words that the General Conference votes on by majority rule, we are left with the awkward ability to assert: “The United Methodist Church has chosen not to tell the truth about how individuals associated with the church feel about same-sex relationships.” Because, after all, the vote was not unanimous. Not even nearly so. Which means that the rejected motion was precisely correct as written – while the majority of United Methodists have decided that same-sex relationships go against what God desires for us, there is a sizable minority that disagrees.

If you read my post from 2 years ago, “Invisible Methodist,” you can see how my thinking has shifted slightly on this topic. Then, I interpreted the Conference’s decision to be declaring that I, and others who agreed with me, were not thoughtful, “Bible-believing” Christians – not, in fact, United Methodists. But now, I have decided that I was disempowering myself and the rest of those who think like me by granting this power to General Conference. I had not considered the other possibility: The General Conference, and so The Book of Discipline (and thereby, from a church law perspective, the United Methodist Church) can lie. And that is what the church elected to do that day.

Denominations are fallen institutions. The United Methodist Church is not the only group with a prevarication problem. But it’s my family, and so they are the group I am concerned with at the moment.

I’m sharing this now because I am long overdue to announce: I am back with the United Methodist Church. There is a sense in which I never left, in that the entire time that I was worshipping with the Episcopalians I never officially joined the Episcopalian Church. I was following UMC news, staying in touch with UMC pastors, and reading and writing for UMC publications. But insofar as my family officially has been attending Duke Memorial UMC since before Advent, and as we joined a couple of months ago, I am connected with a local UMC congregation again.

In the midst of the ongoing debate about whether the UMC will divide over the issue of relationships between persons of the same gender, I have hesitated to announce this new congregational affiliation on the blog. I do not want for this personal action to be reinterpreted as a witness against schism. I have done no such thing. Indeed, I do not know how long a “union” can last when one group feels compelled to hide the very existence of people who disagree – or at least chooses to deny that any folks who disagree with them (including their fellow church members) are really Christian. Instead, I have decided that I shall no longer allow a narrow majority of Conference delegates be the ones to determine whether or not I am “really” Methodist. Though I have returned to United Methodist congregational life, I will not be silent when I feel that those who lead us are moving in the wrong direction.

I enjoyed my sojourn with the Episcopalians at St. Luke’s – they are a delightful family of committed Christians, and it was a privilege to be invited to join in their common life. I miss weekly Eucharist, and weekly coffee hour, and the kneelers… I miss the dear sisters and brothers I met there. But I felt called back into the happy mess that is United Methodism in the American South. I have returned to the place that, more than anywhere else, is my earthly home.

Better start swimmin’

Some of you may be aware that, while I am currently attending an Episcopal church, I retain my membership in the United Methodist Church, and consider myself a “Methodist in exile.”  You may also be aware of the decisions made at last year’s General Conference that precipitated my decision to leave the United Methodist congregation that had been my church home since returning to Durham – the congregation in which my daughter was baptized.

Just yesterday, my former pastor wrote to me with news of the recent gathering of the North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  He knew that I would be interested in a resolution that was brought to the floor by the Youth Conference, and that passed by a wide margin.  It is worthwhile to quote Resolution #3 in its entirety:

Resolution 3: Concerning the General Conference’s Decision Regarding Homosexuality

WHEREAS, according to The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and,

WHEREAS, two “agree to disagree” proposals were soundly defeated during separate votes by the nearly 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Tampa, Fla, therefore keeping the previous language unchanged [1], and

WHEREAS, “One proposal would have changed the Book of Discipline to say that gays and lesbians are “people of sacred worth” and that church members differ about “whether homosexual practices (are) contrary to the will of God” [1] and,

WHEREAS, at least 15 regional Annual Conferences have already rejected the denomination’s stance on homosexuality [2], and

WHEREAS, when asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers [3], and

WHEREAS, “The gay issue has become the ‘big one’, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays…has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith” (Kinnaman, David, unChristian) and,

WHEREAS, “one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends” (Kinnaman, David, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith)

WHEREAS the 61st Annual Conference Session of the United Methodist Youth Fellowship of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, acknowledge that the church is divided on this issue but feel that such language is harmful not only to the groups that it attacks but to the future of the church, as such language is alienating to both present and future members.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we implore the General Conference to change the language used in The Social Principles, and to affirm the place of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) members within the church, lest they risk losing not only those members but any and all members with family or friends who are LGBT.

THEREFORE, BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that copies of this resolution be sent to the General Board of Church and Society and the Council of Bishops.

As my home conference of Virginia begins their Annual Conference in Hampton this afternoon, I am disappointed that a similar resolution is not even on the agenda for consideration. Perhaps next year Virginia will join the growing numbers of U.S. regional annual conferences that are speaking up in opposition to the actions of General Conference last year?  It is hard to say.  But it does seem that momentum is growing for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the United Methodist church (in the U.S. at least.)

I will continue to prayerfully consider where God is calling me to be at this time – with my Bible in one hand, and Bob Dylan in the other:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’