Recently 33 retired United Methodist Bishops issued a statement that calls the church to reconsider Paragraph 304.3 from The Book of Discipline (2008)
“…the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
In the statement they raise a number of issues such as the gifts and graces for ministry that God has given all people, the loss of members due to this position (including many of the younger generation), the closeting of gay and lesbian pastors who are already in our system, the draining of the energy of bishops who disagree with the paragraph and are required to live in a way that is contrary to their convictions, the conflict between upholding the Book of Discipline and caring for effective gay or lesbian pastors, the call for greater flexibility from some seminary leaders, and the stress it places upon gay and lesbian pastors who feel called to seek ministry in the UMC but have to choose between leaving, staying and praying or challenging the BOD and accepting punitive actions.
1) Thanksgiving for freedom of speech.
I am grateful that the United Methodist Church practices tolerance and allows all parts of the body, be they bishops, pastors or church members, to state the official beliefs of the church and then they are free to give their opinion and share their convictions. We are a people of Holy Conferencing and dialog. God’s revelation is ongoing and it happens best through civil conversations, prayer and the expression of differences of opinion. Think about the early church when Gentiles were first “allowed” to be Christians or when our annual conferences became desegregated or when women were first ordained. In each case a change was happening as people listened to each other, prayed and discerned.
Some of our social issues, though already enacted into church law, are still in the process of debate. Since I became a bishop I have not had an appointment season yet that I haven’t heard from a church informing me that “you can’t send us a woman pastor.” We continue to have conversation and work together. But we work with each other in love and gentleness. The issue of homosexuality is an important dialog for the church in the 21st century. There would not be so much energy and polarization if it were not vitally necessary not only for to the church but for our souls as well. Social justice concerns are never easy as people of good will stand on both sides on this issue. Nonetheless, I believe we need to be in this dialog.
2) ”Compatibility Mode” sentences.
The Social Principles which state that the UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching also states: “all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” It goes on to say “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (Paragraph 161f).
On my computer I have several versions of Microsoft Word. When I send files out on a newer version I hear back from people with computers using different operating systems who say they cannot open my attachments. I send it again in “Compatibility Mode” and it can be read by everyone, no matter what kind of computer they have. I consider the statements I just quoted about welcoming, forgiving, loving and not to reject or condemn are our United Methodist “Compatibility Mode” rules for living. Can we try that? Is God glorified when we go to General Conference and groups from opposing views stand on either side of the street protesting against the other? Aren’t Christians supposed to be the models for the world on how to get along with each other? It is easy to pick a side and say “my side is right and your side is wrong.” Instead let’s do the hard work of compatibility and peacemaking.
3) Truth embraces the whole.
Homosexuality and the church is a difficult issue because each “side” of this debate has a piece of the truth that the other needs. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.” The scriptures are full of these polarities of truth: faith and works, grace and law, predestination and free will, “today you will be with me in Paradise” and “on the last day the dead in Christ shall rise first.” Holiness and hospitality don’t have to be in conflict with one another. In the amazing world of God’s truth they complement one another. Paul reminds us “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I don’t need you.” (I Corinthians 12: 21a) My prayer is that we stop “othering” the side we don’t agree with out of love for Christ and out of a deep desire for the full truth. May we humbly acknowledge that this “other” side has something to offer us personally in our spiritual walk with the Lord and seek to dialog about it.
I like the 3rd verse of that great hymn of the church “The Church’s One Foundation.” It states “though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, ‘How long?’ And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.” (BOH 545) May we sing on that morning when the heresy of “my side is the only way” ends and schisms give way to true Christian unity.
4) Keep the main thing the main thing.
The ‘main thing” of course, is “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We need to agree on a main purpose for our church and seek unity that allows us to do this in the most effective way. The practice of constant fighting one another destroys our witness and slows down the central mission. Reaching all people for Christ is the goal, not just some people, not just the ones we agree with, who look like us, act like us, and live like us.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement, had such a spirit. According to the Oxford Diaries he came to the aid of a prisoner by the name of Thomas Blair who was charged with a homosexual offence. Out of Wesley’s concern for the eternal soul of this man, he ministered to him spiritually and proactively. He read to him, contacted his attorney, and did some legal writing. This ministry drew a good bit of criticism from the church but Wesley continued to help Blair anyway because of his passion for the gospel and for social justice. When the gospel is the main goal we preach and teach the gospel and we don’t need to choose who is deserving or worthy of our ministry. God will sort it all out.
5) Call to confession and prayer.
Ask God to call to mind the times when we have harmed a brother or a sister by our judgmental words and deeds. I remember being told by a well-meaning and concerned Christian that I was an “abomination” because I was a woman pastor. I understood his theology and his interpretation of scripture but it hurt anyway. I can think of times when I have judged those who disagree with my position on a particular issue and I ask God to forgive me. God is the judge, not us, and when we judge others we stand in line to be judged by a God who sees all. Pray for illumination on this issue and seek guidance on how God wants you to personally respond as we prepare for another General Conference in 2012. Pray with thanksgiving for the gifts that all parts of the Body of Christ bring to the table. Don’t pray that this struggle goes away. Pray that the struggle will bring us to a better day of inclusiveness and understanding for all.