Unity in the midst of theological diversity is by far the most difficult task of the church. It is also the most deeply converting witness to the world when people DO get along with one another. Why else did Jesus pray in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 17) for unity for his followers on the night before his death? He well knew the power of unity among believers and how humans struggle with it. This is very true at this moment in the United Methodist Church.
A look at the early church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, shows it does not take long for the church to be embroiled in interpersonal angst. It began with the issue of who gets served at the daily distribution of food (Acts 6). Then Stephen is stoned to death for theological disagreements with the religious leaders of his time (Acts 7). Peter gets into a hot debate with his fellow Christians over Gentile conversions (Acts 11). Similarly, Paul and Barnabas are questioned about the acceptance of Gentiles in something resembling a session of General Conference in Acts 15. It boils down to “who is IN and who is OUT.”
The history of humanity is a continuous, unhappy saga of self-centeredness. None of us are exempt from the sin of believing our people, our beliefs, our way, our spin on things is the right and only way. Along with this attitude comes criticism of those on the “other” side.
Now at this time in our denomination's history the practice of homosexuality, the ordination of lesbian and gay pastors and the performing of same-gender weddings are the issues that divide us most. American society is turning increasingly toward open acceptance as more states issue same-gender marriage licenses, the armed forces have ended their don't ask, don't tell policy, and popular media depicts positive examples of LGTBQ people on a daily basis.
The UM Book of Discipline states both negative and positive statements about the LGBTQ community, and with that comes a good deal of confusion, frustration and division. Out of one book comes a call for equal rights, protection of rights, love, acceptance and grace but also a stiff line of condemnation, rejection and rules that forbid LGBTQ persons to marry or minister in our churches.
The resolution of a complaint against one who has committed a chargeable offense is also outlined in the Book of Discipline. (Paragraph 363). In every case the goal is to reach a “Just Resolution.” A church trial is only to be used as a last resort. When a “Just Resolution” between the complainant and respondent cannot be reached the case may be dismissed or turned over to the counsel for the church. A secular-type court setting is far from an ideal environment to settle disputes within the Body of Christ, but it is all we have to work with based on our Book of Discipline. Trials on actions involving LGBTQ persons create a huge amount of publicity for the cause of promoting progressive views, and they have caused many people to be furious with the UMC. People are outraged over the plight of this pastor who was on trial for performing a wedding ceremony for his son.
More than 300 letters, emailed messages and petitions have been sent to me expressing deep anger and disgust over the trial. All of them came from people on the progressive side of the house who blame me personally for this trial. I have received a heaping portion of undeserved, mean-spirited disrespect. I believe I have answered every letter with as much grace and understanding as possible. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about how our United Methodist system of government works.
At the end of this church trial there was a verdict and a penalty. Procedures were followed, and as bishop, I upheld the Discipline of the UMC. Personally this has been very difficult and my heart has not rejoiced over any of this. I know many people who worked hard to conduct the trial with integrity have been hurt and were treated with distain. Much money was spent on this entire process that could have been used for mission. The numerous hours of hard, faithful trial preparation could have been used to further the propagation of the Gospel. In the end the church is bruised and divided, and there is further distrust and animosity among clergy and laity, and between churches and the conference. And in the end we may have lost many actual and potential church members.
Prior to becoming a bishop I was a delegate to General Conference four times. I always voted to change the church’s position to one that acknowledges the truth: that there are people of goodwill on both sides of this issue, and we need to agree to disagree about this conflict while continuing to dialogue, pray and serve God together as one church. I do not believe that engaging fully in ministry with LGBTQ persons should appear on the list of chargeable offenses. I am aware of the fact that same-gender weddings are happening in many of our UM churches around the country and they are largely being ignored. I believe that someday this will not be the urgent debate that it is presently.
Most of all I wish we could agree in Christ to keep the main thing of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ as the main thing that we do together despite our individual differences.
I am bishop to all and will continue to teach what the church says officially. All of us are allowed to have our opinions about our church’s laws and beliefs, and each of us must answer to God for what we believe to be the witness of the Spirit in our life. Collectively we are the Body of Christ and as a body of many members we have to find a way to get along with those with whom we disagree.
Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 12: “The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you.'” We need to stay together and work this out with each other in prayer, study and dialogue. Paul also says “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” That means people should not disqualify themselves and leave the church or plan for a schism. We should study what it means to base our beliefs on Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. We need to have humility enough to recognize each person as an indispensable part of the body. We need each part for our survival.
I call you to be patient and gentle with one another as we continue to dialogue about a dilemma that is painful for many. It will not be solved by disobedience or discord. There are folks who simply don’t agree with the progressive voice but who are good United Methodists. And many feel our covenant to uphold the Discipline should be respected above all else. As I was preparing for this trial my 91-year-old father passed away. He was always traditional in his faith and beliefs. He served his church as a faithful lay person, deserving of dignity and respect. We have plenty of people like him in our churches, people of all ages who have a right to be heard and allowed to give witness to their experience and Biblical interpretation.
There is much hurt on the other side too, as LGBTQ people feel the pain of discrimination and rejection from the church they love, a church that does not allow them to serve in the capacity to which God has called them. A good pastor who has served our church faithfully is lost to us now because in his heart he cannot abide by the entire Discipline. And so it goes…around and around….a vicious cycle of pain and controversy that seems endless.
The 19th century poet Eugene Field wrote a poem entitled “The Duel.” Better known as “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,” it describes a battle between a toy dog and a cat that is witnessed and reported by a hanging wall plate and a mantel clock. The poem ends with the following words:
Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away.
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: They ate each other up.
The world is watching our “duel” dear United Methodists. The social media and news websites are saying that we hate LGBT persons and that we hate each other and that we’ve become a compelling argument against organized religion for many of our young people. I grieve over our collective witness. Will we bear witness to the life-transforming, world-changing grace of Jesus Christ that saves us from our sins and ourselves? Will we be the presence of Christ for the people of the Philippines or Darfur or any other place where there is natural disaster, oppression or greed? Or will it be said of us that we ate each other up?