During this time of the year, I am usually knee-deep in the early drama of another semester’s classes. Students petitioning to graduate, others needing a space in a closed class, and the unfortunate waifs who have no idea what they are going to be when they graduate–all fill the halls outside my office seeking “just a minute” of my time. So in all frankness, the drama of the United Methodist Church, while often mildly entertaining is not my first concern in the month of February. After all, I am usually basking in the glow of another Crimson Tide BCS Championship. Thanks to a series of unfortunate incidents, I now have some free time on my hands.
While I’ve been focused on St. Nick and the boys, trials and rumors of trials have filled the blogosphere and the Huffington Post. Your antics and disputes (not our service, mission, or love of Christ mind you) have garnered national media attention in our all-consuming sexuality battle royal. Most exciting is that mild-mannered UMC elders and bishops are becoming media stars in their local papers and delivering manifestos that would make Martin Luther proud.
As much as I like a good argument, I believe that the best arguments require separating myth from facts especially when passions are running high. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to offer a little reality check while y’all are loading up for the next round of buckshot.
Myth 1: People are leaving the United Methodist Church in droves or refusing to join the United Methodist Church because we do not ordain gays and lesbians or allow them to marry.
Reality: People are not coming to our churches or filling our pews because we are BORING. Rather than giving them the fount of living water in a way relevant and contextualized to their own reality, we give people stagnant homilies or self-help sermons devoid of any realistic attachment to the awesome and life-changing revelation of Jesus Christ. Frankly, our services and our preaching is not compelling enough for most people to miss “Meet the Press,” “SportsCenter,” or a “Law & Order” marathon. We simply have forgotten that the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires us to TELL THE STORY of Jesus Christ in the language of the people. Don’t forget that George Whitefield didn’t have a PA system or a PowerPoint, yet he could compel thousands of working class people to give their lives to Christ by preaching the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel.
Myth 2: Being able to conduct same-sex marriages is the central pastoral issue of our time.
Reality: Uh, it is important, very important; but it is not the primary pastoral issue we face, and to call it that is self-serving. In states that have granted this right, our LGBT friends are granted full access to the right to enter into relationships recognized and protected by the state. The injustice of a system in which same-sex partners are not permitted to inherit, adopt, file for tax relief, spousal support, or equal recognition under the law is a federal issue that I believe must be remedied. But there is no inherent right to being able to hold your ceremony where ever you want, however inconvenient, impractical, or frustrating it maybe for those involved. We can’t keep moving the goal posts on this one. At first, the battle was over whether or not the Book of Discipline needed to be changed to either a) reflect the reality that United Methodists are not in agreement over our statement on human sexuality, or b) reflect the removal of the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching,” thus opening up new possibilities for LGBT Methodists to participate in the life of the church. Yet in blog after blog and press conference after press conference, somehow these two central outcomes have been obscured by what we call “down the line” concerns of same-sex marriage. Basic argumentation would hold that if you haven’t affirmed the premise that the sexuality of LGBT members is not incompatible with Christian teaching OR that there are multiple ways of understanding the issue, then affirming the right to have their marriages performed by United Methodist clergy is a rhetorical bridge too far. Stop muddling the real issue. This is not a “pastoral issue.” This is a question of theological ontology. Simply put, the question is, “Who are those persons entitled to the rights and privileges of a United Methodist Christian–including the right to serve as clergy, to participate actively in all the rites and rituals of the Church, and to be embraced by a community that claims an open table?”
You see, in my opinion, as long as we have: children going to bed hungry; women and men living in fear in their own homes because of the abuse happening at the hands of someone who claims to love them; incarceration exercised above rehabilitation; our elderly choosing between food and medicine; families going bankrupt trying to find care for their mothers and fathers who have dementia; and as long as there are those who – regardless of sexuality – haven’t heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, we will always have a full plate of pastoral issues with little room to proclaim one more dominant than another.
Myth 3: If you break the Book of Discipline, we need to put you on trial.
Reality: Fine. But if we are going to make this argument, then EVERYBODY needs to go on trial. Frankly, I am tired of seeing my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and their allies on the court docket. But if this is the game we are going to play, then I want every one of my colleagues who is having sex before getting married (uh huh, I went there), any of my clergy colleagues who purchase or imbibe alcoholic beverages purchased with their salary from a United Methodist entity, or everybody who affirmed that they would fast, reduce their debt, visit congregants from house by house, or pledged to never fritter away their time in their answers to the questions for admission to their Annual conference but hasn’t to be brought up on charges. If we are going to apply the law, then we need to apply the law equitably.
Myth 4: Trials and/or the acts of disobedience that force a trial will settle this issue once and for all.
Reality: Frankly, neither strategy has a real endgame that is sustainable. For all of you who think that by putting elders like Frank Schafer on trial you will weed out “those liberals” you are as misguided as everyone who thought Nick Saban was leaving Alabama for Texas. For all of you who believe that by performing more “weddings” you will force the hand of the “bigots,” you are as misguided as Robin Thicke was for thinking it was a good idea to do a duet with Miley Cyrus. Neither side has a sustainable endgame that does not require a showdown at General Conference 2016, or as I like to call it, “WesleyMania: The Grudge Match – Part 15.” So doing weddings will not change our legislation. Conducting 100 trials won’t change it either.
Myth 6: We would have enough votes to change the Book of Discipline if the African church wasn’t controlled by the Good News Movement. (Or its twin: They may have the people, but we control the money).
Reality: If you have said or thought this, let me be perfectly clear: you need to check your racist assumptions at the door. First of all, there is NO African church. Africa is a continent, not a country. Second of all, to assume that all those poor uninformed black people a) cannot come up with a theological argument on their own, b) need the Great White Church to help them form their thoughts, and c) cannot possibly be self-determining, is no different than the precepts of Kipling. Somehow both sides in this debate have the belief that our brothers and sisters from the Central Conferences are pawns to be played in their legislative games. While one side appeals to the most insidious fears and irrationality regarding AIDS and HIV, the other is engaged in a patronizing pablum that has often been the fallback of white progressives when dealing with people of color. One side says: “If you don’t vote the way we want you to, we will cut off your funding” (Imperialist/Colonialist). The other says, “If you don’t vote the way we want you to, we will advocate for kicking you out of the United Methodist Church because you are biased” (the progressive guilt trip). Sadly, both views continue to render the voice and views of people of color as secondary to their own selfish agendas, which is nothing more than American racism at its best.
As entertaining as y’all are, I really wish for nothing else but for us, even in our disagreement, to model for the world, the way in which the Body of Christ, can engage in vigorous debate while still seeing each other with the reality of Christ. In Christ’s reality there are no litmus tests on who is more Christian than the other, each of us realizing that in our flawed humanity that we are all Christ’s beloved. In Christ, straight or gay; lay or ordained; black or white; blue or red—we are loved and valued.
What a novel idea. Seeing each other as Christ sees us.
Mmmmm. Nah, not nearly as entertaining as the Mad Methodists.