Last week, Adam Hamilton shared this post about gay marriage in the United Methodist Church. Hamilton is a public figure, an authoritative voice not just within his own denomination, but within all of mainline Protestantism. He’s a popular author and speaker, and having grown his church to ‘mega’ status—mostly unheard of outside of fundamentalist circles—his voice carries.
His take on LGBT inclusion is that local congregations and area conferences should be empowered to determine their own policies around marriage and ordination; and that sacraments should be performed (or not) at pastors’ discretion.
I appreciate Hamilton’s sense that a “one-size fits all” policy for the larger Church is neither practical nor desirable. As I’ve seen within my own denomination, directives from an institutional body do not always translate to real life, every day ministry. For the most part, a statement of inclusion is just that: a statement. Trying to “enforce” certain practices in every context of ministry simply does not make sense. Insisting that everyone within the body must agree is never going to end well. Creating freedom for smaller bodies to engage in their own discernment will, hopefully, move the UMC out of stalemate mode. We’ve all been there. It’s not fun.
Concerning Christian unity, Hamilton—and others like him—are right: we do not have to agree on this one thing, or any one thing, to be the Church together. We should be able to serve the poor together; to sit next to each other and share a hymnal; and, as the Disciples of Christ have been saying for a couple of centuries, we should all be able to share communion and remember that God doesn’t pick favorites.
But sometimes, it is not the unity of Christ we have in mind when we make (or fail to make) denominational policies.
Ultimately, this is not just about Hamilton. It’s not about the UMC, or any of our institutional bodies. It’s not even about gay marriage or ordination, broadly speaking. It’s about what any of us really means when we talk about this kind of unity and ‘agreeing to disagree.’ Are we truly seeking the wholeness of the body of Christ?
Or are we talking about preserving an institution?
It can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Especially when conversations at the institutional level center around practices, while the local ‘body’ is left to deal in the messy reality of relationship.
Even within more progressive UMC (and other) congregations, LGBT folks are ‘welcomed’ through the doors… but often cannot become members, cannot participate in the sacrament of communion, and cannot serve in leadership roles. That side of ‘unity’ sounds a lot like disunity. That sounds like Christian hospitality losing out to ‘let’s just all get along.’
You may wonder why I care… When I am free to marry, bury or baptize anybody I choose, why does it matter to me/us what the Methodists down the road or the Baptists down in the valley think?
Because: the numbers are out. Not that we expected GREAT news about the state of religion in America, but still… The Pew Forum tells us that the number of people in the U.S. who identify as Christian is down about again. And the number of people who identify as Mainline Protestant is down even more.
This ship is sinking, folks. We are bailing out water with tiny communion cups, but it is going down.
And it isn’t because technology has drawn us out of community, or because Millennials are hopelessly selfish (other people’s theory, not mine), or because so many people have soccer practice on Sundays now and the stupid Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day. No, we are an increasingly faithless nation because the culture, at large, is evolving. As a species, we are moving past the trivialities of moral code, in the interest of our own survival. In this age of globalization, people are increasingly aware of global suffering, inequity, and rapidly melting ice caps. If they look to religion at all, they look for real transformation— for a body of people who will speak up for justice, care for the aging planet, and embody life-giving love and compassion… and we, the People Religious, come up short again and again.
Why? Mostly because we’ve been too busy playing house, trying to keep our doors open, fussing over the bylaws and deciding who gets in. We have failed to evolve with the rest of our species.
I don’t know that we can ‘bring back’ the post-exodus masses… But what we can do is hear them. We can acknowledge that we have used our resources, our time, our precious breath for all the wrong things. We have cast out where we should have drawn in. We have judged more than we’ve connected. We have fretted over our own infrastructure and who the hell is sleeping with whom, while our neighbors were hungry, hurting, isolated.
If healing of the Body is possible, it has to start with that acknowledgement. And a large measure of humility, as we recognize that ‘we’ are a growing minority, and no longer hold the authority to shape culture. The world is not looking to us for answers. They are looking to see if we practice what we preach.
While we are over here figuring out policies/ procedures, this much is true: we cannot afford to lose one more person—not another single one—because of who they love. We are dying, because we are actively cutting off parts of our Body.
Within religious organizations, formal rites like weddings and ordinations are tricky. Maybe, as Hamilton says, those things are works in progress. We can all hang out together while we figure it out. But in the meantime, all of us—the UMC, the DOC, the UCC, and all those other acronyms that mean nothing unless you know the secret handshake— are called to affirm the full humanity of every person. The gospel compels us to let everybody come to the table, whether we “agree with their lifestyle” or not. Otherwise, we are just holding a roof up over some cracked linoleum floors. That smell vaguely of spilled coffee and stale bread.
I’m grateful when high profile men with authoritative voices start to crack the door open for this conversation. Hamilton is calling for the Church to, at the very least, get out of the way where progress is possible.
But I would also challenge people in such positions to say, without reservation or apology, that the Church has been spinning its wheels in mud of human controversy for far too long; and that, for exactly this time, and this place, we are being called out and upward, to be a whole body of Christ—aching and aged though we might be—and to do that, we will have to stop actively cutting off our parts.
And you know, we can afford to do that now. We can let go of our defining structures and guidelines, our crumbling windows and walls, and use all that air and light and space to do some good in the world. We can give up the fight for this dying old institution… because it seems like she breathed her last, awhile ago now.
She told us to be well, and move on.
Edit: A newer statement from Adam Hamilton, from April 2016.