A Methodist to Their Madness

A Methodist to Their Madness May 10, 2013

Boring-BloggingI’ll never forget October 15, 2011. That’s the day I received in my email this press release:

Methodist Group to Perform Gay Weddings

In unprecedented move, network of 900+ bypasses denomination’s ban

to reach out directly to LGBT people

A group of over 900 United Methodists in New York and Connecticut today announced their intention to make weddings available to all people, gay and straight, in spite of their denomination’s ban on gay marriage. The announcement marks the kick-off of a project called We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality.

In an unprecedented move in any major religious denomination, We do! is not only bypassing the formal rules of the church, but also reaching out directly to LGBT groups in New York and Connecticut to let them know about the new network. This morning the group published a list of all its members: clergy members who will perform weddings for gay couples, lay members of the denomination who support them, and congregations who have adopted policies to formally make weddings available to all couples.

“We refuse to discriminate against any of God’s children and pledge to make marriage equality a lived reality within the New York Annual Conference, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression,” the group declared in statement called A Covenant of Conscience and signed by 164 clergy members, 732 lay people and six entire congregations. In all, 73 congregations within the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) are represented among the signers. NYAC is the regional church body representing United Methodist congregations from Long Island to the Catskills and in southern Connecticut. The full list of signers, as well as the text of the covenant, is here.

“My ordination vows require me minister to all people in my congregation,” said Rev. Sara Lamar-Sterling, the minister at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in New Haven, CT. “This is about pastoral care, about welcoming all people, but especially the marginalized and the oppressed, like Jesus did.” Lamar-Sterling and her clergy colleagues are risking their jobs and their careers by taking this stand, but they say their integrity as pastors leaves them no choice but to refuse the church’s mandate to discriminate. Over the years, many individual United Methodist clergy have defied the church’s ban, but the We do! project marks the first time an organized network of clergy has done so, and done so with the support of many hundreds of lay members of the church.

“The recognition of the full humanity, sacred worth, and equal rights of gay and lesbian people is crucial to the civil rights struggle of our time. Gay, lesbian, and straight United Methodist laity and clergy are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” the Covenant of Conscience states, citing Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. “The continuing denial of full access to all the rights and privileges of church membership in the United Methodist Church is causing deep spiritual harm to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and is a threat to us all.”

The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline, the rulebook that governs the country’s third largest Christian denomination, states “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” It is one of several anti-gay provisions of the church, which since 1972 has declared “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The church General Conference meets quadrennially to revise the Discipline and the issue of LGBT exclusion has been hotly debated at each General Conference in the last 40 years. The next General Conference will be April 24 through May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Florida.

The We do! project has been over a year in the making and has been followed by similar efforts in 11 other conferences within the UMC. All told, over 1,000 clergy in 19 states and the District of Columbia have signed a pledge vowing to extend their ministry to all couples seeking the church’s blessing for their relationships. The growing pastoral movement has caused a stir within the church and is expected to have reverberations at the upcoming General Conference.

We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality is sponsored by Methodists in New Directions (MIND), a grassroots organization working in the New York Annual Conference of the UMC dedicated to ending the church’s prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people. It is co-sponsored by the NY Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), an organization bringing people together to work for peace and justice in the church and the world. Both organizations are independent of the United Methodist Church. More information on the initiative is available on the MIND website.

“What a story!” I thought excitedly. “I must snag an interview with this Reverend Sara Lamar-Sterling!”

My heart quickened at the thought of probing into the mind of this renegade Christian leader, this bold iconoclast, this trailblazing visionary who was willing to defy authority, buck convention, and let the chips fall where they may.

Every journalist dreams of the day when a cutting-edge, paradigm-busting, career-making story falls right into their lap.

And that day had just arrived for me.

One hour later I was still strategizing about how to use my extensive network of media contacts to land an interview with Rev. Lamar-Sterling. Then I realized that I could just pick up the phone and call the number on the press release.

“Would you like to talk to Sara?” said the friendly lady on the other end of the line. “I can give you her cell number if you want. Do you have a pen and paper?”

Did I have a pen and paper? Was she serious? Was she not aware that I am the ultimate crack reporter? It was like asking Superman if he has a cape.

Moments later I had the fiery dissenter herself on the phone. I steadied myself. This was it. History was calling, and I was poised to take its message.

Now, I like to begin my interviews with high-profile, controversial social mavericks by zinging at them a question that shoots directly into the very heart of the issue at hand. Sure, some see my hard-hitting, uncompromising interview style as abrasive, even bare-knuckles brutal. And I’m not gonna lie about it: my direct, in-your-face questions cause a lot of would-be media darlings to crumble like a mummy’s cookie.

But you know what those questions get me that a lot of those starry-eyed “reporters” don’t get with their namby-pamby questions? Real answers, that’s what. Answers from the heart. Answers from the gut.

Sure, a lot of time those answers come through tears. But, hey: if you can’t take the heat, don’t stand in the spotlight. That’s my motto.

By way of unleashing my first jaw-dropping uppercut, I said to Rev. Lamar-Sterling, “So, are you bummed about probably having to spend all of eternity in hell?”

The reverend burst out with a laugh so hearty the phone almost fell out of my hand. Once the major swell of her hilarity had subsided, she said, “Oh, that was a good one! No, no, I’m not worried about anything like that. Hell is a creative idea dreamed up by Dante and his friends.”

Oh. Well. Okay. Not exactly how I’d expected that to go. Still: pretty edgy thing to say!

She sure did sound nice. Which, I knew, could mean only one thing: she was a pro, a veteran of the PR wars who knew a thing or two about artfully manipulating the media. But I wasn’t just any fawning TV-show host come to lob softballs a toddler could knock out of the park.

“Are you afraid that for taking the stand you have,” I asked, “you might lose your job?” Boom. Shot fired, right on target. I couldn’t wait to watch her squirm.

“Lose my job?” said Lamar-Sterling cheerily. “For doing this? No, that’s not a concern. There are many steps that would have to happen in order for any of us involved in this to actually lose our positions within the church.”

Wow. There was really no getting around it: a lesser reporter than I would have found her apparently unflagging good cheer a tad challenging.

“But that could happen, right?” I asked, with an air of conspiratorial subterfuge that I hoped she might find contagious. “You could lose your job, couldn’t you?” I imagined her in tattered clerical robes, walking the mean streets of New Haven, CT, sadly holding out to passers-by a battered brass collection plate.

“Well, I suppose losing my job is in the realm of possibilities,” she said. “But it’s not anything I’m afraid of. In any account, the much bigger picture, for we who have come out in favor of marriage equality, is the fact that gay and lesbian people are excluded and discriminated against every single day of their lives. That’s what really matters here. They’re the ones really bearing a risk out in the world. Compared to theirs, our daily risk is much smaller.”

That was it.

I gave up. This woman was clearly the greatest pastor in the history of niceness.

In my final effort to inject into this story at least some grit, I said, “Did you have to put together this movement in secret?” Sneaky priest, featured piece is an old adage of journalism. Probably. Somewhere.

“In secret? Gosh, no. We’ve been openly working on this for years. We’ve always been very open about talking about this, and about sharing our purposes and goals, and collecting signatures and so on. It’s all been very above-board. A great many people within the Methodist church believe in marriage equality, and so we’ve just been honored to facilitate and advance that conversation. And through initiatives like ‘We do!’, we look forward to doing a great deal more of this in the future.”

“How did your own church react to your doing this?” I asked. I pictured the congregants of her church up on their feet, screaming, railing, gnashing their teeth, brandishing rolled-up church bulletins they’d fashioned into short-lived but menacing torches.

“Oh, they love it. They’re a reconciling congregation, so they’ve been very excited about the whole project. In fact, I actually had to slow them down a bit. I had to explain to them how this is a process, how we needed to work within the larger body of the New York Annual Conference, to bring everyone along at the same time. But they’ve been absolutely supportive of this every step of the way.”

I asked Rev. Lamar-Sterling about where the “We do!” movement fits within the larger body of  Methodists. So she explained to me how there are different “conferences,” or regions, of Methodists, across the country, and how each, reflecting the sensibilities of its citizens, is necessarily dealing with the issue of marriage equality in its own way, and at its own speed.

“The same sort of thing we’re doing here in the NYAC is currently going on in eleven other Methodist conferences,” she said. “The difference is that while their efforts are geared toward clergy only, ‘We do!’ involves clergy, laity, and congregations. That’s what makes what we’re doing so exciting. ‘We do!’ is a strong collective of faithful Christians people who have come together to affirm that a gay and lesbian couple have as much right to the sacred bond of holy matrimony as anyone else.”

She then explained about how The Book of Discipline, which constitutes the law and doctrine of the United Methodist Church, is a living document, and not, as she put it, “a baseball bat for hurting others,” and how every four years (starting in 1784!) representatives of all the Methodists get together, talk about what’s in The Book of Discipline, make whatever changes or adjustments to its text are voted necessary, and then publish a new edition of the Book.

Boy, these guys really put the organized in organized religion. It’s all so … well, extremely democratic.

(Fact break: In the United States, The United Methodist Church ranks as the largest mainline denomination, the second largest Protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention, and the third largest Christian denomination. As of 2007, worldwide membership was about 12 million: 8.0 million in the United States and Canada, 3.5 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. So. There’s that.)

“Ultimately, I and others who believe in the sanctity of marriage equality would like the language of The Book of Discipline to be changed to reflect full affirmation of gay and lesbian equality,” said the reverend. “But will those changes be made this year, or next? They very well might. But either way, it will ultimately happen. I’m confident that Christ will guide the United Methodist Church to become the welcoming, just, and reconciling church it was meant to be.”

I asked if there was anything final she’d care to say.

“I would like everyone to know that all people are created in God’s image; all are sacred,” she said. “God’s love is not discriminatory, or selective; it does not include some, and exclude others. It is for all. I want gay and lesbian people to know that they are welcomed in the United Methodist Church. Come, join us, as we, along with you, say, we do!”

 * * * * *

As I later reflected back on my conversation with the good reverend, I fell asleep. I dreamed I was a Jimmy Olsen-style reporter, pitching the story of the “We do!” movement to the editor of a big New York newspaper.

“Over nine hundred!” I told him. “That’s a lot of Methodists!”

The man who had probably been called “Chief” since he was in diapers was sitting on a leather high-backed chair behind a wooden desk you could land a helicopter on. He wore his usual outfit: gray slacks held up by suspenders over one of the white shirts he must have bought with the sleeves rolled up. The old man was cantankerous, sure, his edges so rough you could practically use the air around him to sand wood. But dammit, he was fair. And he knew the business inside out. The man had ink flowing through his veins.

“Look, kid,” said the Chief, speaking around his well-chomped cigar. “I’m not saying this is no story at all. But it isn’t exactly a five-ton reptile stomping down the middle of Broadway, is it? What you have here is a bunch of Christians who looked into their hearts, found God telling them that gay people have the same right to have their relationships blessed by Him as straight people do, who then organized themselves into a group that reflects that belief. That’s what’s happened here, right, kid?”

“Well, yeah, it is, basically.”

“I got news for ya’, son: that ain’t news. That’s Methodists being methodical. What you have is a story about meetings. It’s a story about schedules, procedures, conferences, rules of order. It’s about purposeful conversation, intentional reflection, collective discernment. It’s about that vast, invisible matrix of undulating forces that, slowly but surely, has always worked to evolve the body of Christ on earth.”

Suddenly the Chief was transformed into a radiant figure emanating a bright golden light that filled the room.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

Spreading his (or her?) arms wide as it expanded, rose in the air, and became too bright for me look directly at, the figure said, “I am the Lord your God. The story of gay people and my church is still being written. Pity those too blind to see how happily that story must end, how inevitably all will know that I created and equally love gay people, straight people, and everyone in between.”

As suddenly as it had appeared the figure and its light vanished, replaced by the Chief once again sitting behind his desk.

“Now get out there and find me a story I can use,” he said. Bending over the papers on his desk, he grumbled, “Extra points if it involves a live dinosaur.”


I will be including this essay in the upcoming revised edition of my book UNFAIR. As you may know, I’m asking readers to help me proofread such essays. If you would, please leave any mistake you find in the text above—spelling, punctuation, syntax, anything at all—as a comment below. (Once I’ve incorporated your suggested changes into the text itself I may delete your comment, by way of keeping a clean and focused pathway for those wishing to comment on the post itself. I know that can seem really obnoxious; thanks for understanding why I might do it. And thanks so much for your help!)

An extremely timely and relevant update to this post is the story of Methodist pastor Thomas Ogletree, who earlier this week penned for The Washington Post, Why I disobeyed the United Methodist Church’s unjust teaching on same-sex marriage.

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  • Lymis

    As for the content of the piece, great story! [Thank you for your great (now deleted) suggestions, L. I took them! Good eyes.–John]

  • Richard W. Fitch

    “God Is Still Speaking” – per United Church of Christ and I too say AMEN!!

  • Allie

    Okay, I promise I’ll proof this later, but on first reading: wow! Love the story, love your dream.

    I’ve been doing a lot of antebellum research recently, and Methodists have a long history of doing the right thing when the rest of the church was doing the wrong thing. Turns out I have an ancestor who was a fire-breathing abolitionist Methodist preacher – in MISSISSIPPI, during the Civil War. That’s balls. But Methodists were primarily abolitionists at a time when most of the rest of the churches in the South were busily quoting from Philemon to show how God wanted black people to remain slaves. It’s not surprising to find Methodists leading the rest of the church towards the light today.

    Also: Methodists came up with shape note singing. It’s pretty cool. Look it up on Youtube if you’re not familiar with it.

  • boberto

    Well done piece again, John. Enjoyed it.

    Since you asked for “eyes,” the only thing that really jumped out to me was the press release says “900” and “900+.” The supporting breakdown totals 969–even closer to 1000 than 900. But in your pitch dream, you say “Eight hundred!”

  • Oh, right! Good job! Thank you!

  • Jill

    Go UCC!

  • John (not McCain)

    I have to stop reading this blog. Every time I do it makes me want to go to church again, and that just can’t happen. Panic attacks are not fun, and that’s what has happened to me every time I’ve tried to go to even the most gay-positive church over the last 20 years. Plus, if I started doing that again, I’d probably have to end up forgiving the Baptists I was raised by and among, and I don’t want to. I won’t even talk to my mother again until she apologizes, and THAT will be a cold day in hell.

  • resistance is futile, john (not McCain). join us. merge with the borg greater good. we will teach you who you are. your will will be subsumed into the whole of ours. your worries will be over. heaven will be yours. release your ego. join us.


  • Elizabeth

    Hey! My great-great-great grandfather was an abolitionist preacher in Ohio. Presbyterian. He was part of the Underground Railroad. There’s a (never fired) Civil War musket hanging around my dad’s house somewhere. You can take a peek. http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org:2007/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/siebert&CISOPTR=8041&REC=1

    But Mississippi is hardcore. Congratulations. That’s something to be truly proud of.

  • We also have cookies… Ok, some of us serve donuts and coffee.

    But in all honesty, I am not going to hold it against anyone if they choose never to warm a pew again.

  • Jill

    Hi John, I think after reading your thoughtful comments over the past months I’ve been here, your presence at my new church would be a reason why I’d want to keep going. I wish you’d come to mine. 🙂

    (And I’ve not really forgiven my ex-church much, for what it’s worth. Pretty much because they continue to cause harm. So yeah.)

  • Kristyn Whitaker Hood

    I love how they circumvented the conference. I was SO VERY disappointed in the UMC 2012 ruling to keep things status quo. I have a good feeling about 2016, now, however.

  • Hannah Grace

    Literally perfect response 😛

  • Matt

    Love this piece! You seem to have very specific and vivid dreams. That seems like it would be pretty awesome.

  • DR

    We can be your church. <3

  • I’m pretty sure my dreams are about like everyone else’s. Like everyone else, when I DO have an intense dream, it’s … pretty freakin’ intense. But I think that’s normal. Seems to be.

  • Lymis

    I’m a never say never kind of guy (whenever I say “never,” God has a way of saying, “Oh yeah?” that can be inconvenient at best), but I find it unlikely that I’ll become a regular churchgoer again anytime soon, if ever, too.

    But one thing I have been able to do is separate out the “going to church” part from the “why I would want to go to church in the first place” part.

    At is best, church is about finding a community, being in a setting where you can experience God, be present in a deeper reality, and share those experiences with like-minded people who have similar enough experiences that you can meaningfully discuss them, and both guide and receive guidance along your personal path. It can be about a circle of friends you can rely on and know that you can be relied on, with a bit of theater and music thrown in. And donuts.

    As much as most churches try to claim otherwise, none of those things, not even the donuts, are things you can only experience at church. Yes, when it works, it’s a convenient “one-stop shopping” experience, but while you might not be able to find all those things in one setting, you can have them all in your life without church.

    So, I encourage you to actually pay attention to what this blog may really be calling you toward. I doubt it’s a descent back into some sort of denominational hell. It may be toward finding ways to include some wonderful things in your life without church or churchy people.

    As far as forgiveness goes, the way I see forgiveness is “I completely release the ability of events in the past to continue to hurt me in the present” rather than “Oh, it’s okay, it didn’t really hurt, and what happened didn’t matter. I don’t see forgiveness as incompatible with choosing never to put yourself back around specific people again. In fact, there are times when forgiveness is contingent on choosing never to see someone again. “I can live without hating you, as long as I never have to see you, because if I do, it ain’t going to be pretty, and neither of us needs that. I wish you well, but stay the hell away from me.”

  • Elizabeth

    That Ogletree update is wonderful. Thank you.

  • Allie

    Well, not too proud, as I have the ugly side too – ancestors who were slave owners. One of the things I’ve found is an original document listing the names and ages of the people enslaved on my ancestor’s rice plantation, which included a deaf 10-year-old girl. I had never thought of slaves being disabled, but I realized they were just like any other group of people, why wouldn’t they be. Tell you what though, it raises the hackles on my neck looking at those names, not just generic “slaves,” but Nancy and Micajah and Dick and many more.

    Praying for a day when the idea of treating gay people any differently from other people is just as shocking to most people as the idea of holding people in slavery is now. And I believe that day will come. John’s right, things do move forward, although sometimes the process seems pretty slow to us ground troops.

  • Seamus

    Cookies? Psha. We have beer! I’ll even get into the communion wine in the kitchen with you, as long as you can palate Manischewitz. And if none of that is lying around, we can always toss some Five Star yeast in the Welches 😉

    John (not McCain), I finally broke down and joined a Unitarian fellowship. I enjoy talking with my fellow Christ followers, and meditation with the Buddhists on Mondays. I spend most Sundays in the nursery watching the little kids and playing with my separation-anxiety prone 2 year-old daughter.

    Also, I’m on the board of the Oregon Brew Crew, and I’m somewhat the unofficial chaplain. Beer and spirituality are always fun.

    I encourage you to find a place to practice community, even if it’s not spiritual in nature. Join a knitting club, an adventurous dining group or a frisbee golf team. Be involved. It’s worth it. And you’ll find a freedom in the lack of ideological expectations placed on you, as you explore a part of who you are.

    I pray you find peace where you need it, and blessings where you didn’t expect to find them.

  • Jill

    If I had a beer church nearby… you’d never hear from me anymore…oh man, I live in the wrong place!

  • Elizabeth

    Why postmodernism was invented. The synonyms are genius. You *are* Essentially Spectacular and I’m additionally a specialist.

  • Matt

    It looks like John has a minor spam problem on his hands. It’s inevitable as you get more popular.

  • It’s just that I’m away from home and so haven’t checked as I usually do. (And it is weird that my spam filter misses those. But it catches …I dunno…about 100 spams a day. Spammers are soooooo relentless.)

  • Linnea

    Lymis, I know what you mean about the “saying never” thing! God has a way of turning “never” on it’s head, whether for us individually or collectively.

  • Linnea

    As a United Methodist way out on the left wing of the congregation, this is wonderful to read. My own church has been a Reconciling Congregation for many years, and I look forward to the day when there won’t be any more need for RC’s, because *all* UM churches will embrace LGBTs. I may not live to see it happen, but in the words of Dr. King, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” God is and always has been on the side of the outcasts, the left-out and left-behind, and if we keep working for and with those people, we will help bring about God’s Beloved Community on earth… of that, I have no doubt.

  • Linnea

    That second sentence should have said, “denomination.” Brain is working faster than my fingers tonight.