I imagined when I wrote a blog about my reactions to the United Methodist Church’s called General Conference some three weeks ago, that I would confine my disappointment and rage to one outing. But then I wrote again about some matters that had come up in my aging brain. Today, I will add a third response to the conference with no guarantee that it will be the last. Since I have been a UMC clergyman for 50 years, I trust you will forgive my continued reflection and constant conversation with others about what happened in St. Louis. I now think that the sad and infuriating results of that gathering are hardly problems confined to those of us called Methodist. What took place represents to me the terrible dangers of wrong-headed and ultimately fatuous Bible reading, hand-in-hand with a dangerous rejection of the modern world.
Let me give first credit to my former dean and colleague at Perkins School of Theology, Bill Lawrence, whose recent blog on the conference sparked some of my own thinking that will appear in this essay. Bill has been long-time pastor, distinguished dean of a seminary, as well as president of the Judicial Council of the UMC for 8 years, that body that in April will need to rule on the constitutionality of what was done at the conference. However those rulings are made, whether or not some or much of the so- called Conservative Plan is found to be outside of our church’s Discipline, the actual constitution of the UMC, the rulings will not solve the more basic issues we face as a church. I will discuss two questions that Bill addressed, and to which I will add my own musings.
First, the Traditional Plan is based squarely and unashamedly on a quasi- fundamentalist conception of the biblical record. I say those who voted for the Traditional Plan are only quasi-fundamentalists, since if they were in fact true fundamentalists, they would not be eating shrimp, crabs, or lobsters, would never wear clothes made from two fabrics, would eschew and detest divorce in all circumstances (save perhaps the Matthean adultery clause), would stone to death any of their children who dared question them, and would willy-nilly avoid boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. I could go on, but you get the point. Pointing to two Levitical Code passages that appear to have a problem with same- sex relationships, and saying that that means all modern same-sex relations are sinful, is the rankest form of proof-texting that any first year seminarian would find horrific and completely unacceptable. Yes, it is quite clear and beyond dispute that in the long history of the Christian church, same-sex relationships, let alone marriage, has been continually rejected. But of course slavery was also affirmed as appropriately biblical for a similar number of Christian centuries. Hence, the Bible, poorly read, and the church’s history served as the foundation of those who voted for the winning plan.
However, since at least 1968, at the union of the Evangelical Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, including the old Central conferences of primarily African- American churches, the United Methodists have not relied for the doing of their theology only on the Bible and the tradition. My colleague Albert Outler, the central author of the doctrinal material in that Discipline, and repeated in every Discipline since, included two further criteria that serve us in the construction of our theologies: reason and experience.
Now by experience, we do not mean just general human experience; we mean Christian experience, those occasions where in the formation of our Christian selves through prayer, church attendance, and social service, we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit that guides us on to perfection, as John Wesley liked to say. By reason, we mean the very best information that the modern scientific and technological world can provide us. And right there we find the terrible and painful error of those who would have us believe that all LGBTQIA persons are sinful because of who they are and whom they may love.
Modern science has revealed to us that the vast majority of LGBTQIA persons are made by God that way; just as I am in the image of God as a cisgender man, so are many of my friends who are LGBTQIA made in the image of God. They are no more sinners than those who are left-handed (my wife, for one) are sinners in the face of the 90% who are right-handed. The writers of our Bible could no more have known of this scientific reality than they could have been aware of the shape of the earth, the evolution of its inhabitants, or the fact that everything is composed of tiny atoms. They simply did not know these now accepted facts; thus, we must take much of their social, economic, and political explanations as fixed in the distant past, having no binding authority on us today. Our reason cannot be avoided as we wrestle with the ancient text. Our reason is a gift of God, who enjoins us to love God with all our heart. The heart, in the ancient world, was the seat of will and intelligence; hence God demands that we use the good hearts (minds, brains) that God has given us. United Methodists are not and have never been fundamentalists of any stripe, and I find it laughable that we have now been divided as a church by those who would force us back into the previous centuries of ignorance and bigotry, based on some narrow reading of our sacred text.
The second issue that Bill Lawrence raised is one that needs a special reinforcement, since I have not heard it widely voiced. The call to modern Methodists has been to “make disciples of all people for the transformation of the world.” Bill, and I, would ask those pastors in other parts of the globe how they are fulfilling that charge when the gospel calls for the transformation of the world, not the acceptance of the status quo. When slavery was the law in the USA, the church, albeit much too late, called that practice into question in the light of the gospel. When racism was enshrined in the law, the church, however slowly, soon realized that racism was a blight against the gospel. When women were denied voice and leadership in the Methodist Church, the church finally realized, in the light of the gospel, that women’s rights to be heard and to lead must be guaranteed. In those parts of the world where LGBTQIA people are outlawed, in the light of the gospel must not pastors and people of faith raise their voices in protest, rather than acquiesce to the law of the land? To stand up for those oppressed is dangerous; the history of the church speaks loudly to that reality. But not to speak out is to affirm and approve the way things are, and the gospel can have little power.
Of course, this second issue is based on the proper understanding of the first. If GLBTQIA people are “sinners,” then I can treat them as such; I can “love” them, but hate what they are, so it is said. To that, I say, No! These people are made in the image of God, and as such are part of God’s people and God’s plan for the new world of justice and peace. I would ask my African and Russian and Philippine colleagues to take seriously the call to “transform the worlds” in which they live in the light of the gospel of God’s freedom and hope for all.
We United Methodists were tainted by the decisions of the recent conference; we are now known as the church that hates gay people. I am ashamed and humiliated that my church has now been branded as one that refuses to open its doors to people I am called to love and with whom I am called to serve. I am still mulling exactly how to respond to this new and horrifying reality. My Los Angeles church has covered over the United Methodist part of our name; passersby on whatever side read that we are “Westwood Church.” In the early 1950’s the church was known as “Westwood Community Church,” and there is some talk among several members that that could once again be our name. I am frankly not ready to abandon ship, but I confess to genuine horror at what has happened. I am not in any way a fundamentalist, nor do I wish to limit my ministry only to those who are heterosexual; that way is anathema and blasphemous, and a rejection of the gospel of Jesus. I have much work to do to come to grips with my church.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)