Killing Context: A Report from the Council of Bishops


by The Rev. Alex DaSilva Souto
United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus

14 “They have treated superficially the [bloody] broken wound of My people,
Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
When there is no peace.”
~ Jeremiah 6:14 [Amplified Bible (AMP)]

Written and spoken languages are the blunt tools humans tend to use in order to convey transcendent truths and experiences, and sometimes words manage to hit the nail on the head like the ones in Jeremiah 6:14, particularly when they come out of the prophetic mouth of Rev. Amy DeLong.

A couple weeks ago I was serving on a mission journey in Mozambique when I heard myself saying: “This denomination is killing me!” This piercing sentence came out of my mouth from such a deep and arresting place that I could not help but find myself momentarily paralyzed. Perhaps the irony of my being in the midst of so many life-giving works done by and with our siblings in Mozambique and my growing understanding of our denominational efforts across the globe, in diametrical contrast with my realization of the personal tool the discriminatory and punitive language in our Book of Discipline, has impacted my soul in ways contradictory than I could handle.

That haunting statement came from the depths of my soul as I discussed my upcoming witness at the spring meeting of the Council of Bishops. We were informed that it was a closed meeting, but since our denominational leaders were going to be deliberating on the present and the future of LGBTQIA+ persons within our denomination, we had no choice but witness to the existence, human dignity, & divine worth of those whom the denomination has insisted in deeming “incompatible” for the last 46 years.

Within a few days of clearly listening to my own dreadful truth, I found myself in a third time zone and in another circumstance of great spiritual harm. I was sent to Chicago through the support of MIND and vested as one of the emissaries of the UM Queer Clergy Caucus. I joined faithful queer and ally siblings, but we knew that it would be another long and torturous week of mixed messages, exclusion, denial, and spiritual warfare combined with the best and the worst Christians can offer to one another. I’ve been a United Methodist for a little over two decades, and in deep in the trenches for about 15. Therefore, I was deeply grateful to be joined by some active veterans like Rev. Martha Vink from NYAC, Rev. Lois McCullen Parr, Rev. Austin Adkinson, Rev. Adrienne Sparrow, Rev. M Barclay, Rev. Anna Voinovich, Rev. Gregory Gross, Rev. Carol Hill, Rev. Alka Lyall; and the unwavering faithful of Love Prevails—Rev. Amy DeLong, Wesley White, Brenda, and MaryLou—and the bridge builder Rev. Sue Laurie.

I arrived at the Council site on Monday night, hoping for signs of potential peace or at least vague signs of partial truce. However, by the end of Tuesday sessions our friendly bishops were walking out of their meeting room showing spiritual bruises all over their faces. Oddly enough, it seemed to us outside that most of the wounded also happen to have been our women bishops. One of the them made a beeline from their meeting room and asked me for a hug, and another one just shook her head as she walked by our witnesses line up outside the door. By the end of the third day of deliberation, it seemed that our episcopal leaders had had to grapple with harmful and unavoidable consequences when “contextualization” is used to justify identity-base-discrimination. Some of us wondered if certain identities in the room might have been systematically overpowered by others. Coincidently, the women bishops released an open letter as I write this final draft.

Read the statement from the UMC women bishops here.

By Thursday at lunch time, it appeared that our episcopal leaders had “agreed to disagree.” It seemed that almost all of them were going to walk away with a chance to save their own skin by not having to decide if identity-based discrimination had come to an end, or if it was going to remain a condoned practice in our denomination. After dinner, it looked like every bishop had gotten what they needed, or at least had been appeased, because there were no more worried or sorrowed faces walking around the halls of power. Outside the walls of the hotel there was a terrific storm of thunder and lightning, but merriment was present again in the hotel lobby and restaurant.

The bad weather caused my flight to be canceled; which in turn allowed me to hold vigil for one more day. I was not sure if that was a blessing or a curse. We were informed of another group meeting in the conference room next door to our bishops, so we had to undergo negotiations with our denominational and hotel security teams about where we were prohibited from standing. For the whole week, we had not been allowed to stand in the carpeted area immediately outside the bishop’s ballroom unless they had finished with their break and moved into their closed session. But, on Friday morning, that rule was changed, and we were now allowed to stand on the carpet even if the bishops were outside their ballroom. However, we had to limit our stand to the wall in front of the main door of the ballroom. The irony did not escape me. For a whole week, we were segregated to a tiled area on the hallway, and on the last day a hotel security person stood guard to make sure that we were not stepping on the tiled area.

Another inescapable irony and/or mixed message was the loving-kindness we received from our denominational security team. The mixed message of love and segregation, or love in segregation, or segregation in love, or love while segregating was a mind-bender, soul-twister to say the least. At one point our denominational siblings were helping us put up the Queer Clergy Caucus banner to the side of the official UMC banner, and at another we were escorted out of the carpeted area because the bishops were about to take their tea break. In retrospect, these contradictory expressions of hospitality and hostility have been emblematic of the way our denomination has been relating/disassociating with its LGBTQIA+ members.

The same was true for our interactions with most of our bishops. In the beginning of the week, only the friendly bishops would approach us, but by the end of the week almost all of them slowed their steps in acknowledgement of our presence on the sideline. I had a chance to meet quite a few wonderful bishops I had not met before and even share profoundly joyous moments with them and their spouses. I was also blessed with many opportunities to go deeper into conversation with the bishops I had already known and worked with for a few years. I got to learn more about their families and ministries and share a bit about mine. One of the bishops I was first introduced to greeted me with a joke every time he walked by me, and only once the joke was about me being “one of those guys” and another about me being in relationship with another man. Apart from those jokes and only a hand full of cold shoulders, most of the bishops were courteous, many were kind, and a few were intentionally generous with their listening and acknowledgement of our presence.

At the closing worship we were kindly invited to have a seat at the bishops table. As part of the liturgy, everyone was encouraged to write down their biggest fears on a piece a paper and then shared it out loud with the people around the table. I wrote a few words on a tiny piece of paper, but I could not muster the strength to read them out loud. My throat locked up and tears were the only thing I could offer. Then we were encouraged to share something that we were grateful for, and that was much easier. Nevertheless, amongst a myriad of personal blessings and all my privileges, I named that very “place at the table” as a font of deep gratitude. A loaf of bread and a cup of grape juice were at the center of each table, and when the prayer for the Great Thanksgiving started, those gifts were entrusted to the hands of queer persons in most tables where we were seated. After almost “everyone” was served (one of our siblings remained standing at the back of the room), we gathered around in circle and sang a closing hymn. It was painful to see that sibling of ours outside the circle, but that was an embodied truth profoundly emblematic of the contradictions of our denomination.

After the closing worship, we negotiated our queer way into the press conference. No details were offered, but we learned that the CoB had voted to recommend the “One Church Plan” but that they were also including the other two plans: the “Traditional Plan” (with even harsher persecution and punishment of LGBTQIA+ persons and our allies who choose to serve everyone equally without segregating based on one’s identity) and the multi-branch “Connectional Conference Plan” (which in all honesty is schism by another name).

Read the CoB's description of the "One Church Plan" here.

Quite a bit of ink has already been spilled trying to make sense of these three plans proposed by the Commission on the Way Forward, therefore, I will only call attention to the unwarranted risks and unintended consequences of the “One Church Plan.” I believe that there could be a way forward, and I’m actually grateful for the work of the Special Commission and our Bishops. (Gratitude is the road to happiness, right?!?)  Furthermore, I don’t intend to bite the hands that feed me, and I would even be content with “half a loaf.” After all, by the grace of God and the hard work of our siblings in NYAC and the members of my local congregation, I get to eat and feed my family with the daily bread on a regular and consistent basis.

Still, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t find myself morally and ethically capable of promoting the “One Church Plan” as it is currently presented and as I currently understand it. I cannot acquiesce to the fact that it keeps making room for identity-base-discrimination under the pretext of “contextualization.” When improperly applied, “contextualization” becomes another word for “rule of the majority,” and we know that it can work for the good or for the dehumanization of minorities. Universal human dignity & divine worth have to be an equalizing factor despite cultural context.

Wasn’t our denomination moving boldly and prophetically towards the recognition of the divine worth & human dignity of persons outside hetero-normativity in 1972?  Then did not a last minute “friendly amendment” attempted to “contextualize” divine worth & human dignity of all people to exclude the ones traditionally/culturally deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching”?  Didn’t this “contextualization act” spark incremental segregation instead of incremental affirmation of universal human dignity & divine worth? Sexism might be interpreted as a matter of cultural context and opinion, but as United Methodists aren’t we called to recognize and affirm the equality of persons of all genders? It is true that our denomination almost split over women’s ordination, and we still could not pass constitutional amendments that include gender justice, but haven’t we categorically decided that the divine worth and human dignity of women transcends cultural context? How about racism? As complex and unresolved as it is, at least on paper, our denomination does not categorize it as a matter of cultural context. Didn’t our denomination have to take a clear position in regards to race relations in 1787, 1844, 1939, and 1968?  How about ableism, classism, xenophobia… are these matters of opinion and cultural context? Or are they harms that we must be grapple with throughout the connection?

It is true that the “One Church Plan” may allow certain progressive majorities to stop or minimize some forms of identity-based discrimination, but that will be only legislatively, and it will still be predicated on the good will or the tyranny of the majority. As a denomination, we have been trying to avoid the latter by the application of commonly held values, and we have succeeded in some instances but failed miserably in others. The “One Church Plan’s” misapplication of contextual argumentation allows for contextual discrimination, therefore threatening our chances of holding common standards and values of human dignity & divine worth throughout the connection. It bears repeating: contextualization can be used for good or for evil; it all depends on the good will or the tyranny of the majority.

Unfortunately, the consequences of the good will or the tyranny of the majority are not relative. Identity-based discrimination is not a question of opinion, biblical interpretation or theological diversity, but a matter of human dignity & divine worth; value(s) which were lifted up as high as Jesus was lifted on the cross, and unequivocally transcendent of cultural context. Is there a reasonable context in which withholding God’s grace from someone because of their identity is even remotely acceptable?

God has given our denomination countless opportunities to do right by one another beyond the interests and the power of the majority.  In February 2019 we will have a unique opportunity to stop the institutional harm done unto LGBTQIA+ persons throughout our history and across our denominational connection.  Why continue to condone prejudice and so-called values that keep harming and dehumanizing under the pretext of contextualization, interpretation, and personal opinion?

The UMC legislative discrimination against LGBTQIA+ persons started in 1972, three months before I was born. I thought that in my lifetime I would see our denomination waging unconditional peace instead of targeted harm towards LGBTQIA+ persons, but the current decisions (or lack thereof) by our Council of Bishops threatens inclusion in the very places where it is most needed. The “One Church Plan” acquiesces to a privileged notion of peace contingent on the good will or tyranny of a majority.

Many of our queer siblings and allies have shed their blood, sweat, and tears to get us this far, and I am grateful to them. Still, I continue to mourn for and with the ones who will most likely not cross the Jordan within my lifetime. I mourn the price some of our siblings will continue to pay for being branded incompatible, less-than-human, and unworthy in certain contexts. I mourn the fact that our denominational leaders keep prioritizing institutional unity even if it means that souls will continue to be crushed in the name of Jesus, under the banner of the cross and the flame. I mourn the historic complacency of our denomination under conveniently co-opted arguments of contextualization. But I don’t mourn, wander, or wonder alone. Is “contextualization” a matter of majority opinion, a matter of half-loaf vs. crumbs vs. starvation, or perpetuation of systemic forms of contextualized discrimination?

To me, as one deemed contextually “incompatible” by our denomination…the “One Church Plan” is less of a way forward, and more like a blow fish sushi in need of mindful preparation. After all, we don’t want to unintentionally kill the very Body we hope to feed, heal and grow. And we definitely do not want to go about life the same way as we use to because we are on the way to perfection and the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing.

28 There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
~Galatians 3:28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)