In an article published late last year, the Rev. Stan Copeland addressed the One Church Plan, one of the three plans being voted on by the United Methodist Church in February to address the issue of homosexuality in the church. Copeland is in support of the One Church Plan, but cites one major concern, that “any time we have a (congregational) vote it’s potentially divisive.” According to the article, “Copeland would rather the pastor and other local church leaders make that call.”
This sentiment rings horrendously detrimental for several reasons. Firstly, the deeply flawed One Church Plan is a beacon of hope, albeit an apologetic and imperfect beacon, that individual churched have the right and ability to choose the radically inclusivity and non-judgment argued for by Christ. To remove the power of individual congregations and centralize it into the pastor’s and local leadership holds a host of moral and logistical issues. It makes those LGBTQIA+ and allied members in more itinerate conferences subject to the fear that while their current Pastor may be welcoming, the person who comes next may not.
In addition to this pandering allyship, the Council of Bishops released a letter, declaring that they see “the ways in which the convening of the Special Session of General Conference creates a time and space of harm for you and members of your family. To be the focus of attention, discussion and debate is hurtful.” This letter is riddled with doublespeak, deigning to acknowledge the existence of queer people without taking any direct ownership of the fact that the Bishops are complicit in our oppression. It is the clerical equivalent of “I’m sorry you feel that way,” mincing words and hiding behind phrases like “honor our convictions” to allow themselves a congratulatory victory, that they have done so much in speaking to us in this groundbreaking way, and yet said absolutely nothing substantive in support at all.
To anyone drawing comfort in the idea of the one church plan, or preaching a rhetoric of acceptance and “love to those who see things differently,” especially my family of queer folks, I implore you to be vigilant. To call out injustice wherever we see it. To ask any queer member of the United Methodist Church to embody the false narrative of accepting abuse at the hands of our house of worship in an act of Christian passivity, is to dishonor the courage of Christ to stand among the least wanted. The love, light, and strength of the queer members of this congregation is unwaveringly strong, and no amount of platitude can undo the harm of our leaders’ complacency and deliberate abuse. It is not enough to say that we live as Christ wants us to, we must take the courageous, political, radical, loving step of actually doing it. If not, then what ever is the point?
It is no secret that our country, our church, and our world are living in frightening and divided times. On so many of these issues of injustice and oppression there are examples of United Methodists actively, openly. And without fail moving to act in the face of hatred and directly oppose aggression. We are sheltering immigrants, we are calling out racism and xenophobia, we are empowering those in need. But until we clean our own house, and affirm LGBTQIA+ people without any hesitation, then we are throwing countless stones while we worship in a cathedral of glass.
Last week’s Judicial Council decisions were confusing to many of us. In order to better understand the ramifications of the Council’s actions, we are sharing this brief explanation, breaking down both the rulings and what they suggest as we move forward. Written and shared via permission of longtime MIND friend Kevin Nelson.
Bishop Karen is still a bishop. (We have constitutionally protected fair process rights, so think of an “innocent until proven guilty” sort of thing. Bishop Karen’s membership was in good standing at the time of her election.)
“Practicing,” in the term “self-avowed practicing homosexual,” got more complicated. As a legal principle, it was sort of expanded to include married to a same-sex partner. The “sort of” is that the primary legal threshold is still about “sexual genital contact,” but the JC has determined that it will go with the working assumption (or “rebuttable presumption” as they put it) that married people are having sex (basically, you can think of it as, “guilty until proven innocent”).
[Note: Another way of thinking about this is that the JC has dared many of our queer, partnered clergy to lie about their sex lives, and bet that they won’t do it. Take a moment to let it sink in how sick that is. And all the ways in which it is sick.]
Marriage licenses now qualify for self-avowal (doesn’t that make “self-avowal” kind of an oxymoron now?).
Bishop Karen’s continuation as a bishop is under review, with the above matters to be taken into account and the intention that she be removed from office at a later date either as part of a just resolution or via penalty from a church trial.
In case it wasn’t already clear, this is what ugliness masked in piety looks like. This is what discrimination and oppression look like.
Bottom line: did the Western Jurisdiction mean it when they responded to the Holy Spirit’s movement and elected Karen a bishop? The JC has issued them a challenge. Will they accept it?
A “just resolution” can be offered to Bishop Karen that strives to offer healing to all the pertinent parties that have been wronged throughout this process. Such a resolution would retain Bishop Karen in the episcopal office.
If a resolution isn’t achieved, a trial court can decline to find Bishop Karen guilty. Perhaps they won’t find the “presumption” of sexual activity sufficient for “beyond a reasonable doubt” (not an actual UM legal principle but still worth learning from). Perhaps they won’t be quite so convinced that the Holy Spirit’s actions through this election were immoral and an unacceptable violation of UM teachings.
Perhaps no matter what happens, the WJ College of Bishops, the WJ episcopacy committee and the Sky Mountain Episcopal Area will continue to recognize Bishop Karen’s election and receive her as an episcopal leader.
Will the relevant WJ bodies say, “Challenge accepted!”?
In the NY case (and I understand N IL is the same, though I don’t have the text yet), the BOOM was told they have to consider all relevant aspects of church law when evaluating candidates for ordained ministry, including provisions barring the certification and ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Nothing new here. For BOOMs and members of BOOMs that believe such church laws are unjust, immoral and destructively harmful, the JC has issued you a challenge. Will you continue to embrace the moral imperative to resist and not be complicit in propping up such laws? Will you embrace this manifestation of “resist[ing] evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves”?
Will you say, “Challenge accepted?”
Resistance is never easy, but especially for those of us who aren’t queer, we’ll probably never know what it is truly like to experience such church-sanctioned discrimination and oppression, cloaked in words of piety. We will probably never know how hard that experience really is. The resistance called of us is easy in comparison. To put this another way, this is an instance of a call to love our neighbors.
In a church trial that concluded yesterday, Rev. Amy DeLong was found not guilty of the charge of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of having performed a same-sex holy union. The penalty for the holy union, which the jury decided in a 9-4 vote after six hours of deliberation, is a 20-day suspension, “to be used for spiritual discernment in preparation for a process seeking to restore the broken clergy covenant relationship,” in the words of the trial court (what the jury is called in UMC jurisprudence). The penalty also requires DeLong to write document on ways to address harm done to the clergy covenant; if the discernment and writing process is not complied with, it will result in a one-year suspension.
The trial outcome is being widely hailed as a victory for those seeking to change the UMC’s unjust doctrine and discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the very fact that someone can even be brought to a church trial simply for being gay or for marrying a gay couple is still an outrage. As the Committee on Investigation in the Wisconsin Annual Conference that reluctantly brought the charges against DeLong in December 2010 put it, “these charges present a fundamentally unjust circumstance.”
The charges and trial came about as a result of DeLong disclosing to church officials in early 2010 the facts that she had performed a 2009 holy union ceremony for a lesbian couple and had registered her own domestic partnership with another woman in November of that year. She refused to lie, by omission or otherwise, about who she is and the ministry to which she is called.
The church’s case on the “self-avowed practicing homosexual” charge ran aground on its inability to prove that DeLong is a “practicing” homosexual. UMC jurisprudence – which has tied itself in knots trying to reconcile the indisputable reality that gay and lesbian clergy are faithful Christians and gifted ministers with its bigoted doctrine asserting that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” – requires proof that “genital sexual acts” have been taken place in order to convict someone as a practicing homosexual. On the stand during the trial, the church’s counsel, Tom Lambrecht, asked DeLong, “Does your relationship with your partner include genital contact?” (Is it us or does this question just feel like it belongs in Salem ca. 1692?)
“There is no way, when are you trying to do me harm, that I am going to answer that question,” DeLong responded, as reported by postcresent.com reporter Michael Louis Vinson. She went on to say, “you’re fishing for facts that should have been established (before the trial).”
The outcome on this charge appears to signal that it’s possible for gay and lesbian clergy to be out about their sexual orientation, as DeLong is, and not be prosecutable under the Incompatibility Clause as long as neither they nor anyone else documents the details of their sex lives. While a long way from justice, this circumstance does create breathing room for LGBT clergy in the meantime while the fight to abolish the underlying doctrine continues.
The facts surrounding the holy union that DeLong performed were not in question; hence the guilty verdict on the second charge. But the UMC Book of Discipline is full of self-contradictions on the issue of sexuality. While declaring that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches,” it also says “sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society.” Moreover, clergy vow at their ordination to “seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people.” Within these conflicting mandates, DeLong chose to honor the need to minister to all people. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” Martin Luther King famously wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963. Including unjust church laws.
The 20-day suspension is a relatively light penalty, and the discernment and writing requirement is a creative response that can potentially be used to move the church forward by addressing the real dilemmas of the clergy covenant under the present unjust circumstances. As RMN Executive Director Troy Plummer put it, “So Amy is tasked with writing a transformational resource for clergy to better understand their covenant with one another? I can’t think of anyone else more up to the task.”
The verdict and the potential of the discernment document combined with the national groundswell of clergy defiance of the ban on same-sex weddings – some 740 clergy in seven annual conferences have pledged to marry all couples as part of the spreading marriage initiative movement, and several other conferences are organizing similar efforts – are a great sign of hope in the UMC. The church can change – the church is changing – even if the rule book isn’t.
notes for Queering Religion panel at Passing the Torch: Building the Future of Queer Activism conference 1/22/11
set stage for this panel by offering a few remarks about why the fight against religious homophobia, and esp. Christian homophobia, is so impt
begin with reflection on what Christianity is and what it ought to be, what it was intended to be
in honor of MLK Day, his words more eloquent than mine; [READ]
(if I ever write a book about this work, I’m going to call is “the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows)
be clear: Jesus’s ministry was for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized; takes on elites/powerful/wealthy, in story after story – that’s what Christians ought to be about
but as King says, the church is much more about mimicking the social prejudices of the society around it than challenging them, let along challenging the social order itself
this was true in the U.S. of the church’s defense of slavery, segregation, subjugation of women
and in our own time it is esp. true of the church’s attitude towards LGBT people; there are shining exceptions, people doing amazing, wonderful, radical work in carrying on Jesus’s call to welcome in everybody and lifting up queer folks – I know, I get to work with many of them – but they are a minority. the institutional Christian church as a whole is firmly in the homophobes’ camp
and here’s why that matters – and it matters whether you are a believer or not, whether Christianity s your religion or not, whether you care at all about the soul of the church – it matters because we live in a religious nation where people overwhelmingly identify as Christian and Christian homophobia is The main force driving the persecution of queer people
The church has blood on its hands; the blood of the three men who were abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted in the Bronx last fall; the blood of all the gay teenagers who kill themselves in the face of relentless bullying and countless more.
Bishop Gene Robinson – the first openly gay bishop in the U.S. and himself so much the object of death threats that he has to wear a bullet-proof vest at public events – wrote an article in October titled “How religion is killing our most vulnerable youth.” I want to read you a passage:
Not long ago I had a conversation with six gay teens, not one of whom had ever had any formal religious training or influence. Every one of them knew the word “abomination,” and every one of them thought that was what God thought of them. They couldn’t have located the Book of Leviticus in the Bible if their lives depended on it yet they had absorbed this message from the antigay air they breathe every day….[B]ullying behaviors would not exist without the undergirding and the patina of respect provided by religious fervor against LGBT people. It’s time for “tolerant” religious people to acknowledge the straight line between the official anti-gay theologies of their denominations and the deaths of these young people. Nothing short of changing our theology of human sexuality will save these young and precious lives.
Let me paint the picture a different way as well: If tomorrow, Sunday, every preacher got in the pulpit and said homophobia is wrong, God loves queer people queer and the government should stop discriminating against LGBT people, on Monday morning state legislators would be falling all over each other to pass marriage equality; because it’s religion that gives them the moral cover for their homophobic actions
So my point this afternoon is that whether you are a religious person or not, the fight against religious homophobia is central to our fight as queer people for liberation, and I urge queer activists to think about strategies aimed at religious homophobia in whatever they do
a few specifics (three points – classic)
First, if you are a member of a religious institution at any level, you must speak out; you must dissent from official policies of anti-gay doctrine and discrimination
there are queer rights groups within virtually every major denomination, and hooking up with these existing groups is one way to do this work
if you are part of a local congregation that is welcoming of LGBT people (like I am – this is our unofficial Gay Pride shirt) and you are comfortable there, get uncomfortable. it’s not enough that we have little enclaves of enlightenment; those of us in local churches that are welcoming must use that base to demand and push larger church institutions to change
silence is complicity, it is not an option for queer survival
I am part of a group that is doing just that, organizing dissent against church homophobia. The group is called Methodists in New Directions – MIND – and we are a regional body working for change within the New York and Connecticut conference of the UMC
if you want to know more about MIND, check out our website (which I maintain, so I’d be really happy if I saw a spike in my google analytics as a result of this conference); the address is mindny.org
I do want to tell you about one thing MIND is doing as an example of the kind of creative work that I think people within religious institutions can and should do
the UMC, among other backwards bigoted things, prohibits its ministers from performing same-sex marriages. we have drafted a covenant of conscience that declares our intention to perform such weddings anyway and are gathering signers on it. our idea is to build a big, broad network of clergy who are committed to marrying folks in spite of the ban, and then to publicize the hell out of it both within our conference in the church and to queer communities
the genius of it is that declaring that you are going to marry gay folks is not a violation of church law – so no one can be defrocked for signing the covenant – and tracking down individual weddings that might happen as a result of this initiative is going to be very hard for church officials to prosecute
our intent is to make marriage equality a lived reality in our jurisdiction of the church; our belief is that Methodists – as Christians – should not, must not wait to stop discriminating against queer folks until some larger church body changes its policies. we can and we must stop discriminating now; that is the essence of faithfulness to the Gospel
so that’s one glimpse into MIND’s work
the second point, for queer activist groups outside the church, seek out alliances with those groups within the religious institutions doing the work
get them to co-sponsor your stuff; inspire and challenge them to do more within their denominations; and see where your combined forces might lead you; there is strength in collaboration
getting a message to queer folks that God made us queer, God loves us queer and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of crap is an essential part of our liberation struggle
anything we can do to make sure LGBT youth and others who are suffering in self-torment because of the religious homophobia that saturates our society get that message is valuable and potentially life saving
the best carriers of that message are the religious groups like MIND doing this work; so find them and together get a flyer up in every gay bar and dorm and student center and wherever else you ARE that says God loves you queer
my last point is: Protest
religious homophobia should not go unchallenged. if there is some big church guy coming to speak on your campus and he or his church are on record opposing gay rights, organize a protest. if your campus ministries are peddling homophobia, confront them
ideally with enlightened religious groups, but either way, make sure it doesn’t go unchallenged and make sure that the institutions of organized religion that have the blood of our LGBT brothers and sisters on their hands are confronted with the fact at every turn possible