The Welcoming Movement and the United Methodist Church
The past decade has seen historic victories for LGBTQ inclusion in a number of Christian denominations. However, the United Methodist Church (UMC) is one of the few remaining mainline protestant denominations that still officially condemns homosexuality and bans the ordination of LGBTQ people. LGBTQ clergy continue to be put on church trial, along with allied clergy who perform same-gender marriages.
The past few decades have seen the wider UMC swing to the ideological right, due in no small part to the efforts of the ironically-named “Institute on Religion and Democracy” [http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v20n1/clarkson_battle.html]. The struggle over the issue of sexuality in particular has pitted more progressive churches here in the United States against more conservative churches elsewhere in the world. Playing a huge role in this has been the exportation to Africa of, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries [http://www.radicallyinclusive.com/], homo-hatred, by conservative American Evangelicals. The situation is rife with complicated racial and post-colonial-era dynamics.
As a whole, the worldwide denomination has been in an ideological log-jam for years, with both sides deeply entrenched and firmly believing in the justness of their cause. Hope springs every four years that perhaps this would be the General Conference—UMC’s major gathering—at which things would change. Until this year, those advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks have gone home disappointed.
It was in this context that voting delegates from around the world, along with advocates for full inclusion, gathered in Portland, Oregon for the UMC’s General Conference.
The Shower of Stoles Project
We at the National LGBTQ Task Force are blessed to act as caretakers of the Shower of Stoles Project, a remarkable collection of over 1,200 liturgical stoles and sacred objects, representing the lives and ministries of LGBTQ people of faith. These stoles represent those who have been forced out of ministry, those who have had no choice but to serve in the closet, those who didn’t pursue the call to ministry that they so keenly felt because they saw no path forward due to unjust church policy, and those who are able to serve out in the open.
There are 170 United Methodist stoles in the collection, and each and every one was there in Portland, where they beautifully adorned the front of the sanctuary for the reconciling worship celebration, which included a rousing sermon by Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey.
At the close of the service, as she prepared to oversee the sending forth, Rev. Sue Laurie found and donned the stole that she had donated fifteen years prior.
This year, after being denied ordination by the UMC for twenty years, Rev. Sue decided to no longer wait for the blessing of the denomination. She was ordained in a joyous “grassroots” service, surrounded by hundreds of supporters – clergy and laity – who offered blessing on her ministry.
Courageous Queer Clergy
In the weeks leading up to General Conference, more than 120 LGBTQ clergy collectively came out, bravely putting their ministries and livelihoods in jeopardy. I met with a group of them while there; their collective courage was deeply moving. Their stories of being faithful to God’s call to ministry while trying to exist within an unjust system are exactly the kinds of stories that the Shower of Stoles Project tells.
The Road to Rome
The days of General Conference were filled with powerful, symbolic actions. Each day advocates for full inclusion would circle the convention center and, like Joshua, blow a horn for the walls of exclusion to come tumbling down.
Everything led up to May 18, when the General Conference was expected to vote on church policy that would directly impact the lives and ministries of LGBTQ people.
In the early hours of that morning, more than 200 people gathered for one mass symbolic action.
In 71 BCE, a slave named Spartacus led a huge slave uprising that was brutally put down by the Roman Empire. As a warning to all of what happens if you challenge authority, the Roman Empire crucified 6,000 slaves and lined up the the road leading into Rome with the crosses.
That morning in Portland, 170 people stood lining the way to the convention center, each holding a wooden cross from which hung one of the 170 UMC stoles. That great cloud of witnesses stood in silence for ninety minutes as the voting delegates arrived for the morning’s legislative session, standing for those whose ministries and livelihoods have been sacrificed to the authority of the church. Together, they were silently saying, “Behold all the harm that the church has done.”
After walking past the long lines of crosses, the delegates now had to pass by those whose ministries would be in jeopardy by the votes taking place later that very day. Dozens of that brave cadre of newly-out queer clergy were robed and standing in silent prayer. “See me. Before you vote today, look at the faces of those whose futures you control. You can choose to stop the harm.”
The Log Jam Breaks
At the end of a roller coaster day, the General Conference approved a surprising proposal from the Council of Bishops, which laid out a radical departure from the status quo. All votes on legislation regarding human sexuality will be deferred. The Bishops will establish a commission that will look at a new global structure for the church and a rewritten Book of Discipline, with the possible revision of every paragraph regarding sexuality. A special General Conference may be called in two years, instead of the usual four, which would focus on these potentially seismic changes.
But despite these signs of hope, LGBTQ clergy and our allies are still not safe. Some conferences are declaring a moratorium on trials, but the whole church has not. To help stop the harm, sign the Reconciling Ministries Network [http://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/] petition [https://www.change.org/p/council-of-bishops-of-the-united-methodist-church-halt-all-punishments-related-to-lgbtq-people-in-the-united-methodist-church] to stop the trials.
So the work to transform the church to transform the world to transform the church continues. We pray for those courageous LGBTQ clergy who have come out and risked it all. And we pray for the soul of the United Methodist Church, and that they go back to the business of spreading the good news of God’s radical, inclusive love.
by David Lohman, Faith organizer, National LGBTQ Task Force