Update, May 9, 2016: Monday morning, another 111 United Methodist Church clergy and candidates for ordination published an open letter identifying themselves as LGBTQI, an unprecedented act that could result in church trial, lost jobs, and revoked ordination under current UMC church rules. The letter, originally posted on Reconciling Ministries Network's website, resulted in so much traffic that the site has crashed. The letter states: "We are coming out as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex persons at this moment for several reasons. Foremost, we want you to know we still love you and seek to remain in relationship with you. Even if we should leave and you seek more restrictive language against LGBTQI persons, know that God will continue to move mysteriously in the hearts of LGBTQI young people and adults and will call them to serve within this denomination. You cannot legislate against God’s call."
Last week, 15 New York–area United Methodist Church clergy and clergy candidates released an open letter declaring that “We are lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer”—an action that, given the mainline denomination’s still hostile stance to homosexuality, could cause them a lot of problems.
“Come what may, we’re going to stand together,” says the Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, a signatory on the letter and a church elder who has previously been brought up on a complaint within the New York Annual Conference of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
And these 15 dissidents aren’t the only Methodists making noise. Within days of the letter, the Boards of Ordained Ministry for New York and Baltimore–Washington pleaded with other local boards to follow their months-old decision to abandon a sexual orientation litmus test for ministerial candidates. A group of North Carolina bishops called for a repeal of the state’s controversial HB2, and a United Methodist church in Charlotte hosted the denomination’s first public same-sex wedding ceremony in the state. Taken together, this series of events directly flouts UMC’s official position on homosexuality, and they’re part of a swell of recent actions organized by Reconciling Ministries Network, a group working for LGBTQ inclusion within UMC.
The timing is strategic. Starting tomorrow, United Methodists from all over the world will meet in Portland, Oregon, for UMC’s quadrennial General Conference—the church’s international lawmaking assembly consisting of half clergy, half laypeople—and part of the agenda will be to once again debate what has become a painful division within the global church.
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline, UMC’s doctrinal and practical rulebook, has stated that while all people are of sacred worth, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are not to be certified and appointed as clergy within UMC. In recent years, as marriage equality was won in the U.S., some clergy have increasingly performed same-sex unions in rebellion of another bylaw banning “homosexual unions,” a position those performing these unions argue puts them on the side of Biblical obedience, valuing grace and love over “derogatory language and restrictive laws.” It’s also put them in the crosshairs of a contentious church debate. Charges raised against clergy officiating same-sex weddings and targeting openly queer clergy have spurred church trials throughout the country.
“The church that I love is doing harm. It has done harm to me, and it is doing harm to other people … who are trying to figure their lives out,” says Thompson Tweedy. “They don’t need contradictory messages that they are of sacred worth but incompatible with Christian teaching.” She adds: “Anybody can sit in our pews.”
The United Methodist Church’s rules are amended by delegate vote at General Conference, and representation in that assembly is determined by the number of clergy and church members in each Annual Conference (regional church jurisdictions). Bigger Annual Conferences are apportioned a larger share of delegates, and with church rolls shrinking in the U.S. while they grow abroad, delegations from nations where homophobia is still largely acceptable hold an outsized number of delegate votes. There are also plenty of American traditionalists who insist same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy is “incompatible with what Scripture reveals to be God’s will.”
“On paper, it doesn’t look like we have the votes to change the Book of Discipline,” admits Pastor Bruce Lamb of Mt. Calvary/St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem, another signatory on the open letter. Yet current efforts are not solely directed at collecting delegate votes. For many, raising their voices now, after years during which the specter of church trial and excommunication have been a constant threat, make resistance and breaking silence an act of faith.
Some, says Matt Berryman, executive director of RMN, are “called to participate in systems and disrupt them, or to change them from within or to speak as prophets speak … not unlike the voices of Scripture, the prophets, and Jesus himself who spoke out against the powers and principalities that seek to oppress God's children.”
“It was in my blood to love this church and serve this church,” says Thompson Tweedy, whose mother and uncle were both UMC ministers. “It’s part of my composition and constitution.” But when she felt called to ministry in the church herself, she remembers telling God that if she was going to go through ordination, “you have to make the way, because I’m going to go through the process out.” Today, she believes “God pulled me into ministry because God wanted my witness as an out lesbian.”
Lamb, who felt his sexuality was inherently bound to his call to ministry, had been told to sanitize his theological essays as he approached ordination in order to get through—a dishonest, spiritually suffocating proposition. He says it was his good fortune that a week before he went through the Board of Ordained Ministry, his conference in New York stopped inquiring about sexual orientation.
Traditionalists complain that UMC is already functioning as two separate churches, its fundamental covenant broken. Within U.S. congregations and depending on geographic region, some churches have dubbed themselves “reconciling” (inclusive) bodies. Some bishops buck exclusionary church bylaws. Some ministers openly officiate same-sex marriages in their churches while others abide the Book of Discipline’s prohibition. As Berryman asserts (citing church founder John Wesley), “To the extent to what we do now is rule-breaking to meet need, it is very Wesleyan, but it's probably more Christian than anything else, because it was Jesus more than anyone else, who broke all the rules in order to demonstrate love.” But that is a far from universal interpretation. Currently, UMC operates quite differently depending upon the inclination of church leadership where you live.
In 2014, in the West Ohio Annual Conference, Ken Schoon found himself ambivalently weighing the force of his call to ministry against a moral obligation to be honest about himself as a whole person. He’d closeted himself within the church for three years, but the night before his recertification meeting he wrote an email to his district superintendent, declaring himself a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” Schoon was recertified with a majority vote and the following year was recommended for commissioning as a deacon. But as he reached the final step in the process—a vote by his ordination board members—he could not garner the necessary two-thirds majority. “I’m in limbo,” says Schoon, who has been told the shortfall is directly related to his coming out.
That sense of limbo is evident in the church’s current crisis and in the lives of so many church leaders. Ginny Mikita’s candidacy for ordination was revoked in the West Michigan Annual Conference, along with her church membership, after she officiated the wedding of a friend, the Rev. Benjamin Hutchison to his partner Monty, using credentials secured through the Universal Life Church.
When I spoke to Mikita months ago, she was heartbroken over her modern excommunication. She had been told she would have to be rebaptized—a proposal that she felt suggested there was a spiritual gap, that she’d reneged on her vows and for a period was somehow not a child of God. The call to dismiss Mikita came from three out-of-state ministers, but her status was revoked by her district superintendent. As Mikita pressed back, her local church pastor, based on his interpretation of The Book of Discipline, refused to remove her name from the membership roll. Her district ordination committee exerted its authority to continue supporting her candidacy, and the same district superintendent who stripped her candidacy and membership had to preside—as required by The Book of Discipline—when her staff parish committee and congregation voted to continue her candidacy. Despite these showings of communal support, a sense of sorrow remains, a spiritual trauma from having to fight to remain part of a church that, to her, is family.
It’s an open question how long the UMC’s conservative majority will tolerate this bubbling up of resistance by growing numbers of ministers and bishops. If the UMC continues operating unevenly with regard to LGBTQ people, if existing rules don’t bind and are left up to interpretation, the question becomes unavoidable: What does it mean to be a united Methodist church?
Together, progressive and traditionalist United Methodists are beginning to trickle into Portland. Thompson Tweedy says she’s preparing to absorb another round of terrible rhetoric aimed against LGBTQ people. Votes will be cast, and change—at least this time—is unlikely.
“Do I have hope?” reflects Thompson Tweedy. “I don’t think you can call yourself a Christian and not have hope. The story that we choose to believe is that Good Fridays turn into Easter Sundays. That in death, there's resurrection. And right now our church is in a real Good Friday moment. I hope I live to see Easter Sunday."