Demonstrators wearing Rainbow gags at the 2016 UMC General Conference (Pic: United Methodist News Service)
Something….interesting happened tonight at our little Methodist church here in Utah. As some of you may know, recently the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC elected the denomination’s first openly LGBTQ bishop, Bishop Karen Oliveto. This is, of course, a big deal. The UMC has been wrestling with the issue of homosexuality for a long time. This most recent General Conference, held this last spring in Portland, was no exception, as the picture above shows. The conference failed to come to any new conclusions on the issue, but called kind of a special session in 2018 to address it. Apparently the issue has become so large and contentious that it’s getting to be too difficult for the church to have discussion on other issues, thus the decision to try and address it in 2018.
Shortly after that, the Western Jurisdiction elected Bishop Oliveto. Obviously this was a bit of a shock for many. For reference sake, the Book of Discipline for the UMC currently prohibits “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from holding ordained positions. So, no matter how one feels about the issue, it does fly in the face of the current standards of the Book of Discipline. Now, I’m no expert on the discipline, but this is a big deal.
But this isn’t a post really about homosexuality or the Discipline. It’s about what happened in our church tonight. Naturally, her election has ruffled more than a few feathers, including in our own, fairly tight knit congregation. Our pastor admitted tonight that some people had informed him that they had decided to leave the church because of it. So what he wanted to do was have kind of a forum night where people could talk about it and express their feelings, so at least they felt like they had a chance to be heard on the matter.
Our pastor had set the meeting up in one of the little side Sunday School rooms. However, even 10 minutes before the meeting started, it was obvious that more people than expected were going to come, so we moved into the sanctuary. That was the first blessing of the night, that so many people cared enough about the issue to come to speak and to hear from others.
Before I go further, I should state my view on the subject, just so you, the reader, know where I am coming from. I have zero issues with Bishop Oliveto’s appointment. After reading and learning about her it seemed obvious to me that she possesses the grace and gifts from God to do the job. At that point I don’t care if she’s a woman, a man, gay, straight, trans, black, white, whatever. I really cringe at the idea of classifying people based on something like sexual orientation. Who we are is so much more than that.
Surely some of you will respond with “but, The Bible says that it’s a sin.” Yes, it does, but the Bible also has more than 200 verses sanctioning and regulating the practice of human slavery. Now, outside of the Klan, I doubt very many people would suggest that human slavery is the true and timeless will of God for everybody, despite the fact that it’s literally sanctioned in multiple places in the Bible. Now, I’m not going to get into the theological underpinnings of it because that’s really not what this post is about, but suffice it to say that the way people feel about slavery and the Bible today is the way I feel about homosexuality and the Bible. You can agree or not, that’s just my view, and I don’t speak for the UMC or anybody else but me, obviously.
But back to the story. I wasn’t very encouraged at first. People came armed. Now I don’t mean they came armed with guns, but they came armed with the various scripture passages that we’re all familiar with. We’re talking Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:27, you know, the Greatest Hits. And some folks were pretty hot about it, so I thought, “Oh boy, I hope this doesn’t get ugly.”
But you know what, it turns out that I wasn’t giving people enough credit. Our pastor did a wonderful job at heading off hurt feelings and putting out fires before they got burning. As people started to share, you saw the common heart and humanity of everyone in the room. We had one man share his story about changing his mind on the issue after attending a Methodist church in San Francisco. We had another lady, who is pretty much the matriarch of the church, talk about her gay son and how devastated he was when the Church told him that he was not allowed to be a minister, which is what he felt like God was calling him to do. Another young lady spoke about her gay brother, and the struggle that he and his partner (now married) had gone through to adopt a child. One man admitted that even though he had three lesbians in his family he could still not wrap his head around the idea of God ultimately being ok with homosexuality. It was obviously a struggle for him, but he felt that he needed to stand for what he believed God’s word was telling him, and that was fine. He wasn’t judgmental about it, he said he more than welcomed gay people in the church, but he did not feel like they should be in positions of leadership.
I don’t agree with him, but I respect him. It is obviously a legitimate interpretation of scripture to see it his way. He is one of the kindest, most gentle persons I’ve ever met, and I think it took a lot of courage for him to express himself.
But it was what happened right at the end that really moved me. One of the ladies that I’ve gotten to know a little bit through Bible study and my Sunday school class spoke up and talked about how she was struggling with it, and was thinking about leaving the church as well. Having to agonize about it was just ripping her apart, and she started to cry a little bit. So many times Christians on the conservative side of this issue are made into villains by people on my side. I must admit I’m guilty of it myself. The stereotype is that they’re just uneducated haters who judge others and want people to be miserable. I can tell you with no hesitation that this lady is not one of those people. She loves EVERYBODY, and she was just trying to come to grips with the fact that people were openly questioning something she had believed her entire life. That’s not easy.
As soon as the meeting was over I got up and gave her a great big hug. She said, “Brandon, you know I’m not trying to judge anybody. I just….,” then her voice trailed off. I told her that I knew she wasn’t trying to judge anybody and that we were all going to work through this together.
It was a moving experience. At the end of the night, nobody in that sanctuary, even people who opposed Bishop Oliveto’s election, had any issues with gay people in general, gay people being active in the church, or gay people being welcome at the table of Christ. That’s a step in the right direction I think. These are attitudes that have been held through people’s entire lives, and they deserve the respect to have their opinions and work it out for themselves as long as they’re not disrespecting others, which nobody in that room did. I expected fireworks. What I got was a heartfelt discussion where at least everyone agreed that gay people aren’t just an “issue” but actual people with actual feelings and actual value as children of God. That was awesome to see and hear.
The Wesleyan tradition has a concept called the “via media” or the “middle way,” which seeks to provide us with a chance to work through the issues and try to find a middle ground and commonality. We’re allowed to do this using scripture, tradition, reason, and our own experiences. I saw that in action tonight. I’ve been a part of discussions on this issue that have not been respectful and that have been very mean spirited. This wasn’t that, and I was so impressed. Hopefully more of these kinds of discussions can be held to help find a way forward on this bit of controversy.