Friday, November 13, 2015

Reasoning Our Way Toward a Better Future for the UMC

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; 
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; 
cease to do evil, 
learn to do good; 
seek justice, rescue the oppressed, 
defend the orphan, 
plead for the widow. 
Come now, 
let us reason together, 
says the LORD: 
though your sins are like scarlet, 
they shall be like snow; 
though they are red like crimson, 
they shall become like wool.
Isaiah 1:16-18

In a recent blog post, John Lomperis, the United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative political action group, wrote about the need “to strengthen our denomination’s enforcement mechanisms to better ensure accountability for those of our clergy who choose to break their own word to honor our communal covenant.”

He argues that this accountability is needed to rein in those “United Methodist clergy who, with the protection of some sympathetic bishops, have engaged in some publicity stunts of performing same-sex union services, in open violation of our denomination’s very clear prohibitions of them.”

His criticism of the uncivil discourse of those who advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the life of the church is somewhat undercut by his characterization of same sex weddings as “publicity stunts.”

Just for the record, when I was ordained on a very hot Sunday in June of 1973 in the chapel of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the Book of Discipline I promised to uphold did not say that as a pastor I would be forbidden to officiate at same sex weddings.

In contrast to the apocalyptic pronouncements of Lomperis and other traditionalists today, the 1972 Book of Discipline said mildly, “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex.”

That Book of Discipline spoke of our need to understand the gift of our human sexuality and called upon “Medical, theological, and humanistic disciplines” to combine “in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely. And then after a long section affirming that “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth,” and insisting that “all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured,” the Discipline ended with the disclaimer, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The language did not seem nearly as harsh then, coming after a long section on rights and sacred worth and expressing an openness to continued learning.

There was nothing about penalties for celebrating a same sex marriage. And the whole section carried within it the implicit assumption that we would gain more insight as we partnered with social scientists and clinicians in the study of human sexuality.

The Discipline has always been an evolving document and on that hot June day in the Mount Holyoke chapel, I was confident then that we would find our way in this matter just as we had eventually found our way on slavery and segregation and the rights of women.

Aside from one bad sentence and one less than positive sentence, that 1972 Book of Discipline is an amazing document. There is a whole section affirming “theological pluralism” and a broad sense of the spiritual journey as unfinished business. When I read it I am reminded of why I became a United Methodist pastor in the first place.

The traditionalists are correct when they point out that across two millennia of Christian history the church has generally condemned and marginalized LGBTQ persons. The church also condoned slavery for most of those same centuries. But the future is supposed to be better than the past. We are supposed to learn and grown.

As Jeremiah proclaimed God’s vision: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

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