The United Methodist Church just can’t get it right. Announcing a schism over LGBTQ equality, Church leaders show themselves unable to respect LGBTQ people. We members of gender and sexual minorities are tired of living as scapegoats. We expect progressive people who call themselves our allies to act like they mean it. United Methodists must begin by acknowledging our presence in the room and by not extending blessings and respect to bigots who would deny us a seat at the table.
Let’s set up a thought experiment in racism
Once upon a time in the United States, racism ruled Christian churches. I don’t mean in the distant past. When I was a boy, many mainstream white Christian churches would not marry mixed-race couples and would not ordain men married to Black women. Many churches excluded Black people from their congregations altogether. In the 1970s, my own father almost caused our Baptist church to split when he evangelized in Black neighborhoods and invited Black people to worship with us.
I sat in a pew like the Black members of my childhood church, listening as bigots shouted that I had no right to sit with them as equals.
Church business meetings and deacons meetings erupted as red-faced white men (never women, who weren’t allowed a voice) shouted and quoted scripture. I was about 12 years old, and sometimes I sat in the pew with my family and shook with fear. Sometimes I looked around and noticed a few Black faces in the congregation, faces belonging to men and women who sat mute while white people debated their right to exist as part of our church.
My father stood resolute. He had a simple message for the racists who were using theology to stigmatize and scapegoat Black people:
While I am pastor of this church, all are welcome, no matter their race. Jesus did not discriminate, and I will follow his example. Those of you who can’t follow Christ are forsaking the gospel. I wish you would leave, because your testimony is unChristian, and it is corrupting our children.
A few families did leave our church, but it did not formally split like other racist churches did in that era. Eventually, overt racism of that sort died out in mainstream churches (often replaced by toxic subtlety), as progress toward equality tiptoed along.
Here’s that thought experiment
What do you suppose would have happened if my father’s message had been different? What if he’d said something like this to the racists:
I acknowledge we have differences. To you who reject Black people as equal members of our church, I offer my respect and a generous portion of our treasury to help you establish elsewhere. Even though we disagree, I want you to continue spreading your racist beliefs, living out a mission of making disciples of Christ to transform the world. Let us bless one another as we head in different directions.
How do you suppose Black people in the congregation would have felt to hear that? I think I know. I think they’d have felt gut punched. I think some of them would have gasped in pain. The pastor they thought was standing up for their humanity and equality just blessed and offered his respect to avowed racist bigots. I think if my father had blessed racists, some of the new Black families in our church would have left and never returned.
Right this minute, United Methodist leaders are offering blessings and respect to bigots
Before I connect the story from my boyhood to present times, let me back up and explain what’s happening. Last January, the United Methodist Church (UMC) shocked and horrified progressive people all over the world by voting in a general conference to mandate anti-LGBTQ policies in a so-called “Traditional Plan” that UMC bishop William H. Willimon describes as punitive and exclusionary.
The regressive move would bar same-sex marriage within the church and bar the ordination of people in same-sex marriages. The conference rejected a “One Church” plan that would have allowed individual congregations to decide those matters for themselves, which is generally how the UMC had been handling LGBTQ issues all along.
Factions of homophobic bigots in the UMC were not satisfied to exclude LGBTQ people as full members of their individual churches; they insisted all UMC churches must do so, and they passed a plan that mandated firing bishops and ministers who treated LGBTQ people as fully equal members of the Church.
The Traditionalist Plan defines “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” (crude and shaming language) as people living in the context of legal same-sex marriage or civil union, or people who make public statements (including on social media) claiming an LGBTQ identity. It then removes those people from any possibility of equal church life or leadership, spelling out mandatory minimum punishments for those we refuse to obey. The plan turns LGBTQ people into scapegoats with shaming fingers pointed at us.
Conflict consumed the UMC over the summer
I felt sick to my stomach, appalled that a famously progressive Christian denomination had turned on LGBTQ people.
No longer could I write articles uniformly praising mainline churches. No longer could I pretend to myself about that set of Christians.
Figuratively, I sat in a pew like the Black members of my childhood church, listening as bigots shouted that I had no right to sit with them as equals.
Over the past few months, I’ve followed UMC debates closely as leaders staked out positions. I was heartened to hear from time to time of a pastor or a congregation announcing their rebellion. They would neither leave the UMC nor abide by the new punitive measures after they took effect. They would resist. They would refuse to tolerate the homophobic bigots in the denomination, much as my father had refused to tolerate racist bigots.
Behind the scenes, much was happening. Rumors of compromise or alternative plans flew around as more and more affirming churches in the US announced that they would stay faithful to their LGBTQ congregants.
But vitriol flew too as bigot after bigot spoke up to condemn LGBTQ people as sinners. Church publications and blogs s filled up with comments sections stuffed with moral vilification of members of gender and sexual minorities.
Then on Thursday, the UMC announced a probable schism
A group of bishops and other leaders had finalized a proposal that would allow “traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new denomination” that could continue to deny equal membership to LGBTQ people. The rest of the United Methodist Church would go on to permit same-sex marriage and allow LGBTQ people to be ordained as clergy, serve as bishops, and function fully in other leadership roles.
While the proposal will have to be approved by the 2020 General Conference in May, Methodists in the know say that outcome is practically assured. It appears that in the United States, a majority of UMC churches will remain in the denomination. In Asia and Africa, where homophobic bigots dominate more of the church, the story may be different.
Feels like a victory? Here comes that gut punch.
Remember the speech my father didn’t make, the one where he respected the racists and blessed them? That actually happened with the UMC, and it’s being reported all over the globe.
This protocol provides a pathway that acknowledges our differences, respects everyone in the process and graciously allows us to continue to live out the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, albeit in different expressions. We must work intentionally for a way [to] bless one another as we head in different directions.
When I read that, I sucked in my breath in shock and horror, like somebody had just punched me in the gut. Even in the middle of working to include LGBTQ people in the life of the Church, at least one senior leader found it necessary to bless homophobic bigots and to express his respect for them.
He’s telling folks all over the world that scapegoating LGBTQ people is merely a “different direction” for “disciples of Jesus Christ.” He’s telling people that homophobic bigots are worthy of praise and blessings.
Remember my father who told racist bigots very clearly that, “Jesus did not discriminate, and I will follow his example. Those of you who can’t follow Christ are forsaking the gospel.”
He did not offer his respect to racists, and he did not give them his blessing. I don’t know how many senior leaders in the UMC endorse Bickerton’s blessing of homophobic bigotry, but I know his statement soured any sense of acceptance for me. A man who blesses stigmatization and scapegoating is not a man who follows the Jesus I know anything about.
I’m sick and exhausted from living as a scapegoat. I think I speak for countless LGBTQ people in calling for genuine respect and acceptance. For genuine rejection of homophobic bigotry.
I’m sad to see that I won’t find it from the leadership of the United Methodists, who just can’t seem to figure out how to get it right. At least not today. Progress tiptoes along.
Are you a member of a United Methodist congregation? What can you do to let your leaders know that blessing bigots is unacceptable and unChristian?
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.