The Raleigh Rant

Finding Our Way in the Methodist Church

Last week I attended the annual conference of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina. I helped host the exhibit of the Reconciling United Methodists group, and we received a lot of interest, comments, and questions. Perhaps part of that was due to the fact that we were the first table as you entered the Greenville Convention Center from the parking lot, and secondly because we gave out free water and snacks. Even those who disagreed with us came by for water and goodies so at least we reached some level of their consciousness. I set a record of one 40-minute conversation with an earnest and questioning young man who raised the pointed question of whether homosexuality is a sin. He couldn’t get a straight (pardon the pun) answer from our bishop, and the same is true about a new book that was distributed at the Cokesbury store at the conference.

Titled Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church, the small paperback book includes an introduction and three sections: options, responses, and steps. It includes commentaries by eight UMC bishops on the issue of the controversy about homosexuality, including ordination, marriage, church trials, the Discipline (the official doctrine of the UMC), the role and the institution of General Conference (held every four years), and suggestions for bridging the breach that has developed over the past 42 years since it was first discussed at General Conference in 1972. But for all the posturing, logical debate, and search for unity, none of them directly addressed the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin. They frequently quoted the wording of the Discipline that it is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” which still dances around the question.

Several recent books directly address the issue by citing the so-called “gotcha” Bible scriptures that are quoted as addressing the issue. Some challenge whether these scriptures are citing same sex practices or discussing temple prostitution, gang rape, cultural norms of the 1st Century, or historical Christian traditions. After all, the traditional marriage in Bible times was polygamy. While I view it as counter productive to debate various interpretations of these scriptures because you are unlikely to change anyone’s interpretation of them and thus waste time that could be addressed to other issues, the debate over church dogma ultimately depends upon how the church’s doctrine posits its polity based on these scriptures.

A recent book review in Christianity Today predictably challenged Mathew Vines interpretation in his book God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (see my blog post of May 19th.) Thus, the theologians will contain to debate the scriptures as they have done for centuries, and the conflict between orthodoxy and so-called heresy will continue as it has done for more than 2,000 years. Although the conflict started with the very beginning in the establishment of the Christian church after the death of Jesus Christ (he was a practicing Jew), it reached its nadir in the 16th Century with the Inquisition. Fortunately, we’re not putting people on the rack in the current debate, but we’re still doing a lot of damage not only to individual lives but also to organized religion that is struggling to discover its relevance in today’s society. If we continue to be preoccupied with internal debates over dogma while the world dies of starvation not only for food but also for salvation, we are being sidetracked from our mission. So some people say just quit the debate or go away or form another denomination or just listen to the Holy Spirit to resolve the conflict. The Holy Spirit seems to have been silent in our discernments at conferencing in the United Methodist Church, and I’m not sure that bishops’ contributions have clarified or obscured the issue. It seemed to me there was a lot of pontificating, but then I guess that’s what Bishops do. I found it interesting that only one quoted the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Are we here to maintain order and the status quo, or are we here to grow the church in every sense of the word?

God and the Gay Christian

Two years ago Matthew Vines posted a video on YouTube titled “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality” that went viral. This spring he followed up with a book titled “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.” It was written from an Evangelical Christian’s point-of-view, and many Evangelicals hav challenged his interpretations of the scriptures since he does not follow the literalist tradition. Several years ago Jack Rogers, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, published a similar book challenging the traditional interpretations of the “gotcha” scriptures that often are cited as the basis for condemning homosexuality.

Vines’ book has a broader scope that just another reiteration of the scriptures. He also cites his personal experiences and those of other LGBT persons who have been discriminated against and hurt by the church for its exclusionary polity. It’s not just a question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, but what impact does the judgment of the church and its officials have upon the lives of those it chooses to exclude. In reality, the impact has been devastating on thousands of people, many of whom have chosen suicide because they could not reconcile their Christian beliefs with their own sexuality.

He traces the history of the church is dealing with other controversies, such as whether or not the earth is the center of the universe and whether or not the church should accept slavery. He devotes an entire chapter to the issue of celibacy and whether or not it should be enforced or voluntary. I won’t belabor the points he makes on each of the scripture citations. You really need to read the book to follow his logic, references, and historical citations to understand his conclusions both from a theological and secular point-of-view. Of course, I believe that he has reached the right conclusions, but I am not a theologian. However, many other contemporary theologians have agreed with him.

He uses the terms “affirming” and “non-affirming” to describe the opposing views of homosexuality, and he comes from the Presbyterian tradition. The Presbyterians have dealt with this issue as long as the Methodists but have made much greater progress in coming to some kind of reconciliation. The Methodists have been fighting over it for 40 years and still condemn homosexuality in their official church dogma, known as The Discipline.

I think he has raised the ire of the Evangelicals because he has portrayed himself as one of them. He claims that the Evangelical tradition is more than just a literalist interpretation of the Bible but is an energetic and forceful movement for Christian evangelism and thus by excluding a large minority of the population they are weakening their mission to bring the Gospel to all.

He also addresses the Gay Christians in that they have a right to be both fully sexual beings and to express that through their actions in committed relationships and to expect to be fully accepted into the church and not relegated to second-class status. He sees the controversy over this issue as yet another reformation of the church to make it more dynamic and closer to the Kingdom of God.

Knocking Over the Tables of the Money Changers in the Temple

My Twitter feed each day is filled with reports of people using religion to justify their racism, homophobia, jingoism, and neo-Nazi beliefs and actions. These reports challenge and chastise these people correctly for their abuse of the name of God and ask that people shame them or even boycott them. I know that Jesus expressed his anger at the abuse of the rituals of the Temple by the moneychangers who took advantage of the pilgrims. He noted that they profited from religion without understanding its intention.

But that was in a different culture and time and before the proliferation of mass media, and I wonder if giving these crackpots notoriety is the best way to deal with them. Don’t they seek media attention to spread their messages, and even if we condemn them aren’t we in effect helping to spread their messages? Why not just ignore them, or at least not give them free publicity?

Does that mean the only option is to do nothing in the face of such outrages? No, but I suggest direct action rather than an automatic, in-direct, and ineffective reaction. Let’s deal with these folks face-to-face, through their pocketbook, or by challenging their supporters. The media loves controversy, so why does there always have to be “another side” of the story? Some statements are just flagrant lies or deliberate mis-information so that they just don’t justify a legitimate point-of-view. When someone maims or kills someone and then justifies their actions because of their beliefs, they’re either insane or evil fanatics. We want to know why people do terrible things and what is their motivation. Well, sometimes there isn’t any —they’re just crazy.

Which raises the issue of how to deal with gun violence, homelessness, as well as racism and homophobia. Trying to deal with the just the symptoms of a dysfunctional society is a hopeless effort, and we must come to terms with the root cause of these deprivations. We must create new and effective systems of mental health treatment programs. That will require most than just providing insurance coverage for these treatments; it means new programs that are not just window-dressing but are truly effective in making substantial and permanent changes in people’s lives. The status of mental health treatment programs in the United States is a disgrace, especially so in North Carolina.

So rather than just re-tweet some reaction to an obviously stupid statement or action, get involved in the National Organization for Mental Illness (NAMI) with a local chapter or lobby for public funding of services to get people off the streets and help rebuild their lives. Our local relief non-profit agencies do a good job, but they simply are overwhelmed and don’t have the resources to cope with the vast needs.

Yes, it will require education for several generations to convert some of these misapprehensions of religion, as we saw with the issue of slavery, but it can be done. But the solution requires more than just education, it requires a re-orientation of some people’s basic psychological make-up so that they are in touch with reality and the true nature of humans to love and need one another rather than hate and kill each other.

Battle for the Methodist Church

Sunday, Feb 9th, Rachel Zoll posted an article on the Associated Press a very good historical summary of the issue of gay marriage and the controversy within the United Methodist Church. She noted that while other mainline Protestant denominations slowly have been moving to accept gays into the clergy as well as offer rites to same sex couples, the Methodist Church for 40 years has continued to be divided on this issue.

She quoted from the Book of Discipline and its restrictions on gays and outlined some of the recent trials of pastors who have not observed those restrictions. She draws the battle lines between the Reconciling Ministries Network, The Good News, and the Wesleyan Covenant Network with their opposing views on the issue.

She gave a good and brief explanation of how the Methodist General Conference works as the legislative body of the denomination but skipped over the details of how the Judicial Council and the local bishops decide who and when to prosecute for violations of the restrictions. In fact, the church trials are highly arbitrary and depend on many factors. The divisiveness is not just between the delegates to the General Conference but also among the Council of Bishops and among the clergy, 1,100 of whom signed on to a resolution to support gay marriage. Many retired bishops and clergy have supported removing the restrictions as a matter of “biblical conscience”, and also because of the fact that they’re no longer subject to the church politics and trying to keep their jobs.

In addition to loss of credentials for clergy who are found guilty in church trials (which prevents them from serving as elders but does not prevent them from serving as local staff), they also lose their retirement and insurance benefits that many worked for years to receive. So it is a very severe penalty and not just a slap on the wrist.

Rev. Frank Schaefer was “ex-communicated” at his trial last year and has since preached as a guest pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, and at the UCC Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, TX. His trial and subsequent appearances have received national publicity. A much earlier trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech resulted in the publication last year of his book: Adam's Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays that not only challenges the church’s position on the issue but also on the highly arbitrary and inconsistent manner in which it is applied to both clergy and lay people. He toured around the nation in 2013 promoting the book and speaking in many pulpits.

Some are calling for an open split in the denomination similar to what occurred prior to the Civil War over the issue of slavery. The denomination was not re-united until 1939, and in 1969 joined with the United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church. The next General Conference will be held in 2016 and probably will again consider this issue.

New Year's Resolutions

Most people think of the new year as the time for resolutions to do things differently. They start diet plans, promise to form new and healthier habits, and generally live a more conscientious lifestyle. I’m doing things a little differently this year. First, after 12 years I’m moving to a new apartment. So I’m cleaning out the closets, selling or giving away tons of stuff, and re-orienting myself as well as my furniture. Since I am retired, I expect to have only a slight change in my daily routine, but I am hopeful of a fresh start with putting a little more energy into my life.

When I published my memoir last spring I was focused on looking back at my life, especially the many regrets for some of the choices that I had made. I, in a way, re-lived my life vicariously and analyzed the steps along the way. I think that introspection served me at the time, but now it’s time to move on and focus on today and its challenges. My primary issues at this time are health challenges as I age, and I’ve spent three years going from doctor to doctor without much success. So I guess that I’m just going to have to learn to live with these challenges and quit wasting so much time hoping for a cure.

So much emphasis in the LGBTI world is placed on the benefits of coming out that not much is written about the need of coming inside oneself to really get to know who you are and your values rather than simply reflecting on the conditions society may have imposed upon you. I’m no longer afraid of being discovered or what people might think, especially at church. I have no family left, and most of my friends are gay. My straight friends don’t care so the “gay” issue and especially the drive for sex are less important than they used to be. After 27 years, it is highly unlikely that I ever will have another partner nor even really much prospect for romance, and I have to face that fact and quit day-dreaming. I have a stable social life with friends and a busy schedule so I have much for which to be grateful. I’ve always been too reluctant to be thankful and more inclined to wish for things I didn’t have. I think I’m finally more content now.

I don’t have any plans this year for writing another book or working as hard at promoting the two books I have. That was exhausting both financially and emotionally with few results. I probably will continue with social media because I value the opportunities to keep in contact with old friends and with the world beyond the murder and mayhem of the mass media.

I’m hoping finally to simplify my life and enjoy each day and become more mindful of my blessings.