This post also appeared in this week's newsletter from St. Paul's in Fayetteville, AR. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
Earlier this week, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to keep in place its bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and celebrating or hosting same-sex marriages. Many people are hurt by that decision. Some are Methodists who want more from their church. Some are Christians from other traditions who want more from the body of Christ. Some are LGBTQ individuals whose identities and relationships and ministries again have been judged invalid or, even worse, as sinful and shameful. Some are straight and cisgendered allies who grieve the damage done to individuals, families, congregations, and communities in the name of religion.
All members of Christ’s body, in one way or another, are wounded by this brokenness. Although they may not recognize their own experience of harm, even those who claim victory are marred by the damage done to the body of Christ by a decision that further divides members of the church. Despite our disagreements and differences, we are bound to one another in love, but that love is harder than ever to see right now. As Episcopalians know too well, these are forces that fracture us, polarize us, and inhibit our ability to receive and share the grace of God. No matter how the vote turned out, all suffer.
What will be our response to this painful decision? How will we support those who are experiencing deep loss? First, we need to see them and hear them. The vote at the General Conference was close, yet it effectively dismisses a huge number who believe that LGBTQ individuals should have a fuller place in the life of the Methodist Church. We may not have any control over the decision itself, but we can acknowledge those who are left behind by it. Second, when we acknowledge them, we can affirm their experience of loss by listening to them instead of telling them how we think things should have gone. It may be tempting to remind them that our branch of the Jesus Movement has “figured this stuff out,” but we haven’t. We may have found official ways to open the path to ordination to LGBTQ individuals and celebrate same-sex marriages, but there is still much disagreement and rancor over issues of sexuality and gender in our denomination, and discrimination plagues all churches, even our own parish.
If Methodist friends show up to worship with us because they feel rejected by their church, that is a cause for sadness not celebration. Of course, we will welcome them with open arms, but anytime someone feels pushed away from a church it is a divorce to be lamented not an opportunity to be enjoyed. Central United Methodist, our across-the-street neighbor with whom we partner in our Community Meals program, has released a statement that declares that the vote has not changed their “current understanding regarding human sexuality or the definition of marriage” and that they welcome all people. Those words remind me that the vote may have made it harder for progressive Methodists to have a place in their denomination, but it has not changed their theology of welcome and inclusion.
Finally, we must pray for the healing of Christ’s body and, through prayer, offer ourselves for the work of reconciliation. Without abandoning our faith, we must care more about unity than about being right. We must hope more for forgiveness than for victory. Schism tears all of us apart, even when we are convinced that God is on our side. Although we may disagree vehemently, we do not help matters when we vilify those on the other side, especially when we allow the sin of colonialism to portray Christians from other cultures or continents as less enlightened, less sophisticated, or less faithful. We may believe that those who disagree with us are undermining the work of the gospel, but they are striving to be faithful just like we are, and the possibility of transformation within the church is enhanced when we acknowledge that.
No one knows what will happen next. As someone who grew up in the Methodist Church and whose parents are still very active in the denomination, I love dearly many people who are directly affected by this decision and who face considerable and consequential uncertainty. You do, too. They are our relatives, friends, coworkers, and neighbors, and they are hurting, and, because of that, so are we. Pray for them, and pray for us, and pray for the church.