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Losing My Religion- One of a (Possible) Series - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
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Losing My Religion- One of a (Possible) Series

In recent months- no. years- I've struggled with my lifelong commitment to a denomination, and a shorter but still significant commitment to one of its congregations.  Probably it's the "lifelong" part that's kept me connected longer than Eleanor; she's given up on both, and I cant say I blame her.  This month has brought what might be called "developments" in the United Methodist Church- on both the big-C Church and little-c-congregation fronts. They offer a little bit of hope, but nothing in the way of promise.

This is the first of three posts I've had germinating in the fertile crescent of my little brain for weeks now.  It, and the second, tie into those particular struggles, of the UMC and of a UMC.  The third traces a longago, strange road that, for me, began as an offshoot of a UMC ministry effort; detoured through Lutheranism and even edges of Judaism before I lost track of (and interest in) both the movement and how it was still affecting lifelong friends; and only just randomly connected me with some recently-blogged histories of the group and how some people are still mired in its grip. 

But those are for another day.  Pull up a chair and come with me to Portland, Oregon.


United Methodists are Roman Catholics twice removed- separated from Rome and papal authority first by Henry VIII and his divorce problems in the 1500s, then by the Wesley brothers in the 1700s who found the Anglicans weren't doing it quite right, either.  Still, it's that small-e episcopal heritage which formed the basic structure of the denomination. Although we have no pope, we are top-down in structure; congregations make up districts, which make up annual conferences, which make up jurisdictions, all of which meet together once every four years in General Conference, which is the only time churchwide doctrine and direction can be meaningfully changed. These occur the same years as US presidential elections, and some of the same positioning and politicizing works its way into the process. 

(Sidenote: General Conference, like the UMC itself, is neither US-only nor truly worldwide: among others, Methodists in its original UK home, and those who merged into a larger United Church in Canada, are not part of the deliberating body, but those tracing their roots to US Methodist missionary efforts of the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly in Africa, have members and corresponding bodies of delegates who are voting members of the UMC, growing in number and generally unwavering in their right-wing views.)

Thus it was in 1972 that a General Conference first addressed the issue of homosexuality in the Social Principles portion of The Book of Discipline. That's the rulebook; few members have read it, not many more knew of its existence prior to current developments, but it gives the Fundies their ammunition for demanding trials and ultimate defrocking of clergy who defy the 1972 or (I'll get to these later) 1984 and 1996 edicts.

Neither came out of any sudden realization of The Truth, or the sudden finding of a lost and sacred Aldersgate Scroll under John Wesley's casket.  Both, plainly and simply, were revisionist and reactionary.  Why did it take until 1972 for United Methodists to pronounce gays as icky in their eyes?  Because until about five years before that in a place called Stonewall, gays hadn't dared to have enough of a public presence for bigots to even be aware of them.  And according to this account of the times, it was that uppity-gayishness which forced the church fathers (they being almost exclusively male at the time) to bring down the banhammer on them:

Human sexuality remained contentious within the church, and church policy often followed political policy shifts. In 1972, United Methodists began debating their stance on homosexuality after Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco made headlines when it held a same-sex ceremony. That same year, the UMC added the language that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” to its social policy.

Somehow, the 1976 and 1980 GC's came and went with nothing as bad, but by 1984, the fears were getting worse.  I confess: in that summer of transition and bar exam review, living within a mile of the gay epicenter of Western New York, I had fears of catching AIDS from a dirty toilet.  I was young(er) and stupid(about the same), and in time I conquered those fears.  But the (still mostly) church fathers weren't going to let anything spread through avowed homosexuals, including, but not limited to, the Gospel. And three GC's later, faced with a mainstream homophobia that even the Clintons bought into, this church again went with the tide rather than bravely walking on the water against it:

In the 1980s, as the stigma around HIV/AIDS increased, the church passed prohibitions on ordaining gay clergy. In 1996, as the country wrestled with Defense of Marriage Act, the church issued a policy against same-sex marriages.

Back to that 1984 move: the author of that clergy ban, now sadly deceased, came out against his own words almost 20 years later:

We are doing preliminary work on legislation for the 1984 General Conference our subject matter was ordained ministry. We worked on many aspects of the subject. But a particular concern being raised was: “How do we screen out homosexual persons from becoming ordained ministers?”   I proposed a seven-word addition to the list of things to which candidates for ministry must commit: “Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”

The phrase had the advantage of not singling out homosexual persons, but being generic applying to all candidates regardless of sexual orientation. It was accepted by all.  That little phrase made its way and was acted upon by the Division of Ordained Ministry, the BHEM, a General Conference legislative committee, the General Conference, and was then printed in The Book of Discipline where it remains to this day.  This is by way of confession.

Now why did we do that?  You would think that on as important a matter as that we might look to Wesley’s guidelines of discernment: that is, scripture, tradition, experience and reason.  But I’m here to tell you that we did not look at the scriptures; we never mentioned tradition; we did not refer to experience, and reason.  It was almost absent from our discussion. Instead of those four classic words guiding our conversation, we were unconsciously guided by two other words: institutional protection. In other words, this issue was raising controversy and problems within our connection the placid sea of United Methodism was being roiled so we would cut it off at the pass.

In other words, 10 percent of the potential ministry of the church was cut off at the knees out of essentially the same thinking infecting every dying local congregation:

But that's the way we've always done it!
But we've never done THAT before!

They went along to get along.  They were afraid. And unlike my 1984 AIDSophobia which melted and died in a sea of knowledge and acceptance, theirs got left behind in a printed book which, especially in recent years, has given the Fundies grounds to keep same-sex celebrants out of all of our sanctuaries, be it to celebrate their own lay marriages, or to perform the functions of ordained clergy.


I've been aware of these provisions, and their sad generations of persecution, since about the time of the 2012 General Conference, held in Florida.  I was a more active member then, and recipient of near-daily reports from our Annual Conference about it.  Back then, proposed changes to these provisions were the Elephant in the Temple: there was far more mention of clergy-business issues than about this signature statement of Who We Are. 

Well, except for one. 

After the progressive forces were beaten back in their effort to change the Discipline provisions, I got an email from our Annual Conference. This was not from the home office of the denomination or from faraway shores, but from my own back yard- and its featured quote on the subject of the resolution was from a minister in a nearby Buffalo suburb- in whose sanctuary I had taken one of my own Lay Speaking courses- who said, in essence, Good thing we beat back them icky homosexuals again!

That's when I realized I had to take this a lot more personally.  I began connecting with the movement within the UMC of LGBTs and allies, determined to rid our Discipline and our doctrine of these marginalizations of members and of clergy.  I paid attention when respected clergy within and near our conference got charged, and threatened with defrocking, for following their own views of the Bible and marrying committed couples without checking under their clothes for the condition of their naughty-bits. And I began an effort within our own congregation to get it to affirm its commitment to the same progressive principles-  which would have made it, when I started, the first UMC church west of Syracuse to make such a statement.

And we did. Sort of. More a baby-cruise-along-the-sofa than a baby-step, and while the churches of the Reconciling Ministries Network have come closer to us since then (including the much bigger one where we met and were married), we remain in a position to become the first within the Niagara Frontier District and the only one west of the Genesee River.

Stay tuned. That could happen sooner than you think.


As for the upshot of this year's GC in the PDX: both the progressives and the Fundies are pissed.  Into a milieu of procedure seeming more paramilitary than parliamentary at times (complete with allegations of secret signalings and speakers being gagged from mentioning LGBTs even by initial), the Council of Bishops got involved.  As I understand the structure, they are men and women of influence, but they have neither greater votes than, nor veto power over, what the lay and clergy delegates do.  Still- faced with the potential for schism and shame if the majority tyrannized again, they convinced the delegates to defer any decisions on changing, or not changing, the sexuality sections of the Discipline, instead turning them over to a commission that is empowered, by 2020 if not sooner, to make recommendations along those lines that may, by then, even make sense to those who are now seeing in a mirror dimly what they are doing by their inaction.   

Both sides have since used the "kick the can down the road" metaphor in response- progressives fearing what will happen in the meantime, Fundies decrying what them liberal bishops will force down our throats- but I've yet to see any gloating reports from anyone near here being happy with the outcome, and that in itself is an improvement.

There was talk about an earlier draft of the bishops' proposal, containing a formal moratorium on further chargings and trials of clergy who either come out themselves or who solemnize same-sex unions- and while the final approved language watered that down, there have been outpourings- both of annual conferences who have added to the voices of many (including the downstate Annual Conference of my baptism) in refusing to honor these demands for persecution, and of clergy by the hundreds who have outed themselves, risking livelihoods and guaranteed appointments for the sake of their brothers and sisters who need their support.  Our own bishop has not yet stated which way this conference will go- he was faced with one such trial a few years ago, which ended in something of a stalemate- but if a brave pastor forces the issue, and a bigoted one demands enforcement, I see an even bigger groundswell of support for the accused than when it last came up.


Sorry for all the tl;dr, and I know I've still got more to say in future posts.  Hope is always the last thing to hold onto, but it's better when you at least get people thinking about it outside the box.

2 comments or Leave a comment
glenmarshall From: glenmarshall Date: May 24th, 2016 10:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
While I could do a tl;dr on my own journey, suffice it to say that being and Episcopalian proved to be against my religion. Any system of belief that makes me, or people I love, less than others is not mine.

Being a Wiccan has its drawbacks, but it is an affirming rather than shaming religion.

Edited at 2016-05-24 11:00 pm (UTC)
bill_sheehan From: bill_sheehan Date: May 26th, 2016 12:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was saddened to read the reports from the recent quadrennial conference. It sounded so familiar.

On the one hand, it is easier to change an institution from within than from without.

On the other, unless you have a power base, you can't change squat.

My own personal response from my days as an Episcopalian was, If this will lead to schism, bring it on. Let justice be done though the heavens fall. I'm sorry that African bishops get their knickers in a twist over homosexuality, but that's not my problem. Why would I want to be a member of their club?

There's nothing left to talk about. There's nothing left to discuss. To quote Jeremiah, they cry Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. Our LGBTQ friends, neighbors, sisters, and brothers have been standing in the back of the bus, barely tolerated second-class citizens for disgraceful decades now while our equivocating elders seek yet another four years, eight years, twelve years to discern the Spirit.

I remember standing in a pew back in the 80s demanding of the bishop, "How long, my Lord, how long?" How long will justice, charity, and love be denied? How long must we continue to whitewash this sepulchre? "Down with it, down with it even to the ground."

Your mileage may vary...
2 comments or Leave a comment