by Rev. Magrey deVega, Senior Pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist in Tampa, FL
Dear Hyde Park Family,
With the close of yesterday’s special General Conference in St. Louis, I’d like to give you an update on its outcome, and share with you a pastoral word of love to all of you, especially LGBTQ people in our congregation.
The General Conference voted to maintain its current prohibitions against same sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons. It has also attempted to add punitive measures for clergy, bishops, and conferences who would violate those prohibitions, though our Judicial Council (the denominational equivalent of the Supreme Court). The Council has ruled in the past that those punitive measures are in violation of our church constitution, and it might rule so again when it convenes again in April.
This outcome is a profound disappointment to many of us who were pushing for greater justice and equality. The One Church Plan, which would have granted the ability to choose whether to do same sex weddings and ordain LGBTQ persons, was not passed. It was supported by two-thirds of American delegates, a vast majority of bishops, and people like me and many others. But the minority of American delegates, coupled with delegates from other countries, many of whom deem homosexuality not only as taboo but illegal, had the majority vote throughout the entire Conference.
There is a verse from the hymn “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord” that has come to mind often throughout these last two days:
I love thy kingdom, Lord
For her my tears shall fall,
For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given
Till toils and cares shall end.
A lot of tears have been falling. We weep together, among the LGBTQ persons who are stunned, saddened and harmed by this news. We weep among the thousands of young clergy and laity in our denomination who are angered and disillusioned. We weep among all of us who believed that we might have prevented those tears to begin with.
We weep because tears are signs of love. We only mourn those things we really care about. So, amid the tears, I would like for you to hear from me, on behalf of the whole clergy team, these pastoral words of love.
- To all the LGBTQ persons in this congregation, and connected to this church in the community, I and the entire clergy team love you, and so do many people in this congregation. I am sorry this happened. I grieve over the pain and heartache this brings. The failure of our recent General Conference is more than a mistake (though it may be the single greatest mistake I have ever seen this denomination make in my lifetime). It is a direct violation of the first of Wesley’s three simple rules: Do No Harm. This outcome caused you harm. And I am so sorry.
- To the LGBTQ allies in this congregation, especially the younger people in the church, we weep with you. We live in a time of great distrust in our civic institutions, and the church, of all places, is where we might have expected better than what we see in the world. Instead, General Conference functioned in a way that we never expect our local churches to operate. It was marked by anger and power, winners and losers, and the outcome fell far short of justice and equality. I am as disillusioned as you are, and I join in your sadness.
- To those in our congregation who believe differently about same sex marriage and gay ordination than I do, I and the other clergy want you to know that we love you, too. Because I know you, and I know your heart. I know that your heart is a far cry from the hate and abuse expressed by others in our denomination. I know that you do not deserve to be categorized among them, and I am glad that you are part of this church, too.
As always, if you need to someone to listen to you and help you process your thoughts and feelings, please contact any of the clergy.
WHO WE ARE
In addition to the tears that we have been shedding with you, I have been doing some deep soul searching about why I am in this denomination at all. About why I am a United Methodist. And if you have read this far, I hope you’ll keep reading for a bit longer.
There are many reasons to be proud of being a United Methodist. And many of those reasons are things that other denominations can say about themselves: their global presence; their acts of compassion, mission and service; their commitment to proclaim the gospel. I am proud of those things, and we are a part of it.
But what made me fall deeply in love with this denomination is the aspirational belief that John Wesley demonstrated time and again in his writings and his ministry, that there is always a third way, in the center, that could bring out the best of polarized extremes and produce a vibrant, redemptive third way forward. I see that pattern repeated biblically and theologically, and throughout the history of the church. I believe this is God’s way, and no denomination expresses it better than the United Methodist Church.
That’s why it hurts whenever I see failed attempts to see a third way, like what we saw in St. Louis.
We fell short of what makes us unique and strong as Wesleyan Christians. But I have to remember that a denomination is more – so much more – than the governing structures that make its decisions. Those will sometimes fail, sometimes disappoint, and even sometimes, as we saw in the last few days, cause great harm.
But here’s the thing. The heartbeat of the Wesleyan heritage will continue. Local churches like ours, especially like ours, will keep living out what makes United Methodism so amazing. We are able to do what our governing structures cannot seem to do right now: figure out how to live in worship, mission, and evangelism, despite our differences. To make God’s love real, to love God, and to love all, because we are different, not despite it.
That’s the Wesleyan way.
None of that changes. We are blessed by the many LGBTQ people in our congregation, who serve and grow among us in many ways. And that is who we will continue to be.
As far as our governing structures? Well, they’ll have to keep revising and trying to get it right, just like the church of Jesus has been having to do for 2,000 years. Just as God’s grace works in us over a lifetime of change, so it is with the Church. And there may need to be some changes in the structures of our denomination. I don’t know if those changes will come, or what they might look like, but if they do, it may be evidence that God is still nudging the denomination forward, to keep up with where its local churches are leading it.
So, you and I get to help lead the way.
We will keep sharing the great gift of our Wesleyan heritage, that shows us that there is always a third way, a both/and, a way of both holiness and justice. Of growing closer to Jesus and closer to each other. Of approaching scripture with our hearts and our minds. Just like John Wesley modeled for us. These are difficult days, and the future of our wider denomination is unsettled. That’s okay. It’s not like God hasn’t seen people through a wilderness before. But God still has a heartbeat, and it is pulsing in you and me. Together, let’s continue to be a people of God’s love, making it real.