by Rev. Dale Clem, North Alabama Conference
It’s hard for me to put into words what I’m feeling about General Conference. First, I hope I can respond rather than react. Reacting is emotional, spontaneous, and allows venting without first processing. We have all probably had reactions this week. When we respond we become reflective, thoughtful and purposeful without demonizing those with whom we disagree or using labels and stereotypes.
General Conference was called to unite us, but it failed. Perhaps we asked too much of this type of “holy conferencing.” To arrive at a unified voice when we live in different cultures in over 100 countries. If you want to get to God’s will, voting through the Roberts Book of Order is probably not going to help discern spirit-filled decisions, but rather winners and losers. This flawed voting procedure is evidence in the vote Pilate took between Jesus and Barabbus.
Discernment is slow and takes deep listening over time. Since I was young, I was taught that there was something wrong with LGBTQ persons, but I think I was taught a lie. Sometimes God tries to teach the faithful new things as evidenced in Peter’s vision of the sacred canopy of clean and unclean animals. We humans think we know best, and then God calls us to stretch. Paul and the church taught that women couldn’t preach or teach, but God kept calling women, and when the church finally allowed them we have been blessed with wonderful women preachers, pastors and leaders. Jesus said that it is wrong to get divorced and remarried but God still calls divorced and remarried persons into ministry and leadership positions in the church.
God continues to call LGBTQ persons to be pastors and leaders in the United Methodist Church even though we reject their call. We in the church can make decisions all day about who is acceptable, but God calls who God calls and they have a choice how they will respond. At General Conference, I met many persons in the LGBTQ community who were passionate about their call to ministry in the United Methodist Church. Not everyone who God has called would pass our Board of Ordained Ministry. Moses, the murderer, David the adulterer, Peter who was compulsive and Matthew the enemy tax collector may not have passed the process.
People ask: What does the UMC believe about human sexuality? In paragraph 161g of the Book of Discipline, this is what it says:
We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons… all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured and to be protected against violence… We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.
Then comes the phrase in which the church disagrees:
The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.
This line was what several of the proposed plans at General Conference would remove from the discipline. The paragraph continues, and we agree on the rest:
We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
Pastors who love their congregations bring to families the Divine sacramental presence as a means of grace in major life events such as birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death. We take seriously our role to be with families in all these events. It is for this reason that some pastors would like to be able to preside at marriages of all their parishioners, even if some happen to be attracted to persons of the same sex. It is this reason, that the General Conference debated removing the rule which bans clergy from performing same-sex marriages. It is a matter of pastoral concern.
As you have seen on the National News, with a narrow vote at General Conference the language and rules basically stayed the same in the discipline, and some additional restrictive language may be added. Our Judicial Council will meet in April and make their final ruling. Clergy are still not permitted to preside at same-sex weddings, and practicing homosexuals are not allowed to serve as clergy.
How does this effect us?
Anniston First doesn’t change because of General Conference. We still love folks in our church, even if sometimes we get on each other’s nerves. I’m still the same flawed sinner in need of God’s grace as before, and you are the same flawed sinner in need of God’s grace today as you were last week. God who comes as burning bush, who came to Mary, and called the disciples, who raised Jesus from the dead, and turned the life of Paul around, and sends the Holy Spirit to touch our lives, offer forgiveness and challenge us to do better is still at work in our world today.
The church is not perfect, but at our best we show the love of Christ. We do it best at the local level. God is not the church, but at our best, we reflect God’s gracious hospitality and love.
Someone complained to Catholic Priest and professor Henri Nouwen, how the Catholic Church had hurt and excluded them. Henri responded: “I am the church and I love and accept you.” No one can get away with saying: “the church rejects me” as long as we who are the church stand up and say: “I am the church and I don’t reject you.” Each of us are the church.
At Anniston, “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” is not just a slogan, it is something we strive to do. It is hard, because some days we are selfish and fearful, but we keep making the effort.
The vote this week has caused great pain to our LGBTQ community. The church has benefited from the gifts and love of the queer family for many years. We see you and we thank you! We know that our children and grandchildren have been deeply wounded by the church’s decision and as your pastor, I am sorry.
How has the LGBTQ community responded to this week? One person pointed out that when we say that all people have sacred worth, but reject LGBTQ persons the church is saying that the sacred worth of an LGBTQ person is of less value than the sacred worth of heterosexuals. Another person said to me that she felt like a modern day stoning took place this week. The stones which came to her and other LGBTQ brothers and sisters were heavy messages that they are second class citizens. And she added: And you know what Jesus said to those carrying stones.” Another quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you” and the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” And yet General Conference has said to the LGBTQ community: we don’t want you.
As your pastor, I want to say today: You are loved, needed, and welcomed here. As moms and dads tell us: “God didn’t make no junk.” You are beautiful and your gifts and services in our churches have made our churches better and richer.
In my baptism, confirmation and ordination I took vows to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves and to seek justice, peace and freedom for all people. Many pastors feel that it is hypocritical to treat members of the LGBTQ community as second class citizens when we don’t treat others differently who have been divorced, remarried or do other things which scripture teaches against. For some pastors, this is a justice issue.
I love our United Methodist Church, and I want my children to love our church as well. Right now my children are very disappointed with our denomination. Young people across our country are wounded.
The General Conference doesn’t do ministry. The local church does ministry. Our church will continue to proclaim and demonstrate the transformational love and grace of Christ. We will show love to one another, even those with whom we disagree.
The message of Jesus is love. He lived, breathed, preached, and embodied love. The greatest three words in the Bible are “God is Love.” (1 John 4:16) Our church has been sharing the life transforming love and grace of God for a long time, and by God’s grace let us continue.
I was reminded this week of Thomas Merton’s challenge to love people not as we want them to be, but as they are. He writes:
The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
This type of love is difficult yet very Christ-like. Our challenge is not to love the reflection of ourselves we see in one another, but to love others as they are. I want to love you as you are, and hope you can afford me the same respect and tenderness. Let us strive to be the loving church to which we are capable. When we have differences of opinions, may Christ lead us all to salvation.