"wait for a bunch of old ideas to die in order for a church to live"
July 23, 2014 4:56 PM   Subscribe

A Church Divided Over Marriage Equality
The Church’s rules against homosexuality have divided Methodists for forty years. Attempts to abolish or even soften these rules have failed at every General Conference, the quadrennial meeting of the denomination, since they were first added, in 1972, to the Book of Discipline, which contains the Church’s laws and doctrine.

"And They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love"
"Methodists should call meeting on gay divide, pastor says"
"Ranks of defiant United Methodist clergy rise"
"Defrocking of Minister Widens Split Over Gays"
posted by davidstandaford (22 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My in-laws are somewhat involved in Methodist diocesan affairs in Dallas. I forwarded the WaPo article to my father-in-law since it mentions what looks like an oncoming controversy there in the hopes that he'll have something interesting to say about it.

Most of the Methodists I know seem pretty laid back about religious issues. I've been unpleasantly surprised a couple of times by how vehement some of them are about homosexuality and SSM, though the younger ones, including members of my family, seem much less inclined to oppose SSM and much more open to all varieties of queerness. It gives me hope that some of the resistance to SSM that I see among Methodists I know has more to do with some of them being older and set in their ways. Not that I think old folks really have a leg to stand on when the 85-year-old retired theology school head has come around.
posted by immlass at 5:33 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The stories don't reflect that the Rev. Schaefer has been reinstated since they were written and then there has been an appeal of the reinstatement..
posted by Jahaza at 5:51 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was raised Methodist, and my family has a long connection to the church. This dates back to my great-grandfather, who was a Methodist (M.E.) minister who moved from England to Kentucky in 1890 and was the pastor for a number of churches in the northeast area of that state. I've always thought the Methodists were stubborn but thoughtful folks who were more about substance than form in the practice of their religion. Lots of "God is Love" posters in the church I grew up in. I'm glad to see some movement on this issue by the United Methodist Church, amused and intrigued by the ways they have attempted to make that happen (e.g., the "we are all sinners" argument for acceptance). They are always a little bit left of center from the mainstream, but sometimes need more encouragement than others to move unequivocally to where their conscious actually points them. I suppose the democratic yet hierarchical structure of the church described in the links above helps explain this.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:02 PM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Based purely on my own anecdata, I've come to the conclusion that this is often but not always an urban/rural split. I live in an extremely red state but in its largest metropolitan area and state capital, and I've attended quite a few Methodist churches with openly gay members. There's a sort of polite agreement not to make a thing out of it. One even has an openly gay staff member in a position of prominence, though he can't be ordained.

Out in the country is generally where I see more DOMA supporters and other conservative stripes. Though even those more progressive Little Rock churches had their own internal revolts some years back and lost a number of members over the issue. None of the remaining members seemed too shook up about it.

UMC's going to have to face this soon, though. More and more pastors on both sides of the line are starting to lay the heat on.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:07 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the key factors here is that 40% of the delegates to the Methodist General Conference are from outside the United States, and most of the non-American delegates (largely from Africa and the Philippines) are ardently against recognition of homosexuals. (See here.) If the American Methodist churches could set their own rules, homosexual equality would pass easily. That, to my mind, is the primary reason the United Methodist Church hasn't been able to take a similar path to largely similar denominations like the PC(USA) and the ECLA. Creating separate national conferences doesn't seem to be up for debate yet, but I suspect at some point that will be proposed as an option if no other resolution is at hand.

I've been following these developments with interest because I am considering re-entering ministry, and in many ways the left wing of the Methodist church would be a comfortable place for me to be, but it would be nice if they could make some progress on this issue. Their ecclesial structure and international scope make it a challenge.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:11 PM on July 23, 2014 [17 favorites]

I was raised in the Evangelical United Brethren church (or at least until I started asking uncomfortable questions) that was eventually merged with the Methodist church. We weren't allowed movies, dances or any of the other evils.

As an atheist, I'm not surprised that the church is still in the 19th century.
posted by jgaiser at 6:16 PM on July 23, 2014

Rev. Charles R. Moore is very much worth mentioning here.

On June 22, retired Rev. Moore drove to the parking lot of a Grand Saline, TX, strip mall, covered himself in gasoline, and set himself afire.

Moore had been an active proponent of civil rights in the 1960s, worked in the slums of Bombay in the 1970s. In 1990, he was appointed to lead Grace United Methodist Church in Austin. "During his decade as pastor, the church started a pumpkin patch on its lawn, hosted a religion school for a Jewish congregation and opened its doors to a chapter of PFLAG, which held meetings for parents, friends and families of lesbians and gays." In 1995, he went on a hunger strike to protest the UMC's stance on gays and lesbians. The strike broke 15 days later, only after bishops issued a statement acknowledging their role in contributing to the ostracism of gays and lesbians.

In a note dated June 16, 2014, he writes: “This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

His son-in-law, Rev Bill Renfro, says that Rev Moore's notes indicate that "[Moore] considered his act to be a supreme sacrifice for the sake of others, for all, including the powerful and the powerless. He believed that the memory of his act would allow healing to evolve."

Martyr or not, Moore's act is further evidence that this is but one of several issues the UMC must face and face directly.
posted by grabbingsand at 6:22 PM on July 23, 2014 [15 favorites]

I was raised Methodist. Our Organist in our church in Houston was an openly gay man (or open enough that his glass closet led him to do a weird half-drag-half-straight performance as the closing act of a church revue in the early nineties. I was young, so I don't know exactly what his status was. It was understood and more or less accepted among the congregation, though.)

We moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma in my mid teens, and I don't remember the issue ever coming up there at all, and frankly I was way more involved in that church. If it came up in youth group, I'm pretty certain that it was in a "love the sinner, hate the sin" framing, though I hated that concept even then, i'm happy to know. Bartlesville was, at least then, super-Republican but not really threated by gays, and pretty surprisingly cool with them. My flamboyantly gay friend was elected prom king, and wasn't the only gay guy nominated, and the only opposition that I heard was one dude's hushed rant when he knew others weren't on board with him. So that was refreshing.

But this church had its own scandalous divides. One came when the youth pastor tried to out and shame two of my closest friends, who were having a (hetero) sexual relationship. The minister quietly dismissed him over the incident, and it stayed gracefully quiet even as a lot of member left (I was basically my friends' advocate at the meeting, which was bizarre.)

The second came when the Bishop came to give a sermon not long afterwards, and preached on the Bible not being literal truth but more valuable as a guidepost for us all on living good and Christian lives and treating one another as our neighbors. The non-literalism caused a massive schism that took the particular church ten or more years to recover from, literally.

So yeah, the thing with the Methodist Church is that it is extremely pluralistic. And that's a good thing. A great thing, even. As a liberal iconoclast there, the more conservative leaders never disrespected me and always debated me openly and fairly, making sure my voice was heard. It makes it a long, slow process to get things done, though. My parents have debated switching to the Episcopalian Church after a lifetime of Methodism, and mostly want to stay with the congregation they know. I myself am a atheist now, though I haven't forgotten the lessons of using the Bible as a good guidepost for treating others as your neighbor.

For whatever that's worth.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:47 PM on July 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

I should also mention that Hillary Clinton is a practicing Methodist, which might cause more national divides in the church soon.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:56 PM on July 23, 2014

The US Methodist church has taken a long time to even get here. Around the time I was a candidate for ministry, ('95-'96) there were three "movements" working to change the essentials of the church at least locally, if not throughout the district and conference. At one point, I was a member of a Reconciling * congregation, which was part of a Confessing district, which in turn was part of a Transforming conference. Meetings of any kind were pretty tense, even after the General Conference essentially said, "Ok, I don't care who started it, you're all United Methodists, period. Take all those signs down."

I dropped out due to life issues and the fact that I'd be asked to affirm what was essentially a Confessing doctrine as a condition of ordination. Folks I knew who went on to be fully ordained and who were Reconciling went through absolute hell over the next decade and a half, being called names and shunned and just being treated terribly. I don't know if I could have held up under that.

On preview: holy shit, grabbingsand. I'd not heard of that, but I haven't been to church in a while.

2nd preview: One thing I noticed about the church was that the United Methodist Reporter, the official newspaper, claimed Mrs. Clinton at every turn. There were crickets concerning Mr. Bush's membership in the UMC.

*Even getting to be a Reconciling congregation was a terrible process. Families literally split, friendships ended, very nearly mass hysteria. It's a wonderful place now, but the tension at the time was awful.
posted by lysdexic at 7:00 PM on July 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

The bravest thing I have ever seen a friend do was to divert her wedding vows to include a statement of nondiscrimination and equality for gay people. She and her husband are both Methodists, and it was a Methodist wedding, presided over by a conservative Methodist minister who was not consulted on this deviation from form.

There was much controversy.

She and her husband were both working toward a life in the church, and while he was later ordained, she was not.

I am pleased to report that my understanding is that she is now a deacon and a children's chaplain. There are good people in the Methodist church, and they're going to win, one way or another.
posted by Richard Daly at 7:40 PM on July 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

I could not in good faith raise my son in a Methodist church, not even one with an openly gay (-ish, I mean, the Brooklyn congregation and New York bishops knew, but nobody could be TOO public about it) pastor. We went UU and have been much happier with it, for many reasons. I applaud those who chose to stay and fight, but it is depressing and grinding down to work against the people who don't want you there.
posted by rikschell at 7:52 PM on July 23, 2014

As something of an annotation, I was raised in the United Methodist Church. As jgaiser noted above, The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren joined forces in 1968. I was taught from an early age to always say "United Methodist Church" rather than merely "Methodist Church" because to do otherwise was to acknowledge only part of our heritage. That, and the church I was mostly raised in was largely populated by people who had been EUB. So all the references to the "Methodist Church" were rather jarring, despite that I'm no longer affiliated with the UMC.

Good post, davidstandaford. It's fascinating to watch my former denomination wrestle with this.
posted by bryon at 8:19 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was raised in the United Methodist Church and when my parents divorced I split my time between the UM church with my dad (a staunch tea-party leaning conservative) and Southern Baptist with my mom (hardcore liberal who still attends that church despite every other member probably disagreeing with her on everything). So I learned early on that there are conservatives and liberals in pretty much any denomination. United Methodist was, in my experience, much more "high church" relying on ceremony and tradition and having a set worship program each week, while Southern Baptist was much more informal mixing songs and sermons almost at random each Sunday. The actual teachings didn't really differ much between the two. It was all window dressing.
posted by downtohisturtles at 10:23 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Waiting for a bunch of old ideas to die: the very existence of the church tends to indicate that the waits can be very long.
posted by Decani at 11:08 PM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I find mention of Bishops in American Methodism strange, I thought the leadership was a Synod ?. Certainly no mention of Bishops here in New Zealand.
The message of social justice is as relevant now as John Wesleys time in the eighteenth century.
Decani with the collapse of community and rise of social inequality the church will be here for another 100 years.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 3:28 AM on July 24, 2014

Navelgazer: "I should also mention that Hillary Clinton is a practicing Methodist, which might cause more national divides in the church soon."

So was George W, and if you want to get Methodists het up, ask them how they felt about the movement at the General Conference to declare W the "Methodist in Chief."

I am not Methodist but I went to Methodist seminary, so my facebook feed is full of Methodist pastors posting links to discussions and strong opinion pieces about this, declaring in very Methodisty ways, "Perhaps we should consider the points in this article" or "This author makes some good points, I am going to pray about them" (which means "YOU should pray about them because YOU are wrong"). I have learned this is pretty much the final step before fistfights for Methodists, when they politely ask you to consider things and pray about them, so I feel like shit's getting pretty serious as they're now posting articles inviting me to think about things and pray about things like TWICE A WEEK.

My Methodisty friends are pretty much all in favor of LGBT equality in the church, but they're all in their 30s and we went to a left-leaning, though by no means straight-up liberal, seminary. Honestly it's getting interesting enough that I'm a little bit tempted to go to the Annual Conference for the local conference, to which I receive a yearly invitation as an observer, as a graduate of a Methodist seminary, but usually skip or just go to the "reunion" night, so that I can watch the throwdowns in the debate session.

Narrative_Historian: "I find mention of Bishops in American Methodism strange, I thought the leadership was a Synod ?. Certainly no mention of Bishops here in New Zealand."

The existence of bishops in the UMC is actually a really important moment in Methodist history; after the Wesleys visited the American colonies, as we were then, they begged the Anglican Church to send more priests, as many colonists were without regular pastors. The Anglican Church refused, partly because no educated man really wanted to go fart around in half-civilized colonies when he could be drinking sherry a local nobleman paid for. After the American Revolution, the Anglican Church was "disestablished" in the US and (for a variety of complicated reasons both political and snobbery-related) the Anglican Church refused to send them a bishop and refused to send them more priests; so in 1784, Wesley made his definitive break with the Anglican Church* by ordaining his own bishops with the intent that they go to America and start training and ordaining adequate pastors to serve the new country; ordaining without permission was illegal for him to do in England. (With their major focus on serving the unchurched colonials, this also led to the very American institution of Methodist circuit riders, who rode horses from town to town in the far-flung or only semi-accessible parts of the frontier, come around once a year or every two years sometimes, living out of a saddlebag, providing spiritual guidance and comfort to all comers regardless of their "official" affiliations, which is part of why American Methodists are pretty relaxed and accepting and take pride in their tolerance.)

*John Wesley died an Anglican, but his ordination of his own bishops in 1784 is when American Methodists typically date the birth of their denomination.

Anyway the distinctive history of the Methodist Church in the US is VERY tied up in serving the marginalized and ignored or scorned -- the colonial people, the frontier (no matter how gross and rough), drunkards (hence their fixation on Prohibition in the early 20th century) and their suffering families, etc. The most heated Methodist fights are always when they're fighting over whether they're adequately serving a marginalized population ... and any tradition they have that has even the slimmest connection to a moment in their history where they served a particular marginalized group is almost impossible to get rid of, certainly not without a great deal of angst. (Ordaining women? Okay! Getting rid of grape juice at communion because that's crazy unbiblical? BUT IT WAS PART OF OUR MINISTRY TO ALCOHOLICS 100 YEARS AGO!)

Methodist bishops don't have much spiritual power; they basically serve as the local executives who do the HR work. The actual spiritual authority comes from the Conferences and so forth. They actually make a distinction in the their rules about the difference between an episcopus (ordained to a special order above that of presbyter) and a "bishop" (just this guy, you know, who manages shit). I'm sure an actual Methodist could expound on this further, I just know that when they say "bishop" in English they usually mean the more casual definition.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:25 AM on July 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

My Methodisty friends are pretty much all in favor of LGBT equality in the church, but they're all in their 30s

My mother (daughter of a Methodist minister and niece of a Bishop) is in her 70's and she is active in a church group campaigning for equality. A friend of hers started the group when the friend's Methodist minister husband came out of the closet after 30 years of marriage. Stunned and confused, the wife focused her anger on the Church that had forced her husband into the closet and hence into a shame marriage.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:50 AM on July 24, 2014

Almost every Methodist minister (and I know quite a few) would happily perform a SSM, but then I tend to run with the liberal wing and that should be no surprise. While the American arm is starting to swing towards greater acceptance, just a couple months ago the Social Principles resolution was (unfortunately) overwhelmingly outvoted at the Texas Annual Conference, so it's by no means resolved even here. The Asian and African voting blocks at General Conference is not likely to allow it.

By and large the ones suggesting a split come from the conservative side. And if you ask yourself why the one's who are winning would want this, follow the money. The church has pretty substantial assets. And all the properties are owned not by the individual congregations but by the Conference. Trying to split can get ugly. The conservative churches suggesting a split know that as the church in the US decides it's just going to start being more accepting of LGBT members and not try members of the clergy who perform weddings they're looking for a way to leave with the assets.

My hope is that the IRS declares LGBT discrimination incompatible with tax-free status. That's going to force the US church to make a decision for reals.
posted by Runes at 9:00 AM on July 24, 2014

I have been a United Methodist pastor almost all of my adult life (ordained at 25 and 43 now). I love so much about the United Methodist Church; I love how we send missionaries to other countries to not simply proselytize, but to build schools and hospitals, to teach nutrition, hygiene, and family planning. We vaccinate, we distribute mosquito nets, and we are one of the largest disaster relief organizations on earth. We work to not only minister to people in need, but work against the systems and structures that cause people to suffer in the first place. A group of physicians from my local congregation just returned from Honduras, where they treated children who had not been treated since the last time they were there last summer.

I have had people with tears in their eyes tell me about how their marriage fell apart, how their old congregation rejected them for it, but a United Methodist congregation welcomed them with open arms.

And yet, we have somehow decided that on the issues of human sexuality and marriage equality, we'd rather stand closer to the Westboro Baptist Church than minister to people who are facing so much pain, so much alienation, so much hurt, because in so doing, we would have to officially admit that these people, their lives and their loves are equal to our own.

SO many clergy and laity I know want this to change, but our system is built around maintaining the status quo. We love the good about our church, and we, for now, are vowing to stick in and fight the good fight, but our hearts get broken every day.

Frankly, I am starting to feel (and it pains me to say this) that the people on the side of this issue who keep threatening to leave (and split) the denomination if they do not continue to get their way just need to leave. It is like being in a relationship where the other person keeps threatening to break up. I mean, at some point, people just need to move on. At this point, I'd rather pick up the pieces than to keep having this passive aggressive nonsense constantly hanging over my head.

I could say more, but suffice it to say, I am looking forward to my first SSM, and I pray it is soon.

This ends the sermon. There will be a potluck after the benediction.
posted by 4ster at 10:04 AM on July 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

Like many other commenters here, I was raised Methodist. I fell away from the church in grad school because I felt it didn't address the "big questions" in life (existence, suffering, etc). I also wanted a faith that provided a more direct connection to God/ultimate reality. I never understood why there had to be intermediaries to this ultimate reality (Jesus, the Holy Ghost). Buddhism was much better at answering my questions, and I've stayed with it ever since.

Anyhoo, my experience with Methodism was that of a fairly bland, laid-back, tolerant church that welcomed everyone, regardless of who they were. I've always thought of Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church as the best example of what the church should aspire to. Because of this, I haven't been able to reconcile Methodism's stance on homosexuality with my experience of the faith.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 11:24 AM on July 24, 2014

Growing up Protestant, I met a variety of Christians, many of them thoughtful, reflective open-minded people. That said... the particular strain of Protestantism in which Methodism resides (particularly in the South) is one in which Jesus is employed strictly as an absentee self-help guru for a community support group. His more challenging philosophical points are left by the wayside. These groups instead focus on getting people to lead upstanding mainstream lives according to a kinda right of the middle-of-the-road notion of what "mainstream" and "upstanding" mean.

They'll come around, because the definition of mainstream is evolving to include gay people and SSM. But invoking the actual teachings of Jesus to try and convince the stragglers to change their minds isn't going to get anyone anywhere. They've effectively chosen the parts of Jesus and his teachings that ratify and glorify their actual or desired place in the class structure. Their selective deafness toward anything else Christ might have said is well-documented and indefatigable.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:19 PM on July 24, 2014

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