“The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of Religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever therefore imagines, that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally…[A]s to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” – The Rev. John Wesley, "The Character of a Methodist" (1739)
The United Methodist Church is holding its General Conference, the denomination-wide assembly that meets every four years to make decisions about church policies, practices and worship. This year’s Conference of this Protestant body of 12.5 million members worldwide - 7 million of which are located in the United States - faces a wide range of concerns. But the elephant in the room, as it has been for all expressions of the Christian faith tradition in the past couple of decades, is the issue of how to treat LBGT people within the church.
The Conference is considering 100 plus resolutions regarding human sexuality ranging from deleting its Book of Discipline’s assertion that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” to allowing local churches to choose whether or not to celebrate same-sex unions and ordain and call non-celibate gay clergy to its congregations. A report from the evangelical Protestant magazine Christianity Today Monday predicts that any measure to change the UMC’s anti-gay policies is likely to fail.
A procedural vote to place all these measures directly before the assembly rather than having them tailored by select committees prior to a final vote failed last week. The vote appears to have largely split along ideological lines with opponents of policy changes also opposing changes in the procedures to consider them. Change in Methodist policy, challenged in each of the preceding 10 conferences, appears once again unlikely this conference.
While almost all of the resolutions for changes in policy have come from American congregations among whom less than half of the membership actively favor retaining the current discriminatory policies, conservative American Methodists have found reliable allies among the 40% of Methodist faithful found outside the US, three fourths of whom are located in Africa. This has, in turn, led 750 American congregations to form the Reconciling Ministries Network to oppose their national body, standing with LBGT clergy who have come out of the closet and calling upon their international body to change its discriminatory policies.
Nones, Dones and a Ditch to Die In
From a distance, the movement for change appears to be a losing proposition. The conservative propensity to baptize a common social prejudice as an article of faith is tenacious. It continues its hold over many Christian bodies from Roman Catholicism to the sea of independent Protestant bodies which broke away from their mother church beginning 600 years ago.
While a number of mainstream traditions such as Lutherans and Episcopalians have managed to relax their grip on medieval understandings of human sexuality arising out of ancient cosmologies, the core of church loyalists in many traditions today tend to be conservative and thus resistant to changes in long-held understandings regardless of how indefensible they may have become in light of modern science. This core includes the bulk of the very conservative Christians in the world outside North America and Europe.
Few expressions of colonialism are more tenacious than religious understandings from the mother country. The visions of 19th CE European and American evangelical missionaries continue to be guarded as revealed truth by their 21st CE descendants. Loyalty to those founding visions is seen as sacrosanct, particularly by those who have not worked or studied outside their developing world contexts in which the largely unquestioned conflation of homophobia and religion takes on an appearance of self-evidence.
But even as third world coreligionists have hunkered down to protect constructs of sanctified homophobia, many first world Christians have responded by simply walking away. The fastest growing self-identification of religious affiliation in the US over the past decade is “none of the above,” often reduced to “Nones” (or sometimes “Dones”). Today one in five Americans reports being non-affiliated.
Many of the non-affiliated are found in the Millennial cohort where those reporting no religious affiliation has climbed to one in three. Millennial Nones are clear in their reasons for abandoning religious institutions as reported in Putnam and Campbell’s study of American religion in the second decade of the 21st CE, American Grace: “[M]any young Americans [have come] to view religion as “judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political.”
While conservative religion continues to thrive in the developing world, churches in the northern hemisphere are increasingly observing a depressing paradigm playing out with regularity: graying, declining congregations desperately clinging to cherished beliefs seen as untenable by younger family members who are walking away from institutional religion in disgust.
As my liturgy professor from seminary was prone to remark, this appears to be the ditch the church has chosen to die in.
At some level, what happens among the Methodists today is largely irrelevant to my life. I am, after all, an Episcopal priest whose tradition has largely chosen to change its policies to reflect a 21st CE cosmology, albeit with a handful of exceptions such as the local diocese which has proven unwilling to shake off its death grip on a homophobia confused with religion and wrapped in denial.
Ironically, it was the same issues with which the Methodists struggle today that prompted me to walk away from them 43 years ago. I was not always an Episcopalian. Indeed, my faith journey began in a church which had only recently stopped calling itself the Methodist Episcopal Church in my childhood and which during my teenage years merged with several Brethren traditions to become the United Methodist Church.
In the small town where I grew up, the Methodists were the best thing going. It was the only Protestant alternative to the plethora of expressions of the Baptist tradition (including Primitive Baptists which always evoked images of the Flintstones when I saw the sign out front of their modest structure) as well as a host of Churches of God, Christ and tiny churches with “independent” in their titles. The Methodist Church was the home to most of my small town’s college educated people, many of them colleagues of my father who taught high school in the same two story brick building where he had himself attended school as a child.
I was a loyal Methodist, serving as usher and acolyte, spending many happy hours on Sunday nights at MYF, the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I developed a deep appreciation for the Wesley brothers in my Sunday School classes. Though I was not from a working class family, their concern for the spiritual welfare of the coal miners and the factory workers of 18th CE England was admirable. We heard their thought from our pulpit and sang their hymns from our pews.
To this day I believe the Anglican Church made a major mistake in simply letting the Methodists walk away. The result was a class-based imbalance in both traditions, the Anglicans focused almost exclusively on the upper classes with their condescension and the Methodists affirming the working classes and their resentments.
During my Methodist childhood, I developed a strong social consciousness that is the mark of Methodism. In its healthy expression, it focuses the Methodist on the outer world, concerned with issues of justice and poverty. In its shadow expression, social consciousness takes a much more immediate expression with competitive middle class concerns for status and the marks of privilege - clothing, cars, homes and contributions to the perennial covered dish luncheons. Both can be found in any given Methodist Church today.
Truth be told, while I was a loyal Methodist right into high school, I was always fascinated by the Episcopal Church. Its liturgies were somewhat familiar, the Methodist rites being an adaptation of the Book of Common Prayer. Its love of mystery, color, symbols and beautiful language were an intriguing improvement over the whitewashed Methodist hymn sandwiches (hymn, reading, sermon, hymn) to which I was accustomed. But it was two failings on the part of the Methodist Church that would ultimately propel me into the arms of Anglicanism, following the Wesley brothers, Anglican priests until the day they died, back home.
By the end of my time in high school, I was already beginning to be disenchanted with the Methodist Church. By 1970, when I began my senior year, the world was on fire with uprisings in the streets over a deadly and morally unsupportable war in Vietnam, a war people like my next door neighbor vanished into and emerged mere shadows of who they had once been. America’s cities burned with the rage of justice denied as a once peaceful civil rights movement descended into conflict.
I kept waiting for our pastor to talk about what was happening in our world, happenings that involved young people like myself very directly and immediately. Instead we heard banal references to cigarette commercials then playing on America’s airwaves (“I believe the gentleman will offer the lady a tiparillo”) and safe abstract theological assertions that flew around the sanctuary and out the window without ever lighting on anything concrete. My Mother told me I had the choice of whether I would continue to attend church with her once I reached high school and increasingly my choice was to worship at the altar of my pillow on Sunday morning.
By the time I reached the University of Florida as a junior in 1973, my life was in turmoil. I was just beginning to deal with my sexual orientation. I was deeply depressed, abusing alcohol regularly and pondering suicide. More than once I climbed the stairs to the third floor of Little Hall near my dormitory to throw myself off the balcony to the concrete plaza below, each time chickening out at the last minute even as I sat on the concrete ledge, legs dangling into the thin air just below.
Desperate, I sought out the Methodist chaplain at the church across University Avenue from campus. I wanted to be reassured that G-d loved me, that G-d *could* love me. It was just before Christmas break and I needed some direction before returning home to family and girlfriend eagerly awaiting my homecoming. I told the middle aged pastor I was depressed.
He asked me what was wrong. “I think I may be gay,” I said.
What happened next would change my life.
Abruptly the pastor turned away from me to stare at the papers on the desk immediately below him. “You’re working too hard,” he said in almost a whisper, continuing “Go home and get some rest and then come back and see me when the spring term begins.”
I was stunned. I felt the tears rising to my eyes and knew I needed to leave before I dissolved in his presence. “Thank you,” I gulped. I got up to leave. He never looked in my direction again.
As I closed his office door behind me, I stood for a moment, examining in detail the texture of the door’s exterior, a coat of red paint covering but not obscuring years of thumb tack holes and staples from which important notices, no doubt, had long since been removed. After a minute there I softly said, “Goodbye.” At that moment I knew I was closing the door to my life as a Methodist.
And then I walked away.
Casting Their Lots
I do not expect the Methodists to change course in their General Conference meeting nor is it my place to suggest they do so. While I am grateful for what the church taught me and how it formed me, it has been a long time since I thought of myself as a Methodist even as my sister and her family continue in that tradition.
The decisions the General Conference is making take place in a much larger context that is largely invisible to its participants and most people outside of it. Many scholars of religion have observed that humanity is on the cusp of a second axial age, a time of major change when world religions as we have known them will evolve into something as of yet unknowable. At the very least, a second Reformation of western Christianity appears to be underway. In either case the demands of a world in which science has revealed a new cosmology and in which humanity must now find meaning will play a large role in determining what proves to be credible.
A church which fails to meet such a challenge will probably not decline and die overnight. But as once broad denominations devolve more and more into sectarian bodies, defining their faith by antiquated socially constructed morality and talking more and more among themselves but rarely with those outside their circled wagons, they will have little to offer the world around them. Ironically, that will prove to be a betrayal of Wesley’s call to his fellow Methodist Anglicans to “Think and let think” and the ultimate betrayal of a once admirable Methodist calling to save the world.
John, Charles and Samuel Wesley all, no doubt, weep.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8