A letter from 500 openly LGBTQ clergy, future pastors and faith leader in a number of different denominations offered “much love and light” to the 111 United Methodist clergy and candidates who came out as gay on May 9.
“Though we come from different traditions, you are our family in Christ and our siblings in the common struggle to live fully and authentically into our God-given identities and callings,” states the letter posted on the website Believe Out Loud, an online community that empowers Christians to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) equality.
The letter was offered so those clergy would not feel alone.
“Our hearts swelled with pride at your prophetic and vulnerable truth-telling, even as they also clenched in empathy at the fear and risk many of you must have felt.”
The United Methodist clergy and candidates came out on the eve of the 2016 General Conference.
“We are here because God has called us to serve in this denomination, and our souls are fed by the theology in which we’ve been raised,” the 111 United Methodists write in what they call “A Love Letter to Our Church.” The signers come from across the United States, and one signer is from the Philippines. They identify themselves as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex” in the letter.
Their letter comes a week after 15 clergy and clergy candidates in the New York Conference took a similar step of coming out together. It also comes just two days after the Rev. David Meredith, a United Methodist pastor in the West Ohio Conference, married Jim Schlachter, his boyfriend of 28 years.
These actions could put these clergy at risk of losing their credentials under church law, just as 864 delegates from around the globe are embarking on a 10-day legislative meeting that will determine church rules for the coming four years. Some of the May 9 letter signers are among the delegates.
However, the letter also indicates that many United Methodists are moving forward regardless of what General Conference decides, said Matt Berryman.
He is the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for the church to be more inclusive. The network has coordinated publicity of this and other challenges to church law as part of the group’s “It’s Time” campaign.
“Since 2012, we’ve decided we would be the church no matter what,” Berryman told United Methodist News Service. The majority of delegates at the 2012 General Conference voted against a proposal to say United Methodists disagree whether homosexuality is against God’s will.
“Jesus came preaching a way that is narrow, and the way we live out that narrow way is to disrupt systemic injustice.”
The Rev. Karen Oliveto, one of the letter signers and a delegate from the California-Nevada Conference, said she hopes her fellow General Conference delegates will consider the more than 1,550 years of combined ministerial experience the signers bring to the church.
Oliveto is the senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, and the only woman to lead one of the 100 largest United Methodist churches in the U.S.
The Rev. Gregory Gross, a deacon and delegate from the Northern Illinois Conference, said often when United Methodists “talk about homosexuality, we talk about it as an issue.”
“We are people standing alongside you in the pew and pulpit,” he said. Gross, whose homeless ministry includes serving gay and lesbian teens who have been kicked out of their homes, said he signed the letter also to provide a witness that these teens are not alone.
Still other United Methodists see the letter and public same-sex weddings as raising the stakes and increasing the possibility of a denominational split.
“It’s the irresistible force meets the immovable object,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial United Methodist group that advocates for maintaining church teachings.
“It may be impossible to remain in covenant together when neither side is willing or able to compromise because of conscience.”
Lambrecht also disputed the letter’s assertion that The United Methodist Church compels LGBTQ individuals “not to bring our full selves to ministry, that we hide from view our sexual orientations and gender identities.”
“No one is forcing LGBTQ persons to hide their identities,” Lambrecht said. “That is a choice that they are making. The church has always been straightforward about what is acceptable behavior for clergy. Having same-sex attractions or being LGBTQ is not a bar to ordained ministry. Engaging in sexual relationships outside monogamous heterosexual marriage is a bar to ordained ministry.”
The Book of Discipline, the denomination's governing document, has stated since 1972 that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
It lists being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as well as officiating at same-sex unions as chargeable offenses under church law. Those found guilty can lose their credentials or face a lesser penalty.
Heading into General Conference
More than 100 pieces of legislation concerning human sexuality will come before General Conference, which begins May 10. Many petitions want to retain the language in the 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline and strengthen penalties for those disobeying church law. Others seek to remove restrictions. Still other proposals would leave the questions of ordination and marriage up to lower levels of the church, such as annual conferences and individual clergy.
The Rev. Israel “Izzy” Alvaran is an ordained elder in the Philippines and the sole letter signer from a central conference (church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe). He announced that he is gay during a church panel on sexuality last year, and he is under appointment to Reconciling Ministries Network.
Some 30 percent of General Conference delegates come from Africa, where the majority of nations criminalize same-sex behavior.
Alvaran stressed that the ministry of gay and lesbian individuals is not just a concern in the United States. “There are LGBTQ people in all the places The United Methodist Church serves,” he said.
Oliveto expects debate over biblical interpretation and understandings of God to continue well beyond the 2016 General Conference.
“I think theological diversity is one of the strengths of our denomination,” she said. “I love that about our church. It helps us to understand the greatness of God and the wideness of God’s mercy.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]