Disruption prompts church leaders to address sexuality issues

The Connectional Table suspended business Nov. 19 for conversation around inclusiveness after a disruption by Love Prevails, a group advocating inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the life of The United Methodist Church.

The disruption began in the morning session, as Love Prevails member Julie Todd, a New England Annual (regional) Conference pastor, walked among the meeting tables, singing the names of people who lost their clergy credentials, abandoned plans to go into United Methodist ministry or left the church because of the denomination’s position on homosexuality.

When the Connectional Table members began reciting together the covenant under which they would conduct their business, Todd’s voice rose in competition.

“Stop, stop, we’ve got to stop!” said table member Cynthia Kent. “I’m embarrassed.

“Were we not talking about peacemaking just yesterday?” Kent asked the group. “We’re not acting right here. … Somebody’s got to talk to somebody.”

After Kent’s statement and an emotional appeal by table member Fred Brewington, Bishop Bruce Ough, chairperson, called for a break. He and members of the Connectional Table met with the handful of Love Prevails members, and when the meeting reconvened, the Connectional Table approved changing its agenda to create time for Christian conferencing on the issue.

The 59-member Connectional Table brings together leaders from around the church to coordinate the mission, ministries and resources of the denomination. Love Prevails is the action arm of Kairos CoMotion, an unofficial United Methodist group founded by the Rev. Amy DeLong of Wisconsin.

Can’t dodge issue

Opening the floor for discussion, Ough said, “It would be easy to point a finger at a particular group,” but the issue is not about Love Prevails.

The issues of homosexuality and same-gender marriage are issues “that we cannot dodge as a denomination,” he said. “… We are not all of one mind, and I don’t think we know what the mind of Christ is on this either.”

Other issues also must be addressed involving people on the margins, people of color, persons who are poor, Ough said. “There are many places where we have not created the settings where we can listen deeply and profoundly enough” and get a “sense of what God is calling us to do.”

Todd told the Connectional Table that Love Prevails made a witness at the Council of Bishops meeting the previous week.

“Jesus Christ came singing love, Jesus Christ died singing love, Jesus Christ arose in silence,” she said. “If the song is to continue, we must do the singing. And I came singing love today. I hope that you heard that. I came singing love particularly for the leaders that we have lost already as a result of the exclusionary practices” and policies of the church regarding lesbian, gay, transgender bisexual and queer people. “Really, what we’re asking you to do is to help us keep singing the song,” she said.

“It’s hard in one moment to try to encapsulate everything you stand for and everything you want,” DeLong of Love Prevails told table members.

DeLong, an ordained elder and lesbian, faced two charges during a church trial in June 2011 in Kaukauna, Wis. The trial court acquitted her of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” by a vote of 12-1. Her counsel argued successfully that church authorities had not proven she engaged in prohibited sexual activities. The same panel unanimously found her guilty of violating the prohibition against conducting ceremonies celebrating same-gender unions.

The denomination’s Book of Discipline forbids the performance of same-gender unions in United Methodist sanctuaries, and it bars “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordination in the church. While declaring that all people are of sacred worth, the book states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

“We’ve been left out. We’ve been kept from being seated at the table,” DeLong said.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people “are the only people left in The United Methodist Church who are categorically discriminated against — categorically,” she said. The talk of being at the table and getting to know one another feels disingenuous when you are categorically excluded,” she said.

Later in the conversation, she said, “Gay people have been sacrificed on the altar of unity for 40 years.” The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body, the General Conference, has voted to maintain the “incompatibility” language for the past four decades.

Dealing with differences

“I believe God’s Spirit is not through speaking to the church on this issue,” said Tracy Merrick, a layperson attending the meeting in place of Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. The church needs to figure out a way to address the language in the Book of Discipline that causes pain and hurt on many sides, he said. Noting that he has family members who are gay and lesbian, Merrick said, “To feel they cannot walk into a United Methodist church and feel safe hurts me more deeply than you know.”

North Carolina Bishop Hope Morgan Ward said her episcopal area is in its 17th year of dialogue around this issue. In June 2012, the conference approved a resolution encouraging the church to change its language. She requested that the group consider working with other partners in crafting better language than what the church now uses.

“All I can say is thank you for having this conversation because it allows youth to see that people can change and people can have conversations and people can compromise,” said Kevin Sauceda, a youth representative on the table, who identified himself as gay.

“We have yet to come together as a church to talk about what does it mean to be different in this United Methodist Church,” said Erin Hawkins, top staff executive of the Commission on Religion and Race. It’s not safe, it’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, she said. “We don’t do well with our differences.”

DeLong said it is beneath the church as people of faith and grace to continue to hold discriminatory policies. Unless the church takes concrete actions and makes statements around ending discrimination, “we will not get anywhere.”

“We need to end discrimination, and that’s what I would ask the Connectional Table to be focused on,” she said.

Thomas Kemper, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said the Connectional Table needs to find a way to build relationships and open a conversation “with our brothers and sisters in Africa.” Several members noted the challenge of addressing same-gender issues in Africa. Kemper said a student in Angola told him that people in Africa see the pain around the issue. “Tell me what I can do,” she asked him.

Bishop Patrick Streiff said the people of the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area are of different minds on this issue.  “How can we live together with different views? It’s not a question of who wins and who loses.” He asked how the discussion can be opened in the church.

“The church is set up for winning and losing the way it is,” DeLong said. “At the end of the day you get to be included and I go home and get excluded. Nobody should go home and feel excluded.”

The elephant  in the room

The issue is the elephant in the room, which is the simple language regarding incompatibility, said table member Kunle Taiwo. “If we can sit down and share openly like were sharing here now, the Spirit moves because the Spirit is alive.” No one has the right to say who’s at the table, he added.

Eduardo Carrillo, a young adult representative on the Connectional Table, told the group, “I am in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

“As long as we have people who do not feel welcome in our churches, we are not living up to the mission statement of The United Methodist Church,” Carrillo said. “How long is this going to take?”

“We don’t want you to believe as we believe,” said Mary Lou Taylor of Love Prevails. “Just take out the discriminatory language … it’s not hard. It just takes a great deal of courage.”

In the smaller-group conversation right after the Love Prevails demonstration, a table member, the Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, said the issue underlies all of the other issues that the Connectional Table is facing. It’s not just an issue for the U.S. church, she said. “It’s underneath the surface of the global church.”

Eight members of Love Prevails attended the meeting the previous day, several wearing T-shirts that said, “Remember Pastor Frank,” a reference to the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Eastern Pennsylvania, who was undergoing a church trial that same day for performing the same-gender wedding of his son in 2007. By the end of the day, the clergy court in the Philadelphia area had found Schaefer guilty of two counts of violating the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

*Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference living in Nashville, Tenn. Tanton is on staff with United Methodist Communications and directs United Methodist News Service.

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