New group aims for LGBTQ full inclusion

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The Rev. Donald E. Messer has long promoted church unity, but he says that unity should not come at the expense of LGBTQ Christians.

He is an organizer of the United Methodist Association of Retired Clergy, or ARC, a new group that hopes to spread that message across the denomination.

“We hope the unity of the church will be obtained but not at the price of sacrificing God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ for all people,” Messer said. He is a former president of United Methodist Iliff School of Theology in Denver and a longtime leader in the denomination’s global fight against AIDS.

Many traditionalist United Methodists would say the denomination already is inclusive of LGBTQ people. However, a number of LGBTQ United Methodists and their allies argue that church policies place limits on that inclusion. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, prohibits both officiating at same-sex unions by clergy and the ordaining of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

ARC will have its first public gathering for laity and clergy Nov. 14. The event, aimed at moving “Toward an Inclusive Church,”  will be at St. Andrew United Methodist Church, in Highlands Ranch, a Denver suburb. The agenda will include how the church can help dismantle racism as well as how the denomination can be more inclusive of LGBTQ members.

Messer said he has already heard from United Methodists as far away as Virginia, Florida and Texas who are interested in attending. Retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who formerly led the Virginia and North Carolina conferences, will be the keynote speaker.

Four other United Methodist bishops will share a video message: LaTrelle Easterling of Baltimore-Washington, Laurie Haller of Iowa, Hee-Soo Jung of Wisconsin and Sally Dyck of Northern Illinois. 

The new association is getting off the ground just as two other relatively new United Methodist groups — each with its own perspective on the denomination’s longtime homosexuality debate — are gearing up for their own big meetings.

All these groups come together as the bishop-appointed Commission on a Way Forward seeks to find a way for the denomination to stay connected despite deep divisions around how the church should minister with LGBTQ individuals.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association plans to have its third public gathering Oct. 14 at The Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston and more than 60 simulcast locations. The theme is “Move — On a Mission with God.”

The association, which holds church teachings on homosexuality to be part of Christian orthodoxy, has already put the Way Forward Commission on notice that it should find a way to enforce current rules or prepare for a church split. Two Way Forward Commission members are on the association’s leadership council.

Meanwhile, the Uniting Methodists Movement is planning a second public gathering. Its Leadership Conference will be on Nov. 13-14 at Impact Church, a United Methodist congregation near Atlanta.

The movement seeks to give voice to congregations and church members who do not see different views of homosexuality as cause to divide the church. The movement’s leaders include two Way Forward Commission members.

When contacted by United Methodist News Service, members of both the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Uniting Methodists said they did not feel they knew enough to comment on the new retired clergy association.

The Rev. Randy Jessen, a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s leadership council, said he expected “Toward an Inclusive Church” to be a typical gathering for the Rocky Mountain Conference.

Leaders of ARC do not see their efforts as necessarily competing with the Uniting Methodists’ efforts. The overlapping meeting times results from both groups planning their get-togethers at roughly the same time, Messer and others said.

“I think this and any other gathering that offers information and conversation about inclusion will contribute to the dialogue in the larger United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Harvey Martz, the event’s co-chair.

He added that he sees a possibility of making common cause with the Uniting Methodists Movement, which wants to change church law to allow more flexibility on same-sex marriage and gay ordination.

The group began when Messer, Martz and more than 100 other retired clergy in the Rocky Mountain Conference got together in May to show support for Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads both the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences.

The Western Jurisdiction’s election and consecration of Oliveto, the denomination’s first married, gay episcopal leader, prompted intense debate and a case before the denomination’s top court.

However, Oliveto has supporters both within and outside her area. She will preach at the ARC gathering’s closing worship. She said she hopes the event will foster conversation.

“When we talk with each other, when relationships are fostered, the Holy Spirit has the space to move in and among us to build vital communities of faith,” she said.

Kammerer, the first woman bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, and Oliveto have found common ground as fellow “firsts” in their jurisdictions. Kammerer said she was eager to accept the invitation to speak to a group that supports Oliveto.

“I do think that it will model for other areas how to have conversations that will widen the possibilities,” she said.

The Rev. Alex de Silva Souto, a leader in the Queer Clergy Caucus and pastor in Connecticut, expressed interest in the new group.

“Oftentimes the idea of Christian unity is used as a veneer to cover up the cracks in our connection,” he said. “Therefore, going beyond the surface is indeed the most promising path towards a true, holistic and sustainable unity in Christ.” 

Messer said the group’s initials ARC deliberately references the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“We seek to help bend the ‘moral arc’ toward justice by creating an inclusive church that neither discriminates nor excludes,” he said.

 Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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