As the United Methodist Church approaches it next quadrennial General Conference this May, its members should reflect upon the watershed moment of its 2012 conference that has inspired LGBTQ rights activists to take a series of courageous stances against its discriminatory polices.
In that moment, retired bishop Melvin Talbert declared a position of biblical obedience urging LGBTQ persons and allies to live as though the Book of Discipline prohibitions on same-sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” do not exist.
Though many were already defying church policy, the biblical obedience campaign struck a chord at a time in our nation’s history when public policy and law were rapidly changing to ensure equal rights for LGBTQ people. Clergy and laypersons across the denomination took up Bishop Talbert’s exhortation and did so with the support of Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). As the only out queer lesbian ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church, I joined the ranks of those clergy who defied UMC law and officiated a same-gender living marriage not long after the law was passed in Washington, D.C.
Nonetheless, our protests have not gone without penalties. Several complaints have been lodged by conservative right wing members of the church aimed at defrocking clergy and prohibiting out and practicing candidates who hope to be ordained. While much work has gone into ending church trials, ordination seemed to be that critical area where little traction could be made. The church has no policy against ordaining celibate LGBTQ persons, but because its laws prohibit the ordination of practicing homosexuals the option for ministry within the UMC seemed slim for LGBTQ persons who felt called by God to be clergy. Until now.
The Boards of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) for two separate conferences have announced that they will no longer consider an individual’s sexual orientation as criteria for evaluation. Following the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s recommendation earlier this year of Tara “T.C.” Morrow, a married lesbian, New York’s BOOM announced this week that “it would not consider sexual orientation in evaluating a clergy candidate, even if that individual has a spouse of the same gender.”
While each candidate must also be approved by their annual conference clergy session, the stance of these two BOOMs is a phenomenal advance for the rights of LGBTQ persons within the denomination. The New York conference has for decades declared its opposition to the UMC’s systematic exclusion of LGBTQI people, and “the Board of Ordained Ministry’s action here is living into that. It means that queer people can bring their whole selves, without distortion, into their faithful answer to the call to ministry. The era of don’t ask, don’t tell is over for this conference,” Dr. Dorothee E. Benz, national representative of Methodists in New Directions (MIND) and a New York annual conference delegate to the 2016 General Conference, told RD.
Dr. Benz echoes the sentiments of many who see the decision of these two BOOMs as signs of progress and something to be celebrated while they remain cautious about what progress will be made at General Conference. Many wonder whether schism is unavoidable. A more important question is whether we have the courage of our Christian convictions not to give up on love and on the grueling work of withstanding bigotry even in defiance of church laws some naively describe as sacred.
There is no sacredness in bigotry. No truly divine nature which requires its worship and maintenance. If we learn nothing from the current socio-political climate where bigots hold fast to the altars of their faith, we persons who are the objects of religious institutionalized oppression have learned the value of risk-taking leadership, solidarity against all odds, and faith that can move mountains.
I imagine, given just a glimpse at the punitive pushback we are beginning to see in the petitions before the General Conference, that new strategies are being pursued that will continue tearing families apart, frighten gifted and talented persons from pursuing ministry in the UMC and stir up seedbeds of hatred.
These concerns weigh far more heavily upon people of good will than the current game of statistical blackmail warning of the danger of losing more members because the denomination will not hold to church polity and what it considers literal biblical interpretation. The bible without the Spirit of love is a dangerous device. The good news is that we are growing in our capacity to overcome and prevail. And, to use the newest RMN slogan: “It’s Time!”