Two U.S. jurisdictions will consider three openly gay candidates for bishop this month.
Long before she learned that my sister was gay, our mother had been risking her reputation, and her career, to stand up for the rights of LGBT people in the church community. So when I read about the controversy in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s debate over the acceptance of homosexuality, she was the first person I called.
My mother, Debbie Pitney, became a minister in the United Methodist Church (UMC) over 40 years ago, inspired by John Wesley and his mission to transform the world through radical faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As a member of the first generation of female clergy in the denomination, she broke through a glass ceiling on day one and didn’t stop pushing boundaries until her retirement a year ago.
The issue on the table at this year’s General Conference—an every-four-year event during which UMC representatives from around the world meet to discuss important issues of faith and governance—was whether or not to change the discriminatory language in the church’s official “Book of Discipline” that deems “homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teachings.”
This exclusive brand of Christianity is not the one that my mother subscribes to, nor the one that I was raised with. Thanks in part to pioneers like my mother, who have tirelessly championed a more progressive kind of faith, there is a growing movement of liberal Christians within the UMC and beyond who oppose this kind of discrimination. They showed up in droves at the General Conference to make their voices heard, and their highly publicized protests have forced a stand-off that has threatened to split the church apart.
My mother was kind enough to sit down with me and share her thoughts on the issue. The following has been edited for length, clarity, and the occasional interruption from my father, who is also a UMC minister.
Thank you for doing this, Mom. Before we dive into what’s happening with the United Methodist Church I thought we could hear a little bit about your history. How long have you been a minister?
Forty-one years. I was ordained in 1975.
And what was it that made you want to become a minister?
Well, my dad was a Methodist minister and I grew up in the church. My dad died when I was 7 years old and I remember that when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be a minister. They’d smile politely because everybody knew that little girls couldn’t be ministers. I learned not to answer that.
By the time I went off to college I was planning to be a teacher, but the reality was that deep down, I still wanted to be a part of the church. I believed in the church. It’s what helped me survive my teenage years and into college. It’s where I found meaning. It’s where I found community. So by the time I graduated from college I decided to go to seminary and begin the process of seeking ordination.
How many women were at the seminary at that time?
Women had only been allowed full clergy rights in 1956, so even in 1973 when I started into seminary, it was still very rare for a woman to be there. The majority of the students at the seminary were male. When I was ordained in 1975 I was one of five clergywomen serving in the Oregon-Idaho Conference.
Out of how many?
Well, there were probably about 200 United Methodist clergy in those two states. Dad and I were the first clergy couple appointed in the conference.*
The first in history?
Yes. And you were the first child born to a clergywoman in the Oregon-Idaho conference.
Really? I didn’t know that. That’s a lot of firsts! I don’t know if you like being called this, but you’re a pioneer in the United Methodist Church.
Yeah, I guess you could say that. I’d say the same for any of us who were clergywomen serving in those early years. In many churches I’d be the first clergywoman they had ever encountered.
If it was less than 3% in 1975, what percentage of clergy would you say are women today?
I’d guess we’re close to 40% clergywomen in Oregon-Idaho now.
Wow, that’s an amazing change.
And have people’s attitudes towards clergywomen changed over that time?
Definitely. But my gender has always been an issue. People have always left the churches where I’ve served because I’m a woman. The reality is that I’ve had to be better at my job than my male counterparts. I’ve had to work harder. I’ve been willing to do that. And I have for the most part enjoyed my 40 years of ministry.
It’s great to hear about your history with gender issues in the church. I think it lays a good foundation for exploring your perspective on the LGBT issues on the table at [this year’s] General Conference. When I think about your ministry, I think of you as a long-time champion of this issue. Why do think it ended up being such a defining issue for you?
It’s the civil rights issue of my generation of ministry, and my role models in the church have always stood up for civil rights. For example, when my dad and mom were moved to the Methodist Church in Wahiawa [Hawaii] in the late 1940s, the church-owned parsonage was in a section of town that Japanese-American people were not allowed to enter. It was right after World War II, and my parents refused to live in that house. They would only live in a house that was accessible to everyone in their church community.
Wow. I didn’t know that.
That’s the story I grew up with, a story from my mom. Another story is about my grandfather, your great grandfather, who was a Religion professor at Bucknell University. During the summers he organized speaking tours for famous people to visit the small church-affiliated colleges around the country. George Washington Carver was one of those speakers. Being African-American, he was not allowed in the hotel in town so he stayed at my grandparents’ house. Irving Berlin, the Jewish piano player, was not allowed to stay at the hotel because he was Jewish. He stayed with my grandparents. And it was the same for Howard Thurman, the famous African-American theologian. My mother sat on his lap when he stayed with them and he told her stories.
So we have this family history of saying no to bigotry and standing up for the fact that we are all acceptable in the eyes of God and that we need to act that way with each other. We need to behave differently.
When was the first time you encountered the issue of homosexuality in the church?
It was in 1968. I was in 11th grade and we were having an overnight retreat at the church. One of my good friends in the youth group, with tears in his eyes, felt that he could tell us that he was gay. I had never thought about it before but I followed the lead of the youth pastor at the church and accepted him. We loved Greg the moment before he told us and we loved him the moment after. For me, I had great mentors who simply said, “This is just who Greg is. God doesn’t love him any less and shouldn’t.”
Wow. And how about as a minister?
When your Dad and I were serving the church in Nome [Alaska] in 1981, 2 women came into the office and asked whether or not we would be willing to baptize their baby. I was like, “Well, of course.” They said, “Well, we’re lesbians.” My answer was, “Well, yeah. God doesn’t love you any less and God doesn’t love your baby any less.” They became a part of the congregation.
When did your perspective on homosexuality start to become controversial?
When we moved to Corvallis [Oregon] in 1986 there were state ballot measures being put forth that were discriminatory against gay and lesbian persons. We decided that it was the time to stand up and say publicly that these were wrong. We attended candlelight vigils down at the courthouse.
I remember those.
We took you. When you would ask, “Why are we here?” We’d say, “Well, Nita and Marilyn are your favorite people at the church, right?” You would say yes. They were your babysitters. We were like, “Well, this is in support of them.” These were real people that were part of our lives that we loved. There was nothing that was going to separate them from God’s love.
At that point, we became very intentional in how we spoke with you and your sister Erin. I don’t know if you remember this, but when we talked about your future lives we would not talk about your future wife or husband. We would say your spouse or your partner.
I remember that very specifically.
I remember one day when you were in 4th grade, you came in and announced, “Mom, it’s okay. You can say wife. I’m heterosexual.”
We wanted to raise you, our children, as people who would not be prejudiced against another person because of their sexual orientation.
It was also in Corvallis that the reconciling congregation movement began in the United Methodist Church. Those were congregations who were deciding to say, “The book of discipline may say that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, but we choose to stand in opposition to that section. We believe in the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of our churches across the board.”
I, together with lay people in the Corvallis Church, began the process of becoming a reconciling congregation.
That’s when people began to speak more honestly and openly, saying, “Oh, yeah my son is gay,” or “My mother is a lesbian.” These were real people in their lives that they loved and affirmed. The church became that safe place.
So when did you start to speak out publicly on the issue?
That was in the 90s, when we moved to Boise. I became the superintendent of the Idaho district, which means that I oversaw all 52 churches in the southern part of the state. As the United Methodist presence in the state of Idaho I was often interviewed in the newspaper on a wide a variety of issues, including the church’s stance on homosexuality. I decided that I wasn’t going to be quiet about things anymore.
And were things changing in the church?
Yes and no. When we moved to Eugene in 1999 and I became the senior pastor at First Church we were able to build an accepting environment for all members of the community. Gay and lesbian persons were coming to our church and finding there the home that they wanted.
But things weren’t moving at the international level. I was going to general conference after general conference every four years and the votes weren’t changing. I just reached a point where I decided I’m not going to say good Christian people can disagree on this anymore.
That’s a big step.
That was a big step. I started to say that it is against the gospel of Jesus Christ to discriminate against individuals because of who God created them to be. I don’t believe homosexuality is a sin. I don’t believe it’s some grand choice that somebody makes. Why would someone choose to be hated by society? I think our sexual identity is something that we’re born with, and I think it’s not clearly one or the other for some people. I think there’s a continuum. I believe science has proven that.
Then came the phone call from your sister. I did not love Erin less the moment after she told me that she had fallen in love with her best friend. I couldn’t and I refuse to let the church do that. She was baptized into this church. She was raised in this church.
She’s the embodiment of everything that the church stands for.
Absolutely. You could not ask for a more compassionate person, a more dedicated person.
I just don’t get how the church can still be against it. The church hasn’t changed, but the institution can do what it’s going to do. God blesses some of the work of the institution and God cries at other parts of the institution. As Bishop Elaine Stanovsky said in her sermon at General Conference this morning, “The church is of God but the church isn’t God.”
That’s a powerful statement.
I don’t know whether the institution will ever move but at this point I’m more concerned about being a faithful witness of Jesus Christ than being a faithful United Methodist. I have been disobedient because I don’t believe I’m being disobedient to the gospel or to the call that I’ve had into ministry.
Can you say a little more about this issue from a theological perspective? When you hear people within the United Methodist church and also very public advocates of the Christian faith in general speak out against homosexuality, they often cite the biblical narrative as the basis for their argument.
Yeah. I think that it has to do with biblical literacy. I do not read the Bible as being the inerrant word of God. I’ve never believed that. I’ve never taught that. In Bible study after Bible study, I’ve taught the opposite of that, all while respecting greatly the book that I’m teaching about.
I read the Old Testament as a story of the Ancient Hebrew people’s relationship with God. And the New Testament is the story of the early Christian church’s relationship with God. The Bible is a compilation of human stories. I believe that the controversy comes down to whether or not we believe that these stories should be taken literally or whether they can be interpreted.
So what does the Bible say about homosexuality?
The Old Testament has a law that says “no man shall lie with another man.” Well, okay. Let’s unpack what that means. First of all, it’s in a whole series of laws, many of which we pay absolutely no attention to today.
There’s a law that says you can’t wear blends of cotton and linen, or wool and linen. Nobody rails against people wearing blends today. There were very specific reasons for those laws that no longer make sense.
In order to understand the reasoning behind “no man shall lie with another man” we have to take into account the fact that at that time they didn’t understand procreation. They thought that a man’s semen contained tiny miniature people. They believed that the Messiah was coming and that any one of those little tiny miniature people might be the Messiah. They had rules against lying with another man, and even masturbation, because that was spilling of seed that might turn into the Messiah. So that puts the biblical “law” in a different light.
Also, it just cracks me up when people say, “Let’s go back to the biblical understanding of marriage.” No thank you.
In what way? What would a biblical understanding of marriage be?
Well, there are a couple of things. First off, a woman was considered a possession of her father and then her husband.
She was essentially purchased. It was an economic arrangement between two men. Most of the time brides were much younger than their husbands because the father of the young woman would sell her to somebody who had the means to buy her for the highest price. He wasn’t going to sell her to the boy she might have fallen in love with next door. Marriages were not love-based, they were not companionship-based. They were economic arrangements. Okay, that’s number 1.
Number 2, let’s say that your wife didn’t provide you with a male offspring. A man could take another wife and another wife and another wife until one of them did.
This is the “sanctity of marriage” that is being protected. Are you kidding me?
Okay, so that’s Old Testament. Then along comes Jesus. Well for those of us who follow Jesus, I always like to point out that if homosexuality was one of the top ten sins, I think he might have talked about it. But he never did.
That’s very interesting.
Yeah. He talked about divorce and we seem to have gotten past that. But he never talked about homosexuality.
Paul may have. In one of the most damning New Testament passages from Paul that anti-gay Christians point to, the word “homosexual” is mistranslated into English. If you go back to the root word in Greek it really translates more like pedophile.
There was a practice in the Greco-Roman world at the time where successful businessmen would employ young boys as apprentices to learn their trade. These boys were essentially purchased. They would teach them their trade but at the same time they’d have sex with them.
I believe it was this practice that Paul was saying was wrong. And I would agree with him.
That to me is pedophilia.
A very different issue.
I didn’t discover any of this on my own. There are plenty of studies out there.
Right. It seems to me that you’re talking about two different issues with biblical interpretation. One is that even if we are trying to act according to what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, most of that has been misinterpreted.
And second, you’re saying that it doesn’t necessarily matter what the Bible says. You have to see it in a historical context.
Yeah it was a different time. We have to take what the Bible says and figure out how it applies now. And there are plenty of other things that the Bible says that I think are far more important.
If we want to talk about what Jesus actually spent most of his time talking about, he talked about loving other people and caring for people on the margins.
To me that’s far more important. The rule of love is what I want to live by.
Unfortunately, it appears as if your view on the issue is in the minority right now, correct? At the General Conference, the more progressive voices don’t have enough of a majority to change the language in the discipline to be more accepting of homosexuality. They’re outnumbered by the more conservative regions of the church, primarily in Africa and the Philippinnes, and to some extent, the American South.
Yeah. That’s the crazy thing about this whole thing. What’s happening in our denomination right now is that we’re realizing we’re a global church. Early Christian missionaries went to the continent of Africa and the Philippines and Christianized people with a very, very conservative brand of Christianity. That’s what they were given and that’s what many still believe.
We are trying to be a global church that is accepting of all people, and I’m trying very hard to accept my African United Methodist brothers and sisters and make space for them. But at the same time, they are trying to take away the space for the people I love. I sat through a session at the last conference four years ago where a delegate said that gay and lesbian people are spawn of the devil.
My child is not a spawn of the devil.
Four years later, the language is more respectful. But there is still an understanding that homosexuality is a horrendous sin and the church can’t possibly allow such people to be a part of our family. That’s still what’s being said.
There are others who say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” which basically means that homosexual people are welcome but they need to change.
The crazy thing in all this is that there’s only one other thing that the book of discipline says is incompatible with Christian teaching besides homosexuality, and that’s war.
Wow. Not even murder?
Not even murder. So I think we need to change the language so that there is more freedom for interpretation—so we don’t have to act against church doctrine when we’re living in accordance with our values.
I’m happy to have the umbrella be large enough so that if a clergy friend of mine does not feel like they can officiate a same-sex wedding, that’s fine. They don’t have to. They get to make that decision. But I want the umbrella big enough so that I get to make that decision for myself.
Why do you think they are afraid to change the language?
They think they’ll lose members. I listened to a man from Illinois this week who said, “If we change this language I’m going to have members walk out the door.” And people from Nigeria believe the church in Nigeria would die.
They’re very passionate. But I can speak just as passionately that every single time we don’t open the doors a little wider we will also have members walk out the door.
Right. Not to mention the effect this has on your ability to attract new, younger members, especially in the more progressive areas of America. Values like inclusiveness are so important for the millennial generation and if the church is officially condoning bigotry then it’s going to be very difficult to appeal to those young people, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Every time the United Methodist General Conference holds to those hard lines, the possibility of church growth in the communities where I live and serve goes down. I belong to the Oregon-Idaho Conference, and same-gender marriage is legal in both states. It’s even legal in conservative Idaho! If I’m serving as a pastor in one of these states, how can I do my job and provide the same pastoral care for all of my members if my hands are tied?
So what do you see as the solution to this debate going forward?
I don’t know what the way forward is. The Bishops decided to form a commission representing a wide variety of viewpoints that will look at every single part of the book of discipline that has anything to do with human sexuality and have holy conversation around it. Then they’ll come back in four years and present their findings. I don’t know where we’ll be at that point. There’s not a lot of trust. I can honestly say I do not trust those who are so adamantly on the other side, just as they don’t trust me.
I really believe there’s going to have to be some kind of restructuring that allows diversity within the denomination. I believe that each regional conference should get to decide how they want approach the issue. Let us decide, let us govern ourselves on this particular subset of issues.
And what I’m seeing is not a split, like a lot of people are talking about. We simply need to allow different things in different areas. The book of discipline should be allowed to be used in the context of each of our ministries. If it’s helpful to our African brothers and sisters for them to have really restrictive language about homosexuality in their book of discipline then let’s let them have it. And they should let us remove some of those same restrictions from our book of discipline.
So do you think it will be possible to change the book of discipline in the way you’re suggesting? Right now, it’s sort of the law of the land for the entire United Methodist Church.
Yeah, we like to believe it’s our constitution. We like to believe it’s the end-all to everything. It’s going to take a willingness to change and to let go of the need for the book of discipline to mean the same thing no matter where you are in the world. For some reason, and this is where it’s hard because it’s not my culture, our African brothers or sisters believe that it’s imperative to their members that all United Methodists think that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Right. It’s quite a paradox. How do you allow for a diversity of beliefs within a global denomination when one of those beliefs is that there has to be just one belief?
Right, yeah. I don’t have an answer for that. If I did I probably would have been elected Bishop.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to take a step back and look at how this issue affects the church’s ability to embrace a more progressive worldview moving forward. Right now it seems like a lot of progressive people just are moving on from the church, right?
How do you see the church responding to that? Is the church just going to get more and more conservative or do you think there’s a way for the church to evolve, to become more progressive?
I have to believe that there is a way for progressive Christian voices to be heard and form a new church—not a new denomination, but a new way of being the church.
I truly think that can happen. I know it can happen because I’ve lived it. I’ve lived it in Eugene. When we became a reconciling congregation, not only did the doors open wider, but many of the gatekeepers of the old rigid order left. We were then able to be the church in a new way. We weren’t just church on Sunday morning, we were church outside the doors. We were church on the steps of the Capitol building. We were church feeding homeless people. We were church advocating.
That’s being church. It’s not about being church inside the walls and having polite Bible studies. It’s about saying that the Christ I believe in stood up to the powers and principalities of the time. That’s why he died. He didn’t die for my sins, he died because he stood up to the empire and they got angry and shut him down. That’s the person I follow. I believe that in the end there are people who still want to follow that person. It will look very different.
They used to say that for change to happen in the church you just needed to have a few good deaths. Well, maybe we just have to have a few good deaths of some congregations, some conferences and maybe even the denomination. Maybe the United Methodist Church won’t be here anymore. But I don’t believe that means God has given up on us. Remember what Elaine Stanovsky said this morning: the church is of God, but the church isn’t God.
*While John and Debbie were the first United Methodist clergy couple with membership in the Oregon-Idaho Conference, Rev. Alice Knotts, a United Methodist and her then husband, Rev. Robert Morrison, a Presbyterian were the first to serve neighboring churches. Their daughter Laura Knotts Morrison Bowman was the first child born to a United Methodist clergywoman in that conference.