The month of May has marked a decided shift in the strategy for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the United Methodist Church (UMC).
In the past ten days, more than 126 clergy and candidates for ordained ministry have endorsed two separate open letters to the Church outing themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
Since United Methodist Church law prohibits “practicing, self-avowed homosexuals” from ministry, many of these clergy now risk losing their credentials. With the quadrennial business meeting of the denomination in full swing, the timing of these letters—released on the eve of the UMC General Conference—couldn’t be better.
The pushback from conservatives in the church has been swift. Rev. Vicki Flippin, an LGBTQ ally slated to give greetings at the opening worship, reported on her Facebook page that she would be banned from speaking if she planned to include LGBT persons in her welcome.
“This morning UMC officials in charge of the opening worship service at General Conference informed me that my planned greetings for the service would not be permitted. I was asked to speak “from my context,” which includes many LGBTQ people who walk into a religious community and immediately need to know whether or not they are safe there. I had planned to say, ‘Whatever your gender identity or expression, whatever your sexual orientation, race, or nation, age, or station, you belong in God’s house and I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ.’ I was told that in order to participate, I would have to omit mention of LGBTQI people.”
The unwillingness to welcome LGBTQ along with those of various “race, or nation, age or station” speaks volumes to activists who have heard countless times that the denomination does not seek to exclude them for who they are but that “participating in a homosexual lifestyle” is unacceptable. Saying that LGBTQ individuals are persons “of sacred worth” is now no more than a denominational talking point.
People not welcomed into church spaces will not believe that they are viewed as sacred in the life and ministry of the church.
One has to wonder about the breadth of the denomination’s ministry in light of the current resistance by its own clergy to changing laws so clearly discriminatory toward LGBTQ persons. Yes, many within the conservative wing of the church, in America and among the delegates from Africa (who hold a powerful voting block) applaud its stance. However, the overall numbers among its American delegates and within the American population reveal a growing support for LGBTQ rights within the public and religious sphere. The denomination has a full communion relationship (mutual recognition of shared beliefs) with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which has openly gay bishops. It has also agreed upon an Interim Eucharist Sharing with the Episcopal Church and has been in conversations to reach a full communion agreement.
The increasing challenge between the UMC and other denominations is the viability of those communion agreements given the variance between the ELCA and UMC’s stances on LGBTQ issues, especially since full communion-ordained ministers may officiate the sacraments at either church. How can these churches truly be in “full communion” if the UMC will not recognize the clergy orders of ELCA or Episcopal “self-avowed, practicing” LGBTQ clergy? This question of clergy ministry is also important for the UMC’s full communion relationships with major Black Methodist denominations (i.e. African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion).
The truth of denominational relationships is that they are tenuous at best. Despite sincere efforts to show themselves to the world as “one body,” denominations can only make this claim in the spiritual sense. With the looming impasse on LGBTQ full inclusion into the life and ministry of the denomination, it may very well be that the United Methodist Church has reached the end of being “united.”
If this is the case, shame on us, for we will repeat our own history of segregation, bigotry and schism and will put the final nail in the coffin of the UMC expression, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”