When schism and unity conversations come up, including A Way Forward, it is usually a lot of straight white men talking. Even if proposals are signed and supported by minorities or women, the people in front and the bloggers pounding on the keyboard are straight white men. Given that I myself am a straight white man, it’s important that I look beyond my own perspective and seek out others’ on these important conversations of unity and schism.
Over the next few days, I’ll be posting guest posts and quotes from LGBT readers of the blog (named and anonymous). Since schism and unity conversations revolve around LGBT inclusion, it’s important that their voices are heard and I’m happy to offer this blog as a channel for that conversation.
Our first post is from Dr. Dorothee Benz, a laywoman from New York.
A Way Forward for Whom?
By Dr. Dorothee Benz
As a scholar of social movements I have long been aware that as movements evolve into institutions, they take on a life of their own. Protecting and perpetuating the institution becomes a goal in itself, eventually eclipsing the goals of the movement that gave rise to the institution. It is clear that we have firmly arrived at this point in the United Methodist Church. The question everyone who is anyone is asking is “how do we avoid schism?” The question, “What would Jesus do?” seems of less interest. The church as an institution has shoved the church as a movement of Jesus’s followers into the background.
So my first beef with “A Way Forward,” the latest Hamilton-Slaughter proposal, is that it exists at all. It prioritizes the wrong question. Its primary purpose to protect the institution, not the people. It talks about churches losing members if there is a schism, not about people losing churches. It talks about “devastating consequences” if General Conference were to overturn the UMC’s anti-gay laws, meaning the loss of conservative members. It doesn’t discuss the devastation to those members. It says nothing at all about the harm done to LGBTQ people by our current church law.
Homophobia, not Homosexuality, is the Problem
My second beef with the Hamilton-Slaughter proposal is that it further problematizes LGBTQ people as the source of division in the church. In this regard, I am particularly disappointed with progressives who embrace it (including some good friends), seemingly unaware that the framing of the entire thing feeds the false narrative that the problem in the church is homosexuality – i.e., our very existence. Why is the opening line of this proposal, “The ongoing debate over homosexuality continues to divide the United Methodist Church” and not “The ongoing debate over homophobia continues to divide the United Methodist Church?” Seriously, why? We are not the problem; discrimination is the problem.
LGBTQ people are not the first, nor will we be the last, to be blamed for tensions and divisions in the church. Our church has been mired in conflict over its support for slavery and segregation and its exclusion of women from ordained ministry. Each of these sins of exclusion were corrected after decades of tension, division, debate, and yes in some cases schism. Moving past these forms of bigotry required great struggle in the church. And not for nothing, these struggles are not mere historical artifacts. That much should be clear from the 2012 General Conference attack on the General Commission on Religion and Race, the Committee on the Status and Role of Women, and the guaranteed appointment system that has served to protect those who would otherwise fall victim to employment discrimination. The point is that struggle is not something to be avoided; rather it is the crucible in which we create a better, more inclusive church. We need to engage in the struggle to change our church, not try to sidestep our way around it.
Structurally Neutral Solutions are an Illusion
Apart from these general problems, the current Hamilton-Slaughter proposal fails in its attempt to offer a neutral structural solution for resolving our differences. It proposes to let local churches decide whether they will treat gay and straight parishioners equally if the pastor requests it and a supermajority of the congregation agrees. This is a stacked deck if ever there was one. Imagine if you could only pass civil rights laws in your state if they were initiated by the governor and approved by a legislative supermajority. As for ordination, the proposal wants to leave that up to conferences, but would explicitly allow individual congregations to deny employment to LGBTQ clergy. I dare say if we proposed that it be permissible for a congregation to reject clergy on the basis of race or sex or ethnicity, we would see that this isn’t an acceptable “solution.”
In truth, the belief that that one can design structurally neutral solutions that punt the substantive struggle over whether we will continue to discriminate to another level of the church is an illusion. Any proposed structure will either create genuine conditions of equality or it will not; and in that choice such structures expression a position. There is no neutrality. We cannot get through this struggle without resolving it.
Just as importantly, this proposal is DOA at General Conference. It is abundantly clear that all proposals to allow some kind of local or regional autonomy on matters of discrimination, as well as all resolutions that merely acknowledge theological diversity in the UMC, will be voted down by the same anti-gay conservative majority that predictably votes down the lifting of the discriminatory rules in the Book of Discipline. Without the possibility of General Conference approval, how do Adam Hamilton And Mike Slaughter envision this proposal being implemented?
Institutional Channels of Change are a Dead End
The anti-gay majority at General Conference – and their advance forces, the Good News authors of the current threat of schism – will not tolerate a church that recognizes the humanity of queer people anywhere, even in one small corner of it. They control the institutional channels of change, which are therefore closed to us. There is as much hope for a legislative resolution to anti-gay discrimination in the UMC as there was for an end to segregation in a southern state legislature in 1960.
The analogy is deliberate, because it was the recognition that institutional channels of change were foreclosed to them that led Black civil rights activists to engage in strategies of non-violent resistance. Those of us in the UMC fighting to end its current era of discrimination are inspired and instructed by that historical example. The movement to withdraw our complicity in discrimination that has taken root in the church in the last three years is born of the recognition that there are no other avenues to change available to us. This movement is now so widespread that it has created a crisis of authority for the institutional church and provoked the ire of those hellbent on persecuting us, inevitable byproducts of the successful spread of a strategy of non-violent resistance.
Along the way we have rediscovered the church as a movement. Following Jesus’s example, our priority is the people of the church, not the policies of the church. We are no longer in thrall to an unjust rule book and we are renewing and remaking the church from below. This is the only way forward and the one that will eventually transform the institutional church.
Dr. Dorothee Benz is a member of Memorial UMC in White Plains, NY, chair of Methodists in New Directions (MIND) and a lay delegate to the 2016 General Conference.