A guest post as the first response to United Methodist General Conference by a United Methodist layperson with a long affiliation with General Conference.
For Such a Time As Now!
This week, The United Methodist Church’s best-kept secret was on full display. No, I am not referring to our long-standing disagreements about LGBTQ people or what some call “human sexuality.” Rather, the secret uncovered this week was that the institutional church has long been experiencing a slow death.
Loss of Hope or Hope Misguided
Over the past several years, I have been actively involved at the most institutional level of The United Methodist Church. I was a reserve delegate at the 2012 General Conference. From 2014 to 2018, I sat on the board of Board of Directors of Methodist Federation for Social Action, the church’s oldest social justice caucus. And, I served on the Love Your Neighbor Coalition’s leaderships team leading up to the 2016 General Conference, where I directed many of the public actions and witnesses.
The more involved I was at the institutional level, the harder it became to hope that the church could ever be something different. My experience at the 2012 General Conference led me to leave the ordination process. It became clear that seeking ordination as an openly queer person would only distract me from pursuing God’s calling in my life. It was clear to me that process was designed to “weed out” anyone not white, US-born, straight, and male.
Leading up to the 2016 General Conference, I shifted my career from working with United Methodist congregations to working with people of faith across the Southeastern U.S. to advocate for marriage equality and LGBTQ non-discrimination protections. I chose to work specifically within Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—mobilizing people of faith to step out of their pews and into the streets for racial justice, gender justice, and LGBTQ rights.
Finding myself somewhere between strangely warmed and the frozen chosen, I began fading the out of the roles I held in The United Methodist Church after the 2016 General Conference. I was no longer sure I had anything left to offer the church or those working for justice within it. More than anything, I felt like we kept perpetuating the same systems we were desperately trying to dismantle.
Shortly after 2016, I joined the planting team of a new church. This congregation dreamed of bringing liberation to its community and was driven by four core values: belong, be still, become, and be bold. From the beginning, we were explicit and unapologetic about who was welcome in our community. We made a point to welcome people of color, queer and transgender people, and the growing homeless population in our community. We lived out this welcome by boldly showing up for these communities, accompanying the work of justice already under way. We rooted ourselves in deep, genuine relationship. Being part of this worshipping community, I realized I was not at a loss of hope for the church. My hope had simply been in the wrong places.
It is Time for the Season of AND…
My time in these spaces outside of The UMC taught me that welcome did not have to happen in incremental steps. God’s abundance means that we never have to choose who to welcome first or what justice issue to support first. Liberation for the church is not a matter of a glass half full or half empty. We can simply refill the glass. Liberation is not mapped out by small pieces of a larger puzzle. It is the full picture all at once.
This got me thinking about Mordecai’s words to Esther:
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that, just because you are in the imperial palace, you will be the only Jewish person to escape. If you insist on remaining silent at this time, vindication and liberation will come to our people through another source, but both you and your family will surely die. Who’s to say?—you may have come into the royal court for just this moment.” (The Inclusive Bible, Esther 4:13-14)
There was no clear strategy for queer liberation. The long time power brokers of the progressive church chose institutional preservation and stability over the voices of those most impacted. Our power brokers did not take note of Mordecai’s words. He is telling Esther to not forget her roots. That she may be in a the palace but that will not protect her. Far too many of our leaders stayed in the comfort of their palace and hoped for the best. So, our “left flank” was watered down between a plan to simply remove the harmful language (without offering any protections) and a plan that would mostly maintain what we’ve known to be unjust for fifty-plus years.
We have sought incremental steps toward justice—fighting battles we thought we could win. Often our calls for liberation have been tempered, making sure we don’t rock the boat too much at once. This impulse comes from many places: from elders who have been on the journey for a long time, allies who are worried about sacrificing their privilege, from ourselves having been worn down by the church’s posture, convinced we only deserve one piece of the puzzle at a time, and even from the institutions we have built to advocate on our behalf who are driven by self preservation.
For as long as I have been seeking the full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church, we have been driven by an ethics of “or”—marriage or ordination, U.S. or global, annual conference by annual conference or general conference. The time for compromise surely has passed and, frankly, never should have been. Over and over, scripture tells us not to compromise on justice. This special session of the General Conference could never deliver any more than the petitions passed.
So, what if the church dies?
It is time to admit that the church as we know it has been dying for a very long time. A mentor of mine often asks, before leading groups in liberation work, “What happens if this institution dies today?” I wonder, what would we as United Methodists do differently if we operated as a “resurrection people,” aware that our church has been laid in the tomb and that we have 3 days (times a hundred, give or take a few) to prepare for resurrection? How would we prepare?
On social media, Bishop Karen Oliveto frequently posts a prayer by Carlo Carretto which reminds me to stay humble and why I am still connected to the church. The prayer starts out “How much I criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!” Its final lines are:
“No, I cannot be free of you for I am one with you, even if not completely you. Then too, where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church. No, I am old enough. I know better.”
Respectfully, I disagree. It will be hard to start something new, for I too am one with the church, though not completely. And, granted, I could not build something new without my own sins projected onto it. However, this new church cannot and should not and will not be built by any one person alone.
The dying church we have lived with since 1968 was built to support the wellbeing of a select group of people. There is anti-blackness embedded in its teachings. Its “mission work” has exported homophobia and transphobia just as much as “development” or “Christian aid.” Sexism and misogyny are built into its foundations, justified to maintain a false sense of purity.
The decisions of the special session of the General Conference are a legacy of these sins we have chosen to ignore as a church. We are culpable and have participated in them either as colonizers, exporting false teachings to other continents, or as those who reinscribe colonial logics, blaming an entire continent for earnestly believing what we taught them to believe.
So, it is time to begin dreaming of a new church. Heeding Carlo Carretto’s warning, we must be honest about the sins we will likely carry with us. We must name and confess, where we come from often and always so we can hold ourselves true to our history and to our commitment to being something different. We must build something new together and not in secret. We are doing a new and joyous thing. Why hide it under or bushel? Or in a back room? Or behind legislation and Robert’s Rules of Order?
The decision of the special session of the General Conference is devastating. However, it is not a loss of hope. We can never lose because there will always be queer people baptized, confirmed, and ordained into the church every day! So, let us see justice like Mordecai, dream with Carlo’s prayer in mind, and together build a church that makes known God’s heart.
Joey is a life long United Methodist from the south and is a recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest. He has organized with faith communities for racial justice, gender justice, and LGBTQ liberation. Joey enjoys supporting and resourcing communities in their work toward liberation.
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