Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City
In the Rogers & Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma,” there’s a song when a character returns from an out-of-state trip to Kansas City. The first refrain goes like this (updated language from the original Okie):
“Everything’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as far as they can go.
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high,
About as high as a building oughta grow!”
The song, set in homestead days, leaves its 1943 audience amused that the 1906 Oklahomans believed a building could only be 7 stories tall. The rest of the song is about radiators, indoor outhouses, telephones, and other technological marvels. Each verse ends with the refrain “they’ve gone about as far as they can go.”
Kansas City has reached the apex of civilization, it seems, and it couldn’t possibly do any better, amusing modern audiences with technology dwarfing the homestead days.
Everything’s Up to Date in…United Methodism?
The humorous song came to mind this week when I was considering The United Methodist Church. Nothing is amusing about the United Methodist Church at this time, but the sentiment is the same: a majority of United Methodist decision-makers believe The UMC has “gone about as far as it can go” and doesn’t need to become any more inclusive.
It’s may be hard for urban Kansas City to see why. In most rural towns dotting the American landscape, the local United Methodist Church is the most progressive voice, even if their pastor is a stalwart Traditionalist. In towns that lack other mainline perspectives, a church that affirms women as clergy and has agencies dedicated to race, gender, and social justice efforts, is a progressive church indeed, by comparison. Having served as the most progressive pastor in a rural Oklahoma town, I can attest to this experience. For many pastors and laity, they experience The UMC as being the most progressive voice in their relative circles.
But a red line has been found, it seems, with the debate over LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church. United Methodists, having debated LGBTQ inclusion for over 46 years, with no leniency in their polity, embrace the Martin Luther quote “Here I stand, I can do no other” and refuse to allow same-gender marriages in the Church. They believe they’ve gone about as far as they can go.
I wonder if that red line has been crossed before and if Methodism has gone further than they thought they could have gone before.
Marriage has gone about as far as it can go.
The Methodist tradition thought marriage had been clearly defined and “gone as far as it could go.” But then it went further in both church and society.
- In 1798, Christians were not allowed to marry non-Christians. Bishop Francis Asbury wrote and preached on the “unequally yoked” marriage to a non-Methodist. Marriage could not be stretched any further. Today, no such prohibition exists to stop United Methodists from marrying non-Methodists, or even non-Christians.
- In 1884, the Methodists opposed divorce in the church, “declaring adultery to be the only justification and legal basis for divorce and prohibiting ministers from remarrying divorced persons.” Marriage could not be stretched any further. Until the 1960s when they ceased their opposition to divorce and pastors could solemnize marriages to divorcees. Today, divorce is a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.” Marriage has gone further than they thought it could go.
- Four years after The UMC accepted no-fault divorces, the 1972 Discipline added language opposing same-gender attraction. Over the decades, increased prohibitions to marriages and LGBTQ clergy have been codified. United Methodism today continues to oppose same-gender marriages in the church. Marriage has gone about as far as it can go, despite the evidence of fruitfulness in ministry and societal recognition of LGBTQ human worth.
At least twice when Methodism believed that marriage had been stretched about as far as it could, the Spirit opened up relationships to the full spectrum of characters and qualities. And the populations opposed to the Spirit’s inclusion moved on to a new scapegoat: first divorcees, and now LGBTQ persons.
Will the Spirit open up the church to LGBTQ relationships, or is the status quo “about as far as they can go?”
Is everything up to date?
It’s not a fair comparison between technological advancements in Kansas City and ecclesial advancements in The United Methodist Church. Being “up to date” is not a value of the Church, as evidenced by its opposition to science, reason, and human rights.
Too often the Church is what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “taillight rather than a headlight,” holdouts when it comes to human advancement in its doctrine, polity, and practices. This entrenchment is done in the name of wanting to be a church that honors their grandfathers, rather than be a church that even exists for their grandchildren.
But it is still odd when you put the shifting definitions of marriage in comparison with today.
- The church that embraces women as clergy cannot fathom LGBTQ persons as clergy.
- The church that formerly opposed divorce now requires that LGBTQ persons get divorced before being considered as clergy.
- A tradition that recognizes the stabilizing effect of marriages in society refuses to acknowledge LGBTQ committed relationships, preferring they remain in unmarried relationships or forced celibacy.
The United Methodist Church has gone further than it thought it could go, and now reads Jesus’ support of divorce in a different light in the 21st century than it did in the 20th century. It finds charitable arcs of scripture to support women’s ordination that it had previously dismissed. The plain reading of Scripture has evolved as it expands the circles of ministry and marriage to more and more people.
But right now it is stuck, and it even has women and divorcees advocating against allowing ordination and marriage that they would have been denied a century earlier. And we wonder if and when we will see that our current prohibitions are not as far as we could go and that the Spirit calls us to “draw the circle wide.”
Questions to ask your Traditionalist friends who oppose LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church to see about their changing criteria for seeing God’s inclusive love:
- The UMC believed it had gone as far as it could go before it ordained women. Why did it change?
- The UMC believed it had gone as far as it could go before it allowed divorce. Why did it change?
- Has The United Methodist Church advanced as far as it needs to about LGBTQ inclusion? How do you know?
Society granted women the right to vote before women could become clergy (with full voting privileges) in The UMC. Society passed the Civil Rights Act before The UMC eliminated the racist “separate but equal” Central Jurisdiction. While not everything endorsed by society is appropriate for the Church, sometimes the Spirit moves through culture faster than it moves through the Church. Even Traditionalists now benefit from an inclusive UMC that allows women and divorcees to become pastors.
Like the medieval church that sold indulgences and then was unable to combat the corruption in the secular society, the Church has been “out of date” for so long that we are unable to commit our resources to be prophetic against the culture of violence around us. As contemporary society looks to the businesses as skyscrapers of human equality, the Church is kept in the ecclesial homestead instead of turning our resources, vision, and grace against society’s sins of violence, hatred, murder, and discrimination.
May we see that the Spirit calls us further than we thought we would go. It has before. And it might be now.
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Well said. It is time for a reminder of where we have come from and why. I remember the debate over divorce, so much like the current debate, but this time it is surrounded by far more hate and discrimination.
LLOYD E FLEMING
Well said. I believe that time will heal this wound also. The young people whom I encounter do not see human sexuality as a binary quality. They are very accepting of all people regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. I believe that in time, future Methodists will look back on the current debate with the same incredulity that today’s Methodists consider our split over slavery. We wonder today how something so obvious could have been so disruptive. Indeed, future Methodists will see full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons as equally obvious. Unfortunately, we current day Methodists will have to endure all the many permutations of this debate. My prayer is that we can hold our church together while time and the Holy Spirit take charge.
There are different parts of being church. The official part, that which is discussed, voted on, and then codified in writing is the taillight, or maybe even the clown with the broom at the end of the parade. But actually being the church is a journey and like the parade is spread out over a long distance. Thankfully, we have some who are the scouts or prophets, out in front leading the way.
The metaphors break down though….. or maybe it is that we have declared scouts spread out across the horizon leading in different directions. Hummm.
However, I do trust, that the stones will cry out if we don’t. The message of Good News is around and goes before us. Will we follow?
Teresa Callahan, M.D.
I fear the UMC has gone as far as it WILL go, though not nearly as far as it could or should go. The UMC appears to be to ready and eager to sacrifice love, justice and inclusion for the sake of unity. Will whatever is left of the UMC when it finally realizes that LGBTQ inclusion was not the hill to die on be a church that anyone who calls themselves a committed follower of Jesus would want to be part of?
The hill to die on?! The UMC has been in decline since the very year it became the UMC in 1968. Yes, globally the mission and Good News have spread, but domestically, the UMC is a dead church walking, or rather limping. We’re not even limping on the same side of the street anymore either.
Unfortunately, but perhaps fortunately, I now believe that the UMC should be dissolved ASAP. I didn’t feel this way before, but the ideologies are at irreconcilable odds now, not just over same-sex marriage and practicing homosexuality, but over the church’s stance on sexuality altogether, the dangerous focus on identity politics that has infected the progressive wing of the UMC to the point where they have lost their collective mind.
Our identity, my identity should be in Christ, not my skin color, sexual orientation, gender, etc. I feel like whether many progressives are meaning to or not, they’ve already decided those traits are MORE important than Jesus Christ. Gaining some kind of unknown, nameless societal equity is more important than Jesus Christ. In fact, simply ask a progressive Methodist if they believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and you may be frightened and extremely disappointed in their telling response.
My identity should be in Christ, above all else.
Exactly. Can you see how this claim backs up the argument for inclusivity?
To claim Christ first is to say that our identity in him supercedes, indeed precedes, the less essential (but surely not inconsequential) marks of gender, race, etc. So our struggle isn’t to determine which of those marks are disqualifying, but rather how the cross transcends them. It is largely a mystery, of course, which makes our determination to elevate (or bury) those marks all the more pathetic. Living in the tension may be scary, but it leaves us open to God’s aspirations for us in ways that our feeble barrier-building doesn’t.
You can take the boy out of Oklahoma, but………..
Just yesterday, I too was humming “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” as I emailed leaders of my church, inviting them to the Church of the Resurrection’s Leadership Institute, near Kansas City! Has the UMC “gone as far as it can go”? Perhaps. In the UM church I serve, we are struggling to become more inclusive of LGBTQ persons while allowing space for those who don’t agree with same-sex marriage to remain in the community too. I do wonder: has the “big tent” United Methodist church (locally or globally) “gone as far as it can go?”
I’m a progressive UM pastor with middle-of-the-road theology. I just finished reading David Field’s “Our Purpose is Love The Wesleyan Way to be the Church” (Abingdon 2018). Field is a member of the Commission on the Way Forward and part of the Uniting United Methodists. This book reminds me of why I left Unitarian Universalism to become a United Methodist: it offers a Christ-centered path to loving God and neighbor that really works! He touches on the essentials which are my core values: God’s relational love expressed in mercy, justice and truth; the importance of the cross as revealing the depths of God’s love; sin defined as selfishness; the hope Christ offers is not just for eternal life but also a transformed, new creation here on earth; and attaining ‘the mind of Christ’ as really the best way to live.
Field lays the theological foundation for the Bishops’ “local option” coming before GC 2019. He sets the stage in chapter two, saying that loving others is gauged partly by the words we use, especially the words directed towards those with whom we disagree. In chapter seven, he reminds us the church has always been a community that unites diverse people together in love. What matters more than all agreeing on doctrine is that we show love for each other. The mark of a Christian is how that person lives. Field says that in Wesley’s view, love is the essence of holiness. “If a life permeated by God’s love is evidence of a transformed Christian life, then visible unity and love are core elements of what it means to be the church.” (p. 153) Participating in a theologically diverse community, he says, can become “a means of grace when approached as an opportunity to express deep love for those with whom we disagree.” Could he be right? If so, as the whole world watches GC 2019 via live streaming, the question “has the UMC gone as far as we can go? may be answered by how we treat each other. The world is already watching how we are treating each other in and outside the church, especially how we are treating (and mistreating) LGBTQ persons. As I respond in my own way to the call to fast and pray before GC 2019, I’ll be pondering these questions.
As a Methodist and Lesbian who married in 2015 unfortunately, outside of my church, I was hopeful that the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church was on the verge of becoming a reality. I was saddened to see the vote go the other way at the latest conference. My home church accepts my wife and I and we feel their love for us (and now our daughter as well) but it is heartbreaking that our marriage couldn’t occur at our “home”. Friends ask, “why don’t you leave?”. I guess the short answer is we’d rather stay and help people see that our relationship, love, and family are just like yours. We want to show our love for Christ and our neighbors to those in our congregation. We only hope our presence helps confirm that we belong, and anxiously await the church to catch up to welcoming ALL to our “universal” church.