In a devastating vote, The United Methodist Church tightened its ban on LGBTQ clergy and upheld a ban on clergy officiating at same sex weddings. It has left a deeply divided and deeply wounded church. In a 438-384 vote the “traditional plan” won. Fifty-four people decided the fate of an entire denomination.
The traditional plan is the most restrictive of all the options. It requires strict adherence to the Book of Discipline, the guiding document in all things United Methodist. It states the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” First infractions would result in a year suspension without salary and a second infraction would mean surrendering credentials. Bishops are now required to certify their adherence to the Discipline. Those who do not comply will no longer receive compensation after 2021. Annual Conferences that do not comply will be prohibited from using the United Methodist Logo and identifying as United Methodist after 2020. This plan doesn’t mince words.
On the heels of the vote, no one was celebrating. By all accounts, the “winners” were gracious. It is little consolation. I wonder if there was some gloating masquerading as piety and prejudice masquerading as religious moralism. One African leader commented that he could go home to the churches and report that the bible hasn’t changed.
Yes, it’s true the bible hasn’t changed. It is still the most radical and loving document Christians have to guide their behavior. The bible is the book where the truth of Jesus is most fully recorded. He never turned anyone away. He ate with sinners and tax collectors (code language for the worst of the worst). He touched lepers and healed the woman with the flow of blood. These were acts of radical restoration to community. Their status as outcasts was ended and they were welcomed back into their own folds.
The bible hasn’t changed. It still demands that we read it and read it whole. We cannot ignore the parts we don’t like and cherry pick verses that happen to support our particular position. This is something every permutation of Christianity does, and it is not helpful. The bible, in its entirety is the story of God’s eternal love affair with creation and all things human. Through all the ups and downs of the stories related between its covers, the unrelenting love and grace of God remains unchanged and unchangeable.
In the aftermath of the vote there is much talk of schism (a church split) and people taking their exit from the church. These are people who have been in this fight for a long time and are finally giving up, feeling their church has betrayed them or is betraying the gospel.
It is a thorny issue faced by the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians before them. Welcoming LGBTQ clergy and members is the most divisive issue in all of Christianity. As mainline churches across the country are losing members and influence, the issue becomes even more charged. Conservatives say openness will not attract new worshippers. Progressives say it will. In the midst of it all, more and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Many cite the hypocrisy of the church as a turn off to participation. As churches struggle to attract younger members, a specifically anti LGBTQ stance won’t help. Young Americans who increasingly support LGBTQ rights are unlikely to affiliate with a church that so vehemently rejects this population.
Mainline churches cannot afford to become any more anachronistic than they already are. By voting to exclude this population the United Methodist church has placed itself on the cutting edge of obsolescence. By catering to an aging population and a “traditional” approach to “doing church,” their narrowness and bigotry has become enshrined for all the world to see.
There is nothing traditional about rejecting an entire population, oppressing those who are already oppressed and turning a blind eye to the injustice of it all. It surely does not stand in the tradition of Jesus. And isn’t this what the Christian church is supposed to be about?