The United Methodist Church’s Regressive Position on Homosexuality
The United Methodist Church’s website states, “Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” (www.umc.org) Never mind the world. Transform yourself!
America’s third-largest Christian denomination continues to walk backward into the future, its altar fixed on the authority of doctrine rather than on the authenticity of people. Its regressive obedience to discriminatory church rules trumps its commitment to human rights. Its “mission” is paternalistic and arrogant in seeking to “transform the world,” rather than be informed by the world. “Making [people] disciples of Jesus Christ” is also imperialistic: it is really about gaining power over people, rather than affirming their right to be who they are and empowering them—and being empowered by them. Here people can be, and are, reduced to The Other, their legitimacy or expendability depending on whether they become “disciples of Jesus Christ.” The United Methodist Church’s evangelical “mission” flies in the face of a world that desperately needs humanizing, not Christianizing. To pull off such a “mission,” The Church relies heavily on theological double-tongued code words to remain oblivious to the contradiction between what it professes and practices. The need for United Methodism to transform itself is seen in its regressive position on homosexuality.
The United Methodist Church uses forked-tongue, religiously laden code words to deny and disguise and resolve its oppression of LGBTQ persons with a straight face. Out of the one side of its mouth, Methodism’s Book of Discipline states, “Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons,” it goes on, “need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.” And out the other side of its mouth come the words, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. . . . Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” And, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (pages 101, 197, 241, 2004)
United Methodism’s forked-tongue theology is also seen in the soft rationalizing theological cushion on which its discriminatory policies rest. Its Book of Discipline states, “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.” And without losing stride continues to go the second mile with, “We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” And, “We insist that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” (p. 101)
All persons? Unless they are same-sex couples who want to get married– even in states where their “civil right” to marriage has been “ensured.” Between the lines of these seemingly inclusive code words is The Book of Discipline’s bottom line: “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as a union of one man and one woman.” (p. 99)
The United Methodist Church’s theological logo is, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” (www.umc.org) Unless the hearts are for persons of the same sex; the minds guided by human love rather than hierarchical obedience; and the doors leading outward, beyond the “straight and narrow.”
“All persons . . . need the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.” The word “reconciling” is key. As stated here, it actually means that people are somehow incomplete, not whole, broken, flawed, disconnected, alienated, estranged. Thus their need for “reconciling,” which, naturally, The United Methodist Church presupposed it authoritatively provides with it declarations about “God.” Behind the word “reconciling” lurks an imperialistic attitude that sees people as means toward the perpetuation of the institution’s authority and power, not as authentic ends in themselves. Here loving your neighbor as yourself often depends on your neighbor being like yourself.
Never mind what “all persons need.” Reconcile yourself with truth that would inform your god of the scientific, cause-and-effect understanding of psychosexual development. Truth that would liberate your god from “His” culturally biased morality, and enable “Him” to see people as human beings, without the estrangement you create by dividing them into divisive “natural” and “unnatural” beings.
Reconcile yourself to the fact that your Bible is not the gospel truth. There was a time when slavery was compatible with Christian teaching (Ephesians 6: 5-9), and the ordination of women incompatible with your denomination (I Cor. 14” 34-36) Your Book of Discipline’s condemnation of love between two human beings of the same sex will become shameful history as well. Reconcile yourself! You are the one who is incompatible with the common humanity that binds all people in the world together.
One wonders why more United Methodists do not trip over and challenge, or walk away from their church’s hypocrisy. The Book of Discipline also states, “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” (p. 123) But that belief has not stopped The United Methodist Church from cozying up to two of the world’s worst war criminals, their own members, former president George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney—who launched horribly destructive unnecessary pre-emptive wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and also dealt in the crimes of torture, extraordinary rendition and assassinations. Instead of church trials, Bush and Cheney are given places of honor in many United Methodist circles– with a monument (library and museum) erected in Bush’s name at Southern Methodist University. Here, it is about reverence for the seat of power no matter how much it smells of imperialism. “Mak[ing] disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” accommodates U.S. foreign policy of world domination.
“We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian or gay members. . . . [and] commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Tell that to Rev. Thomas W. Ogletree and his son. The New York Times reported that Ogletree, a 79-year-old United Methodist minister, civil rights veteran, former Yale Divinity School dean and theological ethics professor, “is now facing a possible canonical trial” for performing his son’s same-sex wedding. “Several New York United Methodist ministers” have condemned his act as “a public display of ecclesiastical disobedience” and accused him of “violating church rules.” Ogletree responded, “I was inspired . . . thinking of it as a response to my son,” not “as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience.”
But, The New York Times reported, “several conservative Methodist ministers . . . file[d] a complaint against Dr. Ogletree with the local bishop.” Before that happened, Rev. Randall C. Paige of Long Island met with Ogletree to resolve the dispute without a church trial. Paige’s condition for withdrawing the complaint: Ogletree must “apologize and promise never to perform such a ceremony again.” Ogletree “refused. ‘I said, this is an unjust law . . . Dr. King broke the law. Jesus of Nazareth broke the law; he drove the money changers out of the temple. So,’” Ogletree asked Paige, “’you mean you should never break any law, no matter how unjust it is?’” (“Caught in Methodism’s Split Lover Same-Sex Marriage,” By Sharon Otterman, May 5, 2013)
Dr. Ogletree’s son said about his father: “He does the right thing because he believes in doing the right thing.” In the meantime, “the region’s bishop, Martin D. McLee, said he had no choice, once the mediation failed, but to refer the matter to the equivalent of a prosecuting lawyer for the church, who will decide whether to hold a church trial.” (Ibid)
“We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Tell that to 51-year-old Rev. Frank Schaefer and his son. Like Dr. Ogletree, Rev. Schaefer performed his son’s same-sex marriage—in 2006 in Massachusetts where such marriages are legal. Aware of the risk to his ministry, Schaefer, as The Washington Post reported, said, in response to his son’s request that he perform his wedding, “Seeing my son needing ministry, asking me for help . . . I couldn’t pass by on the other side of the road like a Levite to preserve a rule. All I saw was my love for my son.” (Methodist pastor found guilty at church trial for officiating at gay son’s wedding,” By. Michelle Boorstein, Nov. 19, 2013)
Six years later, shortly before the statute of limitations expired, a complaint was lodged against Rev. Schaefer by United Methodist member Jon Boger, “a strapping Navy lieutenant commander,” who took the stand and faulted Schaefer for violating his ministerial oath. Boger compared Schaefer to himself, saying that he “was keeping his oath to the service, “ and “Schaefer must also keep his oath.” Boger, who “opposes same-sex marriage,” then spoke out of both sides of his mouth: “I do think homosexuality is unnatural and immoral and sinful. But you still need to treat people with dignity and respect.” (Ibid)
A jury of 13 United Methodist ministers found Rev. Schaefer guilty of conducting a same-sex marriage ceremony and violating the denomination’s discipline. He was suspended for 30 days, with the stipulation that he would lose his ministerial credentials if he violates any of The Book of Discipline’s rules during that time—and “if he can’t reconcile his new calling to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community with the laws from the church’s Book of Discipline.” (“Frank Schaefer, Pennsylvania Methodist Pastor, Suspended After Officiating Son’s Gay Wedding, “By Michael Rubinkam, Nov. 19, 2013)
Being subjected to such spiritual violence for unconditionally loving his son obviously radicalized Rev. Schaefer. Wearing a rainbow stole at his sentencing, his closing statement put flesh and blood on United Methodism’s professed commitment “to be in ministry for and with all persons.” He declared, “I cannot go back to being a silent supporter. I must continue to be in ministry with all people and speak for LGBTQ people. Members of the jury,” he continued, “before you decide my penalty, you need to know I wear this rainbow stole as a visible sign that this is who I am called to be.” (“Pastor Frank Schaefer gets 30-day suspension for officiating gay son’s wedding,” By Sasha Goldstein, New York Daily News, Nov. 19, 2013)
“Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.” You don’t have to tell that to retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert. A reported “veteran of the civil rights movement to eliminate Jim Crow laws,” he performed a gay marriage– and then did far more. Right after a large majority of 2012 General Conference delegates voted to maintain The United Methodist Church’s doctrine that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” Talbert told a gathering of ministers and lay persons, “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience. . . . Thus,” he said, “the time has come for those of us who are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to do what is required of us . . . to join in an act of biblical disobedience.” He then “called on more than 1,100 clergy who signed pledges to officiate at same-sex unions to ‘stand firm.’” (“Bishop accused of urging disobedience,” By Heather Hahn, www.umc.org, Aug. 24, 2012)
Bishop Talbert’s actions led “70 United Methodist clergy and lay persons” to send “an open letter to the Council of Bishops accusing . . . Talbert of encouraging disobedience to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.” Their letter calls for the Council of Bishops to “’publicly censure’ Talbert” at their next meeting, and that he “be charged with violating his responsibility to uphold church law, disseminating doctrine contrary to the standards of The United Methodist Church and engaging in behavior that undermines another pastor’s ministry.” They also wrote, “We are deeply concerned that Bishop Talbert has undercut that very discipline and order, by encouraging dissension, disunity and disobedience, and advocating anarchy and chaos in response to the actions of the 2012 General Conference, taken after focused prayer, study and holy conferencing.” (Ibid)
Bishop Talbert’s fate. Just last month, the full Council of Bishops responded to the letter by requesting that the bishop in the Western jurisdiction, from which Bishop Talbert retired, bring a “formal complaint” against him “for undermining the ministry of a colleague . . . and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple.” (“Council of Bishop’s requests complaint against Talbert,” By Heather Hahn, umcconnections.org, Nov. 15, 2013)
In all three of these cases, obedience to hierarchically enforced church law negated the inclusiveness of human love. It is about rules, not rights. It is about a hierarchy that seeks to keeps a minister’s conscience by making him or her dependent on its power to promote—and punish.
Rev. Gilbert C. Caldwell, a retired United Methodist minister and former Superintendent of the then Boston District, goes to the heart of the issue in “An open letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops.” Caldwell responded to the 70 United Methodists seeking to censure Bishop Talbert by putting the shoe on the other foot. He wrote, “The church has been in DISOBEDIENCE to the way of Jesus by denying ministry to lesbian and gay persons. He told the Bishops that “Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who felt superior to others in the eyes of God.” www.umcconnections.org, Sept. 17, 2012)
Rev. Caldwell reminded the Council of Bishops that it was two Methodist bishops, Rev. Paul Hardin and Rev. Nolan B. Harmon, “with their white clergy colleagues’” who, “in a public statement, request[ed] that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. end the demonstrations for racial justice in Birmingham.” The two bishops also “urged” their “own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations for a better Birmingham,” and “press [their cause] in the courts not in the streets.” Caldwell said that “King responded to Bishops Hardin and Harmon and their colleagues with his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ a letter now affirmed by most as a classic expression of how essential it is for men and women of conscience to disobey unjust laws.” (Ibid)
Rev. Caldwell then got personal. “Many of us who are African American have remained in the United Methodist Church that once relegated us and our churches to racially segregated and second-class status . . . shunted into a segregated jurisdiction. We know,” he added, “what it feels like to be called ‘children of God’ or ‘persons of sacred worth,’ but be treated as inferior and blocked from full participation.” (Ibid)
Rev. Caldwell himself was “blocked from full participation” in more than one way. In 1972, he should have been elected a bishop by the white-dominated Northeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. But his candidacy was undermined by certain fellow ministers in the then Southern New England Conference, who had difficulty with his prophetic clarity and leadership in the Conference and beyond in the area of civil rights. A fact of which this writer is aware.
Rev. Caldwell was not done. He also reminded the Council of Bishops that “once slavery, racial segregation and prohibitions against the ordination of women were thought to be essential expressions of church law.—grounded in the Bible, Christian teaching and doctrines. Our history has proven that they are not!” He stated, “We cannot be silent as another group of persons are humiliated by the church—this time because of whom they love.” He said that those bringing charges against Bishop Talbert are the ones “being disobedient to the gospel of love and freedom over law.” For Caldwell, religion is about “follow[ing] the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor.” (Ibid)
Here is where Christmas comes in. Its centerpiece is a child. All children, everywhere, have a right to life and to their own development and fulfillment. There is no moral reason why any baby who is loved should have to grow up and then be unloved, or loved less, because of his or her sexual orientation—or race or belief or nationality.
Jesus is a case in point. No one really knows whether that baby in a manger grew up straight, or gay, or bisexual, or transgender, or questioning his own sexual identity. It should not be about a creed formulated around his—or anyone’s—sexual orientation. His life reveals that it is about being comforting, and merciful, and just and peacemakers. (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 1-11) “Blessed are the merciful,” not because of their sexual orientation, but because of their mercy. It is about empathy: “do[ing] to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 31) It is about “preaching good news to the poor . . . And setting at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4: 18, 19) It is about, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 39)—with no sexual orientation—or other—strings attached. Transform yourself!
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. A Unitarian Universalist minister and a forcibly retired United Methodist minister, his own “church trial” for performing a gay marriage in 1973 in Boston’s Old West Church is detailed in his article, “Easter Depends on Whistleblowers: The Minister Who Could Not Be ‘Preyed’ Away,” Counterpunch, March 29-31, 2013. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling. It is Available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.