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Forked-Tongue Theology

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

Religious organizations are adept at practicing forked tongue theology—which is the art of using code words to deny and disguise and resolve the contradiction between their professed beliefs and their behavior.  A classic example of this common institutional practice is the recent ruling against homosexuality of The United Methodist Church’s General Conference, the Church’s top lawmaking body.  The theme of the General Conference’s April 14- May 4 meeting was, “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ to Transform the World.”  Sadly, The United Methodist Church continued to demonstrate its longstanding inability to transform itself, as a majority of some 1000 General Conference delegates, 61 to 39 percent, voted once again to maintain The Church’s doctrinal belief that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (“Methodists Keep Stricture on Homosexuality,” By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, May 4, 2012)

Code words allow people to profess inclusion and practice exclusion with a “straight” face.  The United Methodist Church’s governing Book of Discipline is permeated with such code words.  In one breath, it states, “Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.  All persons 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 in the next breath, without batting an eye, The Book of Discipline goes on, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Then from rejection back to acceptance: “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian or gay members and friends.  We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (Part IV SOCIAL PRINCIPLES, G) Human Sexuality, Page 101, The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, 2004)  Code words allow many United Methodist Christians to profess love and practice loathing.

Never mind that dictionaries define “incompatible” as “mutually exclusive,” “unable to live together harmoniously,” “inadmissible,” “antithetical,” “contrary,” “antagonistic,” “clashing,” “irreconcilable” [italics added]  “Incompatible” calls for a paternalistic relationship that relegates the institutionally powerless others to an inferior status.  Such “reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self” are the very opposite of the Jesus-inspired commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 39)  Here, United Methodism’s “God,” with homophobic Bible verses to back up “His” paternalism, becomes the most used code word of all.

These arrogant, hypocritical code words, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of psychosexual development, do spiritual and emotional violence to the identity and inherent worth and rights of lesbian and gay persons.  “The ministry and guidance of the church” have been a primary stumbling block to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons “in their struggles for human fulfillment.”  And, instead of “enabling reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self,” The United Methodist Church’s hurtful, actually homophobic beliefs, turn gay and lesbian persons—and their families—into “unpardonable” religiously flawed human beings, and separates and marginalizes and estranges them.

To believe that certain human beings are “incompatible” and therefore lesser, reveals that The United Methodist Church’s anti-homosexual beliefs themselves are incompatible with humanity—and need to be transformed and reconciled with the world.  There is no need for “reconciling relationships” when people honor and experience each other’s humanness.

The United Methodist Church’s arrogant self-importance seems to trump self-awareness about its own hypocrisy.  “All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church [Italics added] in their struggles for human fulfillment.”  However, for LGBT persons, human fulfillment must not involve aspiring to become ministers.  Believing that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” The Book of Discipline also declares, “Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (Chapter 2. MINISTRY OF THE ORDAINED. Para 304, Qualifications for Ordination, page 197)

Nor can loving same-sex couples hope to find “human fulfillment” in marriage in The United Methodist Church.  Their love for and desire to enter into a lasting commitment to each other is “incompatible” with another Church ruling: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions should not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (Ibid, Para 341. Unauthorized Conduct, page 241)

United Methodism appears willing to embrace gay and lesbian persons but not lay its hands on their heads in ordination—nor put a ring on their finger.    How sad that a Christian denomination would deny, and thus desecrate, the love same-sex couples have for each other, and their desire to hold up and celebrate with family and friends their love and lasting commitment to each other in marriage.  Their desire to have their church honor and bless their love and marriage.   

The United Methodist Church’s doctrine against homosexuality is not only on the wrong side of history.  It is on the wrong side of humanity.  When Jesus blessed the multitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-11), he is not recorded as separating out and turning away any of those present on the basis of their sexual orientation.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (5: 7)

The essence of human love transcends straight and lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender, and culture and color,  and religious belief and political ideology, and poverty and wealth.  Vice President Joe Biden got it right last week when asked, on “Meet the Press,” if he were “comfortable with the idea of ‘men marrying men’ and ‘women marrying women.’”  “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying woman, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all civil rights, all civil liberties,” Biden said.  “Look,” he continued, “I just think that the good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about, it’s a simple proposition: Who do you love?  Who do you love?  And will you be loyal to the person you love.  . . . And,” he added, “that’s what people are finding out, is what all marriages at their root are about, whether they’re marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.” (“Biden ‘absolutely comfortable’ with gay marriage,” By Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2012)

President Obama just got it right on Wednesday in concluding that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”  Why?  He explained, “The thing at the root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule—you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated.  . . .  And I think,” he continued, “that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.” (“OBAMA ENDORSES SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, TAKING STAND ON CHARGED SOCIAL ISSUE,” (By Jackie Calmes and Peter Baker, The New York Times, May 10, 2012)

Unlike Vice President Biden’s clarity that gay and lesbian persons are “entitled to the same exact rights, all civil rights, all civil liberties,” The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline fudges those “same exact rights” in stating, “Certain [italics added] basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons,” and “We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons.” (Part III. THE MINISTRY OF ALL CHRISTIANS, III. THE SOCIAL COMMUNITY, H) Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation, page 107)  Unless same sex-couples want to express their love for each other in a legal and lasting commitment of marriage.  Here, again, United Methodism’s Book of Discipline undermines their “struggles for human fulfillment” in its statement on “C) Marriage—We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” (Para. 161. II. THE NURTURING COMMUNITY, page 99)

In the face of the Church’s blatant spiritual and emotional violence toward gay and lesbian persons—and their loved ones—its Book of Discipline resorts to forked tongue denial, in stating, “We support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians.” (“H) Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation,” page 108)  Such words enable their users not only to appear caring and loving, but to distance and dissociate themselves from the political discrimination and physical violence against lesbian and gay persons their biblical and theological interpretations help to foster and legitimize.  The latest example of such religiously-inspired discrimination is seen in North Carolina voters passing a state amendment banning “same-sex marriage, partnerships and civil unions.” (“Ban on Gay Marriage Passes in North Carolina,” By Campbell Robertson, The New York Times, May 9, 2012)

“We support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against gays and lesbians.”  The General Conference itself continued the Church’s spiritual and emotional violence against them in again ruling that they are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  And the Conference wrapped its violence it in prayer and pious words and hugs.

The United Methodist Church’s theological logo is “Open hearts.  Open minds.  Open doors.”  Not only did the General Conference continue to keep the Church’s doors shut to LGBT persons, its leadership relied on forked tongue theology to control the dozens of protesters who took over the plenary floor, singing “What does the Lord require of you,” after their failed attempt to remove the “incompatible” language from The Book of Discipline.  The reported demonstration led to the cancellation of the remainder of the morning session

As also reported, “Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, new president of the Council of Bishops, opened the [afternoon] session with a statement, crafted by the Council of Bishops.  . . . She acknowledged the pain the General Conference’s decisions and church polity have caused the homosexual community and urged everyone to stay committed to holy conferencing.”  She said, “I feel your pain, we see your pain, and we stand at the side of all of you.”  She went on, “Look into one another’s eyes and see the face of Jesus Christ.”  Theological double talk.  The prayer ending the afternoon session probably took care of the United Methodist bishops “feeling” for and “seeing” the people on whom their “holy conferencing” continued to inflict the pain of discrimination.  (“May 3 wrap: Gay rights protest closes morning session,” By Joey Butler, UMC.org, May 3, 2012;  “Pain marks homosexuality discussion,” by Kathy Gilbert, PNWUMC@GC2012, May 3, 2012)

Another news story reported that “hours after delegates at the 2012 General Conference voted to keep the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, two bishops challenged United Methodists to love those who may be outside their boat.”  Leading the evening worship service, the two bishops “urged delegates to practice . . . blessing each other, rather than cursing each other.”  They said, “There is always more of love.  There is always more of God.  Bishop Deborah Lieder then presented a sermon, and received “huge applause” when she stated, “I believe that true ‘adaptive change’ begins when, first, we open our eyes and actually see another side of this boat we’ve been traveling in.  It begins,” she continued, “with the possibility that someone—not even in the boat—can offer us a new way of working and being and living out our faith.” (“GC2012: Bishops urge ‘communities of love,’” By the Rev. Maidstone Mulenga, UMC.org, May 4, 2012)

Boat??  If the United Methodist Church opened its doors wide, many members would jump ship and join other, more “straight” and narrow, conservative evangelical Christian churches.  Boat??  In the face of such oppressive homophobic beliefs, many United Methodist ministers don’t rock the boat, fearing their own ship won’t come in.  Their appointments to churches are controlled by their hierarchical superior bishops, who, thereby, effectively keep their consciences about the oppression of LGBT persons and other critical social justice issues.  The United Methodist hierarchical connectional system has a corrupting influence on ministers’ consciences, as most of their bishops are chaplains of the status quo.  Getting ahead requires getting along.

Still, more and more United Methodist ministers are challenging their denomination’s belief in the “incompatibility” of LGBT persons, which has dominated their church for 40 years.  In 2011, around 1000 active and retired ministers signed a pledge to perform same-sex marriages.  And 33 retired bishops have petitioned the Church to allow lesbian and gay persons to become clergy.  Their action, however, reportedly led “more than 2500 other ministers and 11,000 laypeople to have signed petitions urging the Council of Bishops to uphold the gay marriage ban.” (“United Methodist bishops say they’ll uphold ban on same-sex unions,” www.freerepublic.com, Nov. 27, 2011)

The Council of Bishops did not disappoint.  The bishops wrote a letter to all United Methodists, summarizing their November 2011 meeting.  The letter referred in passing to “great and unsettling change around the world that God loves so deeply.”  It also nodded in recognition that “the world seems to be torn apart with division, inequality, injustice, hatred and violence,” and “as Christians we bear responsibility to give witness to “a more excellent way’ (I Corinthians 12: 31).” (“Letter from the Council of Bishops,” UMCatalyst News Notes, Nov. 10, 2011)

But the real concern of The Council of Bishops was not American’s criminal wars that have “torn apart” the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Nor CIA-operated drones that continue to kill innocent civilians, even Americans, around the world.  Nor America’s imperialistic foreign policy that is creating “injustice, hatred and violence abroad, and resulting in terrible economic “inequality” here sat home.

The world that most concerns the Council of Bishops is their own denomination. They wrote, “One of the deep disagreements and divisions within the church is over the practice of homosexuality, recently heightened by a group of clergy who have declared that they will perform holy unions in opposition to the Book of Discipline.”  They then cushioned their bottom line with forked tongue theology, writing, “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends.”  Then they declared,“ As bishops chosen, consecrated and assigned by the Church . . . we will uphold the Book of Discipline as established by the General Conference.” (Ibid)

Evidently the Council of Bishops picks and choses the parts of the Book of Discipline it decides to “uphold.”  Their Book also states, “We believe that war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” (Part IV SOCIAL PRINCIPLES, C) “War and Peace, Page 123)  Yet the bishops could only bring themselves to engage in muted opposition to the criminal war against Iraq, which was launched by their own United Methodist members, former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.  (See Alberts, “Time for People of Faith to Censure Bush,” Counterpunch, April 29-31, 2006)  And today, one of the world’s top war criminals has a United Methodist monument erected to him: The George W. Bush Presidential Center and Library at Southern Methodist University.

In 1973, I performed the marriage of Bob Jones and Harry Freeman before some 200 people at Old West United Methodist Church in Boston.  Bob and Harry met while attending Boston University School of Theology, and became active members of Old West Church during my ministry there.  The marriage ceremony led the New England Conference of The United Methodist Church to forcibly retire me.

The resulting controversy overshadowed the beauty and power of the ceremony Bob and Harry  created for their marriage.  The Prayer of Confession they wrote for their ceremony puts flesh and blood on the neighbors Jesus said to love as ourselves.  Their Prayer of Confession is a commentary on how far The United Methodist Church has come in 40 years.  Their Prayer is also an affirmation of ministers who have pledged to perform same-sex marriages, and a challenge to other ministers to really open their hearts and minds and doors.

I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat.

I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.

I was naked and you left me exposed.

I was in prison and you didn’t care.

I was old and you denied me my dignity.

I was young and you feared me.

I cried for learning and you fed me rules.

I was a woman and you denied me my power.

I was a man and you denied me my tenderness.

I was a lover and you shamed me for my love.

I was a dream and you left me for another day.

Love one’s neighbors as oneself means affirming their right to be themselves.

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.  Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care.  His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, has just been published.  He can be reached at wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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