After all these years, I still feel a sense of excitement created by the United Methodist General Conference. The delegates are meeting in Tampa, and I remain in Asbury Park, NJ. Years ago, my first role at a General Conference was as a page. Since then, I’ve been the clergy delegation leader, legislative committee chair, presenter on the black church, and even activist as I was arrested at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland.
I am now a retired minister, and I frequently compare myself to the “old men who dream dreams” that Joel “speaks” of in the Hebrew Bible. I come from a long line of ministers who have been a part of the United Methodist Church through many changes and transformations. The United Methodist Church was “born” as a denomination on April 23, 1968 when The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Churches merged to form the new denomination, one of the largest Protestant churches with a membership of 12 million in the USA, Africa, Europe and Asia.
The United Methodist Church will continue to grow as an international denomination, but I will always see it as “America’s Church,” because of its ubiquitous presence throughout the nation. I once heard that there was a United Methodist Church in every county of the USA. In 1968, Bishop Gerald Kennedy was on the cover of TIME and the church was featured in the cover story. The denomination has sought to be a blend of the best of what I call a personal and a social gospel. Our social principles seek to relate our denominational mission and ministry to the current challenges that face humankind.
The United Methodist Church has also faced struggles. My father spent most of his ministry in the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction. The start of my ministry was also marked by racial segregation, as I faced discrimination at Duke Divinity School for being black. Finally, in 1968, the all-black Central Jurisdiction was merged into what is today the United Methodist Church.
It is exactly because of this history that it is hard to comprehend why the United Methodist Church has continued to pass legislation that places limits on clergy in committed same gender relationships. Many clergy throughout the denomination; retired bishops, retired clergy and active clergy are making public declarations of their intent to perform union and marriage ceremonies of same sex couples in those states and the District of Columbia where they are legal. I have failed to understand, why the United Methodist Church, with its history and heritage of affirmation, fairness, and commitment to the God-given human dignity of all persons, has chosen to resist full ministry for same gender couples.
Changing policies that prohibit United Methodist clergy from presiding at union or marriage services for same gender couples is an issue that ought to be a “slam dunk” for the United Methodist Church. Logic, let alone our United Methodist commitment to the ministry of ordained clergy, is torn to shreds when United Methodist clergy are able to bless buildings and animals and homes, etc., but are not allowed to bless the loving commitment of woman to woman and man to man.
The United Methodist Church, as it did on matters of race, is lagging behind governmental actions and the attitudes of persons, particularly young persons, on acceptance and affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons and couples. The military no longer enforces a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for lesbians and gay men in the military, and yet the United Methodist Church expects its Gay clergy to observe a church version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
For those delegates who claim they are maintaining “tradition” as they vote to sustain current United Methodist language and legislation, I remind them that at one time some persons maintained and/or tolerated, colonialism, slavery, the oppression of women, racial segregation, prohibitions against the ordination of women and resistance to interracial marriage, because they represented long-held “traditions.” The breaking of tradition is what established Christianity, Protestantism and the United States.
This old, retired minister continues to dream a dream that our church can learn from its own history of overcoming exclusion to drop the barriers for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The time is now. With youth having visions an elders dreaming dreams, more congregations than ever are seeing that God is calling us to minister to all people - whether marriage, baptism, or membership.
Rev. Gil Caldwell is a retired member of the United Methodist clergy.