This week, delegates from the worldwide United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis to settle for good the denomination’s inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ people and the churches that love them. The church had the opportunity to affirm the blessing of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ people. Delegates could have rid the language that forced me from my home and charted a path for all queer people to fully experience God’s grace as United Methodists.
But they didn’t. The United Methodist Church is today a more exclusionary, judgmental and queer-phobic denomination than it was when I preached Sunday from one of its pulpits. Not only has it not flung open its doors to queer people and those who love them. It also has closed and locked a door that was until this conference just barely cracked — and perhaps ripped itself apart in the process.
I became an ordained minister in the denomination through that crack. A sort of underground railroad for queer ministers-to-be ferried me from Arkansas to “freedom” in a different Methodist conference in Illinois, where I was nurtured and ultimately ordained. But this feat was possible only because ordination was a matter left to these regional divisions. The portions of the so-called Traditional Plan that prevailed at this week’s conference could forestall that feat from happening again. The plan strips away annual conferences’ and congregations’ abilities to welcome, marry and ordain queer people, and it makes punishing those that defy the new rule much easier. Whereas other proposals that were brought to the conference allowed more flexibility, the Traditional Plan sets a rigid approach not only to LGBTQ inclusion but also generally to questions of theological diversity and practice throughout our connection of 12 million members worldwide.
Of course, no vote or plan or conference decision can revoke the place God makes available to all through grace, but the statements and policies the church sets matter. This Traditional Plan will encourage the flight of queer members and their families, the defrocking of faithful queer clergy, the ousting of allied clergy who refuse to reject LGBTQ people and the functional excommunication of congregations who cannot in good conscience live as part of a rabidly exclusive, anti-LGBTQ system. The denomination I love may very well be rent into pieces.
Although this would not be the first time we have endured schism, it would be the first time the church had passed policies meant to drive us to a split. Questions of how to divide property, release dissenting congregations and process dissenting clergy will consume hundreds of thousands of dollars that would otherwise be used to support mission and ministry.
The plan’s demand that individual leaders certify their compliance with anti-queer policies or face expulsion is the antithesis of our founder John Wesley’s admonition: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
Throughout our history, the people called Methodists have celebrated a big-tent theology. We haven’t always gotten it right, but our structures have in the end always guided us toward justice, mercy and love. Except for that big tent, I, a lovingly partnered, openly gay man, would never have been able to share God’s love with congregants — queer and straight — from a United Methodist pulpit.
Now that the tent has collapsed, I don’t know what happens to me. I don’t know what happens to the queer candidates for ministry I have mentored. I don’t know what happens to my rainbow-flag-flying church. I don’t know how many more people will endure exodus.
But I know what happens next for God. God continues to smile on the richness of diversity that has allowed us to do great good in the world. God weeps for the Traditional Plan, which denies everything that has made us who we are as a people and demands conformity over diversity. And God calls us United Methodists of all sexualities to know our sacred worth — and fight until it is recognized by all.