At this last session of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (my annual conference), two churches submitted several pieces of legislation that sought to change The United Methodist Church’s current teaching on issues related to human sexuality. As most of you are likely aware, our denomination currently holds to the following: 1) that marriage is a life-long, monogamous relationship between one man and one woman; 2) the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with historic Christian teaching; 3) no “self-avowed, practicing” (i.e. partnered, married, etc) homosexual is to be admitted into the clergy; 4) that no United Methodist clergy person is to preside at a same-sex union nor are any United Methodist properties/buildings to be used for such celebrations. This has been our church’s position since 1972, when it was formally entered into our Book of Discipline. After discussion and a close vote, the Greater New Jersey Conference approved legislation that would alter current denominational teaching; this will be sent for consideration at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
I struggled with how and when, and even if, to share and explain this annual conference action with the two churches I serve. Just like all United Methodist congregations, my churches have folks who feel very strongly about these matters. As I prayed about an appropriate response, I received some emails from church members, expressing consternation regarding the annual conference vote, even indicating this might spur their exodus from the denomination. I clearly realized I needed to open the conversation. So, instead of addressing this during Sunday worship, which I felt would not allow adequate time for processing and feedback, I decided to begin the discussion using our church communication (weekly e-mail and bi-monthly newsletter) and Wednesday Bible study. I want to share with you a few things I learned as this conversation has unfolded in my local context:
1) People are grateful when the conversation is opened. I cannot count the number of people – conservative, liberal, and in between – who have told me they have appreciated “naming the elephant in the room” (one church member’s way of phrasing it). Just providing people the space to discuss this has been liberating and cathartic for so many. When the pastor opens the space for the conversation, she or he has the chance to model holy conversation and gives permission for others to engage.
2) Don’t underestimate the power of story. As the dozen or so of us sat around that table at Bible study, a few people began to share stories that were new to all of us — about a gay relative who died of AIDS in the 80’s, about two gay couples who traveled with a church couple to adopt a child overseas. As people chose to be vulnerable and trust each other, the focus shifted from how the church stands on an “issue,” to the church’s relationship with a gay family member, or friends who are a gay couple, etc.
3) Our church folks want to understand our polity. At the beginning of this conversation, I spent a substantial amount of time detailing United Methodist polity — how legislation works, the relationship and differences between Annual and General Conference, how the Book of Discipline is amended. Many of them are now very clear on what the Book of Discipline says, and they can more clearly articulate church teaching. People feel empowered when they have a firm grasp of how we United Methodists order and structure ourselves.
4) Our people can handle disagreement and difference. Even after hours of discussion and prayer, people in my church are still not of one mind on how the UMC should approach LGBT concerns. Some would like to see the language and prohibitions in our Book of Discipline changed; others believe our current teaching is faithful and right. Homogeneity isn’t the goal; loving and serving God and each other despite difference is (Rev. Jeremy Troxler brilliantly wrote about just that).
How, if at all, has this conversation played out in your local church? Feel free to leave a comment below.