The United Methodist Church voted Tuesday at its General Conference for the “Traditional Plan” that reinforces the denomination’s statement on homosexuality.
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” reads the document. “Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” The statement also prohibits Methodist ministers from officiating at same sex weddings.
On Monday, delegates rejected a plan that would have made LGBTQ inclusion an issue for local churches to decide. Enforcement of the statement has been lax in recent years, and this year’s conference intended to respond to competing practices.
This is my response—as a feminist theologian and a queer woman.
To my LGBTQ siblings in the United Methodist Church:
While these are difficult days for the United Methodist Church in general, I know that these days are exceptionally painful, distressing and discouraging for you.
Your church has long been engaged in debate over your place as full and valued members. But while straight folks have the luxury of theological debate over LGBTQ people in ministry and relationship, your lives are much, much more than a theological question.
I write to you from a place of empathy and understanding, as a queer person who left my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, when its increasing misogyny and homophobia overwhelmed more moderate churches and made remaining Southern Baptist untenable.
You may have heard of the controversy among Southern Baptists during the 1980s and 90s. The Convention stated its opposition to women in ordained ministry in 1984—but, because Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, the Convention’s resolution did not affect the ability of local churches to continue to ordain women. Of course, local associations often proceeded to kick those churches out, but they still affiliated with state and national conventions.
In the early 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention then amended its constitution to exclude churches that in any way implied acceptance of LGBTQ people. That change was astonishing, because it was the first time in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention that the denomination had required any theological criterion for membership. That they did so over LGBTQ issues is telling.
At the time, I was just beginning my own coming out process. I had fought through the battles over women while I was in seminary in the 1980s. I was about to be ordained myself. I was living in Oregon, where I was a member of the state’s only moderate Southern Baptist church and also teaching at a Christian liberal arts college that excluded LGBTQ people.
After a deep personal struggle, I decided I needed to leave the college and the Baptists. I talked to my pastor, a kind and open man, who reminded me that while the SBC had gone the way it had, my local church had not. For me, however, the problem was that while the church had not excluded LGBTQ people, it had also not done anything to support us that would get the church kicked out of the SBC. I realized that as long as the church was part of the SBC, I felt complicit.
That was when I began the process of seeking a new church home. Had I been in the Deep South, I could have become part of the Alliance of Baptists, which began in 1987 in response to the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC. These churches emphasize “progressive inquiry, contemplative prayer and prophetic action to bring about justice and healing in a changing world.” They are welcoming of LGBTQ people in membership and leadership. But we have no Alliance of Baptists churches in Oregon.
I made my way to Ainsworth United Church of Christ in Portland instead, which offered a clear alternative. Shortly after I became a member, the church, already a multiracial and multicultural congregation, began its “open and affirming” process. In the UCC, this is the way a church declares itself welcoming and supportive of LGBTQ people in all areas of life and ministry.
We spent about a month in conversations during worship and educational meetings. Our newly-arrived pastor asked me, since I had been a Southern Baptist and we Baptists know the Bible so well, to lead a study of the biblical passages about sexuality during a worship service. At the end of the process, the congregation voted to suspend its constitutional requirement for a vote and to make the decision using consensus.
Without rancor or a vote that required winners and losers, we came together to become an open and affirming congregation. Did some people leave because of our stance? Yes. But very few. I’ve been a Baptist in exile in the UCC ever since.
I’m telling this story to you, my siblings, because I know the struggle you face. Your very worth as human beings is at stake; your ability to answer God’s call to ministry in the UMC is at stake; your ability to worship, serve and marry in the church you love are at stake. Now, you’ll have to wrestle with your own conscience about staying or leaving. Neither way is without difficulties and pain.
I hope you know, despite pronouncements by the majority of voters at the conference meeting, that you are not wrong and you are not sinful. I hope you know that your life is not “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The behavior of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church toward LGBTQ people is what is incompatible with the love of God and teachings of Jesus.
If you choose to leave, I can attest to the liberation and joy that can be found in discovering a church home outside the denomination that gave you birth and then refused you. I remember so clearly the first year I was a member of Ainsworth, in the mid-1990s, when we held our annual celebration of the Loving Supreme Court decision that overturned anti-miscegenation laws. One member of the church, who was in a racially mixed marriage, said that while she was grateful for the decision, she recognized that the struggle would not be over until queer folks could marry. I knew then: Here is where I belong.
I hope you know that there is another way outside the UMC. I hope you are able to build an alternative association, like the Alliance of Baptists, with those churches that choose to leave. You’ll still need to grieve—both the loss of a church you loved and the pain that church has inflicted. Making sense of it all will take time. (It’s been 25 years since I left the SBC, and I still spend a significant chunk of my own time writing about them!)
If you choose to stay, fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith. The struggle for justice requires committed people who fight from the outside and the inside. But do not let this struggle with the UMC become all you are. Our lives cannot be only struggle. Seek joy and kinship with others and in those people and things you love.
Most of all, do not let this controversy cause you for a moment to question your own worth. No matter what Southern Baptists or the United Methodist Church say, you are God’s children—created in God’s image and worthy of God’s love.
Your sexuality is a gift from God—not a sin, not a disorder, not an incompatibility.
In this moment of darkness, remember the words of the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In this moment of darkness, remember the words of the author of I John: “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”