This letter, written by the leadership team of the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania, was recently mailed to the 417 churches in the Eastern PA conference.
Siblings in Christ,
Meeting just days after the shooting in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that took the lives of 49 people and injured 53 more, our 2016 Annual Conference session adopted a resolution encouraging all of the churches within our annual conference to practice radical welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in specific ways. The resolution invites the churches of our conference to participate as a welcoming presence at the Philadelphia OutFest 2016, which will be held on Sunday, October 9.
This is the Sunday closest to National Coming Out Day, a day that invites LGBT persons to step out of the fear that has diminished their lives and kept them closeted, a day that invites all of us to make safe such openness by the welcome we extend, welcome that is literally a matter of life and death, as the Pulse shooting demonstrates, along with the high incidences of attempted suicide and homelessness of teens who identify as LGBT. The principal reason reported by these youth for both their homelessness and suicide attempts is rejection by their families of origin and/or their churches.
Regardless of their stance on practices, all United Methodist churches affirm the sacred worth of LGBT persons and proclaim the love of Christ for all. Sunday, October 9, is a day to make clear that all truly means all by welcoming explicitly persons who too often have felt judged or excluded from churches of Jesus Christ.
”For freedom Christ has set us free”—free to be who we are and to know we are loved, regardless.
On October 9, help undermine a culture of fear, rejection, and violence, by making such love visible as a church of Jesus Christ. Among other things, you might:
You who so loves the world and all those within it,
The Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania will be hosting a welcoming table at Philadelphia OutFest on Oct. 9. For more information, you can contact Ariel Gonzalez of St. Luke UMC. For further information on exploring whether and how to become a Reconciling Congregation, contact David Krueger. Join us as we make clear that God’s love embraces all, and may God’s love truly fill all of our ministries of welcome and hope.
In the incomparable and inestimable love of Christ,
The Eastern PA Conference churches and groups that openly welcome LGBT persons:
1. Arch Street United Methodist Church – Philadelphia
2. Calvary United Methodist Church – Philadelphia
3. Chestnut Hill United Church – Philadelphia
4. Drexel Hill United Methodist Church - Drexel Hill
5. First United Methodist Church of Germantown
6. First United Methodist Church of Media – Media
7. Grandview United Methodist Church – Lancaster
8. Historic St. George's United Methodist Church
9. Hope United Methodist Church – Havertown
10. Penns Park United Methodist Church - Penns Park
11. St. Luke's United Methodist Church - Bryn Mawr
12. Swarthmore United Methodist Church – Swarthmore
13. Union United Methodist Church of Havertown – Havertown
14. First United Methodist Church of Lancaster - Lancaster PA (Sacred Worth Team)
This blog post is by Rev. Laurie Ann Rookard, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Media, PA.
In the summer of 2014, there was an intake for the new pastor. One of the members of SPPRC stated that she believed that the church wanted to become a reconciling congregation. This was said in the presence of two District Superintendents. When the "meet the pastor" groups were held, this subject came up again several times. The Administrative Council formed a work team of persons who volunteered and names suggested to complete a process. We called several other churches who had some experience to assist us.
Over a nine-month period, we published several newsletter articles, hosted speakers in a morning study group, and had one-on-one conversations with both church members and church volunteers from the community. This led us to the Unitarian Church, whose congregants helped us to form partnerships with other individuals and churches in the community. During Lent, our church held two group gatherings to watch and discuss "Love as an Orientation." People were very enthusiastic about this DVD series. For nine months, we displayed rainbow fabric on the altar and at the sign-in station.
In April, we gave the congregation three weeks notice that we were having a vote. We included a copy of our new mission statement as well as some guidelines for reconciling congregations from the Reconciling Ministries website and offered an absentee ballot for those who could not be present on the day of the vote.
Additionally, we spent time in prayer and prepping for conversations that may be challenging with a commitment to listen to everyone and to remain accessible. We also held a congregational meeting to offer time for discussion and questions. When the vote was taken by ballot, 62 were in favor, 0 were opposed and 3 abstained.
Since that time we have heard numerous comments from visitors, new members, and long-time members that affirm this decision. We are glad that we have taken a stand because "everyone should be welcome in a church."
Dr. Thomas Morton is a member of Swarthmore United Methodist Church and Chair of the Administrative Council. He's also a visiting assistant professor of architectural history at Bryn Mawr College. The following reflection was written to address the 2016 General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates during an April "listening session" in the Eastern PA conference.
Good morning and thank you very much for having these listening sessions. I wish to speak about one issue, that is, the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community within the United Methodist Church. As we all know, the Book of Discipline states “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” I am a professor and a national award-winning educator, and as such, my ears perk up whenever I hear the word, “teaching.”
Let’s analyze this sentence from the Book of Discipline. It is striking that the policy does not say that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with the Bible. It only states that it is incompatible with Christian teaching. This in turn raises three important points.
Number one: teaching, in general, is not static; it is dynamic and subject to constant change. Often it is upon further reflection or the introduction of new evidence that we change the manner and/or content of what we teach.
Number two: the people who crafted this sentence for the Book of Discipline, realized that homosexuality is not against the Bible. If they had believed that it was against the Bible, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have clearly stated this. Let’s remember there are only six references to same sex relations in the Bible and none of them address loving, monogamous, same sex relationships. Matthew Vines has written eloquently about this in his book, God and the Gay Christian.
To put these six references in context: there are over 325 references to slavery and only two speak against it; this fact is cited by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (in James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality) and others.
If the church can overcome 325 references to slavery in the Bible and now be in opposition to slavery, then there should be no problems whatsoever moving beyond six passages in the Bible that are, sadly, often misinterpreted and used to discriminate against LGBTQ persons.
Number three: let us remember that the United Methodist Church has the Wesleyan Quadrilateral with Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition. It was with reason and experience that the UMC moved against slavery. It was with reason and experience that the UMC allowed women to be pastors. It is with reason and experience that the United Methodist Church should be fully inclusive to members of the LGBTQ community.
I wish to conclude with two observations from my church, Swarthmore United Methodist:
First, this calendar year I have tracked the number of people, 50 and under, who attend our service. On average we only have seven people per Sunday who are under the age of 50. People have left the church and have taken their talents, time, and tithes with them, often because the UMC is not inclusive. There used to be a thriving youth program with dozens of youth; none of those children, who are now all adults, have chosen to remain in the church. None.
Second, my church is within easy walking distance of every single dormitory on the Swarthmore College campus. Do you wish to guess how many students regularly attend our worship service? The embarrassing answer is that not one single student regularly attends our church’s worship service. Not a single student. There are students on campus who have grown up in Methodist churches around the country, and I have spoken to many of them. Truth be told, the
Church’s policies regarding members of the LGBTQ community always come up in conversation. Church policies, specifically relating to the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community, need to change immediately.
In conclusion, I politely beg that when you attend the upcoming General and Jurisdictional Conferences, you vote to make the United Methodist Church inclusive – in all of its policies – for the LGBTQ community. It is not an exaggeration to state that the future and even the mere existence of the United Methodist Church in our communities are at stake.
Thank you very much for listening to me.
Greetings to Rev. Benjamin Hutchison, The Cassopolis UMC Congregation, Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey, and the LGBT Community:
Last night the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania expressed their sadness, hurt, and dismay at your removal, Rev. Hutchinson, from what has been an apparently loving and effective pastorate. We have been informed that you were dismissed because of your commitment and love for a person of your same gender. I was appointed by our group to write this letter on their behalf.
We want you to know that we support you in your marriage and your call, praying and working that our United Methodist Church will move toward become an inclusive church, following the example of our Christ and our founder, The Rev. John Wesley. We could not presume to know your feelings at this point, but our feelings of love and concern for you are very strong. Please try to be faithful to your calling, even though people who call themselves “religious” are trying to exclude you and block you.
God bless you in your marriage and the natural fulfilment of the love that you and your partner, Monty, have for one another.
One gratifying result of what has transpired out of all this is the love and loyalty that the Cassopolis UMC has shown for their pastor, Rev. Hutchison, who is being punished and persecuted by The United Methodist Church, although he has done no wrong. In fact, according to all that we have read, he has been an exemplary pastor who has led his church in growing at a rapid pace over the past three years.
The phrase we keep hearing is that he was “beloved by his congregation.” Thank you, Church, for standing by your pastor. We embrace your heartache.
Bishop Kiesey, we do wonder what you are feeling at this point. Proud, self-righteous, defender of the faith, troubled, sad, guilty, used, regretful, at peace? Only you know, but we want to express to you that our prayers are with you and with all the leaders of our Church that you might once again become the “prophetic voice of God” and put the way of Christ and the Holy Bible above church unity and the Discipline! We need you to be the “vicar of Christ” and lead us.
To all LGBT Christians and supporters, we apologize for the pain the Church is causing you, and we beg you to remain faithful in light of the adversity you face from those who call themselves followers of the Christ. Our Church really needs you to bless us with your presence.
Grace and Peace,
Reconciling United Methodists EPAUMC, Rev. Herb Snyder (Representative)
What a joy it was to again participate in the New Hope Pride Parade on May 16, 2015. Our red truck with the banner proclaiming "Penns Park United Methodist Church" announced our presence. The banners on the side of the truck let everyone know that Penns Park UMC is the home of Bucks County PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Church members handed out candy to the crowd as they walked along with folks from PFLAG. Additionally, representatives from Johnson and Johnson pharmaceuticals participated by handing out coupon books benefitting PFLAG. Representatives from other reconciling United Methodist congregations also marched along with us in solidarity. What a joy it was to see this group of United Methodists proclaiming that when we say that God welcomes All, we truly mean ALL!!
The United Methodist witness at the New Hope Pride Parade is an annual tradition. To find out how to get involved for next year, visit our New Hope Pride Parade page.
Having been raised in a small, conservative church in the Midwest, I was instilled with the notion that there was a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” There were certain people who were perceived as threatening to the true Christian faith. Liberals, atheists, pacifists, and city folks were often mentioned, but there was a special disdain targeted at “the gays.” Growing up in the height of AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, I was led to believe that the disease was God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior. Just as God destroyed the city of Sodom for its sin of homosexuality in Genesis 19, he was exacting his judgment on today’s sinners. This did not mean that we Christians were not to have compassion for such people. I was taught that God called us to love the sinner, but hate the sin. However, as a teenager filled with zealous passion to uphold the “truth” of Jesus Christ, the line between loving the sinner and hating the sin was often blurred. As a typical teenager, I said and did a lot of dumb things. One of the things I regret most was a message I painted on a wall near a place where my friends would gather to ride their skateboards. The message I painted on the wall was quite simply, “God sends gays to Hell.” I thought by making such a statement, I was proclaiming to my friends that I was a faithful follower of Christ who knew the difference between right and wrong. Teasing kids who are suspected of being gay has long been typical behavior on playgrounds and in locker rooms. As a fanatic Christian with my own insecurities about fitting in with the popular kids, I added divine justification to these acts of childhood cruelty.
My views of gay and lesbian people began to change after I moved to Philadelphia to work with at-risk youth in an inner-city neighborhood. Back in my white, middle class hometown, it seemed like the only two sins that Christians ever talked about were homosexuality and abortion. In North Philly, I saw a neighborhood ravaged by unjust economic systems, racism, and civic neglect. I came to recognize the presence of sin in social structures and cultural norms that caused suffering in the lives of individuals. It also became apparent to me that many privileged Christians were obsessed with sexual sin because they did not want to confront their own sins of greed and materialism. Still, at the time, I viewed gay rights as a “minor” issue that paled in significance to more pressing issues like racism and poverty. However, my perspective began to change when I met a new friend, John Derrick Leary.
I first met John when we both enrolled in a seminary course on youth ministry. I was a young, twenty-something, white male who was overwhelmed with the challenges of serving in an impoverished neighborhood. John was older, African American, more experienced with inner city life, and deeply spiritual. When John offered to take me out for a beer and talk about our ministry experiences, I was happy to oblige. John was a huge encouragement to me and soon became like a big brother. He opened my eyes to African American church culture in the city and he invited me and scores of other young, white seminarians to preach at his church. His life passion was to bridge the racial divide.
Despite John's deep faith and his larger-than-life personality, he often seemed lonely and depressed. He worked a low-wage job as a security guard and he was never able to secure a full-time position in ministry. There always seemed to be an overwhelming sense of sadness that covered him. We had developed a weekly routine of going out for dinner and drinks on Sunday nights. One evening he said to me, “David, I have a secret to tell you. Can you handle it?” “Well sure,” I said, “we’ve been friends for a long time.” “I’m gay,” John said. We sat there for a moment in awkward silence. “How could a minister be gay?” I asked. He replied, “I’m trying to change. I’ve asked God to cure me of this sickness. I’m seeing a Christian counselor who is trying to make me turn straight. Please pray for me.”
This revelation troubled me. I had never knowingly been friends with a gay person before. I wouldn’t have cared if he said he been to prison, or if he were a drug addict, but being gay – that made me uncomfortable. I started to re-think our whole friendship. Was he trying to date me? Was he trying to take advantage of me sexually? Thankfully, these irrational fears in my heterosexist mind began to subside as I spent more time with John. “Gay people are sinful,” he always said, “but they are loved by God.” John and I would continue our weekly excursions for dinner and drinks, and he sometimes took me to gay establishments like Woody’s, the Twelfth Air Command. For a straight, Christian kid from rural Minnesota, this was pretty exotic stuff. But what I noticed more than anything was the way that bartenders and patrons in these places would often embrace John when he came in. They would ask John to pray for them – sometimes right on the spot. Even though John spent many evenings in the gay clubs to alleviate his own sense of loneliness, he was also there to show love to people who had been rejected from the church. He was truly a chaplain to Philadelphia's gayborhood.
My theology about homosexuality would undergo radical shift when in 2000, I started attending Arch Street United Methodist church in downtown Philadelphia. I was attracted to the church because of its commitment to social justice. At first, I still wasn’t sure if Biblical teaching could be reconciled with an openly-gay lifestyle, but the pastor’s sermons challenged me to take seriously the breadth of God’s love. I began to consider the heterosexual bias with which I had long read scripture. By reading the Bible through the experiences of LGBT persons, I no longer read the Genesis 19 text about God’s plan to destroy Sodom as proof that God condemned homosexuality. After studying the scriptures more carefully, I learned that the true sin of Sodom had to do with the abuse of power and the denial of hospitality. Ezekiel 16:49 says that God was angry at Sodom not because of the “sin” of homosexuality, but because of its arrogance and exploitation of the poor. In fact, the concept of “homosexuality” did not exist until it showed up as a term used in clinical diagnosis in the late nineteenth century. Biblical writers, even Paul in the New Testament, could in no way have imagined consensual, loving, committed relationships between persons of the same gender as we know them today. I was finally intellectually persuaded that the church was on the wrong side of justice and that a faithful commitment to following Jesus meant challenging hatred and bigotry.
Armed with a new perspective, I was eager to persuade my friend John to accept himself as a gay man loved by God for who he was. I was sure he would find this new perspective liberating. However, it soon became clear that he was not yet ready to come out. As an African American gay man seeking to be the pastor of a church, it was not easy to go public. Most black churches would not have accepted a gay pastor. The few white churches that would embrace his gay identity did not embrace his traditional black preaching style. He was stuck in an in-between place and often suffered from bouts of depression. Given the constraints on his ability to make a living wage, he continued to toil at a part-time job working the graveyard shift. The stresses of his predicament began to weigh on his body. He wasn’t eating right. He wasn’t sleeping right. He went to the doctor for a variety of ailments, including heart problems. He continued to live in a small room at a conservative seminary – a place where he was forced to remain secretive about his identity due to the campus lifestyle policy.
Outside the walls of that seminary, the world was beginning to change. Popular television shows like Will and Grace humanized gay men. The state of Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. The culture began to shift. Little by little, John began to reconcile his identity as a gay man and a follower of Jesus. He finally connected with a church that had an outreach program for young gay men. John started to build a faith community that was diverse – both by race and sexual orientation. After he finished a divinity degree at the seminary, he enrolled in a doctoral program to help him develop a plan to expand his ministry. I’ll never forget the last phone call I had with him. He asked me to be one of his advisors on his project. He said that he had finally settled on his thesis, which would apply Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy for confronting racial segregation to the plight of gay and lesbian people in the contemporary church. I happily said yes and I felt so grateful to God for the changes I had witnessed in John’s life. He had finally come out to his friends, his sister, his mother, and finally, the biggest obstacle of all, his father. They all embraced him with love. John was forging a new direction for his life and his future seemed bright.
Three weeks after that conversation, John’s sister called me seemingly out of the blue. “John died of a heart attack last night,” she said. “They found his body in his car in the seminary parking lot. He must have been on his way to the midnight shift, but they didn’t find his body until the next morning.” He died the day before his 50th birthday.
It has been over four years since my friend’s death. I still miss him dearly. I often wonder if he would have lived beyond his 49th year if he had been born a decade later during a time when American culture and the church would have been more accepting of his identity. When we think of violence toward LGBT persons, we often think of physical violence – like when a gay couple was attacked and beaten by a group of bullies in Philadelphia’s gayborhood last year. But I think we know intuitively that violence is exercised in a variety of methods. According to historian Jon Pahl, violence is a lot like an iceberg. Physical violence is like the part of the iceberg that you can see from above. However, most of the iceberg lies below the surface of the water, invisible to the eye, and thus poses the greatest threat to passing ships. It is this shadowy mass, says Pahl, that is the realm of cultural, religious, and verbal violence. Just as the massive, floating substructure of the iceberg makes it possible to view its very top, religious violence provides a foundation upon which physical violence can rest. Even when physical violence against LGBT people does not occur, religious institutions exert symbolic violence on LGBT persons by telling them who they can and cannot love, and defining gay love as “sinful.” John’s spirit and body suffered greatly from the wounds caused by religious violence.
What is the best way to respond to religious violence? I am often tempted to lash out at traditionalists with my own self-righteous certitude and condemnation. However, in them, I still see myself. The examples of MLK and Jesus show the way of nonviolence - responding in love when we, or our friends, are attacked. Both the perpetrators and the victims of religious violence against LGBT persons have been wounded. Part of the genius of MLK’s theology is the notion that both the oppressor and the oppressed suffer. The key, said King, is to recognize that we are all woven together as a single garment. We are in this together, gay and straight - a beloved community. Together, we name injustice, we confess our complicities with injustice, and we tell the stories of those who have suffered. These are the first steps in healing the wounds of heterosexism.
I deeply regret the hateful and hurtful words I uttered as a teenager but I am eternally grateful for the transformative friendship I had with John. His life and early death inspired me to challenge the church’s hurtful policies. John is the reason why I supported the Arch Street Wedding of 2013.
Rev. Dr. David Krueger is the co-chair of the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania. He was one of the organizers and co-officiants of the wedding of Bill Gatewood and Rick Taylor held at Arch Street United Methodist Church in November 2013. A version of this article was published by the national website Believe Out Loud: http://www.believeoutloud.com/latest/conversion-teenage-homophobe
Rev. Sharon Vandegrift is an ordained elder in the Eastern PA conference and the Executive Director and Coach for Bridge-the-Gap Life Coaching Services. She is serving under an extension ministry status appointed by Bishop Johnson. Sharon was one of the 33 EPAUMC clergy members who co-officiated the service of Christian marriage for Bill Gatewood and Rick Taylor on November 9, 2013 at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
I always enjoy weddings. Co-officiating the same gender wedding at Arch Street United Methodist Church in November, 2013 was especially moving and meaningful for me. Many assume that the clergy who co-officiated this service did so in a spirit of defiance and with a willingness to break covenant vows. For me, it was quite the opposite. My love for the United Methodist Church, the integrity of my ordination vows, and the depth of my relationship with God were what grounded my decision. Choosing to participate in this ceremony constituted for me a resounding ‘YES’ to all of these things.
The lay leadership of Arch Street UM Church decided that they would host a ceremony of marriage for a gay couple; two of their active parishioners. They stepped out in faith fully aware of the consequences, but more fully committed to expressing the love of Christ in their church and witnessing to it in Center City, Philadelphia. The decision to fully extend their ministry to all in their community was inspiring. When word of their action got out, people throughout the city, as well as throughout the denomination, were celebrating that God’s grace and abiding love were being made evident. At the time, our Annual Conference was on the verge of the Frank Schaeffer church trial. Because of that, the discriminatory stance of the United Methodist Church regarding LGBT persons was being publicized. The Arch Street witness proclaimed that many of us who claim United Methodism as our denominational identity boldly say ‘NO’ to discrimination. My choice to participate proclaimed ‘YES’ to the witness of the United Methodist Church!
I was honored to be invited to co-officiate such an important event in the life of Arch Street UM Church. Providing support for my ordained brothers and sisters in a way that enables the furthering of the ministry of Jesus Christ within the context of the United Methodist Church is my covenantal responsibility. My choice to participate proclaimed ‘YES’ to my vows of ordination.
Most importantly, I considered my relationship with God. My personal connection to the Divine is deeply woven into experiences and relationships with the people in my life. My youngest child is gay. I have a lesbian niece. Dear friends from college and seminary are homosexual. I have ministered with parishioners and colleagues who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. To marginalize and exclude these loved ones from full access to the gifts that the church has to offer – including the blessing of marriage – would be saying ‘NO’ not only to them but to my relationship with God. My prayerful discernment in terms of participating in this particular ceremony led me to say ‘YES’. I fully embrace this ‘YES’ as relative not only to my involvement in a singular event, but to my deepening relationship with the Holy which has found expression in my relationship with the United Methodist Church.
I have been in ministry for over 30 years. Standing in the Arch Street sanctuary that day in November 2013, connected to the couple and colleagues through a chain of our hands upon one another’s shoulders; singing familiar hymns; praying for the blessing of steadfast love, and proclaiming that Rick and Bill were bound together in Holy Christian marriage was one of the greatest highlights of my time in ministry. I am grateful I had the opportunity to say ‘YES’ … and I am humbled by the privilege.
-The Rev. Sharon L. Vandegrift
Rev. George Tigh was ordained in 1971 and became an elder in Full Connection in 1974. George served several churches in the Eastern PA conference until he was granted disability leave in 2008. Despite a diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, he continues to serve in ministry as a Pastor of Congregational Care at Newark UMC located near the University of Delaware. In George’s words, “I feel I have been reborn in this ministry, and plan to stay engaged in service for as long as health permits.” George was one of the 33 EPAUMC clergy members who co-officiated the service of Christian marriage for Bill Gatewood and Rick Taylor on November 9, 2013 at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
Consider the first words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Is that not God’s way of saying, “I don’t have to be everything. I can permit to exist something that is not me?” A God-like spirit of respect and tolerance is diminishing in the world. Sadder still, the spirit of respect and tolerance is also diminishing in the United Methodist Church.
I began in the ministry in 1968. A year later I departed a doctrinally-inflexible denomination and entered the United Methodist Church. I brought with me a bundle of strong convictions, among them, the belief that a homosexual orientation was simply another way of defying the will of God. In the years since, I have re-examined the Scriptures and I have listened carefully to voices in the fields of genetics, psychiatry and medicine. As a result of doing so, I have come to believe that sexual orientation is determined by nature, not deliberate spiritual rebellion. The change in my beliefs did not evolve easily. It took years to overcome the culture of prejudice that permeated the church and world around me. I assure you that my movement from opposition to acceptance of a homosexual orientation was not the result of abandoning my faith, but exercising it!
I understand that many colleagues, many Christian brothers and sisters, strongly disagree with me. Recalling the pain and anguish of my own journey from one point of view to another, I dare not be impatient nor disrespectful toward those who disagree with me. I surely would never compel others to swallow their personal integrity and function as a pastor in a way that replicates my ideals and practices at the expense of their own. I give you permission to be you. You do not have to be me – a mere extension of my values, discoveries, beliefs and practices.
I but ask the same courtesy in return. If you oppose covenant services for same-gender partners, do not perform them. But offer me the creative, God-like courtesy to be different than you. Please reconsider your support for oppressive rules that obstruct me, and a sizable minority of your earnest and faithful colleagues, from fulfilling a ministry that we strongly feel is necessary to answer God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament for all people.
“I’m so proud of him for holding to a biblical standard.”
The “him” in question was the seminary’s president. The comment tumbled out into an afternoon conversation amongst M.Div. students who were whiling away the time before an evening class began. We had been talking about nothing in particular when one of our colleagues—let’s call him “Peter”—voiced his excitement that the seminary president had refused to revisit the institution’s policy on human sexuality, despite the fact that some donors had made public their intention to withhold further gifts out of protest. “I think it shows a lot of courage.”
I wasn’t so sure. I had made my way to the seminary because of its commitment to urban issues. On the whole, however, I found myself to be less theologically conservative than most of my fellow students. Having embraced a conservative theology in my high school years, I had found it to be an uncomfortable fit by the time I entered seminary. Sometimes it felt to me that the “courage” to uphold a “biblical standard” was simply another way of refusing to consider new and uncomfortable ideas.
The acceptance of LGBT people—and, more to the point, the integrity of their relationships with one another—was definitely one of those uncomfortable ideas. As a high school student who had awakened to the lively power of the scriptures, I had “known,” intuitively and without question, that there was nothing acceptable about any relationships outside of a heterosexual norm. It was a given; as far as I could tell, the Bible, reason, and nature all pointed to the sinfulness, the ultimate futility, and the self-annihilating logic of same-sex partnerships.
But a Washington Post book review started to pull at the threads of my closed system, ultimately causing it to fray. Mel White, who had been active in the Moral Majority, was close to Jerry Falwell, and had ghost written the autobiographies of more than one notable evangelical personality, had recently published the story of his own life. And it was very much the story of his desperate attempts to escape the stark insistence of his sexual desires. Mel White was gay in a subculture that denied the reality and acceptability of that fact. The book review and accompanying interview addressed the multiple ways he tried to shed his desires and replace them with the purer desires of a heterosexual man. Prayer. Fasting. Therapy. Shock treatment.
I’ll repeat that, since it seared itself into my consciousness: Shock treatment.
Still, he found himself attracted to men, depressed and suicidal, unable to pray, fast, or even electrify the gay away. Confronted with this, gradually, I found myself asking: Am I insisting on calling unclean that which God has called clean?
I could not, therefore, enter into Peter’s robust confidence about the nature of the dividing line between courage and cowardice.
Neither, it turned out, could he.
Peter completed seminary with excellent grades. He was, by all accounts, an impressive student and a skilled minister. He landed a comfortable pastorate shortly after graduation. He married a woman whom he loved. They had children together.
All the while, however, a long-repressed aspect of his life dogged him, fought to loose itself from the stranglehold of his terrified psyche: his attraction to men. Like Mel White, he tried everything he could think of to escape his desires, their claim on his selfhood. They were, he believed, impure, sinful, and evil. They threatened everything he had built his life into. They had to be eradicated. And when he found himself unable to do so—unable to get rid of his desires, unable to withstand the self-loathing, unable to bear the crushing depression—he looked to something more definitive than prayer and therapy. He came frighteningly close to taking his own life.
I learned this part of his story, truth be told, long after I had come to accept that LGBT people—and their relationships—are part of God’s riotously kaleidoscopic design for this world. What it sharpened for me, though, is the sense that concrete lives take precedence over abstract ideas. A theology, and the institutions built around it, that generates ineluctable impulses toward self-destruction in some of God’s people is a form of spiritual violence. A theology that inspires suicides is a theology crying out for the courage to change.
It is time to stop calling unclean what God has called clean.
 This is not, of course, his real name. He has written and spoken about his story—but in its specificity, it is his to tell. Insofar as it has played a part in the ongoing unfolding of my theological reflection, I tell it that way—in a manner that is complete even without a real name.
Dorothy Field is a retired clergy member of the Eastern PA conference. From 1980 until 1992, she served churches throughout the conference including ones in Shamokin, Media, Swarthmore, and Crozerville. Known by her nickname "Dot," Dorothy has long been a powerful advocate for peace, social justice, and for the inclusion of LGBT persons in the full life of the United Methodist Church. At the age of ninety, Dot was one of the 33 EPAUMC clergy members who co-officiated the service of Christian marriage for Bill Gatewood and Rick Taylor on November 9, 2013 at the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
Many years ago--I think sometime in the 1970s--I was at a national conference, maybe General Conference, when debates about homosexuality were heating up in the church. I was up in the balcony where a great many gay men were seated. I remember one elderly, gay man from Hawaii was there as well. At one point, spontaneously, we all stood up, joined hands, and broke into song--"We Shall Overcome." I shall never forget the Hawaiian man singing with tears rolling down his cheeks. I can only imagine the pain he must have felt as he watched his church become increasingly unwelcome to gay people. It was after that I became involved in groups wrestling with questions regarding homosexuality and the church. It's been a long struggle, and I hope I live to see the day when United Methodism fully lives out its motto "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors."
I stand firmly on the commandment Jesus gave us to love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbor. I believe that here "love" means wanting the best for the neighbor, as God seeks the best for each of us. In addition, I firmly believe that homosexuality in all its manifestations is a natural condition. If, as I have heard, penguins and other animals are known to have members with homosexual traits, it seems reasonable that same-sex attraction is simply an innate characteristic of some human animals as well. Such persons should not be prevented from participating in the fullness of life as the rest of us know it. That is why I appreciated being involved with the wedding at Arch Street, and why I continue to work, in whatever way I can toward complete acceptance for LGBT persons.
Editor's note: In 1972, a four-year denominational study on United Methodist Social Principles presented the following statement to be added to the Book of Discipline: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who 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 which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Further we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” In the floor debate of General Conference, the following phrase was added to the above statement: “although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” Just a year after this General Conference meeting, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from it manual that identified mental and emotional disorders. In 1975, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution supporting its removal. In the decades that followed, United Methodist Church doctrine and polity would grow increasingly at odds with the findings of the social scientific community.
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