ON SPEAKING UP FOR CIVIL RIGHTS AND FULL INCLUSION


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BY JOY L. BUTLER

Joy chairs the Rio Texas (formerly the SWTX Conference) Reconciling Team.
She is a fourth-generation Methodist, and an active member of Saint John’s UMC  in Austin, TX.  She has been happily married for eighteen years, has a daughter in high school, two rescued dogs, and a pet cockatiel.
Joy tweets with some degree of irregularity @ReconcilingMom
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The Kansas Legislature recently considered House Bill 2453, which would have allowed businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples on the basis that doing so would violate their religious beliefs. The legislation passed the Kansas House of Representatives before being defeated earlier this week by the Kansas Senate.

Many United Methodists in the Southwest Texas (soon to be Rio Texas) Annual Conference have watched the events in Kansas with concern, not only because Kansas is in our UMC South Central jurisdiction, but because it is only a small stretch to imagine some of our own Texas state legislators crafting a bill similar to H.B. 2453.

Thankfully H.B. 2453 will not become law, but there are many similarities between it and the laws listed in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It could be argued that United Methodist law is more discriminatory than what is contained in H.B. 2453. United Methodist law as outlined in the Book of Discipline 1) does not allow “self-avowed and practicing homosexuals” to be ordained or appointed, 2) does not allow same-sex couples to be married in our churches or by our clergy, and 3) does not guarantee membership regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Whereas Kansas H.B. 2453 sought to make discrimination an option for individuals and businesses, the United Methodist Church does not allow its staff, clergy or laypeople the same choice.

As United Methodists, we are part of an organization with policies that discriminate against gay people. The only way to be supportive and inclusive within our own church is to break the laws outlined in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.  Or is it?  Our Book of Discipline also states that we should “commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (¶ 161, F) and that we should be “committed to supporting those [basic human and civil] rights and liberties for homosexual persons” (¶ 161, H)  Doesn’t this sound at odds with the rules that exclude gay people from ministry, marriage, and possibly membership? How can we as Methodists work for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation in society, when equal rights do not exist within our own churches? It is an awkward situation, compounded by the fact that not all Methodists agree on whether “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Those who may disagree with this statement often do not feel safe voicing their beliefs or acting on them for fear of reprisal.  What results is a lot of confusion, fear, and ignorance around the topic of sexuality in our church, even when we have gay members and straight members worshiping together.  Who can lead us out of this morass?

In a discussion about the possible ramifications of Kansas H.B. 2453, an article in USA Today quoted Reverend Adam Hamilton (pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a United Methodist church in Leawood, Kansas, that is one of the largest churches in the country) as saying, “Jesus routinely healed, fed and ministered to people whose personal lifestyle he likely disagreed with”, and “if this legislation were to pass … those who wish to refuse service to gay and lesbian people [should be required] to publicly post [their policy].  This would allow gay and lesbian people and all other patrons to know before entering a business.”

In light of Rev. Hamilton’s proposal that H.B. 2453 include a provision for signs, should we take another look at the signs of the United Methodist Church?  Our best-known slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” suggests we are a church that harbors no bias, that we call all people to come as they are and fully participate in the life of the church. Should we start a media campaign with more truthful advertising, one that explains that we welcome “all persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition” — with the notable exception of gay people?  This approach could help us avoid many misunderstandings, especially for new members looking for a place to worship for themselves, their gay family members, and friends.

Regarding the use of the word “lifestyle”: There is strong consensus in the medical community that gay folks are not entertaining a lifestyle option when they come out. For a religious leader to give a quote that could be interpreted otherwise is at best confusing and at worst damaging, because it insinuates that gay people have chosen their orientation, and it calls to mind an old and harmful argument that gay people cannot be truly Christian unless they pretend to be heterosexual or pledge celibacy.

To be fair, we can see that his quote was bisected, so it is possible that Rev. Hamilton had shared with the interviewer words that were not included in the article that could possibly more clearly explain his stance. Rev. Hamilton always has the opportunity to clarify his beliefs in one of his own future blog posts. We can invite him to share, using clear and unmistakable language, if and why he believes gay people, those who are single as well as those who are in committed relationships, are the ones whom our church can no longer afford to ignore and shunt aside, at the peril of our own salvation.

What are other Methodist leaders saying in response to the discriminatory H.B. 2453? Are they speaking out in an effort to secure certain basic human rights and civil liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation per our Book of Discipline covenant? Most appear to be saying nothing, so it was refreshing to see Bishop Scott Jones, of the Great Plains United Methodist Conference, write this week to the Kansas Senate that “the bill should be killed with no attempt to resurrect it by amendment or further consideration.” Wow —  that sounds fantastic! But the rest of the language in Jones’s letter, which at first glance seems supportive of the rights of gay people, offers no affirmation of the very people who would be harmed by the passage of the bill. A reader who believes, or who has only heard the view that, homosexuality is a sin could easily interpret the letter as intending only to ask that the Kansas Legislature not come down too hard on one particular sinner, because our church is still “in ministry with them.”  Which leads to another question regarding inclusion — why is it that gay people always seem to be referred to as outsiders, as “them” to the United Methodist Church? When does the language become about “us”?

By speaking out publicly to criticize a discriminatory bill, both Rev. Hamilton and Bishop Jones  have each done more than many leaders in our church in support of gay rights. However, they missed a crucial opportunity to truly expand the conversation and lead our church forward. By speaking in vague terms, possibly in an attempt to satisfy United Methodists who are in disagreement regarding whether gay people who choose to embrace their identity are welcome to fully participate in our church, it is unclear whether Rev. Hamilton and Bishop Jones believe that rights to all should only apply outside of church walls. It may be tempting to try to bridge divides in opinion with half-way measures, but there are really only two paths here. Either you love and affirm gay people, or you do not.

Is it expecting too much to ask our United Methodist leaders to speak out clearly and bravely, in a world where many religious leaders shy away from controversial topics?  We can look to the example of John Wesley, the father of Methodism, who enabled the called to preach — including those who by society’s standards were considered too young, too female, or too African to be allowed in a pulpit.  We can remember that Jesus taught by story and example that God’s love and acceptance is for all, no exceptions.  Or closer to our own time and place, we can look to the Rev. Rob Spencer, who just last Sunday preached about the power of God’s love for all, even while acknowledging the tension inherent in engaging in conversation with those with whom we disagree.  Kudos to Rev. Spencer for starting this conversation at First UMC which is located in Paris, Texas, a small town of 25,000 almost 100 miles north-east of Dallas.

One thing is very clear:  Given the rapid changes in our society regarding civil rights for gay people, our United Methodist leaders will be presented with many opportunities to speak up and do the right thing.  Let us pray that they do.

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