With about 8 million members in the United States and 3.5 million more in Africa, Asia and Europe, the United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
Like many denominations, UMC continues to experience painful internal conflict with respect to its treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members and clergy. Being a fairly democratic institution, changes in the denomination’s official stance on LGBT people can only happen at a pace and to a degree reflective of changes in the attitudes of church members and clergy themselves.
As you well know, changing the attitudes of friends, family and community members on LGBT issues is possible but it often requires great patience and a willingness to tell our own stories. But empowering LGBT-friendly people of faith to come forward and bare witness to their allyship as people of faith also requires something else: the ability to listen. This is something I learned last week during an interview with Rev. Dr. Melvin Woodworth, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tacoma, Washington.
Many people call themselves “pastor”, but I think once you read what he has to say you’ll agree that Rev. Woodworth truly embodies the title. Please join us after the jump for a wide-ranging conversation touching on an array of topics including civil disobedience within the UMC, listening circles, world church politics, cell phones, colonial legacy, and simply liking people. Yes believe it or not it’s all LGBT-related!
* Conversation with a straight Presbyterian ally
A note on where LGBT people stand in relation to UMC
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, the denomination’s book of laws, is largely silent regarding transgender people, although a resolution “Opposition to Homophobia and Heterosexism” was adopted in 2008 which stated in part “Therefore, be it resolved, that The United Methodist Church strengthen its advocacy of the eradication of sexism by opposing all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation.” However the denomination has not yet outlined a policy on specific issues like eligibility for membership, marriage or ordination for transgender people.
While Rev. David Weekly has remained a pastor in good standing despite recently coming out about his FtM transition of 35 years ago, other transgender clergy are not necessarily lovingly supported by the denomination. For example Drew Phoenix transitioned on the job and was reappointed in 2007 by his bishop to continue leading his congregation of St John’s in Baltimore. In 2008 however Rev. Phoenix took a voluntary leave of absence from that post and has not returned. This despite a very supportive congregation which still maintains web pages about “our pastor”. Other transgender clergy have been pressured to take a leave of absence from the ministry.
The Book of Discipline directly addresses gay and lesbian people and homosexuality, albeit in contradictory passages. It states that while “all persons are of sacred worth”, when it comes to the ordination of clergy “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Despite the adoption of the “Opposition to Homophobia and Heterosexism” resolution quoted above, the denomination officially condones discrimination against gay and lesbian couples in civil marriage. The Book of Discipline states “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” However, the UMC’s statement Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation would seem to leave room for the support of civil unions or domestic partnerships. Within the church itself, the sacred celebration of gay and lesbian unions is forbidden: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
Reconciling Ministries Network “is a growing movement of United Methodist individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and other groups working for the full participation of all people in the United Methodist Church. RMN grew out of Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.” RMN helps lead congregations through the reconciling process and maintains a list of reconciling congregations. Such a lits is necessary because despite The Book of Discipline‘s statement that all persons are of sacred worth, UMC pastors are still allowed to bar LGBT individuals from membership in their congregations.
My conversation with Rev. Woodworth
Rev. Woodworth began our conversation by suggesting that he may not be the best person to speak with. I asked him why.
There are a lot of clergy and laity who really have been intimately tied to the struggle in the United Methodist Church more closely than I have been, who know a whole lot more than I do. I’m identified as the pastor at the Annual Conference who always is bringing up gay agenda, but I don’t know as much as a lot of people. (Laurel’s note: The Annual Conference is the basic regional unit of organization in the UMC. Rev. Woodworth’s congregation is part of the Pacific Northwest Conference.)
First UMC of Tacoma is an affirming congregation, is that the right term?
In the United Methodist system we call them reconciling congregations. And awful term, but that’s what somebody decided upon.
Did you start that at this congregation?
No, I didn’t. I’ve never succeeded in helping a congregation through that process. I’ve been pastor of three congregations that would call themselves reconciling congregations, though one of those was back before that category had been invented. But they were all reconciling before I got there. And those that I’ve been appointed to were not reconciling congregations have not become reconciling congregations while I was there.
Was that because you chose not to work on that, or the congregation wasn’t interested?
I’m a very passive kind of a pastor. I don’t push my agenda. I walk into a congregation and try and discern where they feel led by God and help them do that well. I would say in each of the congregations I’ve served, I’ve helped them broaden their thinking in terms of sexual minorities but I haven’t imposed my desire on them that they would be a reconciling congregation.
Do UMC congregations get to interview and choose their own pastor, or are they assigned?
No, we’re appointed by the bishop. We have a bishop located in Seattle which is in charge of all the United Methodist churches in Washington and northern Idaho – I’d say maybe 250 churches or something like that. And every year he or she appoints the pastors to the churches that they’ll serve.
So you could be moved any time.
I could be moved any year. In reality it’s a pretty consultative process. The bishop has a cabinet of six district superintendents. The superintendents work with the churches and clergy in their districts, and unless a pastor requests a change or a church requests a change, a pastor is likely to stay put for a long time. In most of my moves I haven’t asked for a change and the congregations haven’t but there’s been an opening that the Annual Conference would be a good fit for me, and so they’ve asked me to move. I’ve never refused to take an appointment they’ve offered me. And theoretically I can’t refuse, but in reality they rarely force somebody into a situation they don’t want to be in.
To me that’s an interesting factor in how the denomination works.
Well it makes it pretty complex, because you get reconciling congregations and ministers who are accepting, and ministers who aren’t accepting, and the cabinet has to ask: now do we want to send a pastor in who doesn’t exactly fit the congregations to help the congregation move in a particular direction, or do we want to give them matching that are going to feel more comfortable? I’m glad I’m not the bishop!
You’ve been here at First UMC Tacoma for how long?
I’ve been here 3 1/2 years.
And when you got here it was already a reconciling congregation?
Yep, it makes me very happy!
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE WITHIN THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
But you said you’ve maybe still helped broadened views a bit?
I’ve certainly encouraged us to grow in the ways in which we live that out. Since I’ve been here we’ve been much more visibly open to the larger community, in the larger community, developed a very strong relationship with the Rainbow Center which is just a couple blocks away. When we have functions that are particularly LGBT-friendly we try and get our posters up the gay bars, and try to be in touch with PFLAG and the GSA groups on area campuses and so forth.
The other thing that we did a year and a half ago, in our denomination clergy are not allowed to officiate at gay marriages, and congregations are not allowed to have their buildings used for gay marriages.
Our congregation went through a 6 month process of studying our Book of Discipline, praying, tuning into the spirit of God moving us and concluded that the Book of Discipline requires us to provide ministry equally for all persons but asks us to be inequitable in that regard. And so we formulated a statement and published it saying that we chose to support the greater law of the Discipline and violate the lesser law. And so we are on record as encouraging clergy associated with our congregation to do gay marriages and allowing our building to be used for those. (Laurel’s note: Rev. Woodworth is referring here to holy matrimony, not to the solumnization of a legal marriage. Washington state law barres clergy from solumnizing legal marriages for gay and lesbian couples because such marriages are proscribed by state law.)
Adopted by the Church Council June 2009
Same Sex Holy Matrimony at First United Methodist Church of Tacoma
As United Methodists we affirm with our Constitution, that all persons are of sacred worth, created in the image of God, in need of the ministry of the Church, and eligible to attend worship, receive our services and upon baptism and declaration of the Christian faith, to become members of our congregation. (1)
As United Methodists we affirm with out Social Principles that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons, that basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons and that we are committed to supporting these rights and liberties for all, regardless of sexual orientation. We support efforts to stop forms of coercion against all persons regardless of sexual orientation. (2,3)
We find these central demands of our constitution and Social Principles to be at irreparable odds with the subordinate disciplinary statute that, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.” (4)
Therefore, we of First United Methodist Church of Tacoma pledge our fidelity to the Constitution and Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, committing ourselves to affirming the sacred value of every individual, inviting all persons into fellowship with the Church of Jesus Christ, and offering to each person the full breadth of ministries offered by our congregation.
To fulfill this pledge we establish that it is our policy and practice to share the use of our facility and sanctuary to celebrate relationships of love for couples without regard to sexual orientation.
We support clergy appointed to or relating to our congregation who carry out the solemnization of holy matrimony equally for all persons, regardless of sexual identity in accord with the best theology and values found in the Constitution and Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. We encourage them to conduct such ceremonies as they feel called to do. (5)
1. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church — 2008 para 4 p. 22
2. Author suggests “gays and lesbians” rather than “All persons regardless of sexual orientation.’
3. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church — 2008 para 162.J p. 111
4. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church — 2008 para 341.6 p. 253
5. We do this knowing that this may involve their being in violation of para 341.6 of the Book of Discipline
Can you tell me more about the 6 month process, and the response of the bishop and the congregation?
The process went very well. We had a series of 3 weekly listening sessions. In our listening circles we invite anyone from our congregation who wants to come to sit in a circle, and we go around the circle and let each person express their views. They’re not to respond to the views of other people. They’re only to express their personal perspective.
We had a series of scriptures and a series of statements from the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church that we threw out and let people respond to. So we did that 3 consecutive weeks, and I was certain that the congregation would come out pretty much where they did. I mean there was little doubt in my mind, but I wanted to make sure there was no sense that anyone had been coerced into any position that they were uncomfortable with. At the end of those 3 weeks we wrote this statement and distributed it to the congregation at large and asked people to spend several months prayerfully considering it. Then we came back together and had another listening circle. And then we had it approved by our church council and it became a policy of the congregation.
What was the congregation’s level of participation in this?
It was very good. Our average attendance is probably around 70 people on a Sunday, so we’re a small congregation, but we were getting probably – I doubt if there was a week that we had fewer than 40 people. So that’s very good turnout. People were very excited about it.
The conversation never revolved around whether we would do this or not. The conversation centered around what’s going to happen if we do this and he (Rev. Woodworth) gets in trouble?
But you caught me without my homework finished! The district superintendent knows about our statement and has had access to it. I have committed to share it with the bishop and I just haven’t done that in over a year and a half. I do need to do that.
The district superintendent, how does that person relate to the bishop?
The bishop has 6 superintendents that are his cabinet. One is assigned to this district, and her office happens to be in this building and she happens to be pretty supportive of what our congregations has done. But I think she’s a little nervous about it.
In our system, if a clergy person or a congregation does something against the Book of Discipline and somebody is upset by that, they bring a grievance to the superintendent. Nobody has brought a grievance against me or the congregation. As far as we know, passing this kind of a statement is not a violation of the Discipline in any way. Acting on it would be considered a violation of the Discipline and so far, nobody who knows anything about our acting on it has brought a grievance. And we’ve had lots of people at services.
So the congregation has acted on it then.
This is a friendly interview, so tell me at any time if you don’t want to ‘go there’.
I think I’m out! I can’t in good conscience perpetuate an injustice. I can’t get around the injustice of the state law – I don’t have power over that. But I can get around the injustice of the church law, and I’m doing that.
Who would have the standing to bring a grievance?
Anybody. You could bring a grievance. Pastor Phelps from Kansas, a Baptist could bring a grievance against me. Anybody could bring a grievance.
Has anything similar been done in other congregations, and how has that worked out?
There have been several United Methodist pastors who have done same-sex marriages or unions publicly. At least two have been removed from the ministry because of that. There was a very notable case a few years ago in Sacramento where 60 some United Methodist pastors (the “Sacramento 68“) as well as some other pastors officiated at the holy union of two women.
They were making a little bit of a statement?
It was very much a statement. Charges were brought against them, and I don’t know the details too precisely, but in our system when a grievance is filed if it looks like it has merit it’s given to a committee on investigation. That’s like a grand jury. And if the committee on investigation decides there’s enough evidence to bring charges, if reconciliation between the opposing parties can’t be found then it goes to a trial.
For whatever reason, the Annual Conference in California that had responsibility for that did not take it to trial, did not bring charges against any of those clergy. That was a controversial act and it has stood. I believe it was appealed to the judicial council which is the supreme court of the church. I don’t remember the details, but Don Fado was the primary pastor who pulled together that event.
You were asking about other congregations doing similar things. There have just been two congregations on the east coast — one is Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. and I don’t remember off the top of my head the other one — have come out with statements similar to this very publicly, and have done that with the understanding that they would be brought up on charges and it would go to a church court.
As our congregation was involved in this process I made e-mail contact with a number of reconciling congregations in different parts of the country, particularly California because that was at that delightful time when marriage was legal for a moment. Which put United Methodist pastors in a horribly awkward position. Here are unions that are legal in the state of California and our Discipline says they can’t celebrate them. Come on!
So I was in contact with a number of people including Foundry United Methodist as we went through this and shared with some of those our statement after we finished it. But it’s just been a few months since Foundry and this other church came out with their statements and as far as I know nobody has brought any charges up to this point.
That really does put clergy in a very precarious position.
Does it also put members of the congregation who celebrate their marriages in the church in a similar position? Are they at risk of being defellowshipped?
Probably not. The Discipline doesn’t say couples can’t get married in the church. It says the pastor can’t do it and it can’t happen in the church. I suppose if someone really wanted to stretch it they could try and bring charges against the couple, but the pastor’s the most vulnerable.
In our Annual Conference, there’s a little piece of me that would like to be brought up on charges. Most of me does not want that, at all. But a little piece of me does because in our Annual Conference I can see several possibilities. One possibility would be that similar to the case in California someone would bring a grievance and the committee on investigation would conclude it didn’t justify a trial. What I almost would like to see happen would be to have it go to a trial and have me found guilty. Because then the trial court is responsible for deciding what response they will give. And there is no required response. So they could say, “yes he’s guilty and we’re going to do nothing.”
There’s another Annual Conference I’ve heard of that if rumor is correct passed a piece of legislation a number of years ago saying that the Discipline says that pastors can’t do same-sex marriages, the clergy of the Annual Conference is responsible for enforcing any matters concerning our clergy, and so we suggest that if any clergy in our Annual Conference are found guilty of this, they should be suspended from the ministerial orders for a period of 24 hours. Which is basically saying, you do one of these we’re going to make you take a day off, so there!
I see it as a very real possibility in our Annual Conference that either a person would not be brought to trial, or if they were brought to trial they would be found not guilty, or if they were found guilty that there would be no punishment imposed.
Would such a decision have the weight of precedent?
We don’t do as much with precedence in the United Methodist Church as the civil courts do, but it certainly does add some weight to that position. What it would do is send huge ripples through the whole denomination and those who are opposed to same-sex marriage would be at our next General Conference trying to revise the Book of Discipline to have forced removal from ministry or something else imposed. It would be fun to see what happened.
But at this point no one that I know of has come up with a statement like this and then had that tried in the courts of the church in any way.
In preparation for this interview it was easy to find references to homosexuality in the Book of Discipline but not to gender identity or expression. Where do transgender people stand in relation to the denomination?
The United Methodist Church has a Book of Discipline that is revised every 4 years when we have our General Conference, which is a global gathering. We were the first, I think, major Protestant denomination to deal with homosexuality in a major way after Stonewall, which changed the whole universe. In 1972 we put in the schizophrenic language that homosexuals are of sacred worth and deserving of the ministry the church. And we also put in the language that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. And we haven’t been able to figure out how to live with those two statements since then.
Because we got into the issue earlier than some of the other denominations, we may be the last ones to get out of it. Because what we did is we polarized our denomination so much that we’re really conflicted. Terribly conflicted. But because we function every 4 years, it’s common for us to be behind everybody else.
With transgender issues, I don’t think that has ever been a major issue at General Conference. The case in Baltimore (concerning Rev. Drew Phoenix, a pastor who transitioned on the job) was the first time that I’m aware of that the church really had to question it. We haven’t passed any legislation at General Conference that clarifies what our position is. And I think that is going to test the church in the extreme.
In our congregation we have at least 3 transgender persons, and I think more. I don’t ask people those sorts of things, so I only know those who’ve talked to me. We’ve had others attend, and the congregation in general is pretty comfortable with transgender persons being here.
Where from a legal point of view I think it will become very problematic for the denomination is, we say that homosexuals cannot be ordained clergy and serve churches in our denomination. Is a transgender person their birth gender or their assumed gender? If it’s their assumed gender and they’re in a relationship with a person of their birth gender, then is that heterosexual or is that homosexual? We haven’t worked out the language and the theoretical categories to deal with that. It’s going to be a real interesting challenge.
So at the moment for transgender clergy is it up to the bishop whether they can serve?
I would say that each Annual Conference’s bishop will have to decide how to respond to it. As far as I know we only have the one case to look at. And in that case the clergy person was not removed from ministry.
In our system there are several kinds of leaves of absence. There’s a voluntary leave of absence, and in our Annual Conference we have at least 3 clergy that are out of the closet that are fully ordained United Methodist clergy. One is serving a church, two are on leave. I think in both of those cases the clergy requested to be on leave, but the request is of course linked to the stress and trials of being in an inhospitable environment. There’s voluntary leave, there’s involuntary leave and a bishop or Annual Conference can’t put a pastor on involuntary leave without having a reason for doing that and going through a due process of some sort. So I don’t know what the situation there is.
Your congregation was already “there” on so many things, so you’ve never had to deal with the hysterical “eek there’s a man in a dress in the bathroom” sort of thing?
One of the nice things about this building is we just moved in 2 1/2 years ago, and we have private restrooms on each of the floors that the congregation uses. And so it’s real easy for anyone that has any questions about how they’d be received to find a restroom where that’s not going to be an issue.
Or also someone who is afraid of going into a restroom knowing that there are transgender people in the congregation could segregate themselves in a private restroom if they want to.
That’s right. One of the things that some congregations have done is get away from the group restroom thing all together. It’s becoming increasingly common to simply have solitary use restrooms and just avoid all of that stuff for everybody. But no, I have never had that be an issue in one of my congregations.
THE WORLD CHURCH, CELL PHONES AND THE COLONIAL LEGACY
What’s your take on the international dynamic going on now in the UMC? I’ve read that American membership is down, African membership is up and that the African congregations tend to be more conservative on matters of sexuality and sexual minorities and that that was a factor in the last General Conference. Do these power dynamics affect the willingness of American congregations or Annual Conferences to take more moderate positions on social issues?
The United Methodist Church has not done a graceful job of transitioning from the colonial period to the 21st century. We had what we called Central Conferences that were different than Annual Conferences. They had a little more latitude in how they structured and administered themselves, and they did not have equal representation at our General Conference. Our African conferences were all Central Conferences, and they did not get representation proportionate to the number of members in relationship to the U.S. church.
God has an amazing sense of humor and can use our sins against us. The most hierarchical, legalistic, racist, homophobic parts of our society worked hard to maintain the Central Conference system and to inflict an injustice on the people of the Third World. And then along came the gay issue and that same group of people saw that they were losing control of the gay issues.
So 6 or 7 years ago at a General Conference they implemented a plan for incrementally giving more equitable representation to the Third World. The Third World tends to be conservative on sexual issues, and so they thought this would settle the gay issue — we’ll just get all those Africans to come in here and vote against gay folks.
As soon as they did that, the part of me that wants justice for sexual minorities grieved, but the part of me that wants justice for the Third World rejoiced. Because the Third World is much more liberal than (the hierarchical, legalistic, racist, homophobic) segment of American Methodism, and I thought that group will have lost every other issue except the gay issue. They’ll have sold everything else to get this one issue!
That is fascinating. What issues are they more liberal on?
Mostly economic justice, world trade, employment rights. In Korea they have two sets of laws. They have one set of laws for the country and one set of laws for these little enclaves of U.S. businesses that are allowed to set up and not have fair labor practices under Korean standards. What?! The United States, the ‘champion of the people’…I could go on and on forever.
So the Methodist churches in places like that are really pushing for social justice, is that what you’re saying?
For economic justice, definitely.
And so we came to the last General Conference in 2008 with people afraid that the increased African representation was going to grossly skew the vote on the gay issue. Those who advocated for retaining the current language had, for a couple of General Conferences, offered free breakfasts to General Conference delegates who wanted a free breakfast. And most of your Third World delegates are living on a shoestring and they’ll take a free breakfast if they can get one. That became an opportunity to give them a pep talk on how to vote.
What happened was the bishops became aware of this and decided this wasn’t a good plan. So the bishops arranged for a lot of the African delegates to be housed in the same hotel with them and to get breakfast with their housing. Suddenly the conservatives didn’t have access to this lobbying opportunity, so they passed out free cell phones. And started sending messages to the recipients telling them how to vote.
Well you know, Africans aren’t as dumb as Americans would like to think they are. So despite the fact that there was much larger African representation at the General Conference, the vote for changing the language in the Discipline to something more accepting was even closer than it had been at the previous General Conference.
At every General Conference since 1972 there has been legislation to remove the “incompatible with Christian teaching” language, and every General Conference it’s come closer and closer.
I presume some of the change in the vote is due to changing attitudes in American congregations too, but you’re saying the African congregations as well?
The African congregations did not make the difference that people expected. Now at our next General Conference there’s going to be an even bigger shift towards African representation. And it may make a difference. The conservatives in the U.S. are working very hard and in Africa some very ugly stuff is going on there. Homosexuality may become a capitol crime on some countries like Uganda. There are places in Africa where homosexuals are killed currently, and that would not be a huge shift in some areas.
But the conversation is going on in Africa. I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001 and talked about homosexuality to a friend of mine there who was in his early 30s. I brought the subject up — he really didn’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t exist, it isn’t excepted. When I was back and talked with him in 2005 he was a student at Africa University in Zimbabwe, and he said it was quite a topic on campus. There was a lot of discussion on it. And when I was there in 2007 and talked to him, he was even able to share that in his own thinking he’s weighing whether this is acceptable in the eyes of God.
So Africans are having the same conversations Americans are. They’re a little bit behind chronologically, but my guess would be that they may make the transition faster than Americans did because in general they have a better developed sense of justice. The whole experiences in Uganda, in Rwanda, in South Africa — they’re really leading the world in terms of thinking about how to live out justice and how to get past one’s history.
Ugandan backers of the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill falsely claim that homosexuality is a colonial import. And these are Christians, whose religion is itself an import. I don’t hear anyone publicly addressing the pot calling the kettle black.
There are those in the Third World who get really angry with the church, and I think rightfully so in that the vitriolic condemnation of homosexuality was largely a Western import. And now all of a sudden we’ve changed our mind and we expect them to change their mind along with us, and they’re saying “wait, who said we wanted to dance the Foxtrot, we’re really into the Watutsi”. There is some self-conscious awareness of the fact that they’re getting jerked around.
One of the moves in the United Methodist church which I think may be a healthy one, is that there’s talk about loosening up our Book of Discipline so that there can be regional differences. So that the African church can be the African church different from the way the American church is the American church. It’s kind of re-instituting what we did with Central Conferences. We always allowed them a flexibility we didn’t allow the Anglo-American conferences. It might be a good thing to implement where there can be more regional difference.
Might that be instituted at the next General Conference?
Not likely at the next General Conference. I’m hoping we eliminate the bad language at the next General Conference.
You think that’s doable?
If it weren’t for the increased Third World representation I would think it would be. Well, and there’s another factor. Allocation of representation at General Conference is based on membership, and the western and northeastern United States have declining membership. Which means we’re going to have fewer representatives. Our Annual Conference used to send I think 5 clergy and 5 lay delegates, and now we’re down to 2 or something. That’s been over several decades but we’ve really been cut. It means the more liberal parts of the denomination have less representation. I don’t know how that will affect the vote.
But the southeastern U.S. which has been most adamant about keeping that language has been transitioning like everyone else has. They’re becoming much more accepting. A lot of the southeastern bishops made the shift a decade or two ago. More and more of the clergy are. Just how long will it take…
So now is the system fully democratic in terms of the Third World churches being able to send representative numbers of delegates?
I think that in 2012 it’ll be fully equal — I’ve never looked at the equalization plan — which should give lots of extra votes to particularly Liberia. The Methodist Church in Liberia has been growing like crazy. The Democratic Republic of Congo also has a huge membership.
LEADING BY LISTENING
What haven’t we talked about that we should talk about?
I think that early in the movement for justice, we made some mistakes. We pushed too hard in the wrong directions. We pushed legislatively within the United Methodist Church. And it may be that we never could have gotten the social push without the political push. The political push opened the conversation.
But where I see lives being changed over and over and over again is in interpersonal conversations. Before Stonewall nobody talked about homosexuality in the church. After Stonewall somebody had to talk about it.
I had an experience in the church a number of years ago. I was following a pastor who was fairly rabidly anti-gay. Right after I got appointed there I was asked by the head of the United Methodist Women to come speak to the women at her home about homosexuality. And I thought, oh boy am I in trouble now!
Sometimes I listen to the Spirit of God and it always tells me to shut up, and when I follow that advice it’s always good advice. I went to that group of 14 or 16 women, and instead of giving them my spiel on homosexuality and the scripture and all of this stuff, I asked them 3 questions, and we went around the circle.
First, when did you first hear about homosexuality? What is your first memory of that as a subject? Secondly, who was the first gay person that you knew? And third, who is the gay person who’s been closest to you in your lifetime?
So it was very personal.
It was astonishing. Everybody knew that this one woman in the group has a niece who was a lesbian, and she loved her niece who was a lesbian. And everybody kinda, oh poor so and so, she lives with this burden. But by the time we were through everybody in the circle had shared somebody who was very close to them. All but one — there was one woman who as far as she knew didn’t know a gay person and never had. But everybody else in the room had known gay people, and every one of them had somebody who was emotionally important to them who was gay.
And so as we left that room, these people suddenly knew they could talk to each other. They could own up to who they were, there were other people who liked gay folks too. Holy moley does that change your congregation in a hurry!
As far as they knew going into the meeting all they knew was the topic was homosexuality and they thought I was going to try and convince them. And if I’d tried to convince them they probably all would have gotten rigid and I would have been ridden out of town on a rail. But when it was their story, and their friends’ story, it really made a huge difference. That’s why in the United Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network we’re talking about telling our story. Just encouraging people to be more out. Gay people be more out. Gay parents be more out. Gay friends be more out.
I’ve always within my first couple of months at a new church made sure that the terms gay or lesbian or homosexual made it into my sermons a couple times. It was a way of saying to people, I know these words, if you’ve got an agenda come talk to me now. And I usually smoked out gay folks pretty quickly. “You mentioned thus and so, how do you feel about that?”. So for my clergy friends who say “How can you know all these gay folks? I don’t have any gay folks in my church” I say, you don’t offer them the opportunity to be themselves. If you give them a chance, you’ll find them.
I really think if we’d spent more time with the story telling early on and less time with the legislation it would have been an easier transition.
When you’re saying “early on”, when do you mean?
In 1975 I presented legislation for full membership rights, full ordination rights, marriage rights for gay folks.
You were ahead of your time!
That’s what I’m told.
How did you get there personally?
Who knows. I was raised by some truly wonderful parents who just taught me to like people. And I’ve always just sort of liked people. So I had a friend in high school who everyone said was queer, but you know I really liked him. I got to college and I had friends who were gay and lesbian. I just sort of liked them. Then I found out I wasn’t supposed to like them.
As soon as I was out of seminary I got appointed to Capitol Hill United Methodist in Seattle (Laurel’s note: Capitol Hill is Seattle’s gayborhood.) which at that point was sharing its building with Metropolitan Community Church. So I was working with the gay counseling center and the gay community center and the womens coffee club coven and all of those great groups. Lesbian Resource Center.
In seminary I needed to choose one of three case studies to do an analysis of. One of the three that was presented was a congregation trying to decide whether to share their building with a Metorpolitan Community Church. Since I knew at that point I was going to be appointed to Capitol Hill I though, this is a natural! I studied the scripture and I studied all of that stuff and could find nothing in scripture that led me to think that God related to gay folks differently than anybody else. So I went to Capitol Hill and I treated the folks there like I treated anybody else, and it worked.
In 1972 I went to the General Conference of our church in Atlanta and that’s when they passed the really awful language. I met Gene Leggett from southwest Texas who had been removed from Methodist ministry when he came out of the closet. He and the gay caucus were there trying to get some pro-gay language in. It was in response to that that we got the negative stuff.
Hating anybody has just never made sense to me. It doesn’t do good things to my mind. It doesn’t do good things to my body. It doesn’t do good things to my relationships.
So in 1975 we were preparing to go to this 1976 General Conference and so I presented legislation to our Annual Conference for rights of membership, ordination and marriage. And it didn’t pass. But I’ve presented it a number of times since then. Not every 4 years, but most of them. Each General Conference it’s been closer. It was very close the last time.
I’ve known for 20 years that the United States has made the shift. once you get Will & Grace on television and advertising — the thing that first tipped me off that we’d made the transition was when I started seeing t.v. ads for gay couples. I thought, when we’re marketing to them, they’re in. It’s a question of how long is it going to take the rest of us to figure out they’re in. So I have great hopes for the 2012 General Conference.
It has become increasingly difficult for me to serve any church where I thought any member of my family would not be welcome. So when they asked me to come to Tacoma I was a very happy camper. Never served a church that doesn’t have gay or lesbian members.
One more question. I’m just curious how your congregation responded to Referendum 71 or other LGBT legislation.
The phone bank was in this building! We have what we call the Micah Project which is our peace and justice group. The woman who was our director of the Micah Project at that point was a major organizer for R-71. We had a rally against Prop 8. I’m involved in the Religious Coalition for Equality that has a meeting later this month. I don’t know how many we’ll get from the congregation, but we’ll probably have a few there.
So the congregation sees working on these issues as something they come to from their faith? Their social justice calling?
Absolutely. What part of “love your neighbor” do people not understand? It’s pretty simple. John Wesley the founder of Methodism believed that love was the core of God, that all of the little things that divide us are peripheral. The unconditional, unquenchable love of God for human beings was at the core of his faith. This congregation I think does a good job of living that out.