Meditating on Exclusion

Terry H. Schwadron

March 4, 2019

For many, It must have been strange to go to the local Methodist church yesterday, just days after the Church international higher-ups had voted to reinforce formal church opposition to ordaining gay clergy and performing same-sex weddings.

The idea of going to church as a place for thoughtfulness and reflection must be gruesome if you think the Church is telling you that how you live, love and believe is essentially anti-Church.

CNN went out to talk with parishioners of some American Methodist churches, the second-largest Protestant denomination in the country, finding a general feeling of solemnity with a distinct sense of dread among many.

In Sommerville, Mass., Jordan Harris, a gay United Methodist pastor said he had decided to pursue ministry because of a childhood experience with homelessness. It was a church, he said, that helped his family, and it inspired him to become a pastor and help others. Now, on the cusp of being ordained and marrying his fiancé, Harris is afraid for the career he’s spent at least eight years preparing for.

“I feel like someone has died,”Harris told CNN.

For years liberal United Methodists have pushed for the church to adopt more tolerant policies. But after three days of debate at a meeting in St. Louis, the delegate vote this week went as it did largely because of votes from international representatives from Africa, the Philippines and Europe. The votedoubled down on current church policy, which states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The vote served as a rejection of a push by progressive members and leaders to open the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. As it stands, the vote opens the door to the possibility of a break-up of the United Methodist Church, though the vote itself is due for review before the Church’sJudicial Council — the church’s Supreme Court — at its meeting in Illinois next month to decide whether it’s constitutional.

If it upholds the vote, a split in the 12-million member Church worldwide obviously will become more likely.

There are openly gay and lesbian clergy members; in 2016, Karen Phyllis Oliveto became the first married lesbian to become a bishop. While they gay clergy could be removed from ministry, church trials are rare.

Like many LGBT clergy and United Methodists, Harris had hoped delegates would vote for what was known as the Simple Plan — one of three proposed plans that outlined different tracts for the church’s stance on LGBT persons. The Simple Plan would have removed language prohibiting gay marriage and clergy from the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The Traditional Plan, the one that passed, reaffirmed the church’s current stance. There was also the One Church Plan, which would have allowed local churches to decided on the issue for themselves but keep the denomination together.

For me, the whole idea of a Church deciding to exclude whole segments of society sits pretty uneasily. I’m not directly affected in this particular fight, but we’ve all seen versions of this play out over decades in a variety of religions.

Conservatives have left the Episcopal Church over gay rights, Presbyterians have split, and many young evangelicals are leaving their churches over the lack of inclusion of L.G.B.T. people.Catholics are turning away from a Church that they see as relatively blind and deaf to child molestation by priests; the Orthodox sects in Israeli Judaism are constantly busy undermining whether American Reform and Conservative Jews should be seen as Jews altogether. Clearly, rifts among sects in Muslim thinking are playing out well beyond religious circles and into wartime alliances across the globe.

Among Americans, poll after poll — as well as our own personal observation — show an increasing popularization of spiritualism away from any concerns of organized religion. The share of religiously unaffiliated Americans is growing.In that context, it is even stranger that a Church would be voting on whom its God wants to love.

The 7 million American Methodists average 57 years in age, and identify as more than half Republican. A majority of Methodists have said abortion should be legal, and more than half are in favor of stricter regulations to protect the environment. Overall, about a third of Methodists are in Africa, where homosexuality often is a crime; by contrast, polls among U.S. Methodists have won about 60% approval.

What happens next hinges on questions that are not just theological, but financial. For entire congregations to leave, they would most likely need to reach settlement agreements related to the potential transfer of church property, and liabilities related to the church’s $23 billion pension fund. Major seminaries at universities like Emory and Duke, which have supported their gay, lesbian, and transgender students, risk losing grants and funding from more influential, and conservative, churches.

Methodism has been a major force in American life since before the Revolutionary War, and eventually grew to include a significant African-American membership in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The denomination has split about a dozen times in its history, notably over slavery and race.

Take it all in and it seems unsettling for a Sunday meditation.




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