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Commentary: Conferences progress toward LGBTQ equality

The anti-LGBTQ building blocks that form The United Methodist Church are tumbling down and being rebuilt as a house of welcome and inclusion for LGBTQ persons. Years of grassroots organizing and the consistent work of preachers, teachers and advocates, a groundswell of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer persons effected a critical shift at General Conference 2016, shaping the inclusive direction and resolve of many U.S. annual conferences and producing three openly gay candidates for bishop. 

Some One is alive and afoot, opening channels of new life, creating new spaces of justice for LGBTQ persons and incarnating the unobstructed presence of love among God’s people.

The words of civil rights leader and retired Bishop Melvin Talbert ring truer than ever: “God has already settled this matter.” We are at a tipping point.

The struggle is not over, but there has been progress in both the civil arena and the church around LGBTQ persons as made in the image of God and worthy of equal and just treatment. After the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, some areas of The United Methodist Church continued to punish clergy committed to marriage equality. As queer clergy or candidates for clergy were threatened or punished, United Methodist conversations increased around evangelism, theology and spirituality: “What kind of people are we as the body of Christ?” “Why was I taught to read the Bible a certain way?” “Are trans, gay and bi people any less worthy of all that the church has to offer — that God has to offer?” “Could the inclusion of LGBTQ people be similar to other historical examples of excluded people in church and world?” And finally, “What is Jesus doing in all of this?”

Immediately preceding General Conference, high-profile same-sex weddings were celebrated and more than 100 LGBTQ clergy “came-out” — reinforcing the near meaninglessness and unenforceability of policy banning “self-avowed practicing” LGBTQ people from ordination. By May, I believe a clear majority of U.S. United Methodists favored LGBTQ inclusion as a matter of spiritual integrity.

In my opinion, General Conference delegates agreed on one thing: The church cannot continue to actively discriminate against LGBTQ people and avoid a denominational split. A majority agreed that the only way to remain “united” and avoid a chaotic schism was to accept the bishops’ proposal to examine and possibly revise all policy related to sexuality.

The vote also signified one thing is more important than continuing the resource-draining debates around LGBTQ inclusion: The economics that drive the priority of staying together. 

For delegates of a progressive, conservative and moderate orientation (including almost all bishops), a schism would drastically and negatively affect the whole church’s ability to support denominational infrastructure, life and ministry for many around the world. 

In my opinion, the vote for the commission was an expression of a strong priority to remain “united” in full knowledge that such a priority cannot be achieved without a revised and inclusive policy. 

Building on that spirit, many annual conferences saw fit to speak and act accordingly. California-Pacific, California-Nevada, Desert-Southwest, New England and Pacific-Northwest, as well as the clergy session of Oregon-Idaho all voted for resolutions of “non-conformity” with anti-LGBTQ policy. Others reaffirmed their stance to ordain qualified queer candidates for ministry and to practice marriage equality.

The South Carolina Conference passed a resolution decrying all forms of discrimination against transgender siblings — bearing witness that the narrative, which pronounces the U.S. South as entrenched against LGBTQ persons is inaccurate!

As social movements reach a tipping point, there is often a vocal and obvious reaction by those who feel threatened. The refusal of T.C. Morrow’s candidacy in Baltimore-Washington, the complaint against the Rev. Anna Blaedel in Iowa, and the ongoing harm committed against the Rev. Cynthia Meyer in Kansas are reactionary bluster as some annual conferences and/or their dissenting bishops took steps to blowback against the gains made for inclusion.

Then came three openly gay candidates for bishop in the Western and North Central Jurisdictions. The Revs. Karen Oliveto, Frank Wulf and David Meredith are yet further indication that the Spirit of God is at work in the church steadily and with some haste. In my own experience and according to many in our church and beyond, these signs all demonstrate the inexorable growth and movement of our church to complete the work initiated at General Conference. 

Finally, the tragedy of the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando galvanized so many people of good will around a singular and unavoidable truth. The United Methodist Church and other Christian traditions that actively discriminate against LGBTQ people have done great harm.

There is no room now for argument or dalliance around matters that affect the well-being of LGBTQ people everywhere. There is no room now for theological swan dives into homophobia and transphobia by bishops, clergy or laypeople.  

If there wasn’t enough of an imperative before, there can be no argument that the church must cease its participation in the creation of causes and conditions that give rise to such violence against transgender and gay people and begin the process of healing and reconciling that is the clear mandate of Jesus Christ. God has already settled this matter. It’s Time.

Berryman is executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which works for full inclusion and equality of LGBTQ people in The United Methodist Church.