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Sharing in faith: Reflections on the struggle to become an inclusive church

The Rev. William K. McElvaney
UMNS file photo.

In the four Gospels, Jesus has very little to say about sexuality. However, he has much to say about marginalized people.

A reading of the Gospels clearly reveals Jesus as a barrier breaker who crosses all kinds of forbidden boundaries to proclaim God’s love to those cast aside or ignored by Roman authorities and the religious establishment.

He breaks conventional rules by speaking to a Samaritan woman at a well, and a hated Samaritan is cited as an example of a compassionate person. He heals on the Sabbath and places the well-being of marginalized people above strict observance of religious law and practice.

This is our inheritance as Christians.

Scripture and Identity

Scripture as a whole does not define our identity by race, class, gender, sexual orientation or any single human circumstance.

These are important features of our lives, but they play no role in our identity by God.

Scripture defines our identity theologically by imago dei –– being born in the image of God. (Gen. 1:27, RSV) There are no exceptions. Our innate worth as human beings is not open to votes cast by a church or a society.

Scripture defines our identity liturgically through the sacrament of baptism. In United Methodist theology, baptism proclaims and visibly enacts God’s gift of unconditional love. The faith community responds by making a covenant to nourish and love the baptized. The liturgy of baptism allows no exception. The commitment of the congregation cannot be cancelled if the one baptized turns out to be a GLBT person.

Baptism is God’s earliest public call to the vocation of justice: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves?” (United Methodist Hymnal, p.34)

Scripture defines our identity morally, ethically and behaviorally by the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself” (stated in slightly different words in Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28 and Matthew 22:36-40). In every case, there is the insistence that “on these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” There is not a shred of evidence that GLBT persons, whether clergy or laity, are any less able or willing than heterosexuals to fulfill God’s will as expressed in the Great Commandment

Can the Great Commandment be secondary to institutional covenants in the United Methodist Church?

On what authority does the denomination spend more time debating sexual orientation and practice than on how to fulfill the Great Commandment?

Scriptural Interpretation

Those who oppose same-gender marriage, the ordination of homosexuals or the denial of other privileges to homosexual persons frequently claim absolute biblical authority for their position.

Yes, the church should be concerned with being biblical in the deepest sense. Yet the ranking of a few Pauline texts rooted in the patriarchal culture of Greco/Roman thought and practice of Paul’s time above the persuasive, powerful and plentiful texts proclaiming God’s radical love in Jesus Christ can hardly qualify as serious biblical inquiry and authority.

To be profoundly biblical from a Christian standpoint is to give prominence and priority to what Jesus taught and lived.

Paul is important but Paul is not Lord.

If we accept one of Paul’s teachings, perhaps we should also consider another of Paul’s claims in I Corinthians 14:34-35, “The women shall keep silence in the churches. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (RSV) Clearly, these Pauline statements in a first century letter to the church at Corinth are to be regarded as time-bound teachings rooted in ancient Mediterranean patriarchal culture rather than timeless truths representing the will of God.  

All of the above suggest that Paul’s understanding of same-gender relationship is no more binding on present day Christians, than his assertions about hair length and subjugation of women to their husband or their having no voice in the church.

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Conceptual Traps

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Dodson Gray. She uses the term “conceptual trap” to describe where we are and need to go as persons and as a church. She says a conceptual trap is like being born in a room with no windows. Social reality has already been named. It has always been this way and always will be. Just get used to it. One way to name the task of the church, Gray says, is to break through these conceptual traps with alternatives faithful to radical grace and justice for all.

While much remains to be improved, The United Methodist Church has made significant progress in breaking through the conceptual traps of racism and ordination of women.

During these times of change, many claimed that the church would collapse or at least be severely damaged. Instead the church became more faithful to the Gospel and gained new respect and loyalty both internally and beyond.

A basic question

The basic question before the church is this: “Does the well-being of the United Methodist Church, spiritually, membership-wise and financially, depend on marginalizing GLBT persons?” When those who oppose full inclusion call for ongoing resistance at all costs, they seem to be saying, “Yes, their marginalization is what holds our denomination together.”

Is this true?

How can The United Methodist Church be serious about transforming the world through disciples of Jesus Christ when a whole group of people is treated as second-class citizens? How can we claim to be disciples of Christ when we practice exclusion that is incompatible with his life and ministry?

We could become a more faithful church if we gave up an unwarranted interest in GLBT sexuality and concentrated on inviting and developing the “Beloved Community” (Martin Luther King Jr.) envisioned and empowered by Jesus.

Paragraph 363 in the 2012 Book of Discipline states that “ordination and membership in an annual conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust.” But how can this trust be more sacred than the Gospel of God’s love, than Jesus’ example of loving acceptance of marginalized persons? When institutional covenants supersede radical grace, the church is protecting its own prejudice and inoculates the church against love in favor of law. How can we not see the similarities of institutional priority in relation to Jesus’ struggle with the religious establishment of his day? 

Leadership

A fully inclusive church offers the opportunity for a deeper and more complete experience of the family of God. Inclusion requires bold leadership.

Imagine bishops, cabinets and lay leaders taking initiative to reach out to GLBT persons, many of whom were baptized, confirmed, and eager to serve in our church in spite of being rejected at various levels of inclusion.

Imagine leaders who are willing to listen to the stories about the pain of GLBT brothers and sisters. And imagine them offering healing and welcome.

  • I have long been convinced that rational thought is important in overcoming the “we” and “they” syndrome. But what I think is even more important is personal relationships.
  • Making friends across racial lines has been a key to changing minds and hearts. I have no scientific survey on this, but my hunch is that many who resist inclusion have no gay friends to love or experience being loved by.
  • When the church becomes truly inclusive, leaders can make this a positive experience, turning fear into love. Our GLBT brothers and sisters are to be seen and heard not only as marginalized persons but also as mentors who can lead the denomination to truly realize “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”

The Rev. William K. McElvaney
Dallas, Texas

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Posted August 13, 2014