Saturday, June 02, 2007

Changed Hearts, Rigid Votes

In the latest issue of the United Methodist Reporter Richard Hearne's column "Why I'm (Still) a Methodist," describes a dear friendship across political lines. Hearne writes with compassion and tender care about his friend, David, whom he met during a Walk to Emmaus retreat. He speaks of David with both deep respect and authentic affection. Hearne's point seems to be that despite our ideological, political and theological differences, real loving relationships can be formed.

Although on the surface it is an emotional piece about relationships that transcend ideological diversity, in the end this article seems merely to reinforce our political and theological differences, drawing a line in the sand that not even friendship can overcome. By sentimentalizing this relationship, Hearne gives lip service to his openness, while in fact remaining closed.

Here, this passage exemplifies Hearne's own reluctance to being open to authentic change. He writes:

"Because of my friendship with David, I was open to meeting with Parents, Families and
Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a group that supports the ordination of gays and lesbians, before I attended General Conference. While the meeting didn't change my vote, it changed my heart.

At the meeting, I ran into a minister who I'd known for years. One of his children is gay; I never knew that. That made me realize I need to be careful about what I say. I wondered, 'How long has this pastor listened to comments or jokes that cut him to the quick?' The meeting with PFLAG, encouraged by David, made me more mindful of what I say and how I act."

I find it puzzling that after listening to the heart-wrenching tales of exclusion and discrimination told by parents of LGBT persons, some from his own colleague, all Hearne can do is wonder about the impact of "comments" and "jokes" on these families' lives and question whether or not he has said something offensive in the past.

It seems unimaginable that he could have listened to these parents and not understood the way in which his own actions in supporting the denomination's discriminatory stance on LGBT persons excludes them and their families from full participation in the life of the Church. It seems as though his relationships with those different from him have a limited impact...changing the way he feels, but not the way he votes.

How is it that one's heart can be changed, but one's vote remains staunchly the same? If hearts are truly opened, how can ideological and political positions remain so rigid?

I wonder how many of our General Conference delegates compartmentalize their work and lives so that they can separate how they feel from how they act. As a denomination I think that we must begin to ask the question to what extent our values, that is those things we cherish in our hearts, are consistent with our actions, ideas, politics and ultimately votes.

11 comments:

Larry B said...

"If hearts are truly opened, how can ideological and political positions remain so rigid?"

If you truly believe in the substance of this question, have you ever considered directing this question to yourself? Why does your ideological and political position remain so rigid in the face of continuing votes counter to your beliefs? If you answer that then perhaps you can understand why other peoples' positions remain so rigid.

It shouldn't be a surprise by now that many thinking, feeling, and loving persons still view homosexuality as sinful and are deeply disturbed by the notion that the church would canonize a statement condoning sexual acts between members of the same sex or condoning the behavior of one who identifies themselves as having sexual relations with members of both sexes. It is inconceivable to those of us who feel this way that a Church can consent to being led by persons who are actively and unrepentantly engaged in what we believe to be sinful behavior.

What the story probably better points out is that people do care deeply for other people even if they have ideological differences, but we also care deeply for our obligations to God. Jesus's admonition to go and sin no more is equally important to us as well.

The fact that we disagree on the sinful nature of homosexuality and bisexuality will always be the line in the sand that cannot and will not be bridged.

While it may be convenient to position those opposed to homosexuality and bisexuality in the church as unfeeling, closed minded, closed hearted persons, the truth, as always, is far from being that simple. This overly simplified categorization often leads to the kind of attitudes expressed in your post and equally as often on other sides of the argument.

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

Dear Larry,

You are absolutely right. We all need to ask ourselves to what extent our ideologies draw lines in the sand. This is a question I ask myself daily in my own spiritual journey.

I believe with all my heart that Hearne felt authentic compassion for the PFLAG parents with whom he spoke. I don't doubt that he cared for them.

However, in reading this particular story I was struck by what seemd to be a lack of understanding of the way in which his participation in institutional discrimination impacted the people with whom he spoke. It seemed he could not make the connection between their pain and his complicity in it.

At the end of the day, I am okay with theological differences regarding the nature of sexuality. The problem comes when our theological differences fence Christ's table for others. If some believe that homosexuality is contrary to their faith life, then that is okay with me. However, it is not okay when they seek to impose that particular theological interpretation on others by excluding and marginalizing them.

Whether rooted in ideological or theological beliefs, we can all agree that the current prohibitions against the full inclusion of LGBT persons is discrimination pure and simple.

You ask why my theological and ideological positions remain constant in the face of votes to the contrary. It is simply because of my faith and hope in the Good News of Jesus Christ that I read in Scripture and experience in my life. The bible tells us that faith is hope in things not seen. It is this faith that helps me continue to seek justice in the face of oppression and exclusion.

I am convinced through my reading of Scripture, my understanding of Wesleyan and Christian tradition, my reasoning and my experience with faithful LGBT persons, that God wants everyone to be at the table, gay and straight alike.

I pray daily that God will give me the strength and wisdom to maintain integrity in all aspects of my life and will lead me to be constantly open to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.

Larry B said...

"a lack of understanding of the way in which his participation in institutional discrimination impacted the people with whom he spoke."

I can't speak for the person in the article, but your portrayal of the Book of Discipline's statement on hoosexuality as institutional discrimination isn't how I would view it. I don't believe one is complicit in a persons suffering if that suffering is a result of a personal sin. Paul's command to expel a sexually immoral brother from fellowship in Corinth would even argue the opposite, that we are complicit in corporate sin if we are unwilling to separate ourselves from that sin. So it does seem to be important that we have a firm understanding of what constitutes sin. Your statement that it is not okay when they seek to impose that particular theological interpretation on others by excluding and marginalizing them is counter to what is having been recorded in regards to the church in Corinth.

If we accept Paul's counsel then, our only difference is you don't believe sexual relations between two males or two females, in some contexts, is a sin. I do.
If you don't agree with Paul's counsel regarding expulsion as he demonstrated with the Corinthian church, then there is an even deeper theological divide. You are insisting that there is no premise for exclusion from church fellowship, I think there is clear precedence and teaching as such.

Secondly, the discrimination you speak of only exists at the level of being excluded from being a pastor in the church. There may be some individual cases of exclusions in membership or other areas, but that is not the official policy of the church. I don't see how not being able to be an ordained minister within a church fences one out from inclusion in God's kingdom. Jesus's Church is not composed of these artificial divisions we place on our church here on earth anyway.

Lastly how do you account for the testimonies of persons such as Dennis Jernigan (well known contemporary worship song writer) who are grateful to the church for removing him from the sin of homosexuality and testify as to the sinful nature of it and the freedom offered through God's saving grace.
My own close personal friend in the methodist church has the same testimony. How can the church hold duplicitous positions?

Thanks for your thoughts. It's difficult to convey tone in a blog comment, but I hope you understand that I appreciate hearing your perspective. I think we have deep differences, but I hope it helps you to understand why the "other side" has those differences.

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

Larry,

Thank you for continuing the dialogue. You are right that we do have deep differences.

From my reading of Scripture, my understanding of sin and our ecclesial tradition and from my experience of faithful LGBT persons, I am convinced that homosexuality is not a sin. I understand homosexuality as a good gift of God that must, like any other gift of sexuality be used justly and responsibly.

The exclusionary policies of the Church run deeper than just ordination. They include not only ordination but the right to marry, to have one's family blessed by the church, funding for ministry with LGBT persons and now with Judicial Council Decision 1032, the right to be a full member (it is now up to the discretion of local pastors). See below for full listing of prohibitions.

It pains me deeply that when my parishioners who are gay or lesbian share with me their joy of being partnered and married (we are in MA), I have to say to them, "Congratulations...but you can't get married in your church and your I cannot marry you." Their deepest joy is denied by their own faith community. I cannot describe in words the pain it causes.

As to those who have decided to live lives as either celibate homosexuals or practical heterosexuals, I am sure they truly believe the testimonies they tell. I do not think they are dishonest at all.

Being gay or lesbian is not easy. The psycho-social stressors of living a life condemned by your church and some of society often leads to addictive behaviors, depression, isolation, exclusion and risky behavior. It is not that being homosexual causes these things to happen, but rather living in an oppressive social and religious environment causes people to cope with their marginalization in ways that may not be healthy.

Often when poeple come out they are ex-communicated not only from their church, but from their families and homes. The rate of homeless GLBT teens is outstanding, not to mention the suicide rate of teens who question their sexuality. Of course, deciding to live a life that is within the acceptable norms of one's family and Church may make life easier. I can understand that.

However, all mainline professional associations including the American Psychological Association, the American Association of Social Workers and the American Psychiatric Association have found through medical, social and psychological research that not only is being homosexual a normal and natural sexual expression, but that therapies that try to "convert" homosexuals to a heterosexual lifestyle are abusive. All of these professional associations condemn "reparative therapy" as harmful for its patients.

While for some people choosing to live a heterosexual lifestyle may seem easier than struggling under the weight of social and religious condemnation, most homosexual persons who undergo "reparative therapy" find that the therapy cannot change who they are.

As to the situation in Corinth, it is not an appropriate parallel for it has nothing to do with homosecuality. The sexual immorality at stake in Corinth was a problem for Paul and the community because it caused harm to the body...much the same way that sexual misconduct among straight clergymen in the UMC causes harm today. In both situations, it is appropiate to ask the person harming the community to leave.

However, LGBT persons do not harm the community in any way. Their sexuality does not hurt or harm others.
-----

•Incompatibility Clause – ¶161G

“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian Teaching.”

•Marriage and Holy Unions – ¶161G, ¶161C, ¶341.6 ¶2702.1(b)

“We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman…We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” ¶161C

“Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond.” ¶161G

“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”¶341.6

“(b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to…conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies;” ¶2702.1(b)

•Ordination – ¶304.3, ¶2702.1(b)

“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian Teaching, Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” ¶ 304.3

“(b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual”¶2702.1(b)

•Funding – ¶806.9

“…no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. The council shall have the right to stop such expenditures.” ¶806.9

•Membership – Judicial Council Decision 1032 which affirmed the right of any pastor to deny membership based on sexual orientation.

Jules said...

I'll comment from the perspective of long time laity. First, I'll say quite honestly that I am fully with Tiffany's position on this. Larry, I understand your position, because I know many who think similarly. So, having said that, this is more directed to Larry.

What do you do, how do you feel when a lesbian or gay couple visits your church? Do you welcome them? Does the congregation? Are they invited to participate more fully as a heterosexual couple would be? I have friends that I've invited to church for years and years who will only come at Christmas and Easter when they can blend into the crowd because they aren't made to feel welcome on an average Sunday. Why do we, as Christians and as UM people, not welcome them? We are failing them and ourselves in not being the body of Christ.

What do we do in this situation when there are other gays & lesbians that are long time members of the congregation? Why is the old ok but the new and potential members are not given the same encouragement?

What do we do when the pastor is a delegate and, when asked face to face their stance on homosexuality in the UMC? Which way they lean to vote? An "I don't know yet" is understandable on the subject of their vote, but confusing on their personal stance. And both are more confusing still when that pastor and the congregation knows the majority of the congregation is heterosexual, yet also knows a number of the members are gay or lesbian and long term couples - loved, admired, respected, and leaders.

I'd say my point is the above goes directly to Larry's question "Why does your ideological and political position remain so rigid in the face of continuing votes counter to your beliefs?" Many of those votes knowingly go against those members and leaders who, if they packed up and left our churches, would create huge holes and make us struggle to fill them. The same has happened in the past and is currently happening in our military (a whole other topic).

The bottom line? "If hearts are truly opened, how can ideological and political positions remain so rigid?" I've seen it happen and I don't understand it either. I can openly hope and pray that next year some of those opened hearts will in fact vote with their hearts rather than their positions.

Julie

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

Welcome, Julie. I apprecaite you taking the time, like Larry, to read and join in the conversation.

I believe these are exactly the types of conversations we need to be having in our congregations.

Larry B said...

Hi Jules,

I'll stick to a more general answer to your questions. Generally speaking, I personally welcome gay and lesbians to be in fellowship at the church. The same holds true for any other lifestyle I might not agree with, such as a drug addict or a prostitute. I don't expect that they would remain unchanged however.

As a member, I don't have any say over whether a pastor admits someone to membership, so I don't get upset either way. However, I think it's important, in the case of a homosexual, that they understand that they cannot be an ordained minister and they can expect not to have marriage ceremonies in the church before they become members if they choose to remain practicing homosexuals. Too many well meaning churches undermine the book of discipline by not explaining that or outright ignoring it. That's a break with the pledge that we make as members to uphold the Book of Discipline.

That is why I would leave the church if the Book of Discipline is changed to declare homosexuality as not sinful. I can't uphold the discipline in that form and would therefore find a different fellowship.

It's hard for me to understand why people would continue to join the church and take membership vows that they have no intention of upholding. Whether you believe your cause is just, being duplicitious in taking a vow to a membership body is a problem for me.

As you have seen from the previous posts, I simply am opposed to anyone leading a church who is engaged in unrepentant sin. I believe active homosexuality whether monogomous (sp.?) or not is sinful. I arrive at that the same way Reverend Tiffany describes arriving at her opinions. This isn't surprising to me that we have different views of the same material it's happened throughout church history. What I can't understand is why there is an insistence that we all be part of the same administrative structure if we have deep differences. It's leading us to all kinds of sinful behaviour towards one another. The worst is the defined organization of groups who raise money and operate as activist organizations. Much hatred is generated by both sides and both sides think that the other side is causing the issue.

As Rev. Tiffany's post points out though, it's not really the defined organizations speaking here, it's individual hearts and minds. They just happen to differ deeply on some issues.

Jules said...

Hi Tiffany & Larry,

I believe too that these are exactly the types of conversations we need to be having in our congregations. But, too often, if they happen at all, they occur only around General Conference time. It needs to be ongoing and an honest listening of views as we are doing here, no matter how divergent those views are.

Larry, please know that when I said “you” it wasn’t finger pointing. It was truly asking your opinion and personal experience. The same applies here. I’m not looking for a “you” and “us” but an honest understanding, whether general or specific. As you can see from my words last night, I tried to cover the voting delegate pastor specifically enough to describe the situation yet generic enough to not pin down who or where this pastor is. Larry, I won’t ask you anything specific enough to pin down who or where you are either. Tiffany, I know where you are, and if you think hard enough, you can probably figure out who & where I am. People change, especially with time, and the views expressed 3 years ago may not be the same today nor might they be 3 years from now.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk membership first, not clergy candidacy, ordination, or appointment. If homosexuality is to be a barrier to membership, what do we do about all those who are members? Take it away? With 1032 in mind, what if a pastor determines an individual is ready to become a member and that potential new member picks a date to join the UMC and “moving day” has occurred, the old pastor is gone and the new pastor doesn’t feel the potential new member is “ready.” What do we do?

How about membership via Confirmation. Back in the old days, I was confirmed at an older age (in a Confirmation class) than most youth are today. Even in my time, I doubt any of my class knew they were gay or lesbian (at 13 or 14) but when you knock it back to 10-12 years old (6th grade), it is more unlikely a youth would know their sexuality without question. We all hope all youth are celibate at that age! Therefore, they take their vows with no purpose of evasion or dishonesty. What do we do when they grow into adulthood and some are GLBT? When they come back after college to the home churches that raised them to find they are no longer welcome?

What about transfers of membership from one UMC to another? You are a member in good standing and faithful in your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service to your existing church and you move across town, to another town or across the country and find the local UMC that feels right and like home to you, yet the pastor at the new church doesn’t doesn’t feel you are ready. What do we do? What recourse do we have? The “not ready” could be for homosexuality or even because divorced more than once, but yet was something perfectly acceptable in the eyes of your old church in keeping with the Book of Discipline yet the pastor of the new church doesn’t take the same view.

Sooo, let’s discuss membership for a while. It may not be in the “control” of the congregation, but it does affect us all, whether it is from the pulpit, in our Christian Ed classes or next to us in the pews. Sorry for the length – as you can see, I have a hard time telling a short story.

Larry B said...

Jules,

These are all good practical questions.

I have a couple of thoughts. The first one is that the concept of what membership in the church means has become a bit murky. As far as I can tell, membership in the church basically supports the political structure of the church, by giving the person a right to vote at a charge conference and become a delegate to annual and general conferences. Beyond that, participation in worship, communion and lay ministry in the church doesn't really require membership.

My second thought is that in any membership system there are going to be exceptional cases that stress the tenets of the system. In that case, you have to rely on the judgement of individuals and trust their integrity to hold up their fundamental understanding of what the requirements of membership are. That's why the integrity of the ordination process should be upheld when someone takes a vow to uphold the church's discipline. If they disagree with the discipline then they can either uphold it while trying to change it or they should leave if they cannot abide by it.

The same holds true for persons finding changed situations. If we all understand that people are attempting to live up to the discipline in good faith, then when situations change, each individual is responsible for evaluating his or her situation and acting accordingly. If they cannot abide by the new discipline then you can make the choice to leave the fellowship.

Your examples all involve gay persons, but the question equally applies to someone like myself where the discipline, if changed to condone homosexuality, causes me to become unwelcome at my own church. I'm not going to sweat it, I'll simply leave.

Or if a new pastor moves to my church and is highly activist declaring homosexuality as acceptable and acting unfriendly to those who hold opposite views, then I would leave.

My pledge is to uphold the discipline of the church as a member. If I cannot do that, then i shouldn't be a member. Otherwise the church cannot function as an entity if it's members don't agree to abide by it's principles. If my church appoints leaders that ignore the discipline without consequence, then I don't trust the integrity of the church and I won't be a part of that.

This doesn't rule out changing the disicipline through the conference process, but it should be understood by all that the intervening 4 years will require adherence to the will of the previous conference. That's how I understand our church to work.

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

I would add to the conversation that membership in the church is not a political act, but rather a deep theological affirmation of one's initiation and confirmation into the Body of Christ. It is about one's belonging not in any one particular denomination, but in the one, holy, catholic church that extends to all ends of the earth. Remember in our membership ritual, there are three separate affirmations with fidelity to denomination and local church being last.

I also believe that dissent is a sign of true commitment and faithfulness. When people seek change in an institution they do so only because they love that institution. If they did not, they would simply leave.

I think the passages in Cortinthians about the nature of that Body can help us understand how in Christ diversity is not nullified, but affirmed and celebrated. The very nature of the Church (and thus membership in that Church) is rooted in diversity. We should not all act and think alike...we should not all be heads, or all arms, or all little toes. But we should all be welcome.

I don't understand how welcoming one type of person, makes another person unwelcome in the Body of Christ. Currently, LGBT people are kept from full participation in the life of the Church (including things in membership that are promised to all people...like the full rites of teh church).

If the Church were to welcome LGBT persons and allow them full participation, they would not exclude or pass laws against people who think homosexuality is a sin. Everyone would be allowed to fully participate.

If one disagrees with policy, then one has a choice to stay or to go. No one is forced out for differing opinions. In fact the UMC values a diversity of opinion.

But LGBT persons do not have that choice. Right now LGBT persons do not have the choice whether to stay or go. They are shut out by the laws of the discipline.

Jules said...

I didn't want you to think I'd lost interest in our conversation. Life has been crazy at work and at home. I do have a partial response started on my computer at work and hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to finish and post it.