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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Taking the 'me' out of Methodist: 'Hallelujah! I've seen the dark!'

Pssst. Wanna hear a deep, dark secret from my past? At the age of 14 I had planned on becoming a minister. Oh, don't worry. I got over it before I got my driver's license, but it's still not exactly the kind of personal information I usually share.

I grew up in a small town attending the Methodist Church, one of the two largest churches in town (the other being the Southern Baptist Church). We also had a few other denominations, but the Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Assembly of God, and Nazarene churches were clearly the closet closest we had to "minorities."

For those who don't know, the Methodist Church is one of those white-bread, mainstream Protestant churches. Theologically, it inhabits the middle ground between the moderately liberal United Church of Christ and the definitely conservative Southern Baptists. As I recall from the Sunday mornings of my youth spent in the pews or the choir loft, the most striking feature of Methodism was its ... well, it's blandness. While Baptists would "dunk" members to baptize them, Methodists would dab a bit of water on top their heads. While the "holy rollers" would burst into ecstatic "fits" of worship, Methodists would quietly sit through the service except when expected to rise, sit, sing, recite the Apostles' Creed, or provide a response to the responsive reading. While Catholics got wine with their communion, we were treated to thimble-sized glasses of grape juice. Methodism was like Religion Lite. Little was offered and little was expected. The only thing that seemed to matter was whether the collections kept coming in to build a new church bigger than the one the Baptists were building.

It was in that denomination at the age of 14 that I "saw the light" and decided to become a minister. Before the age of 16, however, I had "seen the dark" and left the Methodist Church never to return. My disenchantment with the church stemmed from watching it split between traditional Methodists and a small but vocal group who had taken to attending weeknight worship sessions with a small group of charismatic Catholics. On one side were the "holier than thous" who insisted you weren't really "saved" without being baptized in the Holy Spirit and the attendant "speaking in tongues." On the other side were the "we're holy enough, thank you very muches" who insisted being born and baptized once was sufficient.

And the church's response to this "mini-schism"? Exactly nothing. In true Methodist fashion, the church didn't want to risk giving offense to anyone, so it did nothing and the wounds festered. Despite the stereotpe of rebellious teenagers, at the age of 14 or 15 most teens actually want some sort of guidance. I know I did. On the one had I was being told I was already a good Christian. From the other side the message was I wasn't doing enough to avoid the fires of hell. I just wanted the church to take a stand one way or another.

When it didn't, I walked away and embarked on a path that lead from atheism to agnosticism then into the Eastern religions of Buddhism and Taoism and from there to neopaganism and Native American spirituality and New Age beliefs (though I would roll my eyes at the crystal gazing and channeling and some of the other trappings of it) until finally today I'm so eceltic in my approach that "universalist" is the only label that seems to apply.

Now I find I miss my old church. That's not to say they can expect me showing up for services any time soon. I miss the Methodist Church that steadfastly refused to take any sort of controversial stance on the issues of the day. Today's Methodist Church is much more likely to take a stand; but when it comes to LGBT issues, the stands it takes are more rooted in fear and ignorance and prejudice than in Christian love and compassion.

Sometimes Methodists can "talk the talk," as in the case of statement by it's Council fo Bishops that was reported in the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch:

The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops says membership in the denomination is open to everyone, including gays and lesbians.

"While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier," council members said in a pastoral letter released yesterday.

The council, which is meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C., asked that the letter be read or distributed during worship services Sunday.

"Walking the walk" is something else entirely. Considering that such an affirming statement was made just after the denomination's Judicial Council had issued two alarmingly anti-gay rulings, it comes across more like spin control than an authentic statement of beliefs.

In one case, the Judicial Council overturned a lower church court ruling and ordered the defrocking of a lesbian pastor who is in a committed relationship with another woman. The United Methodist Church accepts gay and lesbian ministers as long as they are celibate - sort of a theological "don't ask, don't tell" policy, given the number of gay and lesbian Methodist clergy running around. But when the Rev. Beth Stroud notified her Germantown, Pennsylvania congregation of her relationship with another women in a sermon on April 27, 2003, her bishop immediately began procedures to remove Stroud from the ministry.

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in a column after Stroud was defrocked:

"Each time, Jesus showed up, a living presence on the wrong side of the door where he had no reason to be," she preached on April 27, 2003.

That is the same sermon in which she told her congregation she was gay and in a loving relationship with Chris Paige, her partner of nearly three years.

"Because of my relationship with her, I am a better, more faithful Christian," Stroud told them. "I am deeply grateful to her for the daily practice in loving and being loved, and forgiving and being forgiven, that constantly deepen who I am as a person of faith."

Stroud said she came out to her congregation because she could not fully embrace her faith if she kept such an important part of her life cloaked in darkness. She warned them that her public announcement might lead the larger church to condemn her, but she cautioned the congregation against looking for "an enemy to fight."

I suppose it could be argued that Stroud knew the risks of coming out and gambled her ordination and lost. But she challenged an unjust policy and I applaud her for it.

In the second case involving LGBT issues, the Judicial Council ordered the reinstatement of a rural Virginia minister placed on leave for denying a gay man membership in his church last winter. The Council decided the Rev. Edward Johnson was within his ministerial rights when he denied membership to the would-be parishioner.

From an article in The Washington Post on both cases:

Johnson, 58, had been on an involuntary, unpaid leave since June, when Methodist ministers in Virginia voted 448 to 114 to discipline him for refusing to allow a gay man to become a member of his congregation. His district superintendent and his bishop had urged Johnson to admit the man.

Yesterday, the Judicial Council reinstated Johnson, with back pay, with a 5 to 3 vote. It said local pastors have the discretion to decide on members.

Johnson was traveling yesterday and did not return messages. The Rev. Tom Thomas, who served as Johnson's legal counsel, said the decision "salvaged" the career of a good pastor and "preserves the way pastoral ministry has been done in our church for 200 years."

The Judicial Counsel viewed the case as a question about a pastor's authority, rather than a question about whether people in same-sex relationships are eligible to join the church. In a dissenting opinion, Judicial Council member Susan T. Henry-Crowe said the decision "compromises the historical understanding that the Church is open to all."

OK, so let's recap, shall we?

Tell a gay person he or she can't be a member of your church? Check!

Defrock a minister who speaks of her same-sex partner (but allowing ministers with opposite sex partners to talk openly about ther spouses)? Another check!

Draft a statement telling me how welcome I am and that "homosexuality is not a barrier" and expect me to show up on Sunday morning, wallet in hand to donate to the new church fund? I don't think so!

Growing up, I came to dislike the "mush-mouthed Methodists," as they were called, who tried to please everyone by taking a stand on nothing. Rather than giving me something I could choose to accept or reject, it gave me nothing.

Now, three decades later, the church has finally given me something that I can reject. It just a shame that the reasoning behind the recent rulings say more about the fears and prejudices of a few so-called Christians than the teachings of Christ.