The most vocal, active, and organized advocates for LGBT inclusion in The United Methodist Church have embraced Biblical Obedience as a framework for understanding the Church's ministry in a denomination where "homosexual unions" and non-celibate gay clergy are explicitly forbidden.
Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert describes Biblical Obedience as:
“...A call for us to claim our identity as it relates to the Bible, to speak truth to power, and decide that laws that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and allies in the life of the Church are immoral and unjust and are no longer deserving of our loyalty and support. It is a call to declare our beliefs and start doing the right thing.”
Presumably, many more clergy will now ignore the Book of Discipline's prohibitions against solemnifying same sex marriages, which are now legal in 16 states containing 36% of the population. The thought of hundreds or thousands of pastors risking their careers to do what's right is, well, strangely heart-warming.
But I'll just come out and say what I suspect some United Methodists are thinking: Perhaps the UMC should end its anti-gay stance. But I'm not 100% on board with the strategy. Perhaps if I understood what else the strategy entails besides ignoring church law and the clear intentions of multiple General Conferences, more people could support it without reservation.
This summer, hundreds of liberal United Methodists -- lay and clergy -- convened in Chevy Chase, Maryland to commit to the Biblical Obedience strategy. Two events, a worship service and a reception at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington, were open to the public. I attended the service and was pleased to hear Bishop Talbert himself preach. He pointed out that Biblical Obedience arises out of the Baptismal Covenant, in which members commit to "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." Since The UMC's position on gay marriage is evil, unjust, and oppressive, the bishop argued, clergy have an obligation to ignore the Discipline in this case. The service and reception were beautiful. I've been around the UMC for most of my life and I have rarely seen so much joy, hope, or spiritual vitality among any group of United Methodists!
Even so, I have questions. As a former member, I am more of an observer of than a participant in UM life. No one owes me a rationale for their strategy. But as a matter of public discourse and persuasion, it occurs to me that Biblical Obedience proponents (a group that includes a great number of personal friends) might be well served by clarifying a few points.
- First, I'm unclear about what they think will ultimately happen. Are they a minority committing to do the right thing in the hope that the traditionalist majority will realize in short time that they were wrong? Are they expecting there to be so many trials that eventually a consensus emerges to stop the trials? Then what? Are they trying to win the hearts and minds of the traditionalist majority? Or are they merely ignoring them?
- Second, I hear very little discussion or strategizing anymore about how to change the Discipline legislatively. After the disappointments of many past General Conferences, I understand wanting to focus on more fruitful avenues to "be in ministry for and with all persons" (¶ 161 F). I'll admit some ignorance here. Perhaps the vote counters know definitively that the General Conference will not reverse the incompatibility clause or the prohibitions against gay clergy and same sex marriage for many quadrennia to come. No one knows how long it will take for the sea change in public opinion, accounting for relative liberal decline and African growth in the UMC, to translate to a General Conference majority. But shouldn't pro-LGBT United Methodists try? And, if they fail, should they abide by the majority view across the connection?
- Third, who should stay and who should go? It has been heartbreaking to read articles and blog posts about people, particularly clergy and clergy candidates, struggling with whether or not to leave the UMC. I honor those who choose to stay and fight. But this is not everyone's fight. Those for whom fighting would involve serious harm to spirit, self, and vocation -- gay, straight, or otherwise -- need to feel very free to pursue their calling in a denomination that is not so overtly hostile.
- Finally, what does this mean for broader UM conflicts over theology and biblical interpretation? Eventually, the belief that homosexual expression is a vile sin worthy of explicit Disciplinary condemnation will no longer be a majority view in The UMC. Traditionalists will come to interpret scriptural mentions of the subject as culturally conditioned in largely the same way scriptural affirmations of slavery and patriarchy are not normative for all time. They will accept, however grudgingly, gay clergy and same sex marriage in largely the same way they accepted (however grudgingly) racial integration and women clergy. Conservatives change more slowly -- by definition! But they will still be theological conservatives. Even when traditionalist clergy and laypeople soften or abandon their opposition to homosexuality, will United Methodists not still be very, very far apart on vital matters of faith and doctrine? Does this even matter?
I realize that it's easy for me as an outsider to question a strategy to which many of my friends with much more at stake are firmly committed and at which they arrived through more prayer and discernment than I have ever given to the issue. But my clergy and lay friends who came to the UMC since 1972 chose to worship and serve in an anti-gay denomination with well known rules and procedures for how to change policies.
Maybe we should ignore unjust laws. Dr. King certainly did. But he also made sure we got a Civil Rights Act in 1964 and a Voting Rights Act in 1965. There is a place for civil disobedience. But we must wage the legislative battle and the battle for hearts and minds just as diligently.
Perhaps it is unwise and unhelpful for someone without a dog in this fight to weigh in. But I have a fascination with and, after all, a healthy appreciation for, the great United Methodist tradition. My best wishes to all who strive toward Wesley's stated goal: To revive the church and the nation, and to spread scriptural holiness through the land.