When I attended my first United Methodist General Conference in 1988 as a denominational employee, I was still claiming to be a Southern Baptist, even though the church that had brought me to faith was pretty clear that there wasn’t room at the table for those of us who believed that the Bible was inspired but not dictated by God. And as a young man raised up in the world of Bible drills and holiness revivals, my eyes were quickly opened wide as I stumbled into the United Methodist Church of the 1980’s.
In those days, rooted in my fundamentalist heritage, I confess that I really didn’t know what to make of the protestors standing outside the St. Louis Convention Center arguing for the inclusion of gays and lesbians (only a few brave souls were talking about “bi” and “transgendered” in those days) in the life of the church. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with gay and lesbian folk (I was, after all, a child of 1960’s liberals) but how one’s orientation intersected with the church (given that the standard answer about most ANY kind of sex in the church of my youth was “NO!!!”) didn’t quite compute. I watched with confusion as a gentle bishop who would later become a friend (the late David Lawson) attempted to preside at a conference as protestors held banners in his face between he and the conference. I knew that this was an important issue, but I really didn’t know how it would all work out.
20+ years later, with a seminary degree behind me, years of conversation with folks of all stripes, and service as a pastor in a local church, I still really don’t have a clue how we will move beyond the divide we experience on the issue of sexuality. My position has changed since my first General Conference as I’ve searched the scriptures, participated in study, and learned from all sorts of people about sexual orientation and the pain that many feel at their exclusion from full participation in the church. I have engaged in my own struggles as a pastor who is called to offer love and grace to all, but who willingly places himself under the authority of a church who says that people I love and care for are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” I look with dismay at a communion which claims to want to increase the number of young adult participants while watching those young adults walk away from the church because for them sexual orientation is a non-issue.
And yet, the struggle we face is not an easy one, for this conversation is not simply about justice—the right and wrong of who is included and who isn’t. This is a theological argument which gets at the heart of important differences in how we interpret the scriptures, our concepts of revelation (static or progressive), and the nature of God’s kingdom. There are valid points to be made on both sides, especially since our current, post-Augustinian theology of sexuality as a whole is not especially robust. This is a hard and long conversation – and unfortunately the General Conference, which is primarily a legislative body, cannot give the necessary time and attention required to fully discern the will of God in light of the witness of Scripture, church tradition, human experience, and reason.
What we end up with instead is a kind of Kabuki theater, in which everyone seems to have a prescribed role and the outcome always seems to be the same. As is true in most church conflicts, about a third of the participants at General Conference usually are vocal advocates against changing the status quo, while another third are vocally for full inclusion. The remaining third just wishes everyone could get along, and so they tend to vote for the side which they think will create the most bedlam should they lose the battle, simply as a means of keeping the peace. Throughout the two weeks in Tampa, there will be the normal chest beating of those on the right who say it’s time for those on the other side to split off and create their own new church (as long as we get to keep the existing property, they think). There will be, of course, the carefully stage managed public witness used as a means of keeping the issue of inclusion in the mind of the conference. There will be much huffing and puffing, but in the end, I confess that I have little confidence that much will change.
This year, in the weeks leading up to the gathering by the bay, there really hasn’t been a great deal of conversation about the issue of sexuality. Sure, there have been the normal efforts by the usual interest groups making the case for change, but my sense is that the sexuality issue hasn’t been in the minds of delegates in their preparations for Tampa, due to concerns about institutional survival and building vital congregations. Of course some would say that it’s these very concerns that should lead us to consider how our position on sexuality undermines our call to make disciples of all persons. And yet I wonder if the focus in other places doesn’t in fact help turn down the pressure a bit and tone down the rhetoric that leads toward division? This will be an important issue, for sure, but I don’t think it will be the defining issue of this General Conference.
My hope and dream for right now is that we could be truly honest about where we stand as a communion: that we differ in our interpretation of scripture, leading to different definitions of sexual boundaries. As the Call to Action study pointed out, we are a denomination with trust issues, and I wonder if a good dose of honesty in admitting that we aren’t unified but are seeking clarity in our discernment of God’s will would go a long way in modeling a Christianity which has room to differ in our interpretation while remaining unified on the central gathering point of our faith – Jesus Christ. For some, admitting that we are a broken body on this issue is tantamount to admitting weakness – but didn’t Jesus turn upside down societal norms of power, suggesting that it is the weak, the vulnerable, and the honest who are the strong ones in our midst? For me, our ability to be honest about who we really are speaks volumes about our understanding of discipleship.
The good news is that there WILL be something different this year to help the conversation. Early in the conference schedule the delegates of the conference will be organized into small groups for conversation. Some of that conversation will focus on the sexuality issue, working together in smaller groups to think about how to best talk about the issue. Certainly, an hour or two of small group reflection is not enough to deal with a complex issue like sexuality, but at least our church has been willing to think about pushing beyond the Kabuki to facilitate real conversation.
So I come to the General Conference of 2012 with my eyes less wide than the twenty something year old man I was almost 25 years ago. After personally attending 5 General Conferences and about to attend my 6th, I have come to realize that the show will go on, whether I want it to or not. The Kabuki players are most likely suiting up, and there’s a good chance that we will go through the motions we’ve seen before.
But maybe, just maybe, in a small group over here, and another over there, a rogue scriptwriter will show up, the Holy Spirit who turns things upside down and inside out, the one who helps us speak new words, and who makes clean that which was unclean before.
And if that happens, all bets are off.