(RNS) — A week ago, I loved the United Methodist Church. I still do, but this week I wish I had a fake wig and mustache to camouflage the embarrassment. Large institutions are like that. I love and have given my life to this one, and we have achieved so much that is transformative — only to see sexuality splinter everybody apart in this week’s vote to double-down on the church’s official ban on LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage.
It’s understandable, as those visceral and mystifying parts of ourselves scramble the brain, but it’s still painful to see all the good and beauty of the institution crumble in a day.
No institution is a monolith. “The Methodist Church decided…” requires some nuance. A narrow vote, hotly contested. Two-thirds of American voters eagerly sought a more open, embracing conclusion. A coalition of very conservative, semi-fundamentalist Americans, Russians, Africans and others won the day, trying to preserve God’s honor, I suppose, and keep themselves pure. I have many friends among them.
But I grieve, and I am mortified by the way they connect the dots in this Christian dispensation.
Their “Traditional Plan” is a misnomer. Traditions can be beautiful, in literature, architecture, wisdom passed down through the ages. But traditions can also be wretched and toxic. Cultures carry on traditions of racism, or warfare, or xenophobia. The church has traditionally condemned LGBTQ people, and that slight majority of Methodists this week added ferocious language and stringent policing to that tradition.
This is not of God. Do we think people outside the church are just waiting for us to condemn gays, and then, and only then, will they enter to hear about Jesus? Haven’t we just underlined in bold ink society’s skepticism that church is nothing but a bunch of judgmental hypocrites?
Many have said this decision was hurtful to LGBTQ people – which is true but way too limited. We speak of “the LGBTQ community” as if they are some ghettoized clump of people living sequestered among us. They are just us, we are just them. Other-ing them, demonizing them, judging them, or even pitying them is demeaning, not just to them but to all of us.
I have many in my congregation who feel the Traditional Plan was the right one. My counter to them is that the tone of the decision, and the ferocious judgmentalism in the tactics and speeches of many of those who made it, should appall conservatives, centrists, progressives, anyone with a pulse. God did not create us to be mean. When we’re mean, even if it feels like righteous indignation, it harms others. It is toxic to the one being mean. God, mercifully, relieves us of the burden of ever judging anybody.
I love the United Methodist Church’s Scriptures, the Bible – but has any book ever been more absurdly abused or narrow-mindedly misread? The conservatives insist they are simply sticking with the Bible and trot out a few verses.
But they aren’t nearly so interested in the Bible when it says not to lay up treasure on earth — proven by the fact that at the same conference we argued over our pension fund vehemently. Rarely do we hear them quote the passages telling us always to welcome the immigrant, not to loan or borrow money at interest, and on and on. The Bible is a beautiful book when read wisely and with a sensitive eye to God’s people, for whom it was given as a precious resource to discover life, not to be weaponized to smash people we don’t like or understand.
Marriage in the Bible isn’t simply one man, one woman. Sometimes in the Bible it’s one man, five women and a few concubines. In the Bible, marriage is a mystery, two people called together by God to seek and serve God. In our marriage service, we Methodists urge the couple to be generous friends to those to whom love is a stranger. Marriage is an exercise in holiness and humility. I’ve seen same-gender marriages that are holy and humble, exemplary to so many straight couples who have struggled so mightily and damaged the reputation of marriage severely.
Since 1972, when the institution first said, “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality” (as if it’s a “practice”), the church has not prevented one gay person from being gay! But the miracle, the loveliest sign of grace and the manifest glory of our denomination is that thousands and thousands of those not condoned have stayed in our churches. They teach, sing, play the organ, sweep, go on mission trips, pray right alongside those who would declare them immoral if they knew. What grace. And they have served as clergy, serving nobly and humbly in the face of renunciation.
That is Christlike — far more Christlike than anybody smugly passing judgment on anybody.
With church members understandably ready to bail, I’ve repeatedly said General Conference isn’t the church, maybe the way a restaurant chain’s board of directors meeting isn’t a family enjoying dinner. Church is where you love, worship, share, cry, laugh and serve together. We’re connected to that bigger body, but those ties are only healthy when we are joining hands to do good for and with others.
Someone phoned me today to sever his membership with my church. I haven’t actually seen him much in a few years anyhow. Sometimes we think me, my name, my membership, my nod is such a precious thing. But the church is the one weird institution that liberates us from the “me” that would always dominate my mindset, and draws each of us into a larger “us.”
We are the church, not one and then another and then another, adding up to however many members. We are a Body, in this together or not at all. To lose one is like someone taking a knife and gouging out a chunk of your gut.
I’m asking my people not to leave. Not because they can’t think of a good reason to leave. I have drafted a letter of resignation in my mind about a dozen times this week. But if we start hemorrhaging, if we just exit, then the other guys win. What those who are wounded by a decision like this need are strong churches that welcome and embrace everybody and refuse to be bullied into slamming the doors shut on anybody.
Everyone is anxious. What will happen? Will we split? Can we form a new denomination? The wise never make a decision when under duress. Time will tell. We will see what unfolds.
But I believe, and I see so many signs of it here and there already, that a beautiful, embracing, joyful, compassionate church is even now rising up, phoenix-like, out of the ruins of what we’re left with after this week’s conference. I want to be part of that church. We all, deep in our souls, wish to be in such a church.
(James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)