A New Day in the United Methodist Church

It’s really funny — for several years, I haven’t blogged regularly. I still write a lot about issues I care about, but I tend to do it on Facebook, where I have a lot of friends who like talking about these issues too. I have been meaning to copy some of that writing over here, so it’s on a medium I own, and this is a good reminder to do that — because when today’s historic votes happened in the United Methodist Church, I decided I should come here to write about it. And right now, the last time I did that was five years ago, when we had a historically awful vote in the UMC. So that’s the post that greeted me when I opened up my blog.

A lot has happened in 5 years, and I’ve written about this issue a lot over that time elsewhere. I’ll start bringing that writing here soon so it’s cataloged here and then this intro note won’t be so necessary. But let’s talk about what got us here, about today, and even more importantly, about tomorrow.

After the 2019 specially called UMC General Conference, with its disastrous results that doubled down on discrimination, and also set up a way for congregations to leave the UMC with their property, I had mentally prepared myself that I would need to leave the UMC, at least after the 2020 General Conference, where all these matters would once again be at the forefront. I can’t speak for anyone else, never mind a congregation, but I took solace in the reality that I was surrounded by many, many others who were just as committed to full inclusion as I was, for whom the lack thereof in our denomination was long since a dealbreaker. I thought it was possible, even likely, that many mainstream and more liberal congregations would have to leave the UMC if we wanted a church where our LGBTQIA friends could worship, marry, and serve in full measure just like anyone else.

A funny thing happened.

The pandemic postponed that 2020 General Conference, and it was finally decided we’d just have it four years late, so it’s been going on for the past two weeks in Charlotte, NC.

But in 2023, thousands of conservative congregations left the UMC. Nothing about this makes sense to me, really — the structure they put in place [and it was conservative votes that did this in 2019] ensured that congregations that disagreed with the discriminatory language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline [preventing gay people from being ordained or marrying in the church] could leave, with their property. You were supposed to say that you disagreed with the Discipline, and that was your ticket out. And annual conferences [smaller regional meetings] approved thousands of these disaffiliations in 2023. When I say they approved them, it’s really more that they recognized them. The way the disaffiliation was designed in 2019 basically said, if you want out, you can go, with your church and land [which the UMC otherwise owns and shares in trust with individual congregations]. And the folks who left were the ones who had argued for the discriminatory language in the first place. They certainly didn’t disagree with it, but away they went.

I have a lot of thoughts about how that went down that come from my political side. Like — were conservative churches thinking they’d leave anyway, and they set it up so liberals THOUGHT they were voting to make it easy for liberals to leave, and the conservatives planned to do this all along? And they’d thus ensured they left on favorable terms? Was this truly conservatives thinking they were giving the liberals a gracious way out, but as time went by and the world changed, they decided they’d be better off controlling their destiny on their own? I have no idea, and in the end, I don’t suppose it matters a lot.

The United and worldwide parts of the United Methodist Church have always meant a lot to me. It pains me to think that some Methodists did not want to stay under a big tent, if indeed we are making the tent big, but I can only trust that they are walking a different path, and pray that their path also leads to a place that God would have them go. Those who have left have left behind the United part, though perhaps they are finding others with whom they have common cause, and they have left behind our worldwide agencies and structures that support education, disaster relief, and many, many other services. Some are already grouping into new associations, but many are trying to go it alone as independent churches. I wish them well, but I cannot help but hope that many will find their way back to the United Methodist Church in the long run.

Today, though, today was a seminal moment in the history of the United Methodist Church. Over the past 10 days, through multiple votes, the General Conference has removed the harmful language added into the Book of Discipline between 1972-2019. Most of these votes have happened via margins well over 90% on the consent agenda — a parliamentary situation unheard of in the UMC in my lifetime. As the meeting ends this week, gay UMC members will be free to marry in their churches. Their pastors will be free to perform the ceremonies. LGBTQ members will be free to pursue ordination and openly serve the church and their communities. There are some additional details to work out, but many of those will matter only to the “Methonerds” among us.

Even as we look to a new world, I must hold space for all the harm the church has actively caused in the last 50 years with the discriminatory language and actions it perpetuated. I know people who were removed from ministry. I know people who were rejected by friends, loved ones, and congregations, and the very idea that the church would do this, ostensibly in the name of God — it’s hard to imagine greater psychological harm.

But today, today we celebrate.

For me, this is personal in several ways. One of the most influential ministers I knew as a young person was removed from the church because he was gay. He brought a lot of people to God, but the way God made him didn’t fit into an imperfect human definition. As an ally who’s straight, I’ve stood beside many LGBTQIA friends over the years and wept not just in solidarity, but in grief for the loss that discrimination caused for each of us.

Still, though — it’s not my voice that should be centered here. It’s my 15yo daughter’s voice, who eagerly texted back throughout the school day as I updated her on the passage of church legislation that means she is a full and whole member of her church, not just in the eyes of God — she’s had that all along — but in the eyes of the imperfectly created human structure itself. She came home exuberant that she could get married and be ordained in our church, if that’s what she is called to do. She’s already leading in our church; I’m regularly told by other members where they see her making a difference in the church and in this world.

I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my adult life in two affirming congregations: East End UMC and now West End UMC. My family is surrounded by our people. My daughter is so fortunate to have many mentors, friends, and family who love her and validate her. And still. This matters so much.

I am so grateful to thousands of United Methodists around the world who have been working for this moment and what will come next for many years. The Reconciling Ministries team…Mainstream UMC…there are many more, individuals and groups, who have been working to bring this day to pass.

Today, my favorite video from General Conference was of delegates singing Draw the Circle Wide after the vote to remove language banning ordination and marriages. I can’t stop singing this beautiful song. It’s where God is calling us, louder every day:

Draw the circle, draw the circle wide
No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still
Let this be our song, no one stands alone
Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide

Lyrics by Gordon Light, music by Mark Miller