As many will know, last week the United Methodist Church met to discuss issues related to sexuality and to see if there was a way for us to remain a united church, given our differences. The issues centered on whether individual ministers should be permitted to perform same-sex marriages and whether individual conferences should be able to ordain LGBT+ clergy. Our book of church rules — after a statement referring to LGBT+ people as “persons of sacred worth” and encouraging churches to minister with them — has also forbidden both actions.
At last week’s conference, a proposal that would have permitted individual churches and conferences to follow their own understanding of God’s mission was rejected. Instead, the church approved a plan reaffirming the present restrictions and establishing new enforcement mechanisms to make sure that churches would toe the line from now on. Those who took this restrictive stand (and imposed it on others) described their action as holding to the Bible and refusing to conform to culture.
The congregation that I serve, Lake Street United Methodist Church of Eau Claire, has chosen differently. We have a long history of receiving, learning from and being guided by LGBT+ members and leaders. Just in the past two years, we have written our own inclusion statement, which lists sexuality and gender identity among those things that will not matter to us in our ministry. We have not done this out of a desire to conform to culture, but because it is how we understand the life and teaching and nature of Jesus Christ, as revealed in scripture. Because our inclusion of all is based on our encounter with Christ, we do not have the option of changing our stand. We do not and will not grant any institutional body the right to tell us whom we shall love or choose as a leader.
Obviously, this puts us in a position of potential noncompliance with our denomination. At this point, it is hard to know what that will mean. But as I stood up last Sunday to speak to the congregation — many of whom had written their distress to me — I was not concerned with denominational politics. Instead, my first concern was for the people most affected by our parent church’s actions. Below is a portion of what I said.
“To our own family who are gay or lesbian or bi-sexual or transgender I say this: you inspire me. Every time you step into a Christian church — a church that has too often ignored you and denied your very humanity — you act with incredible courage. I honor you, and I promise this: nothing in this congregation has changed. You are family, and we both want you and need you. You are not just someone that we make room for — a ministry project — you are partners in ministry to a broken world.
“To those who have sons, daughters, or friends who are gay, let me say this: I can’t tell you not to give up on the United Methodist Church but I can ask you not to give up on this family of God’s children, joined together by love, not rules, serving each other and our neighbors and our world in the name of Christ, who is our model and final standard.
“Finally, to our youth and young adults — who are incredulous that the generation that runs our denomination is trying to return to a time when one just didn’t speak of such things, as if pretending something doesn’t exist is the same as dealing with it — to you I say this: don’t give up on Christ. Go up the mountain yourself, listen to the voice of God and do what you hear. We’ll go with you.”
This is who Lake Street church is, and who we have been for a long time. The conference of last week has issued new rules asking us, in essence, to stop being like that. But nothing good or just can come of trying to be — or pretending to be — who we are not. Our LGBT+ family members have taught us that much.
The Rev. Gerald Morris is lead pastor of Lake Street United Methodist Church, Eau Claire.