I attended a large gathering of Methodists this week in Kansas City. From the start, I could feel the tension and suspicion in the room from all of us who had voluntarily said ‘yes’ and paid our own way to the event. We arrived with little more than an assumption that we could somehow respond to the ‘imbalance of power’ creating the impasse since February’s UMC Special General Conference.
Like everyone else, I had many open threads of conversation on social media, text, and email with friends and colleagues who were not in the room and wanted to be. The first certain observation I hated to share with them was, “It’s complicated.”
The United Methodist Church has unity in its constitution and design, and therefore, is intentionally near impossible to separate. We also acknowledge that there exist conservatives living and ministering in geographically progressive areas as well as progressives that live and minister in geographically conservative ones. The denomination is like the large Thanksgiving table, with family from different political perspectives just trying to make it through dinner without erupting into an argument. At the dinner table I grew up with, I knew that my quarreling sister and I would both be sitting together at the same dinner table every night and we didn’t have to like each other, but we were expected to be civil. My belief is that the Lord’s Table embodied on Earth invites us to be together even while we struggle to stay in relationship with one another.
We sat at 78 different tables at Church of the Resurrection with an intentional mix of lay and clergy from different conferences. At my table, I shared with and listened to individuals from Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, Texas, Kansas, and Tennessee. We represented male & female, Black, Latino, Native American, and Anglo.
This was my FIRST. EVER. gathering of United Methodists in which I was welcome in the fullness of my being GAY and serving in ORDAINED ministry. I spoke boldly about what that means to me including the importance of my marriage for the church. Another at my table is among the “hidden faithful,” an affirming term for those serving in the closet because their conference and/or bishop are not safe for them. I met with and learned of many more in the resistance, some quiet and some as loud as they dare be. They remain my siblings in the United Methodist Church and are no less worthy of consideration as we study options for severing the denomination. Our testimonies and conversations were holy and priceless to me, and highlighted the gravity of what is before us.
On level with our conversations about orientation and gender identity is acknowledging that our denomination has still not dealt with its institutional racism and sexism. Whatever new path we set forth MUST remove all remnants of discrimination from its language and practice. This truth was made more evident as the closing liturgy of this “affirming” event was rife with language of King, Lord, He, Him, His, and Father, while also failing to mention “sexual orientation and gender identity” as we professed our faith that Christ is “opening the church to people of all ages, nations, and races.”
Of the whole body, more of us want to leave the denomination than stay to continue struggling, but none of the options are easy and each person has limited strength for any of it. In spite of all this, we sat together, honoring each story and struggling with less than optimal solutions.
We are deeply Methodist and that doesn’t make this any easier. But we are BEING the church – the ancient future Wesleyans, and that feels reassuring. About half-way through the sugar-stimulated and sleep deprived event, I noticed that I was now looking into the eyes of each person I passed on my way to the caffeine and snacks. I saw groups of two and three and more people smiling and crying and holding one another. These people were strangers just a day before. That lack of trust we started with had vanished within just a small time of sharing and listening. If only there had been an eighteenth-century Anglican priest who had suggested methodically gathering small groups of people together for sharing the nourishment of both food and story.
At the end we were exhausted. Yet I also wished I could stay longer in this holy place in which so many had dared share their beautifully naked honesty.
This event alone will not save the United Methodist Church, but it pointed us toward a more excellent way for Methodists to feel connected and share some real possibility of hope.