Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Open Letter to Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (#3)

Dear Bishop Whitaker,

Having given you my testimony, and, in particular, having sketched the ways in which Methodism informs my religious commitments and value judgments, today I would like to offer a response to your essay of 13 July 2006 entitled “The Church and Homosexuality.”

Thank you for having placed this essay on the website of the Florida UMC Conference at, and for having invited responses to it. I understand that the essay arises, in part, out of what occurred at the 2006 Florida statewide UMC conference assembly.

Interestingly enough, that conference ended the very day Dr. Schafer and I arrived in Florida to take positions at a United Methodist college under your pastoral jurisdiction, and on whose board of trustees you serve. Though the fact that we are openly gay and living in a longstanding committed relationship was discussed by your college’s board prior to our coming to this college, and though the board approved our hire, we were not told of the bitter conflict that emerged in the Florida UMC just at the time of our arrival to serve at your college.

If I understand correctly, this conflict centered around a controversy in Virginia, in which an openly gay man asked to join a United Methodist church and was turned away by its pastor. He was told he was not welcome. Interestingly enough, I happen to have a personal connection to this story, in that a cousin of mine is married to a close relative of the person around whom this controversy centered, and I know of the man’s experiences from that context.

From what I learned after it became evident to Dr. Schafer and me that

, your 2006 statewide conference ended with bitter divisions in the Florida UMC church. If I am informed correctly, those divisions were over the question of whether openly gay and lesbian believers can be welcomed by Methodist churches.

Your essay responds to this question by providing an overview and defense of the current position of the UMC that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith. At the same time, your essay makes a plausible and thoughtful argument for reasoned, inclusive dialogue about the church’s response to gay and lesbian human beings. Your essay ends with a warning about what might happen if the United Methodist Church revised its current prohibition against the “practice” of homosexuality or the ordination of (openly) gay and lesbian persons or blessing of gay unions. You state,

If The United Methodist Church changes its basic position on homosexuality, then it will be making a move toward modern Western culture, but against a historic and global ecumenical consensus. Some would justify this move as the prophetic action of a church in the vanguard of enlightenment. However, the fact is that such a move would change the way The United Methodist Church would be viewed by the rest of the ecumenical Christian community, which, by a vast majority, adheres to the traditional teaching of Christianity. It is not far-fetched to envision the rest of the Christian community viewing The United Methodist Church as a “culture church” that would have some historic connection to the Christian faith and community, but that had wandered away from the substance of the Christian tradition in order to offer a Christian interpretation of the ideas and values of its culture. One could even imagine a future ecumenical council to which United Methodists might be allowed to send official observers, but in which we would not be allowed to participate with vote because of our status as “culture Christians.”

Finally, what is needed now is an environment in the church for a calm consideration of all of the complex issues in this debate, civil discourse, responsible theological reflection, and above all, prayer for discernment of the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Your argument regarding the dangers of becoming a “culture church” is provocative. As you may be aware, since you participated in the process by which I was hired at your college, my doctoral dissertation was a study of a social gospel theologian, Shailer Mathews, who was accused by neo-orthodox theologians such as the Niebuhrs of having been a culture-Protestant.

My reading of Mathews’s theology convinces me that this charge is inaccurate. In my view, in Matthews’s work, the social gospel exhibits far more critical acumen about culture than its neo-orthodox critics gave it credit for having. I wrote a dissertation that was published as a book entitled Shailer Mathews’s Lives of Jesus to study Mathews’s social gospel theology. The dissertation concludes that the charge that Mathews was a culture-Protestant is not accurate.

My work on this topic was preceded and informed by a master’s thesis that studied the early roots of Methodism. Given my family’s historic ties to Methodism and the way these informed my own religious upbringing, I wanted to research and understand how Methodism dealt with questions of social justice from its inception among the working classes of the British Isles.

That research flowed naturally into my study of the social gospel. In my Christian journey, the Methodist strand in my family’s background has led to a constant concern to see the churches do justice. I see Jesus as one who always reached beyond barriers in his society that defined some human beings as less human than others, that defined some human beings as more deserving of power and privilege than others. In my reading of the gospels, Jesus constantly transgresses social and religious lines that define one group as the righteous and the other as the unrighteous.

My concern to see the churches challenge social norms permitting some people to be treated as less human than others led me out of my childhood church, the Southern Baptist church of my paternal grandmother, and into the Catholic church when I was a teen. My decision to join the Catholic church had everything to do with the fact that my family’s church was deeply entrenched in the system of segregation. Our church found itself unable to speak a prophetic word against racism during the Civil Rights struggle, because to do so would require costly grace. The Catholic church in my south Arkansas town attracted me because it was the sole “white” church in our town in which black and white Christians were worshiping together in the mid-1960s.

Watching the feeble foot-dragging responses of almost all white churches in Arkansas to the historic Civil Rights movement led me as an adolescent to conclude that churches often take their cue from culture, particularly when there is a price to be paid for speaking courageously against injustice. This experience, coupled with the strands in my family history that pointed to different possibilities in which churches move against and not with currents of injustice in their social context, led me to my calling as a theologian.

This calling has framed my entire approach to academic life. I have brought the concern to do justice, to critique injustice, and to form communities of solidarity resisting injustice to all of my academic work, including my work as an academic dean at one United Methodist college and then as an academic vice-president at another United Methodist college—your Florida college (now a university).

Given this academic, theological, and faith commitment running through my life as a teacher, scholar, and administrator, I read the history of the United Methodist church and its relationship to gay and lesbian human beings quite differently than you do in your 2006 essay. It is, of course, crucial to acknowledge that I read this history differently as well because I am gay, and have paid a price for being gay and honest about my life. I have paid that price particularly in Christian institutions. Since you are a heterosexual male, I would suggest that you may read Methodist history and teachings through a different optic, even if you share my commitment to social justice.

I would like respectfully to ask you to consider what happens when one takes the paragraph I cite above from your essay “The Church and Homosexuality,” and substitutes the word “slavery” for “homosexuality” in the first sentence. The sentence reads, “If The United Methodist Church changes its basic position on homosexuality, then it will be making a move toward modern Western culture, but against a historic and global ecumenical consensus.”

You are aware, are you not, that there was a time in Christian history—and a time not so very long ago, in terms of history—in which the Methodist church and the vast majority of churches taught that slavery is not only compatible with Christian practice and with scripture, but is mandated by scripture? When some Christians began to challenge that deeply entrenched cultural presupposition and the use of the bible to justify cultural norms supporting slavery, most white Christians in the American South—including most Methodists—bitterly resisted the critique of their traditional support of slavery as a distortion of the scripture.

In fact, many white Southern theologians prior to the Civil War charged churches in the North with having succumbed to culture, in challenging the longstanding practice of slavery within Christianity and the use of the bible to legitimate slavery. These theologians saw the churches of the American South as the sole bastions of orthodoxy in a world determined to alter the historic faith.

And they were right, insofar as their argument was based on the fact that slavery had always been taken for granted in Christianity, for some 1800 years, and had been approved by the churches. These theologians and churchmen resisting the historic shift to abolition of slavery were right insofar as they noted that the scriptures had been used throughout Christian history to justify slavery.

The churches of the American South have had a strange penchant, have they not, for defending the “historic faith” even when that faith includes practices that society, acting under impulses of justice, has gradually begun to recognize as unjust? We white Christians of the South defended slavery to the bitter end. When slavery was abolished, we then made a mighty noise about women’s suffrage and women’s rights.

Substitute those terms for “homosexuality” in your paragraph above, and again, I think you will see that the case you are making is precisely the wrong way around: rather than capitulating to culture in its defense of slavery, and then misogyny, and then segregation, and now heterosexist patriarchy, the churches have been captive to culture in defending these insupportable social practices. They have had to revise their support of unjust practices, to whose injustice they have been blind, insofar as prophetic movements within the churches themselves, acting in solidarity with secular movements for justice, have pushed and prodded the churches to reconsider their defense of the indefensible.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but mainstream American churches already are—to a great extent—“culture churches.” It is captivity to culture that they must combat in ceasing to discriminate against gay and lesbian persons. Our churches often have a lamentable tendency to follow culture in justice-oriented directions only after culture has moved to accord civil rights to disenfranchised groups. Rather than leading the way, our churches all too often echo and support culture—and, in particular, cultural injustice—until necessary, justice-oriented cultural changes force the churches to take a belated look at their unjust practices and presuppositions.

To say that, in according full human status to gay and lesbian persons, the United Methodist Church would be in danger of becoming a “culture church” is to fracture logic, to twist sociological data so that they say precisely they opposite of what they actually say. The sordid reality is, Bishop Whitaker, that in a culture in which prejudice against gay and lesbian persons is still normative (though this is gradually shifting), the church pays no price at all in refusing to defend gay and lesbian persons against injustice. It is the path of cheap grace, rather than costly grace, to continue to discriminate against gay and lesbian persons in the name of the gospel.

Costly grace, the kind of grace that would motivate the churches to stand up and to speak out at all cost, would (and we all know this, do we not?) threaten the pocketbook of mainstream churches. As during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, when I saw wealthy churchgoers with power in the business community and local government threaten pastors who condemned racism, today, any church speaking out against oppression of gay and lesbian persons is likely to risk loss of donations.

As an example, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, lavishly funded by foundations headed by several extremely wealthy neo-conservative Americans, has specifically targeted the United Methodist Church and several other mainstream churches, to try to prevent those churches from highlighting the social principles in their historic faith statements. It is no secret that the IRD has adroitly used prejudice against gay and lesbian persons—which is to say, it has used gay and lesbian human beings—to drive political wedges into the hearts of mainstream churches, to pit Methodist against Methodist, Presbyterian against Presbyterian, and Episcopalian against Episcopalian.

When these churches and their leaders speak out against unjust, discriminatory treatment of gay and lesbian persons, they pay a high price. They lose funding from wealthy interest groups. They also court highly-funded media attacks sponsored by these groups. You yourself may know this well, since the IRD has frequently reprinted some of your articles and sermons on its websites and other websites that it funds.

Much is at stake here, Bishop Whitaker, and I respectfully ask that you and other United Methodists listen more carefully to the voices of gay and lesbian believers who ask to talk with you about precisely what is at stake. To know the mechanisms of injustice in society at large (and in your own institutions), you must first and foremost ask to hear the voices of those who experience injustice. Only then will your deliberations about issues such as homosexuality be fully informed, and only then will your voice be credible.

Your essay ends with a call for calm consideration, civil discourse, responsible theological reflection, and prayer for discernment regarding the churches and their stance towards gay and lesbian persons. I second this call.

But how is it to happen when you do not even permit openly gay persons to address your assemblies? How can any discourse really be civil, when those being defined by a Christian group are not even brought to the table, but are treated as objects to be talked about while they are given no voice in the discussion?

Does your “responsible theological reflection” in the United Methodist churches include openly gay and lesbian theologians? Are these theologians invited to your General Conferences? If not, how can your words be anything more than rhetoric?

Above all, how can your conversations be inclusive (and thus fully representative of the richness of your tradition and fully open to God’s voice in all the people of God) when your institutions still sometimes make it impossible for openly gay and lesbian persons to have job security, to do productive work, to use their gifts while being forthright about their lives?

It was an experience of harsh exclusion, of punitive behavior that continues to the present.

As you prepare for General Conference, please refamiliarize yourself with what happened to Dr. Schafer and me when we responded to the invitation of the president

We did so at great cost to ourselves, because we believed that we could make a difference. Your president told us that we would be welcome and were needed, and that we would have secure jobs up to our retirement. Though we are in our late fifties and had to make sacrifices to come to your college, we stepped forth in faith and accepted the invitation. We were repaid for our sacrifice with brutally unjust and deeply hurtful treatment that was entirely premised on prejudice.

To my knowledge, neither you nor any other minister on the board of this United Methodist University

Can the United Methodist Church maintain that it is a prophetic church standing for historic Christian values when it participates in and covers over such atrocious injustice? Can the United Methodist Church stand against any injustice in society, when it permits any of its institutions and their leaders to behave this way towards any marginalized group?

Much hinges on the church’s willingness to give careful consideration to the testimony of gay and lesbian believers, even when we must tell painful stories of discrimination against us by church institutions. You live in a state in which violence against gay and lesbian persons has begun, in some areas, to reach epidemic proportions.

Can the United Methodist churches of Florida stand against this violence, can they offer healing and redemption to their communities, if they engage in homophobic discrimination that is intimately related to homophobic violence? I cannot imagine John Wesley encouraging the church to ignore these social needs. Nor can I imagine him standing on the side of discrimination within the institutions of his own church.


colkoch said...

These three posts have left me much to think about, but this third installment tells it like it is. When faced with a choice between the cheap grace offered by those of the vocal rich persuasion, vs the hard grace of the Gospel, cheap grace wins everytime.

Bill, I also had the same reaction to Bishop Whitaker's remarks that if the Methodist Church were to change their teaching on homosexuality they would open themselves to the charge of being a 'culture' church. To maintain it's current position is to be a culture church, just as you have so brilliantly pointed out in your analysis of slavery and mysoginy. I guess this is why I thought it was really interesting of Benedict to mention his concern about the subtle reappearance of the WASP mentality in the US. Although I think it's really the White Anglo Saxon Mysoginist Patriarchal mentality that's reappearing. I leave out protestant because it's also infesting Catholicism.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, thank you for slogging through these long postings. I think what could possibly trouble you about the story in the first two postings is also what troubles me, as the descendant of people who once held human chattel: it's the way we have of justifying atrociously unjust social practices, simply because we live with them and take them for granted.

And so even the faintest gestures towards justice seem important, when those moving in the direction of justice live within a social system that is blind to the injustice of some of its practices.

I didn't want, by any means, to claim that my ancestors were especially noble, when they questioned slavery. The point I did want to make, though, is that it's clear that, when they did so, they were motivated by Wesleyan teaching--with which they at least tried sometimes to struggle.

I'm glad that we now have a religious landscape that welcomes the contributions of many others. The hegemony of WASPs began to break in the 1960s, though it's interesting to note the influence churches like the United Methodist Church still have, which seems out of proportion to UMC numbers in the population.

George W. Bush is Methodist, as is Hilary Clinton. As goes the UMC, so goes the nation, in some respects.

Which means all Americans have a vested interest in what happens at UMC General Conferences.