Friday, May 30, 2008

White Eyelet Lace: Florida UMC Annual Conference, Day Two

I knew she was trouble the minute I saw she had a bible cover with white eyelet lace on it.

Thus saith one of the people I love most in the world, whose identity I won’t reveal here for two reasons. First, she lives in a big-small city/town where everybody knows everyone else, everybody talks about everybody else (while smiling in the face of those they talk about), and everybody will punish you, all in one collective huddle locking arms against you, if you tell the truth they do not want to have spoken.

I know. I live in such a place.

Second, I want my friend to keep making these pithy observations. Too many of my friends are already leery of me because they say that 1) I never forget anything they say or do, and 2) I’m liable to report what they have said or done in something I write. Comes from growing up among many Southern ladies who never missed a beat, as they pretended to socialize with each other, eyeing the other mercilessly all the while, in order to give a cold-eyed detailed report once the lovefest had ended.

And so to the Southern state of Florida and its United Methodist Annual Conference, which is now in its second day. (Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this: white eyelet lace bible covers do have something to do with the Florida UMC Annual Conference—at least, in my mind they do.)

The Florida Conference has helpfully uploaded its workbook to the conference website. Anyone who wishes can read the workbook at

Yesterday, I read it carefully, searching for any indicator that this annual conference will follow up on the unfinished work of the recent General Conference to keep praying about, talking about, and working for the full inclusion of gay brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church.

I was not surprised to find—not really—that the workbook has not a single mention of this topic. The words “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual” are entirely absent from the workbook.

This is not surprising because the 2006 essay on homosexuality and the church by Florida’s UMC bishop (a copy is on the same website) argues for eliminating terms such as “homosexual” and “gay” from the vocabulary of the church, as it deals with people who are, well, gay and lesbian. What is not spoken does not exist. There is no problem, where there is no language to identify a problem.

We can go about our business with cheerful hearts and smiling faces when we do not have to confront those we cannot see, since we do not give them even a linguistic place at our table. Without linguistic structures to frame the problem for us—the problem that the Other exists—we can talk about radical hospitality while practicing radical inhospitality.

This sometimes seems to me to be the Methodist way. The way of the churches of the radical middle, of Main Street USA. The hug-smack way. It is easy to continue doing business when our business is not disrupted by the presence of intrusive, meddlesome, demanding Others.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I often get the impression, when I look at the way the churches of Main Street USA do business, that doing business is pretty much what it’s all about. It’s about impression management and keeping up morale in precisely the same way that the corporate world deals with these marketing issues.

When our brand is sinking, we find a new way to market it. How about big screens in the sanctuary? Clowns for the children? A new logo would be nice, one with flames to show that we are on fire with love, having been snatched from the flames of damnation.

No gloom and doom for us. That would be a turn-off, and we want our brand to sell. We need it to do so. How else can we compete with those big megachurches that sell their own brand of coffee, have gym classes, snack bars, dating services, clubs of every kind a body could wish, all on huge sparkling “campuses” suggesting that God does, in the final analysis, really prosper those who believe in God?

The gays make things difficult because their very presence is a downer. Bring them in, and who knows who might leave in a huff (and take their money with them)? As a priest Steve knows once said in a discussion of how to deal with the gays in the Catholic seminary in which they both taught, “There’s no theological reason to keep them out. But they bring all these problems with them!”

They bring all these problems with them. They bring dirt with them, because being gay is being dirty. Just like the Samaritan lying bleeding by the side of the road. It was so much easier for the priest to pass the wounded man by. Remember the story? The one inside the pretty lace-covered bible? The priest was on his way to worship (to engage in salty worship, as the new Florida Methodist brand would have us say). Touching a bleeding man would make the priest ritually impure. It would interfere with his worship.

The lawyer couldn’t stop, either. After all, who knows what kind of legal tangles might ensue, if we pick up a person lying bleeding by the roadside? Better not to get involved. If he's lying there bleeding, he must have done something to deserve his lumps. Getting involved might end up implicating us—and our money.

The unexpected person is the one who notices, stops, and helps, in Jesus’s parable. Remember that the story inside the pretty bible cover was Jesus’s answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? The one who stopped was a Samaritan, a people considered racially and ritually impure by their orthodox Jewish neighbors. They had (it was alleged) intermarried with non-Jews. They worshiped on the hilltops and not in the temple.

They were not the practitioners of orthodox, right, true religion. They practiced a mixed (read: dirty) religion, not the pure religion of Judaism. And yet it was one of these—someone who was himself the Other—who deigned to stop and pick up the bleeding man, to staunch his wounds (thus contracting ritual impurity), and then to go the extra step of taking the man to a hospice to be treated. It was one who knew himself to be considered unclean who actually saw the Other we would prefer not to see, since out of sight is out of mind.

An article by Steven Skelley on the Florida UMC website today says that a workshop at the Annual Conference yesterday focused on “radical hospitality” as a mark of Wesleyan discipleship ( The article notes that participants thought about how congregations have to live discipleship collectively, if they expect to make a difference. The whole congregation has to practice radical hospitality, if it wants to live the Methodist way as a congregation.

And it has to reach out into its own community, where many people are removed from church. It has to take risks to “step out with Jesus” into the surrounding community.

I’m trying to get my head around these statements, given the total silence of this Annual Conference’s workbook about gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Who do those talking about radical hospitality imagine the alienated Other of their community to be?

Who is more excluded than those we make invisible by denying even linguistic structures to allow these invisibilized Others to make their presence known?

Will the Wesleyan brand convince others that it is a good brand, if it will not even talk about the group most clearly and obviously excluded by its church today? It is, after all, so easy to love the sanitized Other, the good, the approved, minority.

It is so much harder to step out with Jesus and notice that bleeding man by the wayside, whose presence raises troubling questions about the validity of our worship, when we will not even touch his wounds because we must keep our hands clean for the sanctuary.

We like our bibles, we Southern folks. We like them covered.

We’ll even cover them in white eyelet lace.

When we do that, perhaps we don’t have to peek inside them to see what they really say.

It’s so much easier to look at the pretty cover.

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