Thursday, August 21, 2008

Update on Churches of Main Street USA: Better Angels of Our Nature?

I talked and talked yesterday (and then talked some more). I’m tired of hearing my own voice, and I feel sure many of you must be, too.

Today, I want to shift gears and provide some tidbits from recent news stories that follow through on items about which I’ve previously posted on this blog.

One of my primary points in what I wrote yesterday is that, whether we like it or not, we are living through a civil war today, regarding where (or whether) to fit gay and lesbian human beings into our world. Into our social and our ecclesial worlds.

The right has made this an issue, and the battle is underway. As with any civil war, there is no option of standing on the sidelines and refusing to take a stand. Neutrality is an illusion, which benefits those with most power in the social or ecclesial worlds we inhabit.

Neutrality benefits those who want to target gay people, to use our lives as pawns in political games we cannot control. Church people who profess love while doing nothing and saying nothing to stop the spiritual violence being enacted by both many social and many ecclesial forces today are aiding, abetting, siding with, and doing the dirty work of those targeting gay human beings.

As the American Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln appealed to us to decide whether we want to listen to the better angels of nature, or to other angels that would continue pandering to the lowest instincts of humanity. In civil wars such as the one underway now in church and society about where (or whether) to fit gay human beings in, we can listen either to those better angels or to the others—to those who want to continue savage structures of demonization and exclusion of gay brothers and sisters, and of spiritual and physical violence towards gay human persons.

In the stories that follow, I leave it up to you to decide which angels are being heard by those who appear in the stories, and the churches they represent. The better angels of our nature? Or the other ones?

Following Up on The United Methodist Church Story

The following two stories are from the latest newsletter of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) (

The first story excerpts comments of Helen King, winner of this year’s RMN Hilton award, which is given annually to members of the RMN parents’ network for exemplary service to the RMN mission of inclusion. The award is given in honor of Rev. Bruce and Rev. Virginia Hilton, UMC ministers who worked for years (Rev. Bruce Hilton died this year) on behalf of justice and against racial, gender-based, and homophobic discrimination.

Helen King’s words are poignant. I hope the churches can hear these words, since they are words that thousands and thousands of churched family members of LGBT persons might say today. They are words both of pain and of hope—a hope that cannot be fulfilled until the churches first hear the pain and choose to stop inflicting it. In her acceptance speech at the Hilton banquet, Helen King stated:

I am a native of North Carolina and a life long Methodist raised in the Wesleyan culture of love, acceptance, nurture of faith that began in the cradle. I married the son of a Methodist minister and our son is a United Methodist minister. However, when our daughter came out to us 15 years ago, I knew instinctively that the United Methodist Church would be the last place that I could go for understanding. So for a year and a half, after a lifetime of active service in the church, my husband and I stopped attending church.

I knew instinctively that the United Methodist Church would be the last place that I could go for understanding. What a profound indictment of any church.

These are words that might be said about many churches today, in how they and their members treat gay and lesbian human beings and those who stand in solidarity with us.

Is this the future we want to build together, in church and society? Better angels? Or the other ones?

Helen King’s words are echoed by a Methodist minister in Texas, who also spoke at the RMN Hilton banquet this year. Like Helen King, Rev. Bill Taylor has found his life turned upside down due to his refusal to repudiate a gay son.

And those turning his life upside down are fellow Christians, those who kneel at the communion rail with him, who read scripture with him, who pray for an increase of charity right beside him in church. In his address to the Hilton banquet, Rev. Taylor noted his joy and his wife’s when they were sent by the United Methodist Church to minister in Conroe, Texas, after he had served on the Bishop’s Cabinet.

His ministry was successful beyond all his dreams: the church grew in membership; numbers of those attending church leapt; the church’s budget doubled and its debt dwindled.

And then, Rev. Taylor notes, “the wheels came off.” His oldest child, Dawson, told his parents that he is gay. On hearing this announcement, Rev. Dawson followed time-honored Wesleyan tradition: he took the matter to God in fervent prayer:

For a year I prayed fervently that God would change Dawson and make him “normal” – a heterosexual like his parents – or I asked God to change me to be fully accepting of him, his sexuality, and his life. My prayers were answered. Slowly, not even realizing that I was changing, I began to be accepting, not only of Dawson, but of all who are a part of the LGBT community.

And then things began to fall apart. Rev. Taylor and his wife began to taste the cup prepared for gay and lesbian persons by many Christians today. Rumors circulated in his congregation that he did not believe the bible. Gatherings at which he spoke became occasions for some church members to spy on him, to twist and circulate his words in malicious ways among his congregation.

As a result, he has experienced severe health problems and has asked for a sabbatical. But his hope and courage remain undaunted. As Rev. Taylor informs the RMN audience, “They may destroy my career, but not my soul. And the truth must be told. So it’s in that spirit that I share with you some of our story.”

Is this the future we want to build together, in church and society? Better angels? Or the other ones?

Following Up on the Catholic Church Story

As I noted in a previous posting, plans are underway to exhume John Henry Cardinal Newman from the grave he shares with his lifelong companion and fellow priest, Ambrose St. John. The ostensible reason the Vatican has given for this exhumation is to facilitate veneration of Newman as his cause of canonization is being considered by Rome.

Some advocates of gay and lesbian rights see a murkier motive in this action, however. As Bess Twiston Davies reported in the Times (London) this week, Peter Tatchell has accused the Vatican of engaging in “an act of moral vandalism” in overturning Newman’s explicitly stated final wishes, and separating him in death from St. John ( In Tatchell’s view, “The re-burial has only one aim in mind: to cover up Newman's homosexuality and to disavow his love for another man. It is an act of shameless dishonesty and personal betrayal by the gay-hating Catholic Church.”

A spokesperson for Catholic Action UK responds to Tatchell’s charges by stating that Tatchell’s position represents a typical “trick of homosexual activists.” Catholic Action UK is a right-wing political activist group that purports to represent “the” Catholic position on issues moral and political. Like its counterparts in the United States, it issues so-called Catholic voters’ guides urging Catholics to vote solely on the basis of a handful of “non-negotiable” issues including gay marriage and abortion. It has called for boycotts of the largest Catholic charity in the UK, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and of Amnesty International. According to groups monitoring its political activities (including Catholics for a Free Choice), the organization has been less than forthcoming about its funding sources (see

Where are the better angels in the preceding story, I wonder? Those of us who continue to claim some connection to the Catholic church—despite its clearly demonstrated record of spiritual violence towards its gay children at this point in history—have no choice except to try to discern, and to choose where we stand.

In another posting recently, I noted that the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization, recently came perilously close to endorsing the Republican presidential candidate at the international meeting of this organization in Québec. A news story that broke yesterday is that the Knights of Columbus have donated $1 million to groups supporting Proposition 8 in California—the proposition intended to overturn gay marriage in that state (

To which angels of our nature are the good Knights appealing, I wonder? I have serious doubts about whether it's to the better angels.

Following Up on the Story of the Anglican Communion

In a number of postings, I have noted the adroit use by the right of the tactic of race-baiting in the Anglican communion, to try to drive a wedge between people of color in worldwide Anglicanism and supporters of LGBT human beings. Because this tactic has been highly successful in drumming up resistance to gay persons among some African Anglicans, I was heartened to read Daniel Burke’s “Raising Issues of Race in Anglican Rift” recently in the Washington Post ( report).

Burke notes that eight African-American Episcopal bishops attended the recent Lambeth Conference, and spoke out eloquently against the attempt of right-wing groups to drive a racial wedge within the Anglican communion in order to further an anti-gay agenda. As Bishop Eugene T. Sutton of Maryland notes, it is ironic in the extreme that American Episcopalians now turning to Africa as a bulwark against gay rights have historically had almost no connection to African Americans in the U.S.: "It's something that I like to point out, the historical anomaly of dioceses that have nothing to do with the black community going all the way to Africa to make these relationships.”

Sutton notes that Episcopal groups in the U.S. turning to Africa to demonstrate their diversity, while working to exclude gay people from Episcopal churches, are “looking for black faces to give them legitimacy because they can't find them at home.” The African-American bishops at Lambeth also note that the abuse of Scripture by some Episcopalians to bash gay people brings to mind the use of the bible in previous eras to support slavery and racism.

Who stands with the better angels of our nature in the Anglican communion today?

Following Up on the Presbyterian Church Story

I blogged some time ago about the decision of Presbyterian General Assembly this past June to overturn that church’s ban against the ordination of openly gay ministry candidates. This decision must be ratified by two-thirds of the nation’s presbyteries, and various indicators suggest that it will not receive sufficient votes to be enacted—particularly among presbyteries of the South.

Meanwhile, I would like to share some heartening news from my own community. I’ve noted the protest by Westboro Baptist church at the funeral of Bill Gwatney this week. This funeral took place at Pulaski Heights Methodist church, near which I live.

On the day of Bill Gwatney’s funeral, as I drove in the direction of that church, I passed another church that also has the name Pulaski Heights—Pulaski Heights Presbyterian church. This is a church about which I know little, though its church hall is my voting precinct and a cousin of mine was once a member of this church.

When I passed the church, I noted a new banner across the columns that form the church’s porch. It stated in huge letters that the church is welcoming and affirming.

As every church should be, no questions asked, if it hopes to be any kind of church at all—any kind of church that can appeal to Jesus as its originator. Since this story is right in my own back yard, I’ll answer the question about which angels I believe this church is reflecting: the church’s decision to advertise itself as a welcoming and affirming church reflects the better angels of its congregation’s nature, and of the churches of Main Street USA in general.

And at a very personal level, I'd like to add the following observation. Vis-a-vis the churches, we in America are all consumers. We choose our church communities based on their ability to meet our needs, just as consumers of material goods shop among various purveyors of those goods to find the most effective suppliers. Key among those needs when we look for a church home are affirmation, acceptance, support, community, and access to spiritual resources. These are what church is all about, when it truly acts as church.

I grew up, as it were, between the Methodist and the Presbyterian church in question. Both are a block from my grandmother's house, which was the center of my life from infancy up to the death of the last family member who lived in that house, a few years ago.

I know the Methodist church particularly well, because it has a vibrant community that was very helpful to Steve and me as we provided care for my mother in the final years of her life. The church sponsors an eldercare respite program.

Given the choice today, however, I would not ever attend a service in that Methodist church willingly, though I have been encouraged by friends who go there to accompany them. Why?

The answer is starkly simple. It's one churches need to hear, if they want to attract religious "consumers."

For me, the "brand" of Methodism will now forever be tainted by Steve's and my horrific experiences at a United Methodist university in Florida, under the pastoral supervision of Bishop Timothy Whitaker. What we experienced there was outright discrimination of the most vicious sort, discrimination premised on our sexual orientation.

Bishop Whitaker has strong reason to know this. The United Methodist ministers who sit on the board of the university in question have strong reason to know this.

Yet, to my knowledge, not a single one of these men of the cloth has raised any critical question about the violation of United Methodist principles in how Steve and I were treated. The president of the university in question has strong ties to the United Methodist church, at an institutional level. (S)he has been allowed to represent herself/himself as the better angel of this ugly story, and Steve and me as fallen angels--though the facts demonstrate otherwise. (S)he has even been rewarded by the church through an honorific appointment after what (s)he did to us. What this president did was done with the active complicity of an ordained Methodist minister who is a retired president* of a seminary.

I have seen nothing, heard nothing, which indicates that any minister on the board of the university in question has challenged that minister's extremely unethical and savage behavior to two employees of a Methodist university with which he is associated, who were vilified solely due to their sexual orientation.

I hope that the churches of Main Street USA can understand: this is how it is. Kick people in the teeth, and you will not attract them to your church. Treat them like human refuse, and never apologize or ask forgiveness, and you will not convince them to listen to your preaching. How can they hear, when they are kicked to the gutter and treated as garbage?

I am now as alienated from the Methodist church by my experiences at this university in Florida as I am from my own Catholic church, due to my very similar experiences with my church.

But I will definitely consider going to the Presbyterian church I have identified. I will definitely send donations to it. I have friends who have been inviting me to their Presbyterian churches, and I intend to show my gratitude to the church near me for its courageous action, by attending its services in the future.

No church is perfect. I do not expect perfection from any church. What I do expect is simple, mere humanity, mere honesty, just treatment, bread rather than stones. That is what anyone expects from any church that seeks to appeal to the better angels of our natures. Just as I would not return to a restaurant or a shop in which I receive discourteous or disrespectful treatment, unless the establishment in question addressed my critical concerns and apologized for its lack of service, I will not go to churches that preach about better angels but do not live the message they preach.

I know of and am deeply impressed by many Methodists, and I do not wish to do these good people an injustice. Even so, given Steve's and my experiences at a Methodist institution--and, above all, the total lack of any Methodist pastoral response to us in and following those responses--I completely understand lifelong Methodist Helen King's statement, I knew instinctively that the United Methodist Church would be the last place that I could go for understanding.

Yes. That is my judgment, too, based on my experiences with the Methodist church, just as it is my judgment about my own Catholic church based on my eerily similar experiences with my own church.

We are ineluctably affected, by better or for worse, by our experiences with any community, whether it be a workplace or a church. And we choose to affiliate with that community based on those experiences. It's as simple as that, in the consumer society we inhabit . . . .

*In several previous postings, I have referred to this gentleman as the retired dean of a seminary. I was incorrect in doing so. My research has led me to realize that he was president of the seminary from which he retired.


Anonymous said...

Although the university in Florida could be one of many, what you describe sounds eerily similar to the way Bethune-Cookman University's campus leaders and Board of Trustees treat gays and lesbians. The United Methodist Church should be ashamed.

William D. Lindsey said...

Gaywmclt, thanks for the comment. You're right, the United Methodist church--and all churches that proclaim open hearts, doors, and minds, while contradicting their proclamation in their behavior--should be ashamed. The testimony of Ms. King and Rev. Taylor moves me deeply, most of all, because I know the dynamics they are describing, and how painful those dynamics are.

And I know how little support is offered by bishops who speak out of both sides of their mouth, to those within the UMC (and other churches) who are dealing with the savagery fellow Christians show them, because they are gay or in solidarity with gay persons.

COL55 said...

William, I have long held the position:

"God, save us from Christians and from the Vatican."

Recently, those two terms have become synonymous with politician and criminal in my vocabulary.

I believe that what we are seeing in our societies right now is an interesting irony. If one is unsure of the appropriate actions to take in a given situation, one should examine what Christians, the Vatican and politicians would do. Whatever the answer, however, do the opposite and it will probably be right. Ironic, because in the not too distant past, the answer would have been the opposite.

Some will say I am allowing cynicism to overwhelm me. I dont think so. Sad to say, history provides ample evidence to support this premise.

William D. Lindsey said...

Carl, you're absolutely right--and you're right that this is a sad commentary on where the churches have ended up, in many cases. You can't teach a message of love, inclusion, justice, and forgiveness that you don't live.

You're reminding me of a story I meant to tell on the posting I just put through today. I read on today's Clerical Whispers blog (there's a link to it in my links list) that the Catholic bishop of Limburg, Germany, has removed the dean of his priests' council since that priest blessed a gay union.

I want so badly to say in response, "Great! I'm glad the church is finally taking action against priests who engage in immoral behavior." And as you realize, I'm pointing to the fact that the same church that slaps the hands of a priest giving a blessing to a gay couple all too often turns a blind eye to a priest abusing a minor.

What's wrong with this picture?

I do have to say that my insider's status working in Methodist institutions has made me realize that church politics everywhere tend to bring to the top, well, politicians. Not pastors.

But people adroit at using the system to get ahead and to advantage themselves. It's a deep problem in all churches, and it has much to do with clericalism in its manifold varieties across the board.

When I try to think of "good" bishops who inspire me, I really struggle for names, and that's sad. In the RC church, they'd include Gumbleton and Robinson in Australia. In the United Methodist Church, we have a wonderful retired bishop here in Little Rock, Kenneth Hicks, who should be the model for all bishops everywhere--but isn't, unfortunately.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Amanda said...

For some reason, most of the people I'm exposed to religiously are Mormon - I have tons of Mormon friends and associates. I think the LDS church has a very scary stance on homosexuality: that it is an instinct that God purposely gives certain individuals, in order for them to struggle against it and prove their obedience to God's commandments. So scary. i'm sorry, but I cannot believe in a god that would issue to someone the inborn ability to love someone, same sex or not, and then expect them to either live a lie or a celebate life, to deny what i consider to be a GOOD instinct. Love is a wonderful thing, not a dangerous evil thing. I dont' think love can be split into "good love" and "bad love." If a god was cruel enough to do that, I would want to defy him. Thankfully, I don't believe in the LDS point of view. The Mormon church is one of the biggest oppositions to gay marriage, raising money and campaigning against it, and I think this has more to do with the fact that if gay marriage was allowed, that'd be one less sin - homosexuals could remain celebate until marriage. That would seriously damage their line of reasoning.