Saturday, June 13, 2009

When All Doesn't Mean All: United Methodists of the South Hold the Line Against Gays

At the end of May, I posted a discussion of the recent Clergy Voices Survey of the Public Religion Research group. In discussing that survey, I noted that I found the response of United Methodist and American Baptist clergy to questions about whether the churches should refuse to work to make homosexuality acceptable in American society particularly disappointing.

While 51% of all mainline ministers agreed on this survey that the church should not work to thwart society’s acceptance of gay persons (this includes 81% of United Church of Christ clergy, 77% of Episcopal clergy, and 61% of Evangelical Lutheran clergy), among United Methodist and American Baptist ministers, fewer than 4-in-10 agreed.

Right now, an interesting test case of the willingness of United Methodist churches even to accept gay members is playing out at the annual conferences of various regions. Annual conferences are voting on an amendment to the UMC Constitution which would affirm the inclusion of all people in the life, leadership, and rites of the United Methodist Church. This amendment to paragraph four, article four of the constitution was passed by a vote of 558 t0 276 at last year’s United Methodist General Conference. It now needs to be ratified by a two-thirds aggregate vote of Annual Conference and Central Conference members.

As various commentators are noting, the amendment centers on whether or not the United Methodist Church intends to be truly what it proclaims to be, when it comes to LGBT members: a church with an open heart, open mind, and open door. United Methodist churches are splitting in many areas over the question of whether gay and lesbian members can even join the church.

The claim is made by some opponents of inclusion that gays and lesbians are welcome if they repent and submit to a scrutiny of their behavior and moral lives that transcends any moral scrutiny the church applies to the behavior and moral lives of its other members. Many gay and lesbian persons are naturally inclined to reject such a conditional and demeaning “welcome,” one premised on prejudice and injustice, since the scrutiny the church wishes to apply to gay lives and gay relationships is not the same scrutiny it traditionally applies to the moral lives of all its other members.

Some of those opposing the amendment are also trying to argue that it would militate against the United Methodist congregations in Africa, a region in which Christian denominations are making rapid inroads. These opponents of the amendment want to argue that the amendment would rob local churches of their power to govern themselves and to make decisions about their own local polities and membership regulations.

Those pressing this argument seek to argue, in short, that full welcome of gays and lesbians in the United Methodist churches of the United States is somehow racist, and represents a patronizing approach to the churches of the developing nations of the globe.

What is fascinating (and astonishing, and totally disingenuous) about this argument is that it is being promoted by the very same United Methodist folks who, until recently, fought fiercely against the inclusion of people of color in United Methodist churches. African-American UMC pastor Gil Caldwell, an outspoken leader of full inclusion of LGBT people in UMC churches, comments on this irony in an article published yesterday at the blog of the United Methodist Reconciling Ministries website.

I applaud Rev. Caldwell for exposing the dishonest game that some United Methodists fiercely opposed to gay rights today are playing, as they seek to depict themselves as fierce advocates of the rights of African Americans. Rev. Caldwell’s analysis is borne out by the *results thus far as annual conferences vote on the amendment. Here are some voting totals of UMC annual conferences to date; left-hand columns (yes votes) are votes for what Reconciling Ministries calls the “all means all” stance, and right-hand columns (no votes) are votes on behalf of the stance being called “not all are welcome”:

Yes, you're reading the tallies right: 542 United Methodists of Alabama-Florida meeting for holy conferencing recently voted against welcoming their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to their churches, while only 133 of those same Alabama-Florida Methodists would welcome a gay member in their church with the open hearts, open minds, open doors slogan. And 790 South Carolinians meeting in holy conferencing want to turn you away if you're gay or lesbian, while only 449 would welcome you.

One of these annual conferences even held its holy conference at a United Methodist institution that has no policy forbidding discrimination against gays and lesbians in its hiring and firing procedures. It's no surprise that a UMC annual conference supporting an institution that is able to discriminate freely against gays and lesbians would also vote not to welcome gay and lesbian persons to its churches.

But contrast the preceding tallies with these:

Baltimore Washington 482 / 281
Detroit 477 / 255
Greater New Jersey 405 / 320
Iowa 561 / 502
Minnesota 478 / 160
Northern Illinois 523 / 167
West Michigan 467 / 197
Wyoming 255 / 51

As some of my United Methodist friends have noted, their church is fighting today the same battle it fought in the 19th century over slavery, the same moral battle, though the terms have shifted. Then, the issue was whether to recognize and advocate fiercely for the full humanity and full human rights of people of color. Southern Methodist churches resisted such fierce advocacy, while Northern Methodist churches welcomed it.

Today, the battleground is the full humanity and full human rights of LGBT people. While pretending (astonishingly, disingenuously) that they are motivated in this battle by concern for people of color, descendants of the same white Southerners who fought fiercely against the human rights of people of color in the 19th century are now fighting tooth and nail against LGBT rights.

The map, by the way, shows states that opposed slavery in the federal elections of 1860 by electing Lincoln, and those that fought for slavery in 1860 by voting for Breckinridge. My UMC friends are finding themselves proven right by the votes of annual conferences on the “all means all” amendment: take the conferences voting against the amendment (that is, for exclusion of gays and lesbians from UMC churches and for continued injustice in American society against gay persons) and those voting against the amendment, overlay their locations with this map, and you have the fight about slavery all over again—with the added, and very bizarre, twist that Southern Methodists combating welcome of gays and lesbians in their churches now want to claim (astonishingly, disingenuously) that concern for people of color is their primary motivation as they slam the door in the faces of LGBT brothers and sisters.

*I'm grateful to the Reconciling Ministries website (to which my link for Rev. Caldwell points) for posting these figures.