Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Report from Trump Country on the United Methodist Split Over Whether to Welcome LGBTQ People or Not

This is a report from the ground, which is to say, from the white evangelical heartland of the U.S. that is solidly Trump country. It's a report of an encounter a cousin of mine had several days back at a bible-study group he attends, which is connected to a United Methodist church he no longer attends. He left that church — and, without a formal resignation, the United Methodist Church in general and any church in general — after the election of Donald Trump. As he says to me, "I told them that if I had wanted to join a Republican country club, I wouldn't have joined a church."

He and his significant other (who was raised Catholic and has long since distanced herself from her church of origin) have continued going to the bible study group because they like most of the people in it and find it interesting to discuss the bible in a group setting. In the recent meeting my cousin told me about, the topic of conversation was a letter the pastor of the church connected to the bible study recently sent all church members.

As you may know, a recommendation is before the United Methodist Church to split over the issue of how to deal with LGBTQ people and the question of same-sex marriage. My understanding is that this recommendation will be voted on at the church's next General Conference, and individual churches will decide — according to some method yet to be determined — whether to go with the welcoming branch of the UMC or the branch that is touting itself as orthodox and traditional and wants to take a stand to let LGBTQ people know they are not welcome, in the same way a good half of the Methodist church in the U.S. in the 19th century took a stand for the biblically ordained institution of slavery and the longstanding Christian tradition of blessing slavery.

The letter the pastor of the church in which the bible study group originated informed members of her congregation that LGBTQ people are as welcome in her UMC as the flowers of springtime, but she will, no siree bob, not be blessing any same-sex unions or marrying any same-sex couples.

Would. Not. Be. Biblical. Would not be right. Would not be moral. Would not be traditional. (Never mind that a good proportion of her congregation including my own relatives have been married more than once after having broken their [heterosexual] marital vows the first go-round, and there has never been a peep about blessing their second [heterosexual] weddings or allowing them full membership in the UMC.)

At the recent session of the bible-study group my cousin and his companion attended, after the topic of the pastor's letter was introduced, one group member opined, "You know, I understand what the bible says and that it condemns homosexuality. But the bible says a lot of things and condemns a lot of things, and many of those things we pay no attention at all to."

At this, my cousin tells me, two couples in the group shot to their feet and stomped out of the meeting, throwing over their shoulder statements about how they will not sit in silence as the divine inspiration of every word in the bible is called into question. And that ended the meeting.

Some of my thoughts about this story:

1. Isn't it convenient to discover that the bible condemns and chastises only them and not us?

2. Isn't it convenient to read the bible in such a way that what counts supremely — counts enough to base our entire definition of Christianity on this, and to split churches over this — is a handful of exegetically problematic verses condemning "homosexuals" (a word not coined until the latter part of the 19th century), but not us and our shortcomings?

3. Isn't it wonderful that we can cast to the side the entirely non-problematic bible verses that are everywhere throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures and which enjoin us to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, do mercy so that we will ourselves receive mercy, open our hands to the poor — while we use a small handful of murky bible verses to condemn a minority of the human community, and to build our definition of Christianity around excluding them?

4. And isn't it interesting that all of this is being brought to the UMC by Southern white Methodists whose forebears a few generations back were willing to split the Methodist church in order to hold firm to the biblical blessing of slavery and the longstanding tradition of permitting Christians to own slaves?

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