Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How Open Are We?

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors"

This is the slogan of the United Methodist Church.

Yet it is sadly something that is not always true of our denomination. Recently our highest court, the Judicial Council, issued a ruling where they declined to reconsider a decision they made six months ago that I and others believe to be in error. Decision 1041 explains the decline to reconsider Decision 1032 (click the links to read them).

The issue here is whether our church truly chooses to be inclusive or not. As it stands now, a pastor can decide whether or not someone can become a member of our local congregation based on whether or not we agree with their beliefs or practices. The case in question involves a pastor who refused to receive a homosexual man into his congregation.

Without getting into a tremendous legal diatribe, I believe that the decision is incorrect because, according to our Book of Discipline, no one may be denied membership based on race, gender, class, or status (Paragraph 4 Article 4; Paragraph 214). I believe that sexual orientation falls under status, but as of yet there is not an official interpretation on the question.

Furthermore, our Discipline contains statements on Inclusiveness, support of Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation, and the basic statement that our church is to live out "Jesus' command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God's reign and realm in the world." (see the full paragraph here).

Furthermore, the rules of the Judicial Council state that "Whenever a decision of the Judicial Council is shown clearly to be in error, or in order to prevent a manifest injustice resulting from the interpretation of a Judicial Council decision, the Judicial Council on its own motion, or on a petition filed by a party to the proceedings, may, by a majority vote, reconsider any ruling or action taken by it." (quoted in ruling 1041)

Denying people membership based upon an aspect of who they are that they cannot change is a "manifest injustice".

Sadly, this issue is not as cut and dry as I or anyone else would like. Our Discipline also says that "homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching" (Paragraph 161G) and does not allow "self avowed practicing homosexuals" to be ordained because of that (Paragraph 304.3). You can easily argue that certain Bible verses say that homosexuality is a sin (I disagree, but it's a matter of scriptural interpretation, not a clear fact) and therefore homosexual persons have not repented of their sin and are not really making the commitment to join the church. That is a position many good, faithful people hold.

(Note: You may notice that I have not included links to reference a position I do not myself hold. This is only because I could not find adequate online access to them. If you know of places where these can be found please let me know so I can fix it, giving both sides a fair shake.)

For those unfamiliar with the issues in the UMC, more info can be found here and here.

To me the issue comes down to the fact that this is a very grey area where there is much disagreement, and in such cases I believe that we should err on the side of grace. In Matthew 25 Jesus does not say the sheep get in because they knew who to exclude. He says they get in because they loved and served everyone, even if they didn't recognize Jesus in those people. If I stand before God one day and God tells me I was too free with grace, I'd prefer that to being told I was too stingy with it. Grace is not my possession. It is something God gives to me and you, so we are called to proclaim it as freely and "irresponsibly" as Jesus did.

This is a sad day for the United Methodist Church but I still believe that there is hope for the future. Judicial Council members and protesters worshipped and celebrated communion together after the decisions were announced (read the story here). They showed that even when we disagree we can still come before the Lord in worship and praise together. I know that one day we will live up to "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors", but that day is a long time coming and there is much hard work to be done. Let us ask God to show us how to do this work together.


Anonymous said...

Matthew, I think you might be missing the full impact of this decision. Thus far, everyone is reacting quite in line with their own prejudicial leanings. However if you look at exactly what was decided I think it is a way forward for dissenting opinions to co-exist with each other.

People are focusing on the "exclusion" of the pastor in this case. Well the JC didn't condone the substance of the exclusion, they simply said the Pastor can, if he deems it necessary exclude. The converse of that is that the Pastor can, if he deems it necessary, include (emphasize include!!) as well. No conservative ds or bishop can interfere with that. The freedom to accept GLBT, or whomever you wish is now clearly protected. This is really an open door decision. As a pastor, you are now guaranteed that whomever you feel fit for membership in your congregation is able to become a member. This means you can go to the local GLBT society and without question tell them they can be members in your church if you so desire.

The real genius here, in my opinion, is that congregations can now more freely exist even with opposing views. Conservative pastors in general will have conservative attendees, liberal pastors will in general have more liberal attendees and yet we will all be part of the Methodist church and will enjoy our fellowship with those members we come in to contact with most often.

A good example is my own town where I have a methodist church that has affiliated with the reconciling ministries 15 minutes from my home. I also have a more conservative church 25 minutes from my home. I choose to associate with the church 25 minutes from my home. If the bishops and those opposed to 1031/1032 had their way, all the churches would be like the one 15 minutes from me and I would attend neither.

So i respectfully disagree with your conclusion and offer another take on the matter. I would hope people can grasp the underlying uniting nature of this decision and not spew hatred and despair into the media before it can be fully realized.

Thanks for your post

Unknown said...

I appreciate your take, Larry and I'm glad you've pointed out a way to understand this in a positive light. The fact remains, however, that there is a widespread perception of the UMC as a place that is not friendly to those who do not fit the "typical church person" mold. This decision simply reenforces that perception. Thanks again for you thoughts.

Anonymous said...

By the way Matt, as for links to positions defending homosexuality as a sin, this document is a really thorough discussion of that topic in response to another book making the case for Homosexual marriage.

Other references can be found on http://www.robgagnon.net/ and check out homosexuality and the methodist church posting from May 4th on http://everysphere.blogspot.com/ it has several links as well

Brian Vinson said...

"The fact remains, however, that there is a widespread perception of the UMC as a place that is not friendly to those who do not fit the "typical church person" mold. This decision simply reenforces that perception."

Interesting - those who share my religious upbringing have questioned my move to the UMC because it's too liberal for them and too accepting of people who don't "fit the typical church person mold" !!!!