United Methodist bishops have been paying lip service to inclusiveness for decades. Many have played a convoluted game of pretending not to know some of the pastors they are appointing are gay or lesbian, despite knowing their same-sex partners well: just as long as the pastors don't officially come out, using precise language, to the Bishop or his or her representatives, the charade can go on, much to the disgust of the conservatives who crafted the church rules banning these persons from ministry.
It's harder to work around the restrictions on performing same-sex unions, whether they're legal marriages or liturgical commitment ceremonies with no legal standing. The Discipline prohibits any United Methodist minister from performing any kind of wedding for a same gender couple, and does so in language that cannot be worked around. The best a gay-marrying pastor can hope for is that word won't get back to the Bishop, that somehow this blessed event will stay a secret--hardly what the happy couple wants for themselves. Word does get out, though, and eventually it reaches the ears of right-wing Methodist activists who are all too happy to press charges. Faced with such a situation, and with no way to hide behind what the meaning of "is" is, even the most progressive-sounding Bishop in the denomination has consigned the pastors in question to church trials. The rubber meets the road when the Bishop's own appointment is on the line, as it is whenever he or she refuses to take the complaint seriously. The most righteous rhetoric in the world can't get past "I could lose my job!"--a risk every pastor performing a gay wedding has consciously embraced, but which has been asking too much of the office of Bishop.
Last week, for the first time in the history of the denomination, a Bishop said "Enough!" and meant it. There was no hiding behind the Discipline, no carefully worded statement that sounded good at first read, but on further consideration could be seen to mean nothing. Bishop Martin McLee put an end to the trial of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree, a retired pastor and former dean of Yale University who had presided over his son's wedding to another man in 2012. Bishop McLee asked one thing only of Dr. Ogletree: that he participate in a dialogue about opening the church to true inclusiveness. He also announced that no minister under his jurisdiction would again be put on trial for presiding over a same-sex union.
I hope this is just the beginning, that McLee will be just the first of a growing avalanche of Bishops finally locating their spines and putting their power where only their words have been up to now. The groundswell among Methodist ministers has been growing for years: according to the New York Times, there are currently 1500 who have publicly declared their willingness to do what Dr. Ogletree did (and yes, as you may have previously read in this blog, I'm one of the 1500). The numbers have not given us strength, though, as many of us have been placed on trial for choosing principles over polity. A plurality of Bishops backing us up would lend so much strength to the movement.
I hope, but I have doubts. As gay marriage bans topple across the United States, state legislatures have been fighting back with discriminatory legislation in the name of "religious liberty": protecting the right of individuals to treat gay persons badly because they believe that is what God wants. This is, very sadly, where a majority of United Methodists continue to live on the theological spectrum. Knowing that, I have to wonder how long it will be before someone makes an example of Bishop McLee, prosecuting him for defying the church's right to treat gay people and gay sympathizers like criminals. Especially troubling is that the voting members of the General Conference, the quadrennial meeting that sets official church policy, is being dominated more and more by the church's growth in Africa, in countries that are putting in place vicious anti-gay laws that make the legislation proposed in Kansas, Arizona, and Idaho seem liberal.
If push comes to shove, and Bishop McLee faces a church trial, I see but one hope for the denomination: a Spartacus moment, with a cascade of Bishops from across the nation making identical statements, putting their own jobs on the line just as he has done. That could be the wake-up call, the moment that finally leads the church to take a hard look at itself and turn back from the abyss. What follows won't be pretty--I expect the church is headed for schism, one way or another--but what emerges afterward will be a far truer church, a church that can state with confidence that it welcomes all people, that its hearts, its minds, its doors truly are open, without fear of contradiction.
Methodism was my home for most of my life, and in many ways it nurtured me. As a Methodist, I learned to think critically about theology, scripture, tradition, and church life. The tools I gained as a Methodist are what ultimately led me to walk away from the church, as I came to see the hypocrisy at the heart of even my own beloved Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. Someday, I'd like to be able to visit once more and believe the high-minded words being spoken from the pulpit. Today, for the first time in years, I foster the hope that I might live to see that church reborn. Can I hear an "Amen"? All right.