Homophobes in Holy Places

1925: the Ku Klux Klan marches on Washington, their faces fully exposed.

Brace yourselves, boys and girls. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

This week, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church affirmed Rev. Frank Schaefer's reinstatement to the ministry. Schaefer had been defrocked for presiding over his son's wedding to another man, reinstated on appeal to a higher church court, then had that appeal appealed by the board that originally defrocked him, putting it in the hands of the denomination's extremely cautious highest court. True to form, the Judicial Council's decision was based entirely on procedure, doing all it could to avoid setting anything resembling a precedent: the Board of Ordained Ministry had used incorrect procedures to punish Schaefer, therefore its original decision was void. There is nothing here to protect him, or any other pastor, the next time a Methodist-minister-blessed gay wedding takes place; in fact, next time there's a defrocking, you can be sure the chair of the board will be painstakingly dotting every i, crossing every t, and following the Discipline to the smallest serif of a letter. The decision is so unique to this one case that it cannot be applied to any other.

Even so, this is being viewed as a victory by the Reconciling Ministry Coalition, and understandably so. When it comes to the United Methodist Church, all gay victories are happening on the most local of levels. The institution of the church is fundamentally stacked against true inclusion, and will continue to be for decades to come, unless it splits itself down the middle and gives up the fiction of Unity. Tom Lambrecht, a commentator for the UMC's conservative Good News movement, acknowledges as much in his column. There simply are not, and will not be for many years to come, enough votes in the General Conference to overturn the homophobic language in the Discipline.

Which brings me to the picture at the top of this essay.

Yes, I'm playing the Klan card, because I'm an American writing about American institutions and American human rights. If I were German, I'd start with a picture of Nazis in the Bundestag--something like this:
Except for one thing: Germany is far more enlightened on this issue than the United States is.

For all the recent gains made on marriage equality, a third of the states in this country still constitutionally forbid same-gender marriage; and what is arguably the most moderate of American denominations, the United Methodist Church, remains officially on the hard right of this issue. It's like trying to get a civil rights bill through Congress in the 1920s, a time when the Ku Klux Klan openly marched in the streets of Washington, their faces proudly exposed. Many state legislatures were dominated by Klan politics, and Congress sported many a Klansman in its ranks. It took 40 years for the Klan's uglier side to be revealed, and true civil rights legislation to pass.

And that is where my church is today. However powerful the tide of civil gay rights may seem, the church's bulwark against that tide is stronger: a majority of members in the American South and Africa stubbornly clinging to bigotry and calling it piety, using the most ossified religious bureaucracy in modern Christendom as their levee. With Methodists, it's all about the rules, and you can see this in Lambrecht's column. He's always careful to insist the Schaefer's true crime was not in following his heart or standing on principle, but rather in violating the Discipline's restrictions. The Discipline also pays ample lip service to the infinite worth of gay persons, every bit as deserving of love as straight persons, going to great lengths to insist that the only ways they should be discriminated against are ordination and marriage. Being a rigid legalist in all matters Disciplinary, Lambrecht must hew to the same empty piety.

That's where the whole thing breaks down. For 2000 years, Christians have distinguished themselves from Jews by insisting that the only Law for Christians is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. While climbing this as a unique Christian insight is a drastic oversimplification and misinterpretation of Torah, the principle at its heart is laudable, and one I've heard in many a Methodist sermon. Conservative Methodists, like all evangelicals, claim to put the Bible before any other source of authority; yet in this matter, they cling rigidly to a literal, legalist reading of a text that has been created by committee, giving more power to a human document than the (arguably) divine book they claim matters most to them.

But then, they have to. The careful wording of the Lambrecht column highlights more than the hypocrisy of the Good News movement. In insisting that this is all about law, rather than principle, it showcases the great paradox of Methodist homophobia: that it is grounded in bigotry. Deep in their hearts, they know that their opposition to gay ordination or marriage is grounded not in Scripture, not in Discipline, but in fear of the other. When the facade of morality collapses, when standing on principle is no longer tenable, when, in short, there is nothing left to stand on but rigid adherence to a flawed human document, it is high time to strip off one's white hood and robes and give up the pretense.

It's time, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen. Lambrecht concludes his column by acknowledging the alternative to adhering to the Discipline is ignoring it, and that route will lead to schism. (He can't accept the third alternative, which is humbly admitting the Discipline is wrong and changing the damn thing so it's right.) At some point, that is going to have to happen. Across America, same-gender Methodist couples are going to be knocking on their pastors' doors asking to have weddings in the churches they've belonged to, tithed to, dedicated their service to, and hoping the pastors whose words of grace they hear every Sunday can preside at those weddings. Those pastors will then, like Frank Schaefer, face a hard decision: lovingly violate the Discipline by letting the wedding happen on church property, and presiding over it themselves; or insisting the church is still not ready for this, and they'd be better off down the street at the United Church of Christ. There will be a growing tide of pastors how choose grace over legalism, to the point that Boards of Ordained Ministry will be faced with holding mass trials--or will themselves have to choose grace, as fewer and fewer pastors are willing to serve as juries in those trials. At that point, we'll see whole conferences, perhaps even jurisdictions defying the Discipline, and its hold on the denomination as a whole will crumble. There will be no more United Methodist Church.

This has happened before, and this is where the Klan analogy is most appropriate. Once upon a time, there was just one American Methodist Church. Then came a schism over the authority of Bishops, but that was minor compared to what followed soon after: a split along the Mason-Dixon line over slavery. The legal issue of slavery was resolved by the Civil War, but the ecclesiastical wounds would take two generations to heal. To an extent, they never really did heal: the bigotry that initially was grounded in skin color, increasingly unacceptable in Protestant circles, mutated to be about sexual orientation instead. When this schism comes, it will, in America, resemble that of the 1840s, as Northern and Western conferences choose to liberate themselves from homophobia, while those in South hang onto their more restrictive understanding of grace. Backing them up, however, will be a whole other continent, as there are now huge numbers of conservative United Methodists in Africa skewing votes at General Conference.

This schism, too, may ultimately heal, though I think it is more likely to become irrelevant as the world continues to outgrow the narrow, bigoted, bureaucratic ways of old Methodism. But that is a story for another essay, one that will probably have far less inflammatory images coupled with it.

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