Every time I turn around, someone outside the Methodist Church is asking me how things are going at the church. I think that my reaction to the pain of GC2019 and its aftermath left my friends and counseling colleagues wondering if the UMC was going to suddenly spin apart into little fragments.
I have to admit that there are times when I desire that spinning apart greatly. The movement towards any kind of change, any kind of restructuring of the UMC, seems so slow and leviathan as to make me wonder if change is possible at all in our current, almost stultified church culture.
The statements issued at the end of the UMCNext gathering didn’t offer me much hope either, mostly because the statement sounded like we doubled down on inclusion without making any plans for how we were going to make that happen without first exiting the UMC as I know it. Knowing that I was starting to despair, several friends suggested that I read Adam Hamilton’s invitation to UMCNext, and then they forwarded me a few blog posts written by participants in the UMCNext conference.
Thankfully, I found hope, inspiration…and a whole new host of concerns.
Rev. Dr. Tyler Schwaller, a participant in the UMCNext conference, wrote a blog post that clearly pointed out the biggest problems that we face as the progressives and centrists in our denomination try to move forwards from GC2019. (read here) It was heartening to read that he found it wonderful to finally be at a gathering of pastors and laity where he was not reviled simply for being queer. I cannot imagine how painful it must be to have served the UMC faithfully for such a long time, knowing that many of your colleagues and your partners in the laity condemned you for existing, for your very creation.
Not that it changes the years of suffering for all my POC and LGBTQ colleagues, but I repent of not having been more obnoxiously vocal about radical and total inclusion. Entrenched oppression deserves loud and bold resistance from everyone who is aware that it exists, whether they experience the oppression firsthand or not. I wasted valuable opportunities to speak up and make space for POC/LGBTQ clergy simply because I was too committed to being ‘nice’, and I believe that I did harm because I wasn’t willing to be disliked. You are my treasured colleagues and friends, and you didn’t deserve that. I repent of my inaction and unwillingness to be uncomfortable, unpopular, and maybe even despised on your behalf. Please forgive my inaction.
Having said that, I want to look at a few points in Schwaller’s post (please read it…it is short and revealing.)
Schwaller stated “the commitment to the preservation of power and control by the already privileged is palpable. Our Movement Forward summit created space to reimagine a church where power is shared within a framework of mutual accountability. UMCNext forced us around tables over which we had no choice, asked limiting questions that restricted imagination, centered leaders who have already failed and undermined us, was carefully scripted so to gloss over differences that matter, and completely ignored the collective wisdom of justice-seeking resistance movements. In short, it repeated the imperialist framework of the UMC as it already is. “Inclusive” imperialism is still evil.”
That’ll preach, brother.
The one thing that is going to have to change if we are going to move forward as a truly inclusive church is that we have to let go of the entrenched power structure. I don’t mean that we need to do away with Bishops and DS’s, or that we should advocate for anarchy within the church structure. I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bathwater, but at the same time, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing when we seek to preserve the structures that supported oppression in the first place.
Right now, it appears to me that we are too invested in making sure that we keep the larger churches happy so that apportionments will be paid and the coffers of the church, already threatened by the shrinkage of our membership, will remain robust. This means that we cannot place women, POC, or LGBTQ clergy in churches where their prophetic voice (let alone their simple existence and appearance) would challenge valued and generous members to listen to the gospel anew. God forbid some big givers should leave the church and take their money with them. I get it…we need money if we are going to do any kind of meaningful ministry. I am not blind to the needs of the church. But at the same time, I question why we are putting the (less than) almighty dollar before the honest proclamation of the radical gospel of Jesus Christ that extended grace to all the wrong people and frequently put the so-called ‘big givers’ outside the door of inclusion because they weren’t willing to share the table with people they found undesirable.
I am also aware that we continue to discriminate against anyone who dares to ask for ordination as a Deacon. A number of Elders have explained to me that the order of Deacons, created at GC1996, was denied rights to the sacraments because the Bishops feared that granting sacramental rights to Deacons would cause a mass migration of Elders, changing orders to avoid itinerancy. If the only way that you can keep an Elder faithful to their call is to discriminate against another entire class of people, you have a major problem with your Elders. Think about this: Deacons, who serve their congregations and community with the same love and devotion as the Elders, are repeatedly forced to turn away congregants who come to us, asking us to perform baptisms. When we lead worship so that the Elder can have a day off, we are forced to beg outside Elders to consecrate communion or are forced to ask the congregation to skip communion altogether, because we are not allowed to consecrate the elements. Try explaining to a church member that you cannot baptize their child because you are only a Deacon, not quite equal to the Elder, even though the BOD swears the orders are equal. None of this has ever made sense to any layperson when I have tried to explain it, especially when I also have to admit that I have the same MDiv as the Elder, went through the same candidacy and RIM process as the Elder, and am fully ordained like the Elder. And as for the Bishop’s supposed fear that Elders would switch orders en mass, my experience of the Elders that I work with tells me that nothing except God’s call would convince them to change orders, and that when they do change orders it is for sake of continuing to be in obedience to God. If we’re going to avoid perpetuating imperialistic church structure under the guise of inclusivity, we need to address all structures of oppression within the church. Inclusion isn’t a “this group now, that group later, and always somebody waiting in the wings for their full rights” kind of a thing. Inclusion is all people, right now, period.
As a white, cis-gendered straight clergywoman, I am aware that many of us, clergy and laity, will struggle to deal with the changes necessary to create a truly inclusive Church. It will be uncomfortable, to say the least. There will be a lot of fear and hesitancy, and we will need accountability and grace if we are going to find our way to new behaviors and new ways of expressing ministry that don’t involve adherence to the old imperialistic power structures. I am not asking my POC/LGBTQ colleagues for forbearance with our unwillingness to move forward. We need to move forward no matter how uncomfortable that movement makes the clergy and laity who have been comfortable for far too long. We may, however, need to remember that epic shifts in thinking, attitude, and action involve a great deal of cognitive dissonance, something that our desire for inclusion cannot overcome and should not rush through. Cognitive dissonance is necessary and desirable, because it calls many accepted and unquestioned beliefs into question and even prompts their abandonment. This means that our execution of the necessary changes will be filled with people dragging their feet, repeated moments of failure, tears of frustration and possibly shame, and the need for loving accountability. I am certain that I will fail my desire to be fully inclusive many times out of sheer ignorance and an on-going belief that I have somehow managed to avoid internalizing abusive and oppressive power structures because I’m ‘better than that’. I’ve already discovered that I casually accepted patriarchal structures without challenge, well into my adulthood. I’m certain that I will find myself sorely lacking in the ability to clearly perceive all the structures of oppression built into the UMC without being called to account by the people who suffer under those structures. We need to let POC/LGBTQ clergy lead the way into a more inclusive church, and beg their patience with our overt stupidity as long as we continue to visibly struggle for personal change and structural change. And those of us that have enjoyed privilege without cause to receive that privilege need to trust that God will guide all of us as we are conformed to the inclusive, prophetic image of Christ. It will be painful, and it will be worth it.
I’m in. How about you?