Correcting the Conservative Framing in the UMC

I have to admit I am tired of the incessant battles within the United Methodist Church. Progressives want to have equal rights for all members and want to allow all people with gifts for ministry to be able to serve the church (and more importantly, the world!) regardless of who they love. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a form of orthodox beliefs that they so firmly believe are right not only for themselves, but for all to follow. Conservative elites in particular have decided that their form of orthodoxy is the only way to grow the church as they have claimed that liberalism kills churches so often that far too many people believe it, regardless of what our own experience tells us.

Yeah, the nonstop entrenchment is wearisome. I have great appreciation for the amazing organizing work that has been done by conservatives as they have created organization after organization, devoting enormous resources into discipling young people into their movement to the point that they have formally begun the takeover of the United Methodist Church. My response to this has been the same for several years: let them have the institution. Honestly, who really wants a dying, arcane, overly bureaucratic, top-heavy institution anyway? There is so much amazing potential for progressives to celebrate and live into and none of it requires the presence of an institution. Let’s leave behind the decrepit structures and dream new dreams, create new connections and for God’s sake, raise up new leaders.

However, in spite of my sincere hope that progressive United Methodists jump into the unknown mission ahead through doing things not yet explored, I feel the need to wade back into the conservative/liberal fight that has overtaken the church and prohibited anyone from moving forward. I do this because I find the framing of what is happening in the UMC to be so manipulative and demeaning by conservative elites.

Let me elaborate: in a recent newsletter to their large following, a conservative elite of a large conservative organization compared the divisions within the UMC to marital infidelity, with one side – the conservatives, having been faithful and the other side – the progressives, particularly LGBTQ United Methodists, having been unfaithful. The conservative elite was writing in response to the election of Rev. Karen Oliveto to Bishop in the Western Jurisdiction as Rev. Oliveto is a lesbian who is married. The United Methodist Church currently has language in place that states plainly the “incompatibility” of Christian teaching and homosexuality. The objection to Bishop Oliveto being ordained is solely because she is a lesbian and is not trying to hide who she is or who she loves.

One of the things that makes so many of us so tired of this fighting is the nastiness of the arguments, which always happens when there is entrenchment and no hope of movement of any kind. I admit, no one side is clean when it comes to meanness or nastiness; people on both sides of this issue have been hurt by things someone on the other side has said.

However, rarely do we see a leader of one of the sides be so blatant in their meanness. The conservative leader’s use of the marriage metaphor is striking because of the subtle but real accusation he is making. He is, essentially, saying progressives in their unfaithfulness are whores. Further, since Rev. Oliveto is the only person named his subtle innuendo is particularly nasty in that it is directly aimed at her. I was shocked when I read it and I had to read it again just to make sure what I was reading was right; that I wasn’t reading anything into it. I wasn’t. He said it. Progressives are the “unfaithful spouse” in his analogy. Conservatives are faithful.

This is why framing matters. Because of the large and well-financed media machinery of the conservative groups, the common refrain in regards to the election of Rev. Oliveto to the Episcopacy is not the lifting up of a well-respected, highly gifted woman to leadership who also happens to be a lesbian. The framing is, instead, the rebellion of the Western Jurisdiction and the nine conferences who have chosen to ordain people based on their gifts and not their sexual orientation for they are “breaking covenant.”

I have said this time and time before, but framing matters. So does a well-financed conservative media machinery. Progressives simply do not have the same organizational capacity or the well-financed media bureaucracy. Honestly, I kind of hope we don’t waste our time or money creating one. I think there are more important things to worry about. At the same time, I do hope we recognize what it is we are facing.

But let’s look more closely at the marriage metaphor; particularly at how a marriage metaphor would better be understood from a liberationist perspective. If progressives are the partner who has left our spouse I cannot call us the “unfaithful” spouse for being authentic to the historic and prophetic calling is not unfaithfulness. Indeed, it is the essence of faithfulness. Progressives are faithful (say that out loud).

Let’s ask ourselves, why would the progressive spouse leave the conservative spouse? Well, after years – even decades – of being told to deny who we are, who God has created us to be; after decades of sitting quietly, simply because the conservatives who have run the institution demanded that we not be allowed to speak even while there has been tremendous shame poured down upon LGBTQ people; even while the harsh and demagogic language has been used to describe LGBTQ people – after decades of this kind of abuse, progressives have decided to be silent no more.

That, my friends, is not unfaithfulness. What this metaphor plainly describes is not unfaithfulness, but abuse. Told from the perspective of the abuser – as done by the conservative elite leader of a conservative organization, then the problem is unfaithfulness. Conservatives have abused LGBTQ people and the progressives who stand by their side for decades. Now, when the abused rise up and say, “No more! We will be who God has called us to be and do what God has called us to do,” then all of a sudden, they are shocked. Colonialists never suspect that those who they have abused and mistreated would refuse to live contentedly in their position of subjugation.

For colonialists, achieving justice is about maintaining the status quo; keeping the current ecclesial (or political, or social, or economic) structure in place. For progressives, justice is more about ensuring that all people live into the fullness of God’s destiny, which is about being perfected in love for God and for one another. To disrupt the status quo for conservatives is to, therefore, be unfaithful or “break covenant.”

Thus, it is clear that progressives are not unfaithful. We are faithful. If conservatives want to insist on using the metaphor of marriage then we must forcefully point out that this marriage was marked as an abusive one. Leaving an abusive marriage isn’t unfaithfulness. It is liberation. 

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