By Bill Mefford
It’s been a big week for United Methodists as the church’s Judicial Council has met to decide a complaint filed against the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction, which was filed just minutes after her election to the episcopacy by members of the South Central Jurisdiction. Bishop Oliveto is married to another woman and that is against church law in the United Methodist Church. Bishop Oliveto’s ordination is not at stake, but what is certainly at stake is the continued harm the United Methodist Church inflicts upon its LGBTQ members and leaders.
I am hearing people say once again that the church is at a “precipice;” that the church could likely “split” over issues of inclusion. People are watching smuggled live stream videos of the judicial proceedings and endless blog posts have been written (yes, count this among the many). I am not an expert on what happens if the Judicial Council does rule the election of Bishop Oliveto as null and void, but this is what I am expecting since it is now stocked with picks who were chosen during the fundamentalist takeover of the church from last year’s General Conference. For those of us who favor a Pentecost-like New Testament church that includes all people and who believe that the Spirit of God is not reserved to work only through heteros, this is once again a time of dread, gearing up for more hurt and pain to be inflicted on people, particularly the LGBTQ community.
As a child who lived during a long and agonizing divorce I find myself wanting to scream at the supposed leaders of both sides “Sign the damn papers already!!” Just split and move on. But this week is just one more event in a decades-long series of studies, committees, legislation, and the never-ending “holy-conferencing” that always promises progress, or even a “way forward,” but only ends up falling way short of expectations.
And to that I say as soberly and thoughtfully as I possibly can: enough. It is time to leave.
But in truth I am not sober or even very thoughtful right now. I am irritated. And I am mainly angry at the "leaders" of these “sides.”
On the one side I am angry with the fundamentalist leaders who, like the Pharisees before them, “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4) They arrogantly and condescendingly lecture others they perceive to be disobedient to institutional mandates, but when it comes to the first rule of Wesleyanism, “Do no harm,” they gladly disobey it and inflict harm on LGBTQ people continuously in their sermons, blogs, and the constant bringing of charges against LGBTQ clergy.
Fundamentalist leaders haughtily wag their fingers at those who supposedly disobey the institutional mandate that unjustly prevents LGBTQ people from serving and leading the church while they themselves regularly ignore or, at times even mock, the rest of the Book of Discipline, especially those parts located in the Social Principles like advocating for undocumented people, abolishing the death penalty, speaking out against war, and advocating for the rights of workers. Indeed, they are like the Pharisees who “tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
Fundamentalist leaders make slick videos declaring the "Bible is true," focusing on the glorification of six culturally-entrenched verses while they ignore the literally hundreds of verses and passages that speak to not just caring for the poor, but doing justice alongside the poor and ensuring that we work for a world where injustice, oppression, and marginalization is no longer a reality. Fundamentalists make slick videos declaring "promises must be kept" while breaking the greatest promise we make when we follow Jesus – to love one another as we would want to be loved. And no one I know would ever want to be made to feel the way my LGBTQ sisters and brothers are feeling. No one. Again, they are the Pharisees who say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (Matthew 23:30) while they emotionally batter and chase LGBTQ clergy and prophets out of the church.
Pharisees, Pharisees, Pharisees all.
But my anger with the fundamentalist leaders is hardly anything new. Indeed, I am becoming ever more irritated with liberal leaders who constantly counsel patience to the people who are being persecuted simply for who God has created them to be and for following the call that God has placed on their lives, or for the people whose dreams and visions do not snugly fit into the restrictive budget-oriented "visions" for ministry that currently rule the United Methodist institution. I am frustrated with liberal "leaders" who vow to stay and fight and provide no new vision of what the church can be beyond what it already is. I hear from those who continue (vainly I believe) to push for change on the inside of the United Methodist institution that they are not opposed to people leaving and in fact, that they understand the need to leave and to escape the harm inflicted by the fundamentalists, but who then virtually ignore those who have left, as if leaving heals all brokenness and pain.
What those who remain fail to envision is what the Body of Christ (NOT to be mixed up with the United Methodist institution) will look like locally for those who leave or are forced out (and I would argue there is very little difference between leaving and being forced out). I believe it is far past time for an Exodus. How powerful would it be if liberal leaders began using their access to such tremendous resources that remain in the institution to care for those who choose to leave the United Methodist institution and to freely and faithfully follow their calling? Why don’t liberal leaders use funding to start local caring stations and missional outposts for those who have been forced out, but yet who are called and gifted for ministry? The church funds missions all the time and finally, we could have one ministering to the people the institution itself has harmed and in turn, who then will be able to finally use their gifts for the transformation of the world (remember when the church was doing stuff like that?
I fear that many liberal leaders are not thinking creatively beyond the next crisis in the UMC because they are so overly focused on keeping the institution intact.
Folks, it is time, it is far past time, for liberal “leaders” to take their positions seriously and to help people move beyond the hurt and harm that this intractable mess has created. A failure to do so reveals a false belief in the institution to be able to care for the people who are being hurt. This false belief, pursued beyond the health of people the institution is tearing apart in its tracks, must be called for what I believe it is: idolatry.
I don’t believe that United Methodists are on a precipice. If they are there, they enjoy the view too much to ever move. They have been there for a while and they will continue to be there until someone, or a group of people, lead the people out of the wilderness. Some of us have left already and we can say that the Exodus out of institutional dysfunction and visionless meandering is indeed liberating. It is a time for new leaders.