Missing From the Table

By Bill Mefford

I know the watchword in fights for the rights of full membership and leadership within the United Methodist Church (UMC) is “inclusion.” While most progressives, if not all, are pushing for “full inclusion,” conservatives use numerous arguments to evade and dodge the core issue of inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. They, in large part, dodge and evade this core issue because they do not want to deal with their own prejudices and homophobia, and they really must deal with that if they ever hope to be holy, which is what they repeatedly (ad nauseum) claim to want for the church. Conservatives really ought to stop talking about holiness and biblical fidelity if they have no real desire to do either. And they don’t. at this point in time

But I am more concerned right now with the idea of what “full inclusion” is for the new birthings coming out of the UMC. The truth is, no group is fully inclusive. We all discriminate and that is normal and to be expected. Absolutist full inclusion is long-term chaos and accomplishes nothing. What we really want is to include and follow those voices that have historically been marginalized and ostracized. What we want is justice more than an abstract and absolutist vision of inclusion that might sound nice, but is not centered.

So, if progressives do not want to follow the same hypocrisy of conservatives who claim to want to biblical holiness while ignoring vast passages in Scripture (especially those passages that show that justice is personally contextual in nature), then we will do well to stop saying we want full inclusion. We don’t. If I am hearing folks correctly, what we want to focus less on are the voices of people - like me - who have been in leadership of the church for years and who reflect the patriarchy, hetero-normative, same old structure that the UMC has been held captive by for years. Instead, we want to highlight and follow the voices of people who have been systematically ostracized by this current structure, namely LGBTQ people, people of color, people who have left the UMC (or were forced out in some way), and lay people.

And of course, as a voice of someone who needs to be pushed to the side for the time being, if not longer, I am fine with being marginalized. Again, the goal is not absolutist full inclusion, but rather, it is justice and justice is ALWAYS contextual. And this is yet another reason why conservatives are wrong on what they are proposing. Conservatives in the UMC, to no surprise, are A LOT like trump followers and their fellow political conservatives in that they are responding to necessary and positive social and political changes in society with a backlash effort to “go back” to a white-dominated, patriarchal hierarchy. Like trumpists, conservatives in the UMC have successfully gained institutional power, but they have sacrificed their basic values in attaining that power and that will be their downfall (though I pray for their liberation).

And the same perils await progressives in the UMC as well. There is a movement afoot in the UMC that is being led by formerly marginalized people - LGBTQ people and people of color, though mostly they are clergy. But like all exciting movements, this is fragile and there are possible pitfalls on all sides. Also, like all movements, there is much we can learn from history. Let me share one story.

Back in the 40s and 50s (and on into the 60s), one of the most important builders of the civil rights movement was a man named Bayard Rustin. Rustin was instrumental in counseling Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association (the leaders of the bus boycott in Montgomery and the predecessor to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to fully adopt and begin to articulate their commitment to nonviolence. They had not done this prior to Rustin’s involvement. Further, Rustin was the lead organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, which to many, was the culmination of the civil rights movement and is certainly the most popular event in its history. Without Rustin, this powerful event would not have happened.

Yet, Rustin is not widely known and he was forced to be largely silenced and often marginalized from the movement he helped build because early in his life he had joined the Communist Party and he also was gay. Thus, the civil rights movement did not fully benefit from his voice or his leadership because civil rights leaders allowed the social and political structure to dictate, in many ways, who would be allowed to participate.

And so it is now, with the new movements being birthed within the UMC, that mainstream, mega-church leaders need to sit back and marginalize themselves so that the voices and leadership of those who have been historically marginalized can take center stage. But even more, and even deeper I believe, the new movements that are being birthed right now do not need to be held captive by clergy, while marginalizing lay people. I cannot tell you how many stories I have heard from former United Methodists who, both laity and clergy, were once committed to the UMC, but whose dreams and hopes for vibrant, life-transforming ministry did not fit within the cookie-cutter shapes that the UMC hierarchical structure demanded and thus, they were cast aside.

Any new birthing of a Methodist movement would do well to bring these crucial voices into their mix.

The truth is, if the new movements coming out of the UMC are led by clergy of color and LGBTQ clergy they will miss a significant voice - lay people and people who have been forced out of the UMC. Now, to be clear, I am not talking about me, though I am a lay person and was forced out. I am happy to be on the margins and have zero interest in being out front. That time has come and gone. But to try and build something more reflective of God’s Kin-dom while maintaining the current restrictive and stifling United Methodist hierarchies is as much of a betrayal of the progressive goals of raising up new leaders as is the conservative goal of biblical holiness.

We do not want to follow the same hypocrisy of conservatives and so any new birth of Methodism that is liberationist must include non-clergy voices in significant positions of leadership. Otherwise, the movements will fail before they ever begin.

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