I have noted some resonance between the Methodist church of the reconstruction era and the United Methodist Church of the marriage equality era. I wonder if the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in June of 2015 might just be as significant a moment for the church as emancipation was in January of 1863. Certainly not in the particulars, but a pivotal moment theologically nonetheless.
A phrase has been recurring in my mind just lately - “The Times Were Strange and Stirring.” It’s the title of a book by Reginald Hildebrand about the history of the church in the time just after the Civil War. In it, he summarizes Methodist responses to recently liberated slaves. In the introduction, Hildebrand writes:
“The emancipation of black southerners was both conventional and radical. It was conventional in the sense that, in their quest for freedom, the freedpeople did not try to alter the commonly held understandings of what that term meant. They did not challenge the fundamental political, social, or economic ideals of the American republic. Southern blacks wanted to direct their own lives: they wanted to have secure families, to be educated, to own property, to be protected by the law, and to participate in the political process. In short, their aspirations were very traditional. On the other hand, emancipation was radical in the sense that it challenged the omnipresent, multifaceted ideology of white supremacy which posited that blacks should be subordinate to whites in all areas of life. Some emancipationists tried to finesse that ideology by allowing freedom to be mediated through white paternalism. Others insisted on confronting the ideology head-on through a kind of black nationalism. Still others believed that the ideology of white supremacy could be transcended, and they tried to construct a new social order in which color would play no significant part.”(Hildebrand, p. xiv-xv, underlines are mine)
In many ways, marriage equality is also both conventional and radical. It is quite conventional in that same-sex couples want to raise families, to have jobs, to live equally under the law, to have a say in the way their communities function. And in another way, marriage equality is similarly quite radical in that it challenges long-held beliefs of heteronormativity that assume the exclusive validity of heterosexuality and the duality of complementary gender roles. I hear a definite resonance with Hildebrand’s observations around emancipation.
Further, Hildebrand notes three Methodist ecclesiological responses to emancipation. In his terms they are “white paternalism,” “black nationalism,” and “a new social order.” I see more connections here with the way churches have responded to people who are gay in the “marriage equality” era.
There is a kind of “straight paternalism” in churches with an ecclesiology that says that gay people are welcome because all sinners are welcome. And if we all will confess and repent then we will be saved. A church with such a theology can claim to be acting in love for people who are gay, out of a desire to save them from God’s punishment. The most drastic manifestation of “straight paternalism” is conversion therapy.
Secondly, it isn’t nationalism, but there is a distinct ecclesiology in churches whose theology is focused on issues pertaining to homosexuality to the exclusion of any other concerns. There is a perfectly understandable righteous indignation born of years of oppression, discrimination, and violence. The confidence, aggression, and energy of this theology will not rest until there is complete liberation from even the smallest hint of homophobia.
And finally there is a “new social order” type of ecclesiology that seeks to completely transcend homophobic ideology and to be a church in which sexual orientation plays no significant part. Churches with this theological perspective may address questions of marriage and ordination of people who are gay very selectively, if at all. Full inclusion is assumed, but not advertised.
It must be said that there is an obvious and crucial distinction to be made. The Methodist movement had already splintered into multiple denominations by the time emancipation came, and examination of the ecclesiology of that time consists in comparing different denominations, among them the AME, AME Zion, CME, ME North, and ME South churches. In the post-marriage-equality era, we are mostly talking about differing ecclesiologies within one denomination, in my particular case within the United Methodist Church.
If I had more time, I would love to be able to research more fully, and write more extensively about the post-marriage-equality church. The thoughts I have jotted above are really just ideas rumbling around in my noodle, and still very much in the early stages of development. It seems to me that there is something there, but I could be wrong.
If you have managed to slog through this far, please help me tune these ideas with your comments. This post was really one of those where I was writing mostly to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page, so I could see them and reflect.
One thing that I know for sure, we are once again living in times that are “strange and stirring.”