I read the “Good News” magazine regularly, because I see things very differently than is usually presented in that publication, and I think it is important to truly understand points of view that are different from my own. And so I picked up the May/June edition to read it this morning, and I only made it three paragraphs into Rob Renfroe’s column before I had to put down the magazine and ponder. It was one sentence, actually, that caught my attention...
“The big story is this: The evangelical-African coalition now clearly forms the majority viewpoint within the UM Church.” - Rob Renfroe
There is so much wrapped up in this one sentence, it is hard to know where to begin. I’m honestly trying to understand, and if what I write here is not accurate, I hope someone will correct me.
Let me think about the idea of an “evangelical-African coalition.” Really. Lots to think about there.
So, first - no Africans are evangelical? There are “evangelicals” and there are “Africans” and they are two different groups who made a coalition? And furthermore, are we talking about ALL evangelicals and ALL Africans? Because that’s a lot of people. I, for example, am evangelical. And I was never invited to a single coalition meeting. (FYI, that’s probably because I happen to be an evangelical who doesn’t think being gay should disqualify a person from being ordained or married, but more on that later.)
And second, “African.” There are United Methodists in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Sudan,Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Angola, Namibia,Zimbabwe, South Africa. And yet somehow, we are still stuck in the colonial language of a previous century, calling all of “them” “African.”
And a third thought. Apparently the goal of the Good News organization is to form a “coalition” that “clearly forms the majority viewpoint within the UM Church.” After all, that is “the big story” from General Conference this year. Which is weird, because I thought the big story was to make disciples of Jesus Christ who are changing the world, for God’s sake. Apparently, the goal is rather to make sure enough people are voting on the legislation that you like so that your side will “win” and the other side will “lose.”
I’m all for vigorous discussion of differing ideas, but there is no give and take here. Mr. Renfroe’s column is liberally scattered with words like “win” and “victory” and “get everything we wanted.” He trumpets defeat of compromise as if the very idea is abhorrent to him. He seems to view the General Conference meeting as a denominational “Red Rover” game, with each side shouting at the other across a field of play, a zero-sum game.
And so I’m thinking, processing, wondering, and I decided to write about it. Because to be honest with you I just really don’t want people to think that the Good News magazine represents the United Methodist Church. As far as I can tell, it is simply a political group whose sole purpose is to organize around same-sex marriage and ordination of people who are gay, to make sure that neither of these things happen. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s basically all they do, all day long, every day of the year, isn’t it?
Some may reply, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you organize a political group to oppose them?” It’s a fair question, actually. Why don’t more progressive minded people organize in the same way that more conservative minded people do?
I don’t know for sure. In recent history, it seems to me “progressive” people have been pretty lousy at political organizing in general. But I can answer for myself: I think progressive Christians are too busy being progressive (doing ministry, helping people in need, writing music, making disciples, trying to end homelessness, sharing love with those on the margins, caring for at-risk kids, working for economic justice, and so on) to devote resources and time to political organizing within the church itself.
So I’m probably not going to devote a lot of my energy toward political organizing in the church. I mean, I could if I had to, but I’d really really rather not. But I will say this: reading this issue of “Good News” did lead me to one change that I am going to make…
I’m not going to say things like “We are deeply divided on issues of human sexuality” any more. That’s sound and fury, signifying nothing. While I'm at it, I’d also like people to stop saying that this is just about enforcing the Book of Discipline, or affirming a tradition, or simply being orthodox. Nonsense.
Rather, I hope we can figure out how to say exactly what’s what. If you don’t want gay people to get married, just say that. If you don’t want gay people to get ordained, just say that. Let’s just be honest with each other for a change. Claim it. Say it out loud, and then defend it. Why do people seem to be so apprehensive about simply saying what they believe?
Instead of fluffy, I’d prefer real. We are not “deeply divided on issue of human sexuality.” NO - the more honest statement is: some of us think being gay disqualifies a person from getting married and some of us don’t; and similarly some of us think being gay disqualifies someone from being ordained and some of us don’t.
And the second, just as important part: among all those people mentioned above, there are some who want their entire denomination to think just like they do, and some who are comfortable being in a denomination in which some pastors will marry gay people and some won’t, and some conferences will ordain gay people and others won’t.
Here’s what I suspect is going to happen in the UMC:
- There’s a low percentage of United Methodists who think being gay disqualifies a person from marriage and ordination and also cannot abide a denomination that practices otherwise.
- There’s a low percentage of United Methodists who think being gay does not disqualify a person from marriage and ordination and likewise cannot abide a denomination that practices otherwise.
- Then there’s the huge percentage of United Methodists who hold a wide variety of opinions on whether or not gay people can get married and/or ordained, and yet would be okay being a part of a denomination that did not limit marriage and ordination to only straight people, especially considering the wide variety of social contexts in which United Methodist ministry takes place.
And I kind of think that the people on the ends are going to leave, and the big percentage of us in the middle are going to take the restrictive language out of the Book of Discipline, and nobody is going to be forced to marry gay couples or ordain gay pastors, but nobody is going to be forbidden from doing so, either.
And I think that, once that finally happens, the United Methodists who are left will have a pretty awesome church that does some pretty awesome things. I think a whole lot of people will think that the UMC is a pretty groovy denomination and will want to be a part of it. And best of all, I think the grace of God in Jesus Christ will still be there, available for all, inviting us in closer and closer, renewing, reshaping, reforming … dare I say perfecting us in love.