Why I Am Challenging My Church’s Law
I am one of the New York 15—those who signed the “‘We Are’ Open Letter to the People of the United Methodist Church” led by the long time trailblazer for LGBTQI inclusion in the New York Annual Conference of our church, Methodists in New Directions (MIND). I am also one, alongside a growing number of United Methodist LGBTQI candidates and clergy (currently 125+) across the connection, who signed “A Love Letter to Our Church from Your LGBTQI Religious Leaders.”
Since the launching of these letters, I have heard two questions aimed toward LGBTQI clergy signers (which I personalize here), and any who refuse to uphold the unjust law that excludes LGBTQI persons from authentic ministry and that limits spiritual and ecclesial welcome to LGBTQI persons.
Why would I sign letters that stand against the United Methodist Church’s stance that I and my colleagues are “incompatible with Christian teaching,”[i] and seek to be ordained in this church?
I signed this letter after many years of prayer and discernment, discipleship in Christian community, scholarly study, and study of the Bible. The United Methodist Church affirms the primacy of scripture. In like manner, I am a firm believer that the Bible is central to our practice of faith, and should be taken seriously. Additionally, our tradition affirms the use of reason, experience, and tradition that leads us through the dense fog of suffocating, uncritical, and selective literalism of scripture, and into the spirit of the words God has entrusted to us as Christians. In these words, I have found the call to love my neighbor as myself and to love God. In them I have also found the truth that has transformed my life—that a great, creative, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and right-next-to-me-present God loves and affirms my very being—sexuality included. Like all the people called Methodists, I know myself to be in a process of sanctification. “Unqueering”[ii] me is not a part of that process. It need not be.
I signed these letters with LGBTQI persons who have a call from God to full time ministry. As a black queer woman in this world and in this church, I have longed for examples of black lesbian, bisexual and/or queer persons who are out and thriving in powerful ways, despite contrary views from individuals and institutions—namely, the United Methodist Church. I have looked for examples of black queer women clergy who are navigating the intersectional spaces of race, gender, and sexual orientation in subversive ways—in ways that indicate more than survival. Over the years, I have found them, but they are few.
LGBTQI candidates and clergy of color, particularly those who do not serve openly, I speak directly to you: I hope that my being out—that my witness—will help you to know, perhaps in a time when you need it most, that you are not alone. I know that the intersections of our oppressions within this church cause us to sometimes be reluctant to make ourselves doubly or even triply vulnerable.[iii] But, know that you are not alone. I stand with you wherever you stand in this moment. I hope that you will know that when and where I enter, then and there, you—my LGBTQI siblings of color—you enter with me.[iv]
Why would I remain in a church by whose rules I could not abide? [v]
I remain in this church because I love it, and I will not allow its witness in God’s name to be one of discrimination, visceral hatred, and spiritual violence. I remain in a church that upholds a few laws with which I fiercely, persistently, and patiently disagree because the United Methodist Church is my home. I experience God’s salvation time and time again in this United Methodist Church. I experienced, and grew in, my call to lifelong servant leadership in this United Methodist Church. I developed my faith and gifts for ministry within this United Methodist Church. I have experienced the loving embrace of God within this United Methodist Church, and God has not released me to leave it. I remain because I am compelled by the higher invitation to grace-infused, love-led, sometimes risky, obedience to God above the letter of the law.
And as I have heard it said, when obedience to God and biblical obedience[vi] means ecclesial disobedience, the choice is simple. I have to obey God.
Candidate for Ordained Ministry, New York Annual Conference
Assistant Pastor, Church of the Village
Ph.D. Student, Drew University Theological School
[i] Many would claim that we ourselves are not “incompatible” but that our “practice of homosexuality” is what is incompatible. I would say, and many LGBTQI people would agree, that the idea of a sexual orientation being merely a “practice” is outdated, and does not adequately reflect the loving and fruitful (and, sometimes unfruitful) relationships of which we have been a part.
[ii] By this, I mean the ways in which the institutional church seems to believe that God would and should remove what they might call “homosexual desire” from LGBQ candidates and clergy, and that we should repent our same-sex sexual actions. I would argue that God does not have to nor does God desire God’s children to uphold heteronormative patriarchy, which is part of what actually seems to be at stake for those who insist on including the incompatibility clauses.
[iii] The exposure to risk, harm and/or pushback that all LGBTQI candidates and clergy face are compounded when experienced by those in black and brown bodies. The vulnerability is increased also by one’s position on the gender spectrum (increasingly as one deviates from cis-male).
[iv] Borrowed from educator and scholar, Anna Julia Cooper, who in her 1892 book A Voice from the South, wrote “only the Black woman can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” (http://ajccenter.wfu.edu/about-anna-julia-cooper/)
[v] This question is largely an overstatement. By and large, the Discipline of the United Methodist Church is a very helpful tool with reasonable and helpful guidelines and boundaries for candidates, clergy, local churches, etc. I and my colleagues do not challenge these principles. However, these few statements about incompatibility, are very powerful unjust laws that not only encumber ministry, but do spiritual harm to those who wish to serve and those in need of ministry. This spiritual harm sometimes leads to physical, emotional, and mental harm as we see, for example, when parents expel their children from their homes because of theologies that affirm the so-called “sinfulness of homosexuality.”
[vi] The greatest command of this Bible is to love my God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love my neighbor as myself. This call to biblical obedience was the clarion call of retired Bishop Melvin Talbert at the end of the 2012 General Conference.