I have seen the end and it isn’t pretty.
A couple of nights ago, I attended one of a handful of regional gatherings across the North Carolina Annual Conference. These meetings, led by the Bishop and our General Conference delegates, were intended to outline the three proposals advanced by the Commission on a Way Forward. Laity and clergy were both invited to attend. Billed as a time for questions and answers, I hoped it would be a time of learning and sharing. I was wrong.
I hadn’t been in my seat five minutes when someone raised their hand to speak on the most accurate definition of homosexuality. It should (said this gentleman), according to any definition one might find, include the term sodomites. If he said sodomite once he said it three more times. To be honest, the meeting went downhill from there.
The Bishop did her best to keep order and maintain a sense of decorum. However, it was clear those in attendance didn’t think much of the one church plan or changing the Book of Discipline to be more accommodating to all United Methodists. Soon the same tired tropes emerged, homosexuality is the sin par excellence, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality because they still stoned sodomites in 1st century Palestine (so Jesus didn’t have to bring it up), and Methodists need to be more concerned about keeping people out of Hell. I wasn’t sure if the man who mentioned stoning wasn’t still advocating taking people, as he said, “to the local rock pile”. He was intentionally ambiguous.
There were also secondary complaints about the lack of information from the committee, annual conference, and those in charge. To those who hear only bits and pieces of information or follow Rob Renfroe’s version of Methodism, these plans seem sudden and frightening. Fear is the word which kept coming to mind. Beyond the anger, misquoted Bible verses, and the outright bigotry I witnessed; this meeting contained a palpable sense of fear.
My sisters and brothers are scared. Frightened people have difficulty being faithful disciples. They are afraid of their neighbors, losing their church, the control they pretend to maintain over God’s kingdom, and the idea that God’s grace is bigger than they realized. This isn’t simply homophobia. Yes, that’s part of the equation. It is theophobia, a fear of letting God be God. What happens if God demands we love people we’ve been inaccurately taught to despise? God’s spiritual audacity and expansive moral grandeur is frightening to those who image of God is one of wrath and punishment.
The meeting I attended is a microcosm of events occurring around United Methodism. In fact, I’m betting this gathering was kind of a dress rehearsal for the special General Conference. The same hurtful words, self righteous speeches, and stereotypes will be thrown around the convention floor in St. Louis. It will be as wrong and as hurtful there as it was this week.
There’s free speech and there’s hate speech. What I heard in this meeting bordered on hate speech. It made me sick to my stomach and ashamed to be sitting in a United Methodist Church. By the time our gathering finished, I couldn’t wait to leave the building. I felt confused, angry, and disappointed. I know people can be mean. I realize even when we clean up and go to church, we feel like we can say ugly, vile, and reprehensible things about people God created because we “do it in Christian love” or “tradition”. I’m not naive or ignorant. However, I’m always surprised (a bit) when I see in person. A Methodism that is rude, discriminatory, and cloaked in judgmental self-righteousness isn’t the church I know and love. If that makes me less of a Christian (or United Methodist), I guess we can get adjoining rooms in Hell.
The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about the idea of “God needing us” for God’s very existence. I’m not one to usually argue with Heschel, however, after what I saw this week, it looks like God could do just fine if we weren’t figuring out ways to put up roadblocks to inclusivity and border walls around the Kingdom of Heaven. When we’re like this, God doesn’t need us. Before we’re going to be of any use to anyone, (LGBTQI United Methodists, the elderly, children, migrant families, Syrian refugees, or heroin addicts in our own community, etc.) we need more of God’s love.
Richard Lowell Bryant