Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, issued a press release yesterday that reads in part:
“A retired United Methodist bishop notified me that he plans to travel to North Alabama, the area for which I am responsible, with the intention of breaking church law. He plans in late October to officiate at the celebration of a ceremony of a same-sex couple who were recently married in Washington, D.C. Though the couple are members of a United Methodist Church in the North Alabama Conference, the celebration will not take place in a United Methodist Church. I urged the retired bishop to reconsider as his officiating at this ceremony would be in violation of United Methodist Church law. I am also concerned that it would encourage the public to only define The United Methodist Church in North Alabama by one matter and not by the rich range of ministries of North Alabama local churches such as feeding the hungry, ministry with the poor, offering hope for those in addiction, sharing the gospel with our neighbors and welcoming all people to worship together and celebrate the sacrament of holy communion….
“Our culture is divided around our understandings of relationships between same sex partners. Likewise there is much debate, pain and struggle among faithful Christians about interpretations of biblical teaching on same-sex relationships. Our United Methodist 2012 Book of Discipline affirms that all persons are of sacred worth and that God’s grace is available to all. Every person is welcome in our churches. The Discipline of our denomination also states that we consider the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching. Our ministers are not permitted to conduct ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions or perform same sex wedding ceremonies.
“As a bishop of the United Methodist Church, I took a vow to abide by and uphold the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. I am also committed to continuing to focus those I lead on our mission, which is broader than any one issue. The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I appreciate prayers for all involved in this difficult and painful situation.”
The bishop’s press release raises more questions for me than answers. She mentions several wonderful ministries of the local churches under her care, including feeding the hungry, ministry with the poor, and offering hope for those in addiction. If the denomination wrote into its rule book that local churches were no longer allowed to actively engage the hungry, the poor, or persons who suffer with addictions utilizing church ministries on church property, would she be okay with that since it is church law? Or might she challenge it as contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Truth be told, there is a sizeable minority of United Methodist clergy and laypersons who have discerned a different biblical understanding of same-sex relationships and do not wish to have limits placed on our ministry with LGBT persons. We do not wish to say to LGBT persons that we are unable to celebrate with them their committed relationships because they violate church law. Since the denomination has not been of one mind on this matter for decades, a more charitable stance would be to allow faithful United Methodists to follow their conscience. This is what we do in relation to another controversial matter – war. Yet by narrow margins we again and again adopt unjust, uncompassionate rules of church law that exclude people in our midst from the acknowledgment that God accepts them as they are.
The bishop states that everyone is welcome in our churches. But what kind of welcome says to persons, “You are living in a way that is incompatible with what the church teaches?” Granted, in many of our churches, we have a time of confession in Sunday worship so as to acknowledge that we all live in ways that are incompatible with what the church teaches. We are all seduced by consumerism, militarism, and heterosexism. Yet we are still permitted to receive the church’s blessing of our marriages if we seek it. We are welcomed in spite of ourselves. Why would we offer only a conditional welcome to persons with a different sexual orientation?
Finally, it is true that the mission of the United Methodist Church is “broader than any one issue,” as the bishop suggests. However, this sentiment means very little in light of the matter of justice we are discussing. To refer to “the practice of homosexuality” as though it is uniform from person to person is as absurd as referring to “the practice of heterosexuality.” What does that even mean? Every heterosexual person on the face of the earth understands and practices his or her sexuality in an individual manner. Not only that, but society constructs gender identity and it is not simply a matter of being male or female. There is a continuum of gender identification on which we all exist.
There are so many questions surrounding this matter of same sex marriage, and yet the United Methodist Church is stuck in reverse, hoping to stem the tide of reason and new understanding by insisting that church law is the last word. Bishop Wallace-Padgett may be obliged to uphold the restrictive and oppressive language of the Book of Discipline on this matter, but the retired bishop she mentions, Bishop Melvin Talbert, is the one listening to the Spirit and attuned to the radically inclusive love revealed in Christ! The world needs more disciples willing to take risks that challenge the status quo and make transformation possible.
Words (c) 2013 Mark Lloyd Richardson