Courage drove this gay methodist pastor to protest his Church
By: Will Green*/TRT Guest Columnist—
When I tell people I am a clergy person in the United Methodist Church (UMC), they often tell me about personal connections they have to my church from their own life.
“My grandmother used to be a Methodist.”
“I went to a Methodist Church when I was a child.”
“My parents were married in a Methodist church.”
People have these connections because the Methodists have a long history of meaningfully connecting with many people’s lives. Currently we have over 12 million members worldwide and we are the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
When I tell people I am an out-of-the-closet gay clergy person in the UMC who is in a partnered relationship, they often say they didn’t know that was possible. Many LGBTQ people know what it is like to be the impossible. It is true that the UMC states in our official church teachings, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This insulting, disgusting, and ridiculous sentence is something I will never accept. An important part of my life and faith is resisting this harmful lie from my church with the full power of God’s love.
For 10 days in May, I was in Portland, Ore. at the 2016 General Conference of the UMC: A global legislative assembly with more than 800 elected delegates. This is the body responsible for the UMC’s horrible statements about LGBTQ people for the past 44 years. From the ugly “incompatibility” statement quoted above stems a whole range of offensive and restrictive statements including defining marriage as between one man and one woman, threats to penalize clergy who minister to queer people, and other discriminatory rulings.
In the first week of General Conference there were committee debates about how to handle proposed legislation. I observed the Human Sexuality subcommittee and it was simply atrocious. Methodists made speeches saying that we who are LGBTQ deserve to be beaten, disowned by our families and have our very existence criminalized by governments. In typical fashion, the Bishops of the church never spoke up against any of these forms of violence. I would guess that readers of this article who are not Christian are not surprised by any of this—assuming that there are non-Christians who care long enough to read this sort of a column.
This was my fourth General Conference. I was in attendance with a large group of pro-LGBTQ volunteers and a smaller core group of people committed to nonviolent direct action. We disrupted business any way we could. We went where we weren’t supposed to go, shouted down the hate with cries of “shame!” and loudly sang hymns in protest. We tied our hands and feet with rainbow ribbons and laid down in hallways to demonstrate how cheap calls for superficial unity constrain us. We stood around the perimeter of meetings with rainbow duct tape over our mouths. We disrupted with marching and singing and chanting and worked hard to escalate the tension. We were prepared to lose the votes as we always do, but we were not prepared to accept injustice in the name of Jesus.
At the beginning of the second week something unexpected happened that took us by surprise. The Bishops released a statement in response to threats from the denomination’s right-wing that said they would leave the church over the UMC’s failure to squash our resistance to homophobic bigotry. In their proposal, the Bishops moved to table all debate on sexuality and form a special committee to report back at a future meeting that would deal only with sexuality and the possibility of splitting the denomination.
Amazingly, the proposal passed. And to everyone’s surprise, the conference moved on. This was a very confusing turn of events. On the one hand, all of the church’s discriminatory policies stay the same. On the other hand, something seems to have changed in that, for whatever reason, the church could not continue with its homophobic business as usual. As this played out, many of us stood by literally prepared to be arrested, complete with our lawyer’s phone number written on our arm in anticipation of being taken into custody.
After so many years of fighting and failure, the only way forward is for God to intervene. Now there seems to be the possibility that God is intervening by bringing an end to the UMC. Schism in this denomination would be an extremely complicated and difficult process, but that may be the best way. After this General Conference, more and more people are coming to terms with this than have considered it before.
Whatever comes of future meetings, for me this General Conference was an important lesson in collective action and courage. Our people were beautiful, brave, creative and free. I am so grateful to be a part of this movement. We are powerful.
Our power resides in not complying with the unjust system. This is what being a queer person is all about for me. It is also consistent with my theological and spiritual grounding in the God who preaches good news to the poor, release to prisoners and liberates the oppressed.
*Reverend Will Green is the pastor of Ballard Vale United Church in Andover, MA. A lifelong United Methodist, he has previously served churches in Hull, Newton and Brewster.