A Church Divided

A good friend of mine is having a hard time understanding the struggles within the United Methodist Church about LGBT rights. In particular he asked me great questions about how the church can change its position on homosexuality when there are specific references in the Bible and in the writings of Methodist founder John Wesley that condemn any non-hetero sexual orientations. I know there are many other people of faith who are wrestling with the same questions so what follows is my best attempt to explain my position on this important issue.

The sexuality debate has been going on in the United Methodist Church for at least 40 years. I don’t remember what precipitated the debate originally but I assume it was in response to the national increase in awareness about LGBT issues that arose after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. I assume the gay rights movement was also a natural outgrowth of the other movements for a more inclusive society — civil rights, women’s rights, etc.

The United Methodist position on homosexuality has never been clear cut. The compromise wording in the UMC Book of Discipline and our Social Principles has said for years that gays are persons “of sacred worth” but that the expression of their sexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The reason for that seemingly contradictory language is that the General Conference has not had a clear cut majority opinion on this issue for 40 years. The language adopted and maintained all these years is always approved by the slimmest of margins. The last General Conference was so divided by this issue that voting on it was postponed and a special commission was appointed to develop a proposal on “a Way Forward.” That commission is due to report to a special General Conference in 2019. Reports out of that commission and the response of the conservative/evangelical part of the church seem to indicate we could be heading toward a split in the denomination. That is not unprecedented. The Methodist church split into a north and south church over the issue of slavery in the 1840’s. That split continued for nearly 100 years until the two reunited in 1939.

Another source of the theological divisions within the UMC stems from the merger in 1968 with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a more conservative group than the former Methodist church. A leading pastor in the evangelical branch of the UMC recently blamed our divisions on liberal seminaries that expose students to new ideas that change their beliefs from when they entered seminary. My question is why bother going to seminary or any educational institution if we are going to come out unchanged from the way we went in? Faith needs to be tested and challenged to have any depth. That same pastor praised churches that defied the Discipline’s former requirement that UM churches use only UM curriculum in Sunday school and instead used the very conservative David C. Cook material. My question to him is why is that kind of “disobedience” OK, but challenging other rules of the church is not?

Part of this strong difference of opinions is because we are not a doctrinal church but a democratic one. The Discipline and Social Principles of the UMC are revised every four years by a world-wide General Conference, the only body that can speak for the denomination. We have no pope or super bishop who can speak for the church, and that’s a good thing. The down side is we get into emotional debates that stem from some basic differences in the understanding and interpretation of Scripture. The more conservative folks want to interpret Scripture literally and point to a few verses in Leviticus and Paul that condemn homosexuality. The more progressive or liberal interpreters of Scripture choose to emphasize instead a responsibility of pastors and laity to interpret Scripture in light of its historical context.

Wesley himself in his quadrilateral taught that we need to use our God-given abilities to reason and apply our experience to the interpretation of Scripture. The bottom line for me in the sexuality debate is that neither Wesley nor Paul nor the author of Leviticus had the scientific understanding we have today of why some people have a homosexual identity. For Wesley and the biblical authors homosexuality was seen as a choice people made and could therefore be changed, but we today know that is not the case. Some people are simply born with that sexual orientation and to condemn them or exclude them would be like judging people who are born left-handed or blue-eyed or dark-skinned. Progressive/liberal theologians assume we all have the responsibility to interpret the great commandment to love our neighbors and to not let ancient authors with their limited and misinformed opinions dictate who is acceptable to God and who isn’t.

I know it’s hard to have life-long beliefs challenged, but I’m convinced on this issue the people who taught us to fear and judge gays were simply wrong. They were not bad people, just doing the best they could with the values and ideas they had learned from their elders. It’s like the issue of race. I grew up in an all-white community where we claimed we weren’t “prejudiced.” I was naïve enough to believe blacks simply chose not to live in our town. My life experience was so limited that it wasn’t until I went to Ohio State University that I ever had any personal contact with any non-white person. I have since learned that my hometown missed out on a chance to be home to a huge Honda Plant because the mayor at the time was a WWII vet who hated Japanese. And just this fall I learned there once was a KKK chapter in my “unprejudiced” hometown, and one of my great uncles was one of the leaders of that racist group.

The church has been wrong on many social justice issues throughout the centuries. Slavery was justified by the Bible, oppression of women too, and those wrongs were only gradually corrected after years of struggle and resistance from those who benefited from the status quo. Inclusion of LGBT persons as full members of the church is just the latest chapter in the long march toward the loving kingdom God has ordained.

On a very personal note I have worked with and known excellent gay UM pastors literally my entire ministry. For most of those 48 years those pastors had to hide a very critical part of who they are from the church and even from family and friends. One clergy friend didn’t dare confide even in me about his sexual orientation for 15 years because of the stigma and fear. I know of pastors who committed suicide because of the judgment they felt from the church they loved and wanted to serve. Some of the leaders of the movement for LGBT equality are doing so because their own lives and well-being are at stake. Others of us simply believe our God of love wants justice and inclusion for all people.

Faithful people challenging injustice goes back in history as far as Moses responding to God’s call to liberate the Hebrews from slavery. The Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all challenged injustice and oppression at great risks to themselves. John Wesley himself defied the Church of England to take the Gospel to those who were excluded by the church. Wesley stressed the need for a complete Gospel that includes both personal salvation and Social Holiness. Social Holiness does not mean enforcing values on others that don’t stand up to the test of human reason and knowledge but is working for justice for anyone oppressed because of gender, race, social class or sexual orientation.

I am fearful of what this struggle is going to mean for our church, but faithfulness to what I believe is God’s will is more important than institutional preservation. The debate over homosexuality has consumed vast sums of time and energy and distracted the church from doing much needed mission and evangelism for far too long. If we can’t agree on a position on this issue it may very well be time to separate so we can be about the work of other important issues like sharing a truly grace-filled Gospel and being faithful stewards of God’s creation by saving the planet from climate change or nuclear holocaust.


Note:  I wrote this story 22 years ago.  It breaks my heart that it is still as relevant today as it was in 1990.  The continued struggle of the Christian Church in general and my own United Methodist Church in particular to accept all of God’s children compels me to share it here now.  This story is fiction but painfully true.  It is part of the collection of stories and plays in my book Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peace Seekers and Peacemakers.”  

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Micah 6:8

“The truth is lived, not taught.”  Herman Hesse


“The body of Christ, broken for you.”  I could hear the bishop repeating the words to each person as we got closer to the altar.  Larry was right in front of me, but just before he got to the bishop, he turned and hurried out the sacristy door, nearly knocking one of the communion stewards over on his way out.  Before I could decide if I should follow him, the bishop stuck a piece of bread in my hand and motioned for me to keep moving.

I found Larry back in the musty little room we were sharing for the week at our United Methodist annual conference.  He was sitting on his bed in the dark.  “You O.K.?” I asked, and when I flipped on the light I thought it looked like he had been crying.

“Yeah, I’m O.K.  I just had to get out of there.  You want to go get some ice cream?”

“You can’t get off the hook that easy, Larry.  We’ve been friends for what, fifteen years, now, and the only time I’ve seen you this upset was when Carolyn left you.  What’s wrong?”

Larry stared at the floor for a long time before he spoke.  “I thought maybe I could get through this without dumping it on you, Jim, but I guess I can’t.  I lost my … a really good friend last week; his name is Steve.  We met at the health club about four years ago and really hit it off – played racquetball twice a week, had dinner together all the time.  He was the best thing that’s ever happened to me…. Oh, what the hell – we were lovers.  Steve told me last week that he wanted out – he’s found someone else; said he’s sick and tired of me hiding behind my preacher’s robe.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”  But I could tell he wasn’t.  I swallowed hard and felt my stomach tighten.  I was trying desperately to stay calm, to hide my panic.

Larry shook his head as he continued, “I’m sorry… I know I should have told you a long time ago, but I’ve just never known how to do it.  I’ve started a dozen times, but it never seemed like the right time.  I guess I just kept hoping that somehow you knew.”

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t” I said, surprised at my own anger.  Larry buried his face in his hands. His shoulders started to shake, and I realized he was sobbing again.  My instinct was to comfort him like I would a frightened child, put my arms around him; but I couldn’t move.  I was paralyzed; too many questions were racing around in my own mind.  How in the world could I have been this close to Larry this long and not have known?  How many dozens of signals had I missed?  Who else knows and if they do, how many of them think I’m gay too?

Larry didn’t look up, but he finally broke the silence.  “I guess I knew you’d be uncomfortable; maybe that’s why I could never bring myself to tell you.”

“No, no, Larry, I’m not uncomfortable,” I lied, trying to buy some time to regain my equilibrium.  “I’m just thinking about what I can do, you know, to help.”

“Bull Shit!  You’re afraid to deal with it just like everybody else!  God, how I hoped it would be different with you.”

Larry’s words stung like a slap in the face, and the muggy summer night suddenly felt even more oppressive.  I wasn’t sure if it was the heat to blame for the sweat I wiped on my sleeve or if it was my growing discomfort.

“The communion service really got to me tonight,” he continued.  “I just couldn’t pretend any longer that I’m included in a fellowship that condemns me and my lifestyle.  It’s so damn hard, always living a lie, hiding, pretending.  Do you have any idea what it’s like to have to constantly deny who you are, even to your friends, because you know the truth could cost you everything  you’ve got, everything you’ve ever wanted, everything you feel called to do and to be?”

He paused, like he expected something from me, but I didn’t have it to give.  “And now I tell you my deepest secret,” he said, “and you can’t handle it.  I thought I’d feel better, be relieved, once you knew, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Damn it, Larry, that’s not fair.  If you’re such a good friend, how could you go all these years without telling me?  We’ve roomed together here for years, and I’m always staying at your house?  How the hell do you think that looks?  How many people in the conference know about this anyway?”

“Practically nobody, you fool, because there isn’t anybody I can trust – can’t you understand that?  I guess not!  All you can think about is your own precious reputation, you bastard!  I didn’t plan to tell you tonight.  It just hurt so much I couldn’t cover it up this time.”

“I’m sorry, Larry, I really am, but damn it, give me some time to get used to this, will you.  I guess I’m more uptight about this than I realized.”

“Oh, come on, Jim, be honest.  We’ve been debating homosexual ordination up here for what, at least eight or ten years, and I’ve never once seen you on the floor arguing for gay rights!”

“You know how people gossip about anybody who stands up for gays.  They think you’re one of them!”

“Oh, so you’re just a fair-weather liberal?  Do you realize what that chicken shit position does to people like me, especially when it comes from a friend?”

“I haven’t thought about it, Larry.  I thought things were getting better.”  I knew that was stupid as soon as I said it.

“Better?  For whom?  Not me!  That damn policy on gay ordination means that if the wrong people ever find out about me, I’m finished.  Not only is my career over, but they throw me out of my parsonage too!  No job, no home, nothing!  And the activists like Steve wonder why I don’t run around with a big “G” on my chest, proclaiming to the entire world that I’m gay?”

He picked up a Bible from the desk as he paced the room.  “I’ve heard you and a bunch of other so-called friends preach a great line about God’s amazing grace from here, Jim,” he said, holding the book under my nose; “but from where I sit, the only amazing thing about grace in the church is how amazingly scarce it really is.”

He flung the Bible into the wall behind my bed with such force that the faded picture of Jesus hanging there crashed to the floor, scattering shards of glass all over the room.

The intensity of his anger scared me.  “I’m going for a walk – need some fresh air,” I said, and left Larry picking up the broken pieces of glass.

The clock in the tower by the pier said it was almost1 a.m.as I walked by.  Our conference every year was in the little resort town ofLakesideonLake Erie, one of those places where, except for an all-night donut shop, everything closes by11 p.m., and for once I was glad.  I needed some time alone to think, and walking along the rocky shore was always a great place for that.  There was something reassuring about the rhythm of the waves splashing over the rocks and against the retaining wall.  Even the pungent odor of an occasional dead perch shipwrecked on the shore added to the atmosphere.

I was tired and confused.  I had always prided myself on being liberal about most things, but this was the first time I’d really been put to the test on the gay issue, and I had failed miserably.  After walking awhile, I sat down on a park bench in the gazebo near the shuffleboard court and tried to figure out why – to remember things that might help me understand the whole situation.

I remembered walking along the lake another night when Larry told me he and Carolyn were getting divorced.  I’d never really understood what happened to their marriage, but that, at least, was beginning to make sense now.

Larry and I both enrolled at Union seminary in the fall of 1968.  The day I moved in, he spotted myOhioStatesweatshirt and was so glad to see someone from his home state that he invited me for dinner.  He and Carolyn were newly-weds, living down the hall from me in one of those efficiency closets the seminary called apartments.  Larry was a great cook – did most of the cooking, even before the divorce, and I discovered that first evening that, among other things, we shared a great love for sweet and sour pork.  Those were wonderful years – we were two young, idealistic theologues, railing against the Vietnam War from behind the safety of our IV-D clergy draft deferments, preparing for parish ministry, sure we could save the church and the world, or at least the United Methodists.  I don’t remember much church history or systematic theology from seminary classes, and even less Hebrew, but I do remember Larry and me talking about burning eschatological issues well into the night, washing our profound musings down with cheap wine that tasted so much better because it would soon be forbidden by our ordination vows.  I’d always felt bad that Carolyn seemed left out of those bull sessions.  She wasn’t privy to all the inside jokes from class, and she’d almost always go to bed early.  She was a nurse and had to leave for work at6 a.m., but I worried about their marriage, even then.  It seemed that the closer Larry and I became, the less he and Carolyn had in common.  Now I finally understood how little they actually did have in common.  I wondered if he knew, even then.

In a strange way, it was a relief to know.  Ever since Larry told me they were getting divorced, I’d felt guilty, like I helped cause the problem way back in the early days of their marriage.  Now I knew that they had a much bigger problem than me.

All kinds of transformed memories were flooding my mind, like a clergy retreat atCampWesleyright after their divorce.  I was so impressed with the way Larry shared his pain with the whole group that I hugged him – told him I loved him, and I meant it, as a friend, but now all I could think about was how that sounded to everyone else.

I remembered visiting Larry shortly after the divorce in a little backwoods cabin nearIndianLake.  In those days the church still forced ministers who got divorced to take a year off, and Larry was living in this little God-forsaken place owned by a friend of his – no running water, the only heat was from a wood-burning stove.  But it was fine in the summer, and I spent a couple of days there with him, fishing and relaxing.  We even cut a cord of firewood one day.  That was the time – of course, I remembered now – Larry tried to give me a massage that night because I was so sore from wrestling that chain saw around all day – and I was so uptight that every time he touched me, I giggled like a twelve year-old, until he finally just gave up.

It was becoming clearer to me now.  Sure, that was also the time that I was so nervous about where I was going to sleep.  That cabin only had one bedroom, and I remember now that I was never so glad to see a hide-a-bed in the living room in my life.

Damn, maybe Larry was right.  Maybe I did know, and I just refused to deal with it.

More memories washed over me like the waves on the lake shore, only these felt more like the angry waves of a powerful storm, like the ones I’d seen come in off the lake and drop a fifty-foot oak like it was a toothpick.  They were memories of the tasteless jokes I told Larry about gays and the stupid cracks about AIDS.  And then there was Robby Johnson, the kid in our Boy Scout troop that we tormented mercilessly because someone told us he was “queer.”  We used to pants him or take his clothes while he was in the shower and then laugh our heads off while he ran back to his tent naked.

And that time on one camp out, I was probably twelve or thirteen, when we played strip poker in our tent, me and Johnny Crane and Danny Brown.  I lost of course.  I always was a lousy card player.  After I ran out of clothes, every time I lost a hand they made me run around the outside of the tent naked while they lifted up the sides of the tent and shined their flashlights on me.  After we got tired of that, Johnny suggested we “jerk each other off” before we went to bed.  I was really nervous, but I did it anyway.  I don’t know why.  I do know for a long time after that, for several years, I was sure I must be queer, but I was too embarrassed to ever tell anyone.

A shiver from a cool breeze off the lake brought me back to the present, and I was surprised to see Larry standing in front of me.  “I was worried,” he said.  “I was afraid you felt like you had to stay out all night.  I’ll find someplace else to stay tomorrow.”

“No, no, that’s not necessary.  I was just sitting here thinking and lost track of the time.”

“I thought you might be hungry,” he said, holding up a white donut bag.

Over coffee and donuts in the gazebo, I said, “I’m really sorry about what happened.  I thought I was pretty open about this issue, at least in theory, but it’s really different when it affects you personally.”

“You’re telling me?” he said, smiling.

I smiled too, glad for a break in the tension.  “That is funny, isn’t it?  But seriously, this has helped me realize that I’ve got a lot of things to sort out. I’m sorry I took it out on you.”  I told him what I’d been thinking about, everything – Robby and Johnny and Danny, even the hide-a-bed – things I’ve never told anyone before.  “Those are normal kinds of feelings, aren’t they?” I finally asked, trying hard not to sound too desperate for some assurance.

He chuckled, “Yes, very normal for you, and for ninety per cent of the population.  But not for me!”

He paused to dunk his donut and take a bite.  “Listen, Jim, I’m sorry about tonight, too.  I took a lot of anger out on you that didn’t belong to you.  A bunch of really heavy stuff has been piling up on me for months, and you just happened to be there when it finally blew.  Do you remember my friend Craig?  I think you met him one time when you were inCleveland.  He went out to dinner with us.”

“The one who was the minister at Trinity?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Didn’t I hear that he died recently?”

“Yeah, in February.”  He took a sip of coffee and looked very pensive.  “Craig was gay too and had a very hard time dealing with it.  He was like me – tried like hell to be “normal” and fit in, had a wife and kids.  He did his best to play the game, but it just didn’t work; and when the General Conference decreed again last year that gays are unappointable and unordainable, he just lost it.  He finally came out to his congregation one Sunday morning, if you can believe it, and then went home and gassed himself in the parsonage garage.”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t know how he died.”

“It was the same week that Gary, another friend of mine, died of AIDS, a terrible, slow death.  I preached both of their funerals, Jim, in the same week and didn’t dare let anybody know how much I really cared.”

We drank our coffee in silence, surrounded by the darkness and the enormity of Larry’s pain.  “Ash Wednesday was just two days after those funerals,” he continued, “and I was still really pissed at God and the church.  We had communion that night, and I felt like a stranger in my own church.  I went through the motions and said all the right words, but I kept thinking that Craig and Gary would not have been welcome there if people knew them, and I knew damn well that most of my “sisters and brothers in Christ” would choke on their bread if they knew who was serving it to them.  It was like I was in a daze, serving the elements to dozens of nameless, faceless people parading by the altar.

“And then I came home to an empty house, no one to talk to but the dog.  Steve was out of town, or so he said, but I realize now that he was probably already seeing someone else.  Another friend, George, called, inviting me to a belated Mardi Gras Party.  I was so lonely I would have gone anywhere with anybody.  Well, it was wild party, let me tell you, and they weren’t serving grape juice like we did at church.  So, I got a little bombed, and I had sex with three or four guys before the night was over.”

“You what!”

“Now, don’t pull parent on me, Jim.  I don’t need you to tell me how stupid I was.  I’ve never done anything like that in my life, even before AIDS!  The point is that I am that desperate, and it scares the hell out of me.  I don’t even know who those guys were, and I sure hope they didn’t know me; but the weird thing was how that awful, anonymous sex felt the same to me as serving communion to all those people who don’t know the real me either.”

Tears were flowing again, but this time Larry wasn’t crying alone.  We embraced and held each other for a long time, until Larry finally broke the silence, “Want some more coffee?  I can go get refills.”

“Sounds good to me.”

As I watched Larry walk toward the donut shop, I realized the sun was already beginning to brighten the eastern sky.  I watched the gulls skimming the lake for breakfast, and then I saw something I hadn’t noticed in the darkness.  On the retaining wall in front of the gazebo, someone had spray-painted “DEATH TO ALL FAGS!”  Without hesitation, I scrambled down over the rocks, picked up a sharp one and tried almost frantically to scrape the ugly letters off the wall, rubbing so hard I scraped my knuckles and left a trail of blood across the “A” in “DEATH.”  But it was hopeless; the paint would not come off.  I leaned my head against the wall in frustration and exhaustion.

Just then Larry’s voice started me, “You’d better be careful.”  I turned quickly to see him standing there with the coffees in his hands, watching me.

With a little grin on his face, he said, “If some people see you doing that, they might think you’re one of us.”

“I know,” I said, “and frankly, my friend, I don’t give a damn.”