An Open Letter to the College of Bishops of The UMC Philipines Central Conference
Dear United Methodist Bishops from the Philippines,
Our church, over the last 4 decades, has faced turmoil because of language that was added to the Book of Discipline in 1972, making the “practice” of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” This stance has allowed our church to bar openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals to serve as clergy, and effectively discriminate against LGBTQ couples who want to be married in our churches through the services of our ministers. This past couple of years we have seen a surge in church trials against clergy who decided to be pastors to their own LGBTQ children and members. Very recently, Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated the wedding of two active United Methodist gay men in Birmingham, Alabama in a courageous act of Biblical Obedience.
This is not an issue facing The UMC only in the United States. While everything seems “quiet” in the Philippines Central Conference, you fully know as our bishops that many Filipino/a LGBTQ individuals serve our denomination: they sing in our choirs, they are lay leaders and Sunday School teachers, they give their tithes and volunteer, and they are deaconesses and ordained clergy. Both our ecclesiastical laws and Filipino culture encourages a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that have kept these LGBTQ persons from serving openly. Most are in the closet, fearful of being cast out of the church they love. While their counterparts and allies in the United States are more vocal, there is no excuse to assume that they do not exist in The UMC in the Philippines. I believe that the kairos moment for the LGBTQ United Methodists in the Philippines to stand up and speak up is upon us.
In the spirit of love and humility, I am reaching out to you as my bishops and also as my colleagues in ministry in support of the prophetic stance of Bishop Talbert and all the Reconciling United Methodist lay and clergy who call for the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in our denomination. We are indeed in covenant with each other – rooted in our baptismal covenant “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Our covenant, which we have etched in the letter of the law as stated in the Book of Discipline, needs to draw its inspiration from our covenant with God to love our neighbor – the “other” – and to stand in solidarity with “the least of these” in our communities. John Wesley exhorts us to “do no harm” as we practice our faith. Any other covenant that hinders us from struggling against oppression and being in ministry with all persons is not a binding covenant as far as the Gospel mandate of love is concerned. Any covenant that inflicts spiritual violence – through exclusion, or by any means – on God’s children is not moral and tenable.
Obviously, our church is not of one mind on the matter of LGBTQ participation in the ministry entrusted to us by Jesus – noting that he was considered a religious outcast, and condemned to death by Temple authorities for disobeying their moral codes. It is unfortunate that we could not even officially acknowledge this disagreement graciously. I invite you to be open and engage in meaningful dialogue on this matter. The Wesleyan quadrilateral is a good place to start – and a story shared by a closeted Filipino United Methodist minister who I will refer to as Manong Jose in this letter.
As early as elementary school, during a summer camp hosted by his home church, Manong Jose took a step of faith and responded to the call to full time ministry. God, however, works in pretty mysterious ways. That same year, it became clear to him that he was attracted to his male classmates. This realization caused him great fear. Something that he should embrace as a gift became a cause of deep anxiety and doubt because our church has declared him “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Through high school, college, seminary studies, and his first years in ministry, he cried, struggled, resisted, and rejected every shred of his being gay. He could not even whisper to himself that he is, indeed, gay. To this day, Manong Jose is not out to his family and to our church.
Manong Jose did well in his ministry preparation, hoping it would all cover up or change the fact about his sexual orientation. He strived to preach the Word with passion, sought to inspire many to follow Jesus, and wanted to be a genuine pastor to every flock he was appointed to serve. Manong Jose always remained faithful to his charge, but there are some things he cannot change. Why, he asked, would God call him into ministry and at the same time give him this “burden” of being gay? Why would God call him to be a pastor in a church that will reject him?
With the stigma of homosexuality rooted in patriarchal church dogma and traditional Filipino cultural norms hanging over his head, Manong Jose remained quiet. The same church that taught him to be honest now compels him to live out a lie of a life if he were to be successful as a minister. This pains me because I personally know, and have ministered with, gays and lesbians in our church. They are faithful but discriminated upon by our church’s law. A Filipino district superintendent told me once that our clergy who are known to be gay are successful because they are not “out” to the church. I remember saying that the Spirit – who has surrounded all of us with grace even before our birth – knows whether one is gay or not even if that person hides it. It is the same Spirit that works in and through the labor of LGBTQ clergy and laity. Why then, would they suddenly become “incompatible” to our ministry when they come out? Is it the Spirit’s judgment of this “sin” or the church’s problem with its own homophobia?
Many will quote Scriptures to prove my Manong Jose’s guilt, but they are reluctant to apply the Wesleyan quadrilateral – our guide in setting doctrinal standards – on this matter. Our study of Scripture in seminary has, no doubt, equipped you to read the Word in its proper historical and literary context. Tradition, reason, and Christian experience – as we uphold – also need to inform our hermeneutics. We already know, from experience, that we have LGBTQ clergy and laity, and that they seek to be faithful in serving their congregations. As long as they are in the closet they are accepted, loved, and viewed as successful. We baptize them and invite them to an open Table for Holy Communion. We have LGBTQ couples who are in love with each other like any other heterosexuals in loving relationships. Other denominations have declared themselves open and affirming, definitely a new tradition for a new age – and the sky has not fallen. Today, the ordination of women, and the evils of slavery and racism are part of our tradition, but these were once beliefs we rejected as a church and had to openly repent for it. Science and human reason, through psychologists and the medical profession, have declared that being gay is not a mental illness. The recent strides made by marriage equality and gay rights advocates in the United States show that society is moving ahead while the church struggles to be a relevant witness. Why would Manong Jose “choose” to be gay, knowing fully well that the church he loves will reject him? Why would he “want” to be gay, when he knows that his loved ones will not accept this truth?
Our faith journey in The United Methodist Church is at a crossroad, and Manong Jose’s life and ministry is a microcosm of where we are as a denomination. Whatever the outcome of our institutional processes, there are some things we know to be true: that no one – nothing – can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, and while the church could strip its clergy of their ordination because of who they are and/or their stance and witness for full inclusion – we can never take their calling away for that comes from God alone. By letting oppressive and discriminatory laws stand in our church, we are making our doors narrower for God’s children to fully experience the all-encompassing love and grace that is meant for each and every one of us.
As you deliberate and engage in holy conferencing this week and in the future, please remember and pray for Manong Jose and many others in the shadows who are trapped by our church laws into silence. Please remember many who have take the same risk as Queen Esther for standing up “for such a time as this.” Regardless of our views, we are first and foremost sisters and brothers sharing in the same feast of God’s kin-dom where ALL are invited. Do we have the right to tell others they’re not welcome to God’s fiesta only because a majority of our church says so? I hope not.
Rev. Israel Alvaran