Yesterday, the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church released its most recent decisions including two rulings related to human sexuality. One of the two came from the Bishop’s ruling of law on the Detroit Annual Conference’s resolution supporting LGBT people in marriage and ordination. Given its appropriate legal jargon, the details unpacking the entire Judicial Council’s decision could be a blog of its own.
However, there is one specific aspect of the decision I’d like to respond to primarily because it’s connected to a wider conversation of inclusion and awareness in The UMC and society in general.
In the resolution which the council was considering, the Detroit Annual Conference resolved to:
1. Refrain from using its resources to investigate the gender or sexual orientation of a minister or candidate for ministry, and not to use its resources to enforce a ban on the certification of a lesbian, gay bisexual, or transgender candidate for ministry, or the ban on ordination of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender minister.
As a governing body, the Judicial Council ruled this aspect of the resolution as void because it violates the requirements of the Book of Discipline. As disturbingly accurate as that is, my interest is more in the additional change they made to this piece. Like many in The UMC, both allies and adversary to full inclusion alike, the Judicial Council “clarified” that the Book of Discipline (BOD) does not prohibit anyone other than lesbian or gay candidates from ordained ministry. They thus modified the (void) decision to reflect that reality.
By the amended interpretation, and any technical reading of the BOD, one could suggest that it is perfectly permissible in The UMC for:
• Any bisexual woman in a “self-avowed practicing relationship” with another woman to be ordained and in good standing with the BOD
• Any bisexual man in a “self-avowed practicing relationship” with another man to be ordained and in good standing with the BOD
Neither would be gay or lesbian and thus, according to the Judicial Council decision, have no reason to be kept from pursuing ordained ministry. If this is accurate, I send a hearty congrats to all my peers in the ordination process who are bisexual on this important gain in the movement.
Further, the Judicial Council’s “correction” also poses questions about how The UMC understands gender. While the Judicial Council noted decision 1074 which affirmed the ongoing ministry of a transgender man, it doesn’t take into account our institution’s minimal understanding of gender identity and its role in relationships.
By the Judicial Council’s suggestion that being trans in no way prohibits ordination (unless someone is a gay or lesbian trans person), we are left to assume:
• Trans people who are genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, agender, etc. can be in a “self-avowed practicing relationship” with a person of any gender or no gender and face no hurdles in the ordination process. By nature of their identity, none of these particular trans folks would be gay or lesbian regardless of who they are dating/partnered with.
• Equally, any queer man or woman can be in a “self-avowed practicing relationship” with a trans person who is genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, agender, etc and face no ordination hurdles.
If these are not the appropriate interpretations of the decision, then we must ask how The UMC decides who is “gay” or “lesbian.”
While I would love to believe that bisexual people in same-gender relationships, all queer people, and any trans people in relationship with people of a different gender or no gender have fair access to ordained ministry, I know all too well that this is not a reality.
The unfortunate reality is that The UMC’s outdated and increasingly irrelevant language of human sexuality simply erases bisexual, queer, and trans identities by slapping the label “gay” or “lesbian” on anyone whose birth certificate indicates the same assigned sex at birth as the person they are in relationship with.
Regardless of the technical prohibitions against solely lesbian and gay ministers, the practice of our policies is to simply make assumptions about who people are and treat them according to our assumptions.
I don’t mean to pick on the Judicial Council in particular. This even happens within the queer community. All of us have growing and learning and listening to do as we seek to live into new insights and experiences of gender and sexuality and relationships. The language has evolved quickly over the last few decades but it’s important to note that bisexual and trans people face the most marginalization, violence, and highest suicide rates in the LGBTQ community precisely because these identities are so misunderstood, erased, and despised.
These distinctions matter – both within and outside the church.
I am, of course, in no way arguing for bi, queer, and non-binary trans people to be included by name in the prohibitions against ordination. I remain deeply disappointed in our institutional commitment to discrimination of lesbian and gay folk descriptively and the whole LGBTQ community in practice.
However, I am asking that we be honest about the breadth and width of our institutional harm as I believe the Detroit Annual Conference was doing in their original resolution.
It is the job of the Judicial Council to parse legal nuances and so I appreciate their technicality. I only hope such nuance will be there again when a bisexual woman in a relationship with a woman outs herself and has a complaint filed against her. Because by confirming the BOD does not prevent ordination of bi, queer, or trans people, there are two possible conclusions:
1. Either the Judicial Council unintentionally endorsed ordination for all bisexual, queer, and trans people (who are not gay or lesbian) regardless of who they are in a “self-avowed practicing” relationship with.
2. More likely, we need to start talking honestly about the ways The UMC is failing to even recognize the humanity of a portion of its members by focusing more on body parts and less on the of wholeness of an entire person’s identity and being.
We can say we only discriminate against gay and lesbian people but we also know that Decision 920 decided that “a self avowed practicing homosexual” is defined by someone who admits to have genital to genital contact with someone of the same gender.
Again, I wonder if the church means what it says. Does the church care about being same gender or same genital?
Trans 101 will teach anyone that gender and genital have no business being used interchangeably. So where does that leave us?
I believe the church rules care about body parts, not people.
We might make make ourselves feel a little better about the discriminatory policies of our church by saying we don’t technically discriminate against all bi and queer and trans people but the actual technical reality is that we do, its just that we also erase their identities in the process by focusing on genitals and not people.
If you are wondering how we we got to talking about genitals and our church laws, you and I share some concerns.
There are certainly many who will easily dismiss the value of this conversation along with the value of bi, queer, and non-binary trans identities. It is unfortunate. Our policies and teachings in regards to human sexuality and gender identity become less and less relevant everyday as younger generations commit to learning and seeing the world through healthier, freer, and more diverse expressions of God’s creation.
As I said earlier, this is a language and awareness issue that extends far beyond the Judicial Council or even The UMC, but I wonder, if we insist on falling behind all the other churches in discriminatory policy and practices if we can at least extend the courtesy of recognizing LGBTQ people as more than the sum of our body parts.”
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