“Sometimes I wonder if I’m in the right church.”
A friend of mine overheard one of the delegates at the
Louisiana Annual Conference saying these words just after the defeat of a
proposal condemning same-sex marriage. In
light of recent events, the proposal’s sponsors felt the need to reaffirm the denomination’s
endorsement of heterosexual marriage alone. A copy of the proposal was to be
sent as a letter to various state newspapers.
After a brief debate, the conference voted the measure
down. In response to this, the delegate (who had supported the measure) sighed,
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m in the right church.”
I can sympathize with the sentiment. I am a self-avowed,
practicing United Methodist who is openly and unapologetically gay. As such, I
am particularly aware of the precarious nature of my place in the UMC. I have occasionally
been obliged to ask myself whether I’m in the right church.
I encountered the first such crossroads in the late
nineties as a member of Epworth United Methodist in Oklahoma City. Epworth
identifies with the Reconciling movement, marking a stance of pronounced openness
to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We were a
vibrant, growing congregation. We welcomed new members regularly, celebrated
Communion weekly, Baptized people every Sunday, and hosted a range of urban
ministries to underprivileged youth and to persons living with AIDS/HIV.
Around that time, The UMC nationally was sharpening its policies
regarding homosexuality. The Judicial Council, essentially our denomination’s
Supreme Court, had recently ruled that elements of the Book of Discipline’s Social Principles regarding homosexuality previously
seen as guidelines were in fact binding regulations for members and clergy.
Homosexual practice was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Openly
homosexual people were denied ordination as clergy. Same-sex unions were forbidden
in Methodist churches, and ministers faced trial and censure (up to and
including the loss of ordination) if they presided over such unions. Word
finally filtered down to us in Oklahoma City that, in light of these decisions,
our congregation was to stop our practice of celebrating same-sex unions.
This hardline posture stung our membership. Many members
had found Epworth after having been pushed out of other churches. For so many
of us, Epworth was a spring of fresh water in a parched, barren landscape. For
that reason, the subtext we heard from denominational higher-ups was dismayingly,
wearily familiar: get out. Our church
underwent a period of conferencing and discussion—meetings upon meetings, small
group discussions, seasons of prayer—weighing various options. Do we stay? Do
As a preacher’s kid, I had never before experienced
church membership as a conscious choice. Attending church, doing church
activities, organizing my life around church—all of these had been second
nature for as long as I could remember. At that moment, though, I wondered
whether I was going to the right church. More to the point, I wondered whether
I was right in going to church at all.
Ultimately, our pastor decided to separate from the UMC
and found another church outside of the denomination. A third of the membership
left with her (the church they started still thrives). A third of the
membership stayed in Epworth. A third, I am sorry to say, simply disappeared,
wandering off into the desert of the de-churched.
I remained. Why? I was on the staff-parish relations
committee. The committee chair was Neil Lacey, a brave, gentle, deeply spiritual
man—gay, like me. When I asked him what he was going to do in the face of the
upcoming church split, he explained that he felt an obligation to support those
who stayed, laity and clergy, in whatever way he could. Neil recalled for me
that when I joined the church I had made a vow to support the work of the
church with my prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Epworth’s ministry of welcome
was more necessary than ever, he said, and we as lay leaders were an essential
part of that ministry.
Neil is why I am a Methodist today.
I have relied on his example during periods where I’ve
felt my commitment to the UMC tested. My parents, both Methodist pastors in
Oklahoma, endured harsh criticism for their inclusive stances. I attended the
General Conference in 2000 and 2004, experiencing firsthand the deep
disagreement and occasional vitriol over issues of sexuality. Perhaps the
severest test for me came in late 2005, when the Judicial Council ruled (in
decision 1032) in favor of a Virginia pastor who denied membership to a man
because the man was openly gay.
That last instance, especially, seemed like the last
straw: why be a member of this
denomination? Why stay in a church seemingly obsessed with excluding you? Are you going to force them to kick you out?
Why not just leave? I asked myself
these questions. My non-Methodist and non-Christian friends asked me these
questions. I asked God these questions.
In that moment, as in others like it, God answered not
with words but with witnesses like Neil. My family continues to show me Jesus through
their persevering love for me and my partner. At General Conferences, I saw the
reality of the body of Christ shining through in acts of fellowship in even the
most contentious debates. In 2005, just after the membership decision had come
out, on the very Sunday where I was on the verge of quitting, my pastor read a
letter from our Bishop affirming that people like me were welcome. My church,
University United Methodist in Baton Rouge, has consistently embodied that
welcome to me. I have been proud to boast of my congregation’s openness and
eager to recommend my church to other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender
people in my community.
For me, the vote at the 2013 Annual Conference was
another such answer affirming my commitment to the church. There a majority of
delegates voted that, whatever their feelings about homosexuality, our common
mission to make disciples for Christ is not best served by a public statement
reinforcing the denomination’s antipathy toward same-sex unions.
I know what it feels like to wonder whether I belong. I
know, in fact, what it feels like to wonder whether I’ll be allowed to belong to the church. I do
not take my membership in the University United Methodist Church for granted. I
try to let this awareness reinforce my gratitude for the Lord’s grace in
including me in God’s kingdom generally. God’s inclusion challenges me in turn
to extend my hand to those unlike me: those in need, those in prison, those
from other lands or cultures, and, yes, those who feel betrayed when the church
takes a stance I consider right and proper.
So, to that anonymous someone wondering if you’re in the
right church: I think you belong just as much as I do. As Bishop Harvey said
(quoting John Wesley), even if we do not think alike, surely we can love alike.
We are the church of circuit riders, of witness beyond institutional walls, of living
water in a barren land. We are the church of grace, of open doors, of welcome
and aid to the least, the lost, the left-behind, the good-as-dead. I don’t know
you, my sister or brother in Christ, but I know that our church’s holy work needs
your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I hope and pray that
we can find a way to hold on to the church together as we seek to make
disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Grace and Love,
John Fletcher, PhD
University United Methodist Church