The Frank Schaefer trial last November was a profoundly disconcerting experience for LGBTQ persons and their allies in The United Methodist Church. The heterosexist and hurtful words in the closing arguments of the church counsel were deeply disturbing and it appeared that respectful conversations about the church’s policies on sexuality were no longer possible. The trial took place not long after a group of 33 Eastern Pennsylvania clergy members (along with 19 UMC clergy from other conferences participating by proxy and 21 clergy from other faith traditions – 74 in total) co-officiated a same-sex wedding at Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia on November 9, 2013.
The participating clergy, and also the happy couple who were united in Christian marriage, viewed the service as an act of love and solidarity with Frank Schaeffer and LGBTQ persons in the church and beyond. In advance of the Schaefer trial, it was a public act of Biblical Obedience demonstrating that there are people and places in The UMC that seek to fully include LGBTQ persons in the liturgy and polity of the local church and the denomination.
The clergy who co-officiated the same-sex wedding were aware that their actions could have deep consequences for their ministry careers, and for some, their livelihoods. Bishop Peggy Johnson did summon the senior pastor of Arch Street UMC into a supervisory review process during which, with permission from all participating clergy, their names were shared. No further disciplinary action was taken until a group of laity and clergy filed a complaint with Bishop Johnson in May of this year. This was a disappointing turn of events, but the participating clergy knew this potential risk. Rather than advancing the complaints into formal charges, Bishop Johnson called for representatives from both the complainants and the respondents to meet with a mediator to explore a just resolution.
The just resolution document approved last week represents over two months of intense conversations. Despite exceedingly low expectations going into the dialogues, the representatives of both groups were able to have a respectful, yet brutally honest conversation about the plight of LGBTQ persons in the church and how to understand our shared but differently-interpreted obligation to follow the calling of Christ. As stated in the respondents’ portion of the just resolution, the Arch Street wedding stands as an act of pastoral care and prophetic witness in keeping with the overall intention of the Book of Discipline and the example of Jesus’ ministry. Throughout these difficult conversations, representatives from both sides managed to maintain civility despite profoundly different worldviews.
The Respondents recognize many flaws in the wording of the just resolution document, but in the interest of pursuing a positive and productive conversation with the complainants – the hallmark of the just resolution – the statement was endorsed. The past year has been one of the most divisive times in the history of the Eastern Pennsylvania conference. By participating in an arduous complaint process, we cultivated a relationship of trust, albeit fragile, that we hope will open the door to more substantive and respectful dialogue.
Previous conversations about the church’s policies toward LGBTQ persons have often been poorly attended, particularly by those who support the status quo. The just resolution now compels a significant number of clergy to engage in deep dialogue, which we see as the church’s greatest hope. The respondents are hopeful that the upcoming conversations will create a space for critical engagement with the reality of heterosexism and embolden silent supporters to take a stand for inclusion and justice for LGBTQ persons. We dream of a day when church policies can be amended to better reflect the expansive love of God.
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