The Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops released a set of FAQs last month about upcoming Judicial Council rulings to take place April 25-28, 2017. As an individual whose ordination has depended on rulings of the Judicial Council in 2013 and 2014, I am well acquainted with the anxiety that inherently comes with a small group of individuals parsing my vocational fate based on a set of rules rooted in discrimination. So as we prepare for the Judicial Council to gather once again, this time to review cases around LGBTQ ordination in the Northern Illinois Conference and the New York Annual Conference – as well as Bishop Oliveto’s ministry, I appreciate some of the work the SEJ bishops have done to assist people in understanding the legalese of it all.
However, the most important part appears to be missing. Why do these rulings matter? Whose lives are affected? What impact do the rules of the church have on real people and not just our conception of “unity?” As a queer and trans person who is directly affected by their table talk once again, and in recognition that proper pastoral care requires authenticity and honesty about the church we are a part of, I’d like to add a few important FAQs they have left off in hopes we can all be fully prepared for the meeting ahead. View their FAQs here and consider the below a queer addendum for the full picture.
1.How many times has the Judicial Council ruled on the lives and legitimacy of queer and trans people in The United Methodist Church?
Since the first Judicial Council Decision which included the word “homosexual” in 1972, almost 60 decisions have been sent down with direct (very occasionally positive) impact on the lives of LGBTQ persons in the church.
2.Why do these rulings matter?
Although there are a number of committees, bishops, and other institutional leaders who have decided to join us on the side of Biblical Obedience, many in the church continue to look to the laws of our denomination as an acceptable interpretation of how LGBTQ persons should be treated. There are five decisions the Judicial Council will make that all relate to whether and how the church will continue to discriminate against LGBTQ persons – particularly those in ministry – setting a precedent for the future. It’s up to every body and committee of the church to decide how much weight they will continue to give to legal interpretations founded in prejudicial teachings, but nonetheless, each ruling has tangible effects on our life together within this institution.
3.How does it feel to be part of the LGBTQ community as Judicial Council meets once again to discuss the community’s validity as leaders in The United Methodist Church?
Twice a year, the organizing of those who oppose our God-given calls to ministry results in our years of discernment with God, the discernment of our churches, our mentors, our districts, and our boards of ordained ministry coming down to the parsing of law among a small group of people – the Judicial Council. The prayer, relationships, long journeys, and faithfulness of candidates and official church bodies is deemed irrelevant in light of one thing – our institutional commitment to a narrow review of the rules set far and above gospel, authenticity, and evidence of God’s hand. At what point, many of us wonder, will the church recognize the absurdity of legislating lives in this way? Rules matter. Laws matter. Even in the church – they are meant to provide us an ethical framework for navigating complex situations and issues and for this work this Judicial Council is to be deeply commended. But as has been proclaimed for decades, LGBTQ people are neither situations nor issues – we are individuals and we are communities. Actions should be ruled upon. Not categories of people.
4.What damage would it do to LGBTQ people if Bishop Oliveto were removed from the episcopacy?
Many of us will never forget the first moment we watched our denomination recognize the clear leadership of one our own for the episcopacy. When Bishop Oliveto was elected, for the first time there was openly LGBTQ leadership at all levels of our denomination. Lay, deacon, elder, local pastors, youth pastors, music directors, children’s directors, chaplains, and teachers. You name it, queer youth in the church could say – I can see people like me there, in that position, if that’s where God calls me. As all marginalized communities know, representation isn’t everything, but it’s something. There is a small spark of being recognized as fully human among the church, ready to be fanned into a flame, when all positions in the church are open to us. To have complaints ready to be filed and rulings prepared to be requested at the moment of Bishop Oliveto’s election was a painful (even if not unexpected) blow in the direction of all of us who are LGBTQ leaders in the church. But we are left waiting to see – where will you stand, church? Will you admit that you benefit from our leadership, that the fruits of our ministry are undeniable, that you know discrimination is in conflict with our history, theology, and ecclesiology or will you once again sacrifice us at the altar of law? This is, after all, a decision. We know that the Book of Discipline contradicts itself in numerous places. Interpretations can be made in numerous directions on LGBTQ people’s place in the church. Which paragraphs and angles are given the most weight is where the damage is done. As we have all certainly seen in our recent political contexts, rules and laws can be stretched and bent in the direction of good or evil – this has alway been the case. The damage that would be done to Bishop Oliveto, to queer clergy whose ministry she reflects, and the LGBTQ persons across the denomination would be an extension of the 45 year message – you are incompatible. The message isn’t new but becomes no less harmful with time.
5.How will the Judicial Council rulings affect United Methodist’s commitment to nonconformity, Biblical Obedience, and advocating for policy change?
Many of us have long decided that our faithfulness to God’s call for justice absolutely will not be constrained by the prejudiced policies and practices of our church. Queer and especially trans people remain targets of both society and the church and as disciples of Christ, our allegiance must be with Jesus on the margins. Wherever the church is in conflict with the values of the gospel, LGBTQ people and our allies – and all the boards and committees and congregations we are a part of – are, by faith, called to make a choice. Faithfulness to God or to law gone wrong? These rulings, regardless of which direction they go, should not affect the faithfulness of Reconciling bodies. They have committed to gospel values and those are not up for debate between April 25-28. Whether the church moves in the right directions or once again denies Christ’s witness, our work remains the same. Do the work of the gospel – minister to all – end policies and practices of discrimination – do everything within our power “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
6.In reference to the SEJ’s bishops’ “Urging the people in The United Methodist Church to focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” how are these rulings related?
While it certainly feels helpful to the institution to divert eyes away from the conflict and wounds that have been formed by being a church committed to discrimination and harm for nearly five decades now, we cannot actually be faithful to making disciples or transforming the world at the same time. How can we make disciples of the One who favored the marginalized and gave hope to the oppressed when we are structurally in conflict with Christ’s own ministry? How can we commit to transforming the world for good when we are doing harm? How can we focus on combatting homelessness when we encourage families to put their LGBTQ kids on the street? How can we talk about poverty when we know LGBTQ people can still be fired from their jobs and denied housing because of who they are? How can we talk about supporting children when queer and certainly trans people still face barriers to adoption when they could offer loving homes for the kids who need it most? How can we work on immigration and pretend that queer and trans asylum seekers are not at especially grave risk in the system?The UMC continues to employ a theology that reinforces all of these barriers. We do not have the luxury of pretending like homelessness, poverty, racial justice, education, immigration, women’s rights, or any other issue doesn’t include additional barriers based on sexual orientation and gender identity, multiplying harm. We cannot avert our eyes or ears from LGBTQ people within the church without doing the same to those outside of the church. Our conversation about LGBTQ people in our church is far too often over simplified to that of marriage and ordination – it’s destructive tentacles reach much further through our theology and practices and cultural influence. It’s not something we get to put aside as we deal with the “rest of the world.” LGBTQ people are in every corner of the world. The rulings of the Judicial Council should be a concern to all of us who care about the victims of all forms of structural violence.
7.What can I do to support LGBTQ clergy and Bishop Oliveto?
Reconciling Ministries Network is encouraging congregations to join us for #NoSuchLaw Sunday. We believe that we see the fruit of the Spirit in the ministry of LGBTQ clergy and Bishop Oliveto and Galatians tells us that against these fruit “there is no such law.” You’re invited to download our toolkit for worship the Sunday before Judicial Council here and we encourage you share your stories of how LGBTQ clergy have impacted your life of faith. Have you seen love, patience, peace, faithfulness, self-control, goodness, joy, kindness, or gentleness in your life or the life of your church through the influence of LGBTQ leaders? Share your story here or post on social media with the hashtag #NoSuchLaw.
Make sure to stay informed about Judicial Council witness among a coalition of partners by becoming a Reconciling United Methodist at rmnetwork.org/join and like the #CalledOut Clergy Public Facebook page here.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. – Galatians 5:22-23