Some time back I wrote a blog titled “Why I May Not be Able to Stay,” discussing my experiences as a closeted gay pastor with almost 40 years of experience, and reflections on retiring early and leaving the ecclesiastical closet behind prior to the 2012 General Conference. In some ways this is Part 2 of that reflection…and I suppose it could be titled “Why I Can’t Leave.”
The title is ironic, as I rarely attend church these days, not even in the two Reconciling congregations here in Dallas that I’ve visited, and where I and my partner have been welcomed. I could say that’s because I now work a 40 hour a week secular job, and when my partner and I have the luxury of a common day off (which when it happens is usually on a Sunday), I prefer to spend the time with him. In that sense, I much better understand and appreciate those layfolk who didn’t make it to church that much when I was serving as a pastor.
That would be true, but it would only be a part of the truth.
I still have a lot of anger in me from those years of being a gay pastor in the closet, where I sublimated and ignored a lot of what was going on both in me and around me.
Here in Dallas we tend (or so it seems to me) to priotizie being polite and cautious. There’s a part of me that longs for a bit of “Act Up” type activism in the Reconciling movement. I do see that happening more on the national level, but not so much where I live. But I know I’m tired of waiting for the majority to recognize my humanity. I watch the bishops discuss me and other LGBTQ Methodists at the Connectional Table and catch myself channeling my inner Eliza Dolittle (yeah, I know that’s a very queer reference, but there I am!), wanting to say to my “teachers” and “pastors,” “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through, first from him, now from you! Is that all you can do?”
I’m tired of hearing words like “mission” and “unity” and “walking together in love” coming from those who should also be calling for “justice” and “risk-taking” and “solidarity.” I’m tired of waiting and receiving the crumbs that occasionally come from the Conference and the “Connectional” Table.
I’m tired of being talked about as an issue.
I’m tired of being talked about … and not conversed with.
There is a difference.
Our Bishops don’t know what it’s like to be gay in today’s United Methodist Church. They don’t know what it’s like to hear that the experience of love with your partner is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” They don’t know what it’s like to be me, and they need to listen to me and my siblings instead of just talking about us.
I’m tired of seeing clergy who risk becoming LGBTQ advocates brought up on complaints and put through the trauma of church trials and/or investigations.
If ignoring the Discipline’s strictures against gay marriage is cause for complaint or trial, why isn’t ignoring the Discipline’s strictures that we are “persons of sacred worth,” also cause for complaint?
And yet … at Saturday’s Connectional Table discussion, I heard a bishop saying of Ben Wood’s suicide (the young man who had been baptized, raised in, active in his United Methodist Church, until he was driven out as unworthy) “We are sorry… and the church is sorry.”
That seemed to me woefully inadequate.
Outrage? Yes, that would been appropriate. Grief? A promise that actions would be taken so such shaming would never be allowed in any United Methodist Church ever again? Yes… that might have been helpful. But “I’m sorry” sounded cheap. And yet it’s exactly what I, at this point, expect.
So given all that, given that when I start thinking or writing about The UMC I can still feel anger boiling out of me, why am I still here? For I am still here. I still read Methodist news reports. I still posted every stage of Shaefer’s continuing stand for our rights on my Facebook page. I watched and engaged the Connectional Table discussion.
I can’t let go of those Methodist roots that seem to be anchored deep in my being, even if I don’t often go to church these days.
I think it is because my United Methodist identity goes as deep into me as my gay identity. I, like Ben Wood, was baptized as an infant in a ceremony which happened so early in my life I have no memory of it, but I know I was baptized. And, I was lucky. Somehow while I absorbed the Methodist Gospel of grace coupled with compassion and action from my earliest years, I didn’t absorb the harm of being told I am “incompatible with Christian teaching,” or at least not to as destructive a degree.
The fear and harm that seems so strong in our church these days was only beginning to fully show itself when I entered ministry back in the 70s and 80s. It was there. That was the time when “faithful in marriage, celibate in singleness” and “incompatible with Christian teaching” were first added to the Discipline.
But somehow those goals and ideals of social justice and compassionate action, of standing with the marginalized and disenfranchised, of not being a church of judgment but a community of grace-those goals and ideals were what it meant to be to be a Methodist.
And they are at least part of the reason I stayed in ministry even at the cost of the closet. I felt I could make a difference, and am told I often did.
Yet, I know there were places I failed. I know of a young man in one of my churches who came out while in college and was rejected by his conservative mother. He’s one of the lucky ones in that he was strong enough to find his way and build his own adult identity and has grown into a fine man. But I wish I could have helped him more.
I can’t help but think I could have if I could have been both his pastor and out of the closet.
The heartbreaking story of Julie Wood and her son Ben haunts me, because The UMC failed him, and has failed many more. How many are still out there? How many stories have never been told, will never be told? We promise to nurture and protect, but all too often we fail to do so.
And then we hide from our culpability with nice theological words. “Words, words, words.”
Ben, and those like him (including me!) is a reason I can’t leave.
My own vision of what The United Methodist Church once was, and still could be, is a reason I can’t leave. Today, for many, “Christianity” does not mean love, justice, compassion, or solidarity with the poor or disenfranchised. It certainly doesn’t mean bearing the cross that comes when you stand with the “wrong” people. For many, “Christianity” means hate, oppression, ignorance, fear.
At one time, The United Methodist Church offered a voice of grace and healing that countered the ugly face Christianity often presents to both the churched and the unchurched. We could proudly quote Wesley’s “Is your heart as my heart, then give me your hand,” his “Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
Now, it hears us quote rule books and have endless discussions and sees us put people on trial for loving their children.
At the bookstore where I now work, a common response to hearing about Frank Shaefer’s trials was “But I didn’t think the Methodist Church was like that.” At one time people could mock us for being “all about love.” We seem to be successfully countering that, unfortunately.
I can’t leave because I love The United Methodist Church. Or,at least, I love what I once believed it to be, and what I long for it to be again.
I can’t leave because there are more Bens out there who need to hear a word of hope, who need to have their church’s baptismal promises kept.
I can’t leave because our church desperately needs our voices calling it to accountability, even if our voices are often ignored.
I can’t leave largely because this is the church that taught me those very values I see it failing to keep.
This is where I learned grace. This is where I learned about social justice. This church taught me the Gospel that continues to inform my life and fuel my passion and even feed my anger. This church’s teachings of social justice, of compassion translated into action, both called me into ministry and, ironically, into early retirement and out of the closet when I realized the church’s deeper values wouldn’t want me to keep wearing the mask the church itself was imposing.
The UMC sometimes feel like the weird relative in the attic, but we’re still related. It may be that The United Methodist Church will eventually make decisions that drive me from its embrace. If that happens, it will be at least in part because I’m trying to live the Gospel it taught me and follow the life it once encouraged. The time when I have to leave for my own soul’s sake may still come … but it’s not yet.
At least not quite.