At the end of last month, I served as a clergy delegate to the called special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Miss. I and 863 other delegates from around the world gathered to receive the report from the Commission on a Way Forward, the commission created by our Council of Bishops to find a way to maintain the unity of the church and to create space for varying views and practices on matters related to the marriage and ordination of LGBTQ individuals. For example, some regional conferences could choose to ordain LGBTQ persons and others could chose not to.
But rather than create space for differences, the General Conference instead passed the regressive “Traditional” Plan, which doubles down on existing restrictions against LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. While this misnamed “traditional” plan remains unconstitutional and will likely be thrown out, in part or in total, by our Judicial Council, it is quite clear where the majority of the delegates stand.
For at least 53 percent of the delegates to this worldwide gathering, it is unacceptable to be in a denomination with me, a gay man and anyone like me. I am not only an ordained deacon in full connection in the United Methodist Church, I am also, as I said on the floor of General Conference, a man who loves another man. And it doesn’t matter that he is also a man of deep faith, or how committed we are to one another.
No. Regardless of these facts, the conference doubled down on the restrictions towards me. Since 1972, our Book of Discipline has stated that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and since 1984, has banned “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from ordained ministry. But the Traditional Plan defines “self-avowed” much more narrowly and in some places even removes “practicing.” This shows that “traditionalists,” or more accurately “fundamentalists,” no longer rely on the old adage, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Now, it’s about the individual, not sexual activity.
Since this vote, I’ve shifted between feelings of grief, anger, numbness and liberation. But I am grateful that fundamentalists are finally being honest that they cannot and will not live in the same denomination with me, and that they want me gone. They need this so badly that they have supported an unconstitutional plan that would literally remove me from the ranks of ordained clergy if it is upheld.
If I’m completely honest, I am not surprised. For 47 years – longer than I’ve been alive – restrictions against LGBTQ persons have been tightening in the UMC. And LGBTQ persons are just the latest targets of oppression of the Methodist movement in the U.S. We have an embarrassingly violent history when it comes to our treatment of African-Americans and Indigenous peoples. While we’ve had “acts of repentance” for our actions towards these groups of people, churches continue to refuse cross-cultural clergy appointments and we are often too indifferent to mass incarceration of people of colour. So, I am not surprised that we continue to get it wrong.
However, what is different this time is that centrists and moderates got played. Many of them went all in on the “One Church Plan,” which would have created space for progressives and conservatives to live under one big tent by allowing each congregation and regional conference to decide how they wanted to approach the issue. They thought they had commitments from enough delegates to give it highest priority in our voting. But when the first votes were counted, we saw that they had been duped. So now, unlike past years, centrists are now as surprised and livid as we were. Many are now joining in to declare the death of what was the United Methodist Church and looking towards the resurrection of a new inclusive Methodist movement.
I feel liberated and hopeful, for I am not ready to leave behind the foundations of Methodism: a reliance on three-fold grace, a commitment to both personal and social holiness, and a hope of going onto perfection. I do welcome the death of an institution which has thrown this all away to embrace legalism, an exclusion of difference and what they don’t understand, and retributive justice. I look forward with hope to new life for the Methodist movement.
Yet, while I await Easter, I am horrified of what has happened on this Holy Saturday. I have already learned of some effects of the violent outcome of General Conference: some clergy have turned in their ordination credentials because they cannot live in such a hateful institution, and church members have contacted their pastors to withdraw their local church membership in order to affiliate with a more inclusive denomination or to become one of the scores of unchurched folks in the U.S. Most devastating of all, queer youth and young adults who were already struggling in families and local congregations which don’t accept them now see their loved ones literally celebrating the passage of this exclusionary policy in their church. Some are dealing with self-harm, mental health crises and hospitalizations.
Queer United Methodists and former United Methodists, you are not alone. This queer deacon sees you. In the words of Mark Miller, “No matter what the church says, decisions, pronouncements on you — You are a child, you are a child of God!” That can never be taken from us, by vote or otherwise.
Allies, now is your time. Speak up. Reach out to queer United Methodists and listen. Listen to the hurt. Reassure that you love them regardless of the vote. And say the words – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer children of God are beloved and always have been.
Rev. Gregory D. Gross is a deacon in full connection in the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church. He is a member of the Queer Clergy Caucus of the UMC and serves as the director of mission fulfillment at The Night Ministry in Chicago, Ill.
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