- by Leland G. Spencer IV -
Two days ago, the Rev. Dr. Wes Magruder wrote a post to which I had an initially negative reaction. Upon reading the comments and discussing it on Facebook with a friend, my reaction developed more nuance, and I decided instead of commenting, that I wanted to write a post in response.
Dr. Magruder suggests that "gays" should "be glad church isn't safe." In response to a gay couple's query about whether they would be safe at the church he was pastoring, Dr. Magruder confesses that he had never "thought about how to make my church safe for gays and lesbians," though he's confident that "nobody would attack them physically, or throw stones." Nonetheless, church folk can be judgmental. "I can't make the church safe for anyone. Churches are filled with people who struggle to love, accept others, and live the Golden Rule."
Though his post doesn't explicitly say so, based on his language choices and the content of his argument, I assume Dr. Magruder is straight. By and large, that means he probably feels fairly "safe" attending any church in his apparent home state of Texas, or anywhere else. From that particular positionality, it may be easy to declare that safety is relative, that no human organization (or person) is free of sin, that every interaction is risky. I don't entirely disagree with his claim about safety, but I must say, as a gay man, I do find the claim somewhat disingenuous.
Yes, there are judgmental people everywhere. There are jerks everywhere. In every church, every family, every workplace. And there are people everywhere who are nice most days but have bad days every once in a while for whatever reason. In a sense, then, nowhere is categorically safe. However, most places are generally much safer for middle-class, educated, straight, white men than they are for people who occupy other social locations. To be specific, for centuries, churches have celebrated people like Dr. Magruder. I imagine most churches in the country would be thrilled to have him in the pew or the pulpit. Sure, he's likely to meet a rude or judgmental person along the way, but people like him have not been systematically demonized by centuries of (bad) theology and decades of (sinful) church polity. So, for him to suggest that everyone who walks in a church is unsafe belies important differences in power, (in)equality, and the structure of social institutions.
As someone who has faced the challenge of moving and trying to find a safe church, I have thought about sending the kind of email in Dr. Magruder's post. The email isn't asking if the church is only full of people who are always loving and caring and having a good day. The brave souls who wrote the email are instead hoping to hear that the church at least has a leader who models the inclusive love of Christ and expects the same of the congregation.
This couple wants to know that if they mention their relationship at a social event, they won't get a phone call inviting them to a private disciplinary meeting in the pastor's office (I had two such meetings in my search for a safe congregation, and I was only wise enough to take a witness to the second). This couple wants to know that if they make a statement that the Discipline tacitly contributes to an enviornment where the suicide of LGBT youth is legitimated, they won't face a church lay leader and pastor who dismiss the concern as subordinate to doctrinal orthodoxy (yep, that happened to me, too). They want to know that if they make a statement in a Sunday School class that contradicts the Discipline, the pastor won't send them a letter asking them to leave the church.
They aren't asking or expecting the church to be perfect. They do want to know if the congregation is likely to welcome them. The honest answer to that question might be "no," and if so, "no," is a better answer than the notion that no human interaction is truly safe, or that being in a congregation that cares too much is somehow unsafe in the same way that being in a homophobic congregation would be.
Finally, I'd remind pastors of the charge to "take authority" that bishops issue at services of ordination. Assigning agency so quickly and completely to the foilbes of individual congregants strikes me as problematic. Maybe it's time to start thinking about how to make church a safe place instead of assuming it never can be.
In the meantime, I refuse to "be glad" that there are churches where people feel unwelcomed. I believe God's heart breaks whenever anyone has to send the kind of email that intrepid couple sent, and I join God in grieving for people who never even get that far, just assuming that "(United Methodist) Church" is synonymous with "unsafe."
. . .
Leland G. Spencer IV, a lifelong United Methodist, is a PhD student in the department of communication studies at the University of Georgia, where he researches religious rhetoric as it intersects with gender and sexuality. Leland holds an M.A. in Communication from the University of Cincinnati (2009). While in Cincinnati, Leland served as the worship intern at the Wesley Foundation. Leland is a 2007 graduate of Mount Union College, a United Methodist-related school in Alliance, Ohio. Leland served as a part-time local pastor at Mapleton United Methodist Church in the East Ohio Conference from 2005 until 2007 when Leland withdrew from the candidacy process because of the United Methodist Church's exclusive position about the ordination of LGBTQ persons.