- by a team of Altar for All signers from the Virginia Conference of The UMC -
About twenty years ago, after a long study of scripture and theology, I came to the conclusion that homosexuality was not a sin but a sexual orientation. Although the causes of human sexual orientation have not been fully explained by science, it is clear that sexual orientation forms at a very early age and that it is seldom a matter of choice. As the Biblical authors wrote long before a scientific understanding of sexuality, it is apparent that they believed God created all people as heterosexuals and only those who perverted their God-given heterosexuality turned to homosexuality. Further, the Biblical authors associated homosexuality with temple prostitution and idolatry—it is hardly surprising that they condemned it. Even as we affirm their rejection of temple prostitution and idolatry, we can no longer accept their mistaken assumption of a universal heterosexuality.
Today our church recognizes sexual orientation but calls on homosexuals to practice celibacy. For the apostle Paul, celibacy was a gift, a charism, for those who could live happily without sexual intimacy. Why should we assume that all homosexuals have this gift when so few heterosexuals embrace it? When heterosexuals marry we expect them to live in committed, loving relationships—when homosexuals embrace these same ethical obligations we should be able to offer them our unqualified affirmation. As I recently wrote in a letter to our local newspaper:
Today there are many Christians and Christian denominations that support same sex marriage. We don't do this because of relativism or because of accommodation to "liberal" values. We believe God blesses committed, loving relationships regardless of sexual orientation. We believe that denying homosexual couples the right to marry is a justice issue and violation of their civil rights .
As the leaders of the early church had to overcome their prejudice toward Samaritans (Acts 8) and gentiles (Acts 10), the contemporary United Methodist Church must overcome our prejudice toward people of differing sexual orientations. In the 19th and 20th centuries, after painful division and much conflict, Methodists finally overcome ugly racial oppression and exclusion. In the 20th century, the United Methodist Church grew to appreciate the gifts and graces of women in church leadership. It is past time to recognize and embrace the gifts that our LGBT brothers and sisters bring to our church. We only impoverish ourselves by excluding them from church leadership and from marriage.
Up until the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, I lived with the comforting illusion that the United Methodist Church was making progress toward abandoning its condemnation of the “practice of homosexuality” in the Social Principles and was moving toward full inclusion of LGBT people. But with the 61-39% rejection of changes to the church’s position on homosexuality at the 2012 General Conference, and with the increasing number of African delegates at General Conference, who for the most part strongly oppose changing our policy, our church’s position appears to be hardening.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” progress is not automatic with time—history is neutral. For laws and attitudes to change, it takes persistent and courageous challenges to the status quo. Believing that our church would change with time and cultural shifts, I confess that I have been far too passive and complacent in the face of ecclesiastical oppression of sexual minorities. I apologize to my LGBT friends and hope to make amends. This statement is a first step.
In addition to the General Conference’s overwhelming rejection of a change in policy, several events in 2012 shook me out of my passivity: North Carolina’s vote to ban same sex marriage, the Boy Scouts’ decision to uphold the exclusion of gays members (an exclusion finally lifted on May 23, 2013 for membership, but retained for scout leaders), and a Virginia rejection of a well-qualified gay prosecutor for a judgeship (later overruled). I am convinced that if the United Methodist Church had changed it stance on homosexuality the decisions of the Boy Scouts, North Carolina, and Virginia might well have turned out differently. In spite of the language in the Social Principles that says homosexual are “individuals of sacred worth” and that the United Methodist Church “insists” that all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, “are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured,” our church has become an obstacle and hindrance to assuring the civil rights of sexual minorities. Our censure of the “practice of homosexuality,” our refusal to ordain gays or lesbians for Christian ministry, and our prohibitions on celebrations of homosexual unions by our clergy (or in our churches) marginalize gays and lesbians and make it harder for them to enjoy the civil rights we claim to be supporting.
At baptism, United Methodists answer this question affirmatively: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” This baptismal affirmation, along with others, comes first and takes precedence over the later commitment clergy make to Word, sacrament, order, and service when becoming an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Although clergy take vows to “accept the Discipline and authority” of the church, that authority does not override our baptismal commitments. We commit ourselves in baptism “to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves,” even and especially if they are expressed in the institutional life of the Church.
As Bishop Melvin Talbert proclaimed so eloquently at a Reconciling Ministries gathering at 2012 General Conference:
I stand before you here this afternoon and I declare that God has already settled this matter: all human beings are created in the image of God. There are no exceptions, no exclusions. We belong to the family of God.
. . . At the same time, I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral, and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.
In fact, if we are faithful to our baptismal vows, what the “derogatory language and restrictive laws” deserve is our forthright resistance.
Presently thirteen annual conferences of the United Methodist Church have organized participation in “An Altar for All.” We, clergy and laity, in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church want to join in their resistance to “evil, injustice, and oppression.” We are pleased to join the Tennessee Annual Conference to become the second conference in the Southeast Jurisdiction of the United Methodist to form “An Altar for All.”
The Virginia Chapter of the Methodist Federation of Social Action asked me to write this preface so that we could make our own contribution to “An Altar for All.”
John D. Copenhaver, Jr., Virginia Conference elder in full connection
4, 2013 (revised May 31, 2013) [email protected]
An Altar for All
We, clergy and laity of the Virginia Annual Conference, may resist in different ways, but all of us pledge to work for: 1) removal of derogatory language about homosexuality from the Discipline, 2) the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church, including ordination, 3) marriage equality, and 4) freeing our churches and clergy to celebrate same sex marriages and unions.
Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) has created a SIGN ON page that allows United Methodist clergy and laity to affirm “An Altar for All” is various ways. You can sign on as
1) Clergyperson called to officiate at same-sex ceremonies
2) Clergyperson supportive of others officiating in same-sex ceremonies
3) Layperson supportive of others officiating in same-sex ceremonies
4) Layperson called to officiate at same-sex ceremonies
5) Congregations who will host same-sex ceremonies
6) Congregations who will not host any wedding until marriage is available for all
We urge all Virginia United Methodists supportive of marriage equality to use the RMN page to show your support for the Virginia Conference “An Altar for All. Click here to sign.”
. . .
 For an excellent examination of the Biblical, theological, and moral issues, see the resources page of Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), especially the book/online study guide: Claiming the Promise: An Ecumenical Welcoming Bible Study on Homosexuality. Editor. Mary Jo Osterman. http://www.rmnetwork.org/lgbtqresources/studiesbooks/
 “Gay Marriage a ‘justice issue’” Winchester Star, p. A4 (March 8, 2013)
 “RMNBlog” (May 30, 2012) http://www.rmnblog.org/2012/05/a-call-to-biblical-obedience.html