- by Dr. John Fletcher -
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m in the right church.”
A friend of mine overheard one of the delegates at the Louisiana Annual Conference saying these words just after the defeat of a proposal condemning same-sex marriage. In light of recent events, the proposal’s sponsors felt the need to reaffirm the denomination’s endorsement of heterosexual marriage alone. A copy of the proposal was to be sent as a letter to various state newspapers.
After a brief debate, the conference voted the measure down. In response to this, the delegate (who had supported the measure) sighed, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m in the right church.”
I can sympathize with the sentiment. I am a self-avowed, practicing United Methodist who is openly and unapologetically gay. As such, I am particularly aware of the precarious nature of my place in the UMC. I have occasionally been obliged to ask myself whether I’m in the right church.
I encountered the first such crossroads in the late nineties as a member of Epworth United Methodist in Oklahoma City. Epworth identifies with the Reconciling movement, marking a stance of pronounced openness to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We were a vibrant, growing congregation. We welcomed new members regularly, celebrated Communion weekly, Baptized people every Sunday, and hosted a range of urban ministries to underprivileged youth and to persons living with AIDS/HIV.
Around that time, The UMC nationally was sharpening its policies regarding homosexuality. The Judicial Council, essentially our denomination’s Supreme Court, had recently ruled that elements of the Book of Discipline’s Social Principles regarding homosexuality previously seen as guidelines were in fact binding regulations for members and clergy. Homosexual practice was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Openly homosexual people were denied ordination as clergy. Same-sex unions were forbidden in Methodist churches, and ministers faced trial and censure (up to and including the loss of ordination) if they presided over such unions. Word finally filtered down to us in Oklahoma City that, in light of these decisions, our congregation was to stop our practice of celebrating same-sex unions.
This hardline posture stung our membership. Many members had found Epworth after having been pushed out of other churches. For so many of us, Epworth was a spring of fresh water in a parched, barren landscape. For that reason, the subtext we heard from denominational higher-ups was dismayingly, wearily familiar: get out. Our church underwent a period of conferencing and discussion—meetings upon meetings, small group discussions, seasons of prayer—weighing various options. Do we stay? Do we leave?
As a preacher’s kid, I had never before experienced church membership as a conscious choice. Attending church, doing church activities, organizing my life around church—all of these had been second nature for as long as I could remember. At that moment, though, I wondered whether I was going to the right church. More to the point, I wondered whether I was right in going to church at all.
Ultimately, our pastor decided to separate from the UMC and found another church outside of the denomination. A third of the membership left with her (the church they started still thrives). A third of the membership stayed in Epworth. A third, I am sorry to say, simply disappeared, wandering off into the desert of the de-churched.
I remained. Why? I was on the staff-parish relations committee. The committee chair was Neil Lacey, a brave, gentle, deeply spiritual man—gay, like me. When I asked him what he was going to do in the face of the upcoming church split, he explained that he felt an obligation to support those who stayed, laity and clergy, in whatever way he could. Neil recalled for me that when I joined the church I had made a vow to support the work of the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, and service. Epworth’s ministry of welcome was more necessary than ever, he said, and we as lay leaders were an essential part of that ministry.
Neil is why I am a Methodist today.
I have relied on his example during periods where I’ve felt my commitment to the UMC tested. My parents, both Methodist pastors in Oklahoma, endured harsh criticism for their inclusive stances. I attended the General Conference in 2000 and 2004, experiencing firsthand the deep disagreement and occasional vitriol over issues of sexuality. Perhaps the severest test for me came in late 2005, when the Judicial Council ruled (in decision 1032) in favor of a Virginia pastor who denied membership to a man because the man was openly gay.
That last instance, especially, seemed like the last straw: why be a member of this denomination? Why stay in a church seemingly obsessed with excluding you? Are you going to force them to kick you out? Why not just leave? I asked myself these questions. My non-Methodist and non-Christian friends asked me these questions. I asked God these questions.
In that moment, as in others like it, God answered not with words but with witnesses like Neil. My family continues to show me Jesus through their persevering love for me and my partner. At General Conferences, I saw the reality of the body of Christ shining through in acts of fellowship in even the most contentious debates. In 2005, just after the membership decision had come out, on the very Sunday where I was on the verge of quitting, my pastor read a letter from our Bishop affirming that people like me were welcome. My church, University United Methodist in Baton Rouge, has consistently embodied that welcome to me. I have been proud to boast of my congregation’s openness and eager to recommend my church to other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in my community.
For me, the vote at the 2013 Annual Conference was another such answer affirming my commitment to the church. There a majority of delegates voted that, whatever their feelings about homosexuality, our common mission to make disciples for Christ is not best served by a public statement reinforcing the denomination’s antipathy toward same-sex unions.
I know what it feels like to wonder whether I belong. I know, in fact, what it feels like to wonder whether I’ll be allowed to belong to the church. I do not take my membership in the University United Methodist Church for granted. I try to let this awareness reinforce my gratitude for the Lord’s grace in including me in God’s kingdom generally. God’s inclusion challenges me in turn to extend my hand to those unlike me: those in need, those in prison, those from other lands or cultures, and, yes, those who feel betrayed when the church takes a stance I consider right and proper.
So, to that anonymous someone wondering if you’re in the right church: I think you belong just as much as I do. As Bishop Harvey said (quoting John Wesley), even if we do not think alike, surely we can love alike. We are the church of circuit riders, of witness beyond institutional walls, of living water in a barren land. We are the church of grace, of open doors, of welcome and aid to the least, the lost, the left-behind, the good-as-dead. I don’t know you, my sister or brother in Christ, but I know that our church’s holy work needs your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I hope and pray that we can find a way to hold on to the church together as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Grace and Love,
John Fletcher, PhD
University United Methodist Church
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John Fletcher lives in Baton Rouge, LA, with his partner Alan. He teaches theatre history and women’s and gender studies at Louisiana State University, where he heads the PhD program in Theatre. His book, Preaching to Convert: Evangelical Outreach and Performance Activism in a Secular Age, will appear in fall 2013 from the University of Michigan Press. John attends University United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge.