This is the first in a series of responses to a statement Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church shared with a LGBT community near Orlando and the greater Church. RMN seeks foster a continuing conversation, and is grateful for Bishop Carter's willingness to engage in sharing his own perspective and listen to the voices of others.
- by Mary Ann Kaiser -
A beautiful thing happened in Florida this past week. Bishop Ken Carter says he “felt led to contribute to the conversation” of our church’s relationship to lesbian and gay folks. Not because there was a trial at hand, but because he wanted to be a leader, this Bishop entered the conversation on his own and shared a long statement in which he calls for a “grace-filled” welcome to all lesbian and gay people in the church. In the statement, he names the silence that often surrounds acknowledgment of lgbt people. He offers theological insights that call for the welcome of lgbt persons and he explicitly implores folks not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay people. How refreshing to see a leader approach the topic out of his own free will. For all of these things and for his leadership in guiding the church to a more welcoming space, I am thankful to Bishop Carter.
To be welcomed without fear of condemnation, even if folks cannot go as far as to affirm lgbt persons, is absolutely a move in the right direction. And in many ways, words like patience, unity, and grace are wonderful guides in this ongoing conversation. However, what seems lacking as we continue to meet one another at the table is the acknowledgment of the real life suffering we are contributing to while resting in this “ambiguous” place as a denomination. Bishop Carter encourages “gays and lesbians to be patient with their brothers and sisters in the church who have not walked their journey” and offers the “admonition of James: “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Meanwhile, between 30 and 40% of LGBTQ youth continue to attempt suicide, 90% of LGBTQ students were harassed in the last year, and 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. I keep wondering how long the UMC will refuse to acknowledge what we are contributing to in our patience and unity. If our stance on LGBTQ persons was truly only affecting questions about marriage and ordination and not the nature of our identity, I would maybe be more open to the on-going request for patience. But, if we are going to attempt to remove the conversation from politics and ideology, if that is indeed possible, then we are still left with a serious question about what our mission and theology say about those who are suffering while we remain “neutral” or “ambiguous.” It is a false belief that neutral can be equated with “do no harm.” A neutral response to the marginalized is inherently harmful.
I really appreciate Carter’s drawing our attention to the words of Wesley. I am convinced Wesley’s theology is a fantastic guide for this conversation if we are open to listening to its spirit with a nod to context. I wondered, however, where Wesley’s bold and unwavering commitment to ending slavery fits into the conversation. Wesley went as far as to refuse membership to those who owned slaves and I am left wondering how Wesley might have used words like patience, unity, and grace in conversations about the injustice of slavery. Certainly these words are relevant, but how exactly might they be lived when we are equally acknowledging human suffering? And there is much suffering happening. Lesbian and gay folks of all ages are still being beaten up, kicked out of their families, bullied, and enduring lots of self-hate which many of us learn in our churches – even in “welcoming” ones.
Since the pieces on homosexuality were added to the Book of Discipline 40 years ago, LGBTQ persons have been patient enough to keep showing up despite our marginalization. For 40 years, lives have negatively been affected by our denomination’s support of these clauses and yet many of us LGBTQ keep coming to the table. People outside of our denomination wonder why we would stay faithful to an institution that, at best, turns a blind eye to our suffering in the name of patience, grace, and unity. They make a strong point, and we are forced to struggle with how to healthily walk the line between patience and complicity in our own abuse. For 40 years we have shown up again and again at the table even as our great suffering is dismissed or equated to the hurt feelings of those who hold power over us. If anybody knows about patience, grace, and unity, it is the LGBTQ folks who have stuck with this church for so long.
“Welcoming” is a great start but it must remain clear that every day we attempt to stay neutral and ambiguous rather than affirming, we are still remaining complicit in the serious suffering of lgbtq adults and youth. We cannot avoid this piece of the conversation – our theology, our Bible, our understanding of mission will not allow it. We are on shaky theological ground when we decide that grace is to be favored over justice or vice versa. If we are going to favor grace regardless, we must find a way to acknowledge the injustices we are contributing to by default. To live equally into both may be an impossibility as finite humans, but such “Christian perfection” is what we are called to strive for.
I genuinely applaud Bishop Carter for joining this conversation publicly and for his commitment to his teaching role of bishop as one who “holds together an exposition of scripture and tradition, a vision for the church and the fulfillment of its mission, and a prophetic commitment for the alleviation of human suffering.” I hope that he and all other bishops (with the help and support of clergy and lay members alike) will commit themselves to the alleviation of human suffering just as much as the other important pieces of their call.
. . .Mary Ann Kaiser is a recent graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She has a passion for working in the intersections of church and society. Her love for religious approaches to questions of ethics, particularly in the realms of race, gender, and sexuality, led her to internships at WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) in Silver Spring, MD and Texas Freedom Network in Austin, TX. She has also worked for the Wesley Foundation and as a hospital chaplain. She currently serves as Youth Director and Justice Associate at University UMC in Austin and is pursuing ordination as a Deacon in The UMC. In her free time, she blogs for Reconciling Ministries Network. Follow Mary Ann on twitter: @ladygadfly.