- by Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey -
Last week I received news of a presentation given by episcopal leadership within the United Methodist Church. Bishop Scott J. Jones at a meeting among clergy in the Great Plains Conference gave a speech entitled, “Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace” in which he responded to two questions put before the clergy to reflect upon for the meeting. The two questions were: 1) “How do we live in the tension of upholding our covenant to follow and uphold the discipline of the United Methodist Church while disagreeing with some positions of the Discipline?” and 2) How do we respond with grace and love, both corporately and personally, when a colleague decides she/he can no longer live within that covenant?”
Needless to say the questions themselves are frontloaded with a discriminatory perspective. They situate the UMC Book of Discipline, its laws and clergy covenant as the key foci for clergy such that upholding the Discipline takes precedence rather than the more important Christian covenant to the Gospel message as embodied by Jesus Christ and heard in his instructions to the disciples. Bishop Jones makes the calculating error of eisegesis by drawing upon only a portion of Ephesians 4:1-3 to make his point that “Unity is God’s will for God’s people.” In truth, the text encourages “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” By not imagining with clergy how that unity in the Spirit through the syndesmos - the bond of love that is able to engender peace - might be made concrete in that conference and within the United Methodist Church, Bishop Jones failed to offer what could have been a rich message of love and reconciliation. Instead, what clergy were offered is really nothing more than a corporate plan of action admonishing clergy to give their attention to UMC doctrine, mission and discipline in order to stay united. How strange that what we are as an institutional church, and how we are to protect the UMC identity, was largely the tune of this “corporate pep speech.”
That notwithstanding it is a particularly disconcerting that Bishop Jones chose to make this statement:
Someone asked me, “Bishop, what if 100 of us do same-gender unions?” My answer is this: “Then there will be 100 suspensions from ministry during the supervisory response followed by 100 trials.” The right to a trial by a jury of your peers is fundamental to our connection and goes back to at least the Restrictive Rules of 1808. It is an important protection for the individual and the conference against the power of the bishop. But you should know that holding a trial is a major drain on our leadership and resources. In addition to the distraction from other priorities and the conflict they cause within the conference, trials are expensive. I am told that some conferences spend $100,000 on just one trial, and that the defendant may be spending up to $50,000 of personal money. Yet, not to hold a trial when a chargeable offense occurs and a just resolution cannot be achieved is to violate our United Methodist identity.”
Ten million dollars, Bishop Jones? Are you really willing for the church to spend ten million dollars in order to protect United Methodist identity? The identity of our church is not what is in jeopardy. What is at stake is whether we can maintain our love for each other and for the world as Christians in the midst of our disagreement. I find it difficult to believe my church is willing to expend ten million dollars on church trials to uphold rulings made against a portion of its membership rather than commit those funds to people who are hungry, homeless or dying of disease. And if that is true, well Bishop Jones it is a sad day for our church and I for one am willing to take you up on your threat (for that is how many LGBTQ persons received your words). I am one of those more than “one hundred” clergy who have officiated a same-sex marriage. You should know that part of my reason for officiating the marriage had to do with the words of the very man whose birthday took place on the day you made your presentation:
“One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
It is my obligation as a child of God, as a person made in God’s image to continue following the same path of nonviolent direct action as I have done since a young African American child growing up in the south during the 60s and 70s. In the same letter, Dr. King addressed “tension” in a rather different way than Bishop Jones articulated. Dr. King wrote this:
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
The world is watching our church. The church trials are really only symptoms of the larger ill of deep-seated bigotry against LGBTQ persons within the UMC and our nation. The struggle continues. That said, we reconciling United Methodists, allies and LGBTQ persons will not tolerate any unity that privileges oppression. We call that status quo. What we are working on in our insistence against UMC polity that we find discriminatory against LGBTQ person is instead the Beloved Kingdom. We are prepared to pay the price to help tear down the walls of our oppression within the United Methodist Church for we have the riches of God’s grace and love to draw upon.
It is essential during this critical juncture in our nation and church’s history that we find ways to work through our differences. If our episcopacy comes to the table with the Discipline in their hands we will never reach true accord. Instead, I do hope we can conciliate, “through the bond of love,” our opposing membership and invest our prayers, presence and gifts to the goal of determining how we can do that in a way that brings both liberation and peace.
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Rev. Dr. Pamela R. Lightsey is an ordained elder of the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church serving as Associate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning at Boston University School of Theology. In addition to this work, Dr. Lightsey serves as co-chair of the Womanist Approaches to Religion and Society Group of the American Academy of Religion. Her scholarly work has been published in several online journals and web-blogs and she has contributed to numerous publications: “Inner Dictum: A Womanist Reflection From the Queer Realm.” In Black Theology Journal 10.3 (2012); Proclamation and Embodiment and If There Should Come a Word in Black United Methodist Preach! ed. Gennifer Brooks. Abingdon Press. 2012 and Reconciliation in Prophetic Evangelicals: Envisioning a Just and Peaceable Kingdom, eds. Malinda Berry, Bruce Benson and Peter Heltzel. Eerdmans Publication. 2012 An Army veteran and mother whose son served in Iraq, Dr. Lightsey is active in social justice ministries but particularly those focusing on global peace, LGBTQ civil rights, eradicating racism and the engagement of viable reconciliation methodologies. RMN’s history and work is contiguous with her own experiences. She has worked with RMN and supported its several programs and is happy to offer her scholarship and ministry skills to the organization. Pamela hopes to help RMN especially to understand and further support the unique challenges of being a queer person of color.