- by Rev. Michael House -
I attended a United Methodist Church service last week for the first time since before the Frank Shaefer trial. It left me with mixed feelings. The congregation is a Reconciling congregation, and the service included the "Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant," one of my favorite services. The choir was excellent, the service was very good, the people (though a fairly small group) friendly and welcoming. So, on the one hand, it felt very good to be there and I was very glad my friend had encouraged me to attend with her today. But, on the other hand, there was a part of me (especially at first) that wanted to run screaming out the back door ... and perhaps throughout the service a part of me that was thinking and feeling about almost everything, "well, yes, but ..." It didn't exactly feel like "home." And I fear no United Methodist Church, Reconciling or not, ever will again. I suppose in a way this blog is my own "Why I'm Not Sure I Can Stay" written in response to the faithful women and men who are writing why they will be staying in The UMC.
This feels strange to admit, after some 40 years of ministry within The United Methodist Church, the only denomination I've ever known. But the wounds and the resulting anger at this point go too deep.
I am a United Methodist minister. I tend to say "was," as I no longer really feel a part of the "system," but at least at this point my ordination is in good standing. I retired prior to the 2012 General Conference so I could stand publicly with my LGBT sisters and brothers as one of them ... not as a straight ally but as a gay man. I'd worn the mask imposed by the church's own brand of "don't ask/don't tell" for far too long. I had tried to work for change within the system, and feel I did succeed in providing ministry to LGBT members and maybe even changed a few minds and hearts in churches I served, but the closet for me was no longer an option.
In the time since that decision, I've had to deal with feelings of deep anger with the church as, I suspect, long-sublimated feelings have come to the surface. At first I thought this was mainly because of the 2012 General Conference, and then in recent months because of the Frank Shaefer trial, but I'm coming to realize that the anger in fact comes from feelings I'd long kept buried.
I wasn't really surprised that the 2012 General Conference voted, once again for the tenth time in 40 years, that I might be a person of "sacred worth" but that my relationships were "incompatible with Christian teaching," and that even though I'd given 40 years of service to the church I really wasn't worthy of ordination or appointment. Nor was I really surprised at Frank Shaefer's verdict or sentence. (The fact that I'm not surprised is one of the sources of my anger. I no longer expect better of my Church, and once again The UMC lived down to my expectations.) What did surprise me, and which can move me from sadness to anger even as I write, are the ways in which anti-gay hate language can be used with impunity by our opponents. A General Conference delegate can compare gay relationships to bestiality; a "church counsel" can speak with total disdain about a father's relationship to his gay son. Yet even though the Book of Discipline says we gays are "people of sacred worth" no one rebukes them or brings them up on charges. Even though the Discipline, compromise document that it is, tries to have it both ways, the church law that comes from it does not.
Our supporters are put on trial or deemed out of order; our opponents, even when they engage in what in any other context would be deemed hate speech, are not even rebuked.
When I was ordained in 1980, the anti-gay language was on the books, but at least in my experience no one paid much attention to it . I remember being aware when "faithful in marriage, celibate in singleness" was added to the Discipline that the phrase was likely a coded way of blocking out homosexuals (since we couldn't get married ... a prohibition the Discipline has made more clear since), but I suspect most of us shrugged our shoulders, at least a bit. After all, I was aware of several single straight colleagues standing before the bishop answering "yes" who I knew were definitely not celibate. But everyone was willing to wink at that ... sort of like we wink at ministers never having a drink. And at first, in my own coming out experiences, I was involved with people who had as much need to stay closeted as I did (and perhaps I hoped and expected that the church would change soon ... after all, weren't we really all about justice and protecting the underdog? Yes, I was naive).
But as I grew older, the church's closet became smaller and more restrictive.
As I moved into my 40s and 50s, the fact that I was "single" became more and more an issue in my appointments. And as I began to serve churches that had both openly gay and homophobic members (at least three of my last five appointments), the pressure became stronger. I always made it clear that I supported full inclusion, and taught against the "clobber passages" in bible studies. As a result, I became suspect with those on the other side. I was more than once pressured to preach a sermon calling the homosexual members to repentance (I refused) and also asked, point-blank, if I was gay. Rather than lying, I, in effect, "took the fifth." I'd quote the Disciplinary language, chapter and verse, barring "self-avowed practicing" from ordination, and even pointed out the footnote that states that means coming out to a bishop or some other member of the hierarchy. I'd then state that I was a minister in good standing, and that was all they needed to know on the subject. Since I hadn't "confessed," that usually ended the matter ... but it hardly felt good ... or even honest. I tried to convince myself that since I was "practicing" but not "self-confessing" I was within the letter of the law ... but my gut knew better. Talk about "don't ask/don't tell!"
Finally , after years of walking that tightrope, I decided to retire, take off the mask, and come out ... consequences be damned. It's among the best decisions I've ever made. But ... I have to admit one final source of deep anger I can't seem to shake: it really doesn't matter to the conference.
I'm out, publicly and sometimes (at least on Facebook) loudly so. I am in a committed relationship with a loving and wonderful man. Yet I'm still in "good standing." Actually, those words have come to mean little to me ... not unlike "clergy covenant," so bandied about during Rev. Shaefer's trial. What covenant? What compassion? What mutually supportive fellowship? Since retiring ... for all intents I've ceased to exist. (again, there are a few exceptions. A few women, and men, who have reached out to me in love and support ... but I could count them on the fingers of one hand. And this after 40 years of service).
So ... why am I writing this? At least in part, I hope to give a face to the many faithful queer clergy serving within The United Methodist "don't ask/don't tell" system. We are there ... whether the church chooses to "see" us or not. And the wounds of trying to serve a church within an ecclesiastical closet can run deep. Speaking from my own experience, I feel sure that my own honesty and openness, and hence my own ability to pastor, were negatively impacted by the closet. There was always a part of me that had to stay hidden, buried, guarded.
How can one give truly authentic pastoral care, how can one preach truly life-changing sermons, if one's own core being has to always be guarded or explained away?
How many gay kids might I have influenced, as a role model, if I had been out? How many people, myself included, could have experienced The UMC's campaign of "open minds, open hearts, open doors" as being authentic life-changing words as opposed to the rhetoric of an ultimately cynical advertising campaign if people like me could have been living examples of the slogan's truth?
The UMC has, I fear, injured itself, perhaps irreparably, through its four decades of anti-gay rules and the church policies that have been pursued because of those rules. I'm basically an optimistic idealist. But my hope is largely dead. I honor those who can still stay in the "good fight" to change the institution; for me I fear the anger and the hurt go too deep. I also have faith in the Holy Spirit's ability to change even the hardest of hearts ... but I also know She has eternity in which to do so. (I'm sixty ... I don't have that long.)
I write this, partly, to bare my own soul. But I also write, suspecting I speak for many who cannot.
How many more hearts will The UMC wound, how many hopes dashed, how many vocations (and even lives) destroyed before she changes? And how long can we wait? Each of us must answer, finally, for ourselves. I'll still be working for change, where I can (and hopefully my story can help make a difference). But I suspect that it's time for me to find a healthier place that can encourage my own growth and inspire my own hope and faith. And it makes me very sad, and angry, that The United Methodist Church is likely no longer that place.
. . .
Mike House attended Perkins School of Theology (SMU, Dallas) in the late 70s and retired from active United Methodist ministry after around 40 years of service in the North Texas Conference, having served churches in both Dallas and town and country and rural churches in the northeast Texas area. He now is recovering from the UMC's "don't ask/don't tell" closet, and is happily living with his partner, Cody McMahan, in Dallas, Texas.