Sexuality, Grace, Acceptance, and Leadership

It has been a dramatic week in the life of the United Methodist Church as relates to our ongoing debates about the value of gay and lesbian individuals within the life of our church. Some in the denomination wish to see ordination and marriage opened to this constituency of the church. Some see that kind of progress compromising our commitment to Biblical principles. I know it has been a surprise to some in our congregation that our denomination does not currently allow for the marriage and ordination of folks who are gay and lesbian, but that is currently our denominational polity, which is crafted and amended by the General Conference, presided over and executed by the Bishops, and interpreted in contested matters by the Judicial Council (much like the government of the USA)

This past General Conference held in 2016 in Portland, Oregon, the 1000 delegates from all over the world decided to table all matters dealing with human sexuality and the life of the church. The matter was put to the Council of Bishops to recommend a solution that would guide the church which has been stuck in paralysis over matters pertaining to homosexuality for the past 40 years. The Bishops announced the creation of a “Commission on a Way Forward,” appointed members to that commission, and hinted that it might call a Special session of the General Conference to deal with the numerous petitions dealing with the way we might structure the church to accommodate both perspectives, or see two or multiple expressions of Methodism emerge from a division over this important aspect of how our church goes about its mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

On April 24, the Council of Bishops called a Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church to be held February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.  Interestingly, this long awaited announcement came on the day before the Judicial Council was set to hear the case against the first openly gay Bishop of the UMC, elected last summer in the Western Jurisdiction and appointed to the Mountain Sky Conference (headquartered in Denver) that was brought by a lay delegate to the South Central Jurisdiction (which is where Oklahoma Conference is located). As I have written about before, I have anticipated this day with prayerful hope that the church might open itself more fully to the leadership of a gifted woman of faith—but we won’t know their decision until this weekend. In the midst of the anxiety, pastorally identified by Bishop Oliveto herself, that the church might feel over these announcements, I’d like to interject some hope.

You probably don’t need to ask what my thoughts on the matter are—I’ve made that clear in sermons, articles, and conversations. What you probably miss out on is the way our hospitable stance toward LGBTQI people is felt and remarked upon by people who personally resonate with the grace in it. People have joined our church because they perceive an open and affirming welcome to LGBTQI people is made here. (People have left the church because such a welcome is made here too, but I’m sure those people have ample choices for other places to worship in Tulsa, and I’ve made sure those individuals have indeed found a new place to worship.)  The places where a friendly hospitality toward LGBTQI people are few and far between in our part of the world—and the “Reconciling Congregations” framework for discernment about “making that welcome known and plain” is seeing results in our church and in our sister churches that have undertaken it.

A few years ago, our own constituent, Rev. Amy Venable (now appointed to Boston Avenue UMC), won the Denman award for Evangelism by the Oklahoma Conference for significant work she did in the Norman community and for her leadership of her congregation to become one of the first “Reconciling Congregations” in Oklahoma. This weekend, Myranda and I will be attending the Equality Center Gala honoring Rev. Twila Gibbens for the same thing at St. Paul UMC here in Tulsa. In December of 2014, our own New Life Sunday School class came to the end of a discernment period utilizing the Reconciling Congregations material, and made a statement to the congregation declaring that their Sunday school class would be a “Reconciling Class,” intentionally welcoming toward LGBTQI people.  That statement resounded with a young man, Paul Sweet, who was attending our church at the time, singing in the choir and sharing his gift of music performance and composition with us. He remarked to me at the time that hearing that was refreshing and empowering to him, and I felt thankful.

I heard from another church member recently that Paul had told her that moment was the “first time he could enjoy acceptance and be the person he knew himself to be.” What a tremendous witness. Did you know that about yourself, church? YOU are the first place a person who was thwarted and squashed by a rigid and disheartening religious upbringing instead felt the grace and strength that a faith life has to offer. That faith life has now blessed another congregation with gifts and leadership, as Paul has for the past couple years served as the music director at a friend’s church, Bethany Christian at 67th and Sheridan. I’m glad our church could “open the window” a bit for Paul to perceive his own life of faith and servant leadership as being of value, not in ignorance of or in spite of his identity as a gay man, but fully embracing of his life and love. The Kingdom is built more beautifully when we are a conduit of discovery for people to “enjoy acceptance to be the people they know themselves to be.” Where people, in the words of the Apostle Paul, feel accepted and loved being “fully known.”  I hope the United Methodist Church as a whole might make the same commitments, with regard to the leadership of an incredibly gifted woman in Bishop Karen Oliveto, and conveying a polity that grants the full spectrum of leadership and means of grace (ordination and marriage) to all our members and constituents.