United Methodists are torn over same-sex marriage, but local pastors are all inclusive.
Story David Bolling
You can’t talk about love in 2020 without talking about the ongoing social, cultural and religious obstacles to the free expression and sanctification of love by members of the LGBTQ community. Love does not know boundaries; love breaks boundaries. And those boundaries continue
But let’s be clear about one thing, in case anyone has forgotten. In June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex marriages, ruling that it violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Then in June of 2015, the high court went a step further and declared that same-sex couples had the same rights to marry, under the same terms and conditions as opposite sex couples, with all the same rights and responsibilities, under both the due process clause and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
So, same sex marriage is legal in every state in the union (and in 27 other countries).
It’s important to know this to provide context for the same-sex marriage dispute that is tearing apart the United Methodist Church.
Because while the Supreme Court has ruled same-sex couples can marry, it won’t and legally can’t rule that churches have to embrace gay marriage and permit it in their congregations and by their ministers. The Constitution prohibits that. In the Methodist Church, which was ironically born in reaction to the failure of the Catholic Church (and its Anglican successor in England) to minister broadly to the less-privileged masses, one camp wants to be totally inclusive, and another, more conservative camp, will not accept same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ members. They’re not alone.
The Catholic Church is adamantly against same-sex marriage, forbids it, and has further proclaimed that gay men should not be ordained as priests. That’s a tough position to hold given the precipitous decline in priests and the paradoxically large number of gay priests in the church’s ranks.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who believe same-sex marriages should be recognized by the state as valid continues to hover around 63 percent – a solid majority.
So lets get back to the United Methodist Church, of which there is a congregation in Sonoma, currently led by two female pastors, both gay and married to each other.
The Rev. Emily Pickens-Jones, and the Rev. Jacey Pickens-Jones are co-pastors of the Sonoma United Methodist Church on Patten Street. Both women were officially appointed to the Sonoma Church by its governing body, the California-Nevada Annual Conference, according to the protocol of the Methodist Church.
That protocol process is a distant reflection of the founding history of the Methodist movement, which broke off from the Church of England (which itself had much earlier broken off from the Vatican). Protocols and “methods,” if you will, are part of the theological DNA of the Methodist Church that drove it away from its Anglican home. Of course, organized religion is rife with schism, sometimes over issues of church doctrine, sometimes over power, influence, and wealth.
King Henry the VIII famously broke with the Church of Rome, replacing the pope with himself as head of the Church of England, so that he could annul his marriage and find someone to bear him a son. But the English reformation also redistributed a fortune in church assets to the English nobility.
The Methodist movement, initiated by John Wesley, was in part an 18th-century effort to redirect the focus of the church to serve the poor, the sick, prisoners in jail, people generally overlooked or ignored by the church hierarchy. In today’s world, that embrace might be expected to include same-sex couples and the entire pantheon of the LGBTQ community. And for many Methodists it does. And for many it doesn’t, and there’s the rub.
“It’s all very convoluted,” says Rev. Emily Pickens-Jones. “We Methodists really like our polity. The process allows the people to propose changes to the rules of the Church. And we’ve been arguing about this issue since 1977. We have a judicial branch, a Council of Bishops, and a General Conference that determines the rules of the Church.”
Those rules currently prohibit ordained Methodist pastors from performing same-sex marriages and preclude, in principle at least, LGBTQ people from becoming ordained pastors. They are now at the heart of the Methodist divide, following a proposal signed by 16 church leaders to split the denomination in two, allowing for the “traditionalist” members who can’t accept same-sex equality to depart.
That would seem to be a simple theological decision but for the fact that individual churches don’t own their real estate and other assets; it all belongs to the corporate body of the church. So, to split the church also means to split the assets.
To navigate through that conundrum, the church recruited Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer and mediator who guided the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Feinberg’s efforts resulted in a nine-page plan that would provide $25 million to the new denomination over a four-year period, and preserve pension plans for clergy and lay employees. The plan allows local churches to decide whether they want to stay with the inclusive United Methodist Church or join the new denomination. The plan will be voted on at the church’s next General Conference in May.
For Rev. Emily Pickens-Jones the decision has already been made.
“I’m a cradle Methodist,” she says. “My parents are both clergy. History is very important. It’s John Wesley’s legacy. I can’t leave. I refuse to leave. I’m not going to let the bullies drive me out. The work of the church is so much more than arguing about LGBTQ people. Hunger, housing, poverty, that’s what we should be focusing on.”
All of which leads inexorably to the underlying issue of why some church members are so vehemently opposed to gay equality. Pickens-Jones points to the so-called “clobber verses” in the Bible, six Old Testament proscriptions against man-on-man sex. Interestingly, woman-on-woman sex isn’t addressed and, as Pickens-Jones points out, none of the verses were spoken by Jesus.
For better insight on the issue, she points to research by Walter Wink, a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York whose article, “Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality,” was published in Christian Century.
“No more divisive issue faces the churches of this country today,” writes Wink, “than the question of ordaining homosexuals. Like the issue of slavery a century ago, it has the potential for splitting entire denominations. And like the issue of slavery, the argument revolves around the interpretation of Scripture. What does the Bible say about homosexuality, and how are we to apply it to this tormented question?
Wink says that three of the so-called “clobber verses” are actually referring to homosexual rape, gang rape, or another unclear interpretation and should be therefore dismissed.
The three remaining references are unequivocal. Leviticus 20:13 states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”
Really? God is sanctioning murder for homosexual sex?
Those words have been wrestled with for decades, if not centuries, by religious conservatives. They take us to the heart of the theological dilemma – is every part of the Bible – especially in the Old Testament – the true word of God? Or do many of those words and ideas reflect the social, cultural, political, and educational times in which they were recorded?
All of which presupposes a belief in God that many people don’t share.
Wink’s conclusion is a balm on such, dissension.
“The fact is,” he writes, “that there is, behind the legal tenor of Scripture, an even deeper tenor, articulated by Israel out of the experience of the Exodus and brought to sublime embodiment in Jesus’s identification with harlots, tax collectors, the diseased and maimed and outcast and poor. It is that God sides with the powerless, God liberates the oppressed, God suffers with the suffering and groans toward the reconciliation of all things. In the light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospel’s imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.”