Our Pastoral is Political column this week is shared by Pastor Bromleigh McCleneghan.
Hundreds of United Methodists from around the globe are gathered in St. Louis today for a specially-called General Conference to discuss the way forward as a church desperately divided over human sexuality. The outcome of these few days will determine, in large part, who will remain United Methodist, and who will go; by the end of tomorrow, we’ll know if there’s a future for a United Methodist Church at all.
The debate over human sexuality (and, more particularly, the full inclusion of Queer folks in the church) has been waged at every General Conference since before I was born. Growing up a UM preacher’s kid on the north side of Chicago, however, those debates seemed far from me: in a telling snapshot of life in Chicago, I knew more gay Christians than Black ones.
I haven’t served a United Methodist congregation in almost seven years (though I continue to serve under the appointment of my bishop), and there’s a lot to miss, and some things I don’t miss at all. One of the starkest felt differences, though, is that I very rarely heard complaint in those UMC churches about my sermons or other pastoral work being too political. I hear that a lot where I am now.
I wonder, then, if the reason for the difference is (not just my growing frustration with our political order, but) that United Methodists are used to thinking of the stuff of congregational and denominational life as political, in terms usually reserved for secular structures. Our judicial counsel rules on the constitutionality of Annual and General Conference legislation, and juries comprised of both lay and clergy members render decisions in trials. We vote on all sorts of issues at every level of denominational life. We have structures ordering our structures; bureaucracy upon bureaucracy.
It may well be that some of these things are true for other denominations but one of the unique factors among American Protestants is this: the decisions of the larger church are binding for us. We have church law and rules for how to respond to broken laws.
We don’t really have a structure to respond to unjust laws. Our judicial council is no Supreme Court, with any real interpretive authority resting upon them. The Council of Bishops makes plenty of political decisions but does not ultimately wield any power over the body. Mostly we’re a democracy, but with no balance of powers. We don’t have much to stop, or reverse, a tyranny of the majority.
I’ve long been a student of both theology and government; love them both passionately as lenses through which we interpret our common life and means by which we can shape the world for good. I wrote my college application essay on Jim Wallis’s 1996 book Who Speaks for God, which I, honest to God, picked up of my own free will at the local Borders bookstore (RIP). I believed both church and government could be effective in ameliorating suffering
I studied both in college, and through grad school as well. I came of age, however, with Bush v. Gore and began to wonder, in the way white kids do several generations after many people of color, that our democracy does not work well a good deal of the time, and for a long time, was not meant to.
In his famous vindication of democracy, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Reinhold Niebuhr writes, Man’s [sic] capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s inclination toward injustice makes democracy necessary.
Our democratic structures were supposed to prevent abuse of power; our capacity for justice – in Wesleyan terms, our capacity to grow more perfect in love – would allow God’s spirit to move in us, the gathered democratic body.
But the Children of Light, Niebuhr notes, usually misjudge the power of corruption. Downplay the power of self-righteousness and fear and forces other than the Gospel in shaping the public imagination.
The folks who want to continue to exclude LGBTQIA+ folks and push out their allies as well have been working on strategies to garner support for years, through preaching and bible study, through publication and caucus building. There’s a lot of money there, and a lot of shoddy hermeneutics. There are false dichotomies – most frustratingly between compassion and the Word of God – galore.
I needed a post-liturgical nap yesterday, but I kept scrolling through twitter, aching for news, aching over what I found. I struggled to explain to my husband how I could love this church so much, how it had formed me and taught me grace, and be so fucking angry at it. I struggled to give voice to how betrayed I feel – when members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association deny the existence and goodness of Queer Methodists, when they proclaim a hermeneutic that is one logical step from rescinding women’s ordination. How is it possible that there is such hatred, clothed in language of civility and holiness, in this church? How can queer people endure such pain? How can we stay in such a place? Where can we go?
The pastoral has been political for a long time in the UMC: who we love, who we were created to be, a matter to be decided by a simple majority. We wait this day. We hope, maybe foolishly, not knowing what to hope for. We pray. May God strengthen our capacity for justice and weaken our inclination toward injustice. May we be wise as serpents, but innocent as doves, that no one might be our sacrificial lamb. Amen
Bromleigh McCleneghan is Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families at Union Church of Hinsdale (UCC). She is the author of Good Christian Sex and the forthcoming Blessed? Privilege, Luck, and the Work of God (WJK 2019)
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Photo is of the prioritization vote for which plan to “perfect” first.