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LGBTQ advocates plan for new day in church (UM News)

October 18, 2023

The Rev. Michele Johns shares the grief many United Methodists feel in seeing churches withdraw from the denomination.

But the pastor and social worker also shares the joy many of her fellow LGBTQ United Methodists and their allies feel at the prospect that the denomination is becoming a more inclusive and affirming church.

“I have hope, and that hope goes beyond The United Methodist Church, because [LGBTQ] people are here,” said Johns, pastor for congregational care and reconciling ministries at Silver Spring United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“We are called by God; we are loved by God; we’re in the churches and in the community and always have been.”

Johns was among the more than 280 people who gathered in person — alongside about 100 online — for the Reconciling Ministries Network’s 2023 Convocation. The Oct. 13-15 gathering at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte brought together United Methodists from the U.S., Kenya and the Philippines, as well as Methodists from the first reconciling congregation in Brazil.

The convocation was a time for worship, communion, baptism remembrance and Bible study for the advocacy group that champions equality of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. The advocates also used the time to look back as Reconciling Ministries Network kicked off its 40th anniversary celebration and look forward to the coming General Conference — scheduled to take place just blocks away on April 23 – May 3.

The United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus invited convocation participants to pray outside the Charlotte Convention Center for the delegates attending the denomination’s international lawmaking assembly and the decisions they will make within its walls.

But for many, the convocation was also a time to lament the loss of what The United Methodist Church was and celebrate the hope for what it is becoming.

Mountain Sky Conference Bishop Karen Oliveto — the denomination’s first openly gay and married bishop — described those sentiments during an Oct. 14 Bible study.

Those gathered, she said, needed “to make space for grief and loss … and to envision a beloved community in Christ, a place where all belong.”

The convocation took place as United Methodists mourn the disaffiliation of more than 6,500 U.S. churches after decades of increasing debates and defiance over the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.  

At the same time, many of the congregations that have left include some of the leading proponents for maintaining those bans. With the resulting shifts in some U.S. General Conference delegations, LGBTQ advocates see a real opportunity for General Conference voters to strike down what they see as discriminatory language.

Johns, who identifies as queer, is among those caught between the pain and possibility of the moment.

At the convocation’s start, she learned from a friend that two Alabama churches where her father served as pastor — including the one where she was baptized — were among the disaffiliations.

“These were the churches that raised me,” said Johns, a seventh-generation Methodist pastor whose parents are both United Methodist clergy. While her parents were leading worship, she said church members often would take care of her. “The people in the church were our extended family,” she said.

But she said the convocation enabled her to reconnect with her other family — United Methodists bound together by shared efforts to build a church where all people can worship and minister as God calls.

She added that she hopes The United Methodist Church will experience “repair, restoration and renewal.”

Laura Young, a longtime Reconciling Ministries Network organizer, also spoke with excitement about the denomination’s future and the progress United Methodists are making toward inclusion.

But she also sounded a note of caution. “The changes we are working toward at General Conference are not a foregone conclusion,” she said.

Those legislative changes are what the Reconciling Ministries Network calls the “Three R’s.”

The group is advocating for:

Both adopting new Social Principles and ending the restrictions only require majority votes at General Conference.

However, regionalization — an effort to put the denomination’s different geographical regions on equal footing — requires amending the United Methodist constitution. For ratification, amendments must first receive at least a two-thirds vote at General Conference and then at least two-thirds of the total votes from annual conferences, regional bodies consisting of voters from multiple congregations. That means work will continue for passage even after General Conference adjourns.

The regionalization legislation makes no mention of homosexuality. Its main goal is to decentralize the church so the U.S. is no longer dominant and move toward the decolonization of the global denomination.

Under the plan, the U.S. and the seven current central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines would each become United Methodist regional conferences with the same duties and powers to pass legislation for greater missional impact in their respective regions.

“It prevents a regional conference from having other regional conferences impose their policies and administrative practices,” said the Rev. Israel I. Alvaran, a Reconciling Ministries Network organizer and Philippines native.

“So, if we decolonize, then we’re not colonizing each other in how best we can preach the Gospel and live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The convocation also included time for participants to hear from leaders of United Methodist Ethnic caucus groups and the national plans for Ethnic ministries. The leaders are all working for the inclusion and equity of people of color and Indigenous peoples in United Methodist ministries. These leaders also are working to rectify injustices and champion human rights.

For example, Ragghi Rain Calentine — an Eastern Cherokee and chair of the denomination’s Native American International Caucus — used her storytelling skills to explain that the abuses of U.S. and Canadian Indigenous boarding schools have left lasting trauma that still affects Native American families.

“We are the ones who bring the issues and the stories to you,” she said. “We are the ones who are willing to stand up and fight. We are fighting for our children to be returned home.”

The Rev. Lydia Muñoz, executive director of the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry, said that all these Ethnic ministries strengthen the church and its witness. But she noted her frustration that every time General Conference meets, many United Methodists seem to learn of the denomination’s [BIPOC] ministries for the first time. 

“We need to get this into our DNA,” she said. “Because the more we get it into our DNA, the more we are building allyship, and the more that we’re building allyship, the more church understands this is not something we just get rid of.”

The denomination has struggled for a long time with how wide to open its doors both to people of color as well as LGBTQ individuals. During the convocation, many longtime veterans of General Conference battles over inclusion shared their stories.

Derrick Scott III, a Reconciling Ministries Network board member and General Conference delegate from Florida, said he could see the Holy Spirit at work in the weekend’s gathering.

“We talked about what it means to be truly inclusive and thinking about our Black, Indigenous, people of color siblings,” Scott said. “We did all of that. But we also got to be church together. And that, I believe, is making all the difference for our movement.”

As the denomination now looks to rebuild and revive, Scott and other Reconciling Ministries Network members see hope that people at the social margins can be at the center of renewed growth just as they were in the early church.

After all, even Jesus himself had to deal with shrinking membership, the Rev. Steve Harper observed.

Harper, a retired Asbury Theological Seminary professor and now ardent LGBTQ ally, co-led the Bible study with Oliveto.

On the first Easter Sunday, Harper Wryly pointed out that Jesus’ main disciples numbered only 10. “Judas was not coming back,” he said, “and Thomas was AWOL.”

But after his resurrection, Jesus’ first move was to go to the grieving, the disenfranchised and the people hiding behind closed doors, Harper said. He then stayed with the grieving until they could recognize the risen Christ.

Oliveto said her litmus test for knowing the Holy Spirit is present is when walls that people erect to separate themselves from each other and God come tumbling down.  

There’s just this enlargement. More and more people are included,” Oliveto said. “And so let’s start living this new church now.”

An ongoing struggle

In 1984, the Reconciling Congregation Program formed to help United Methodist congregations and clergy work for justice for LGBTQ people. In 2000, the program changed its name to Reconciling Ministries Network.

But efforts by LGBTQ advocates have been underway far longer than 40 years.

Since 1972, the denomination’s Book of Discipline — whose contents General Conference determines — has stated that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Subsequent General Conference sessions added the restrictions on marriage and clergy, and the 2019 special General Conference, by a relatively narrow vote, strengthened those bans.

But even more recently, U.S. United Methodists in particular have signaled their desire for the denomination to become more LGBTQ-welcoming.

Last year’s U.S. jurisdictional meetings, which include delegates to the coming General Conference, all passed similarly worded petitions that aspire to a future United Methodist Church “where LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church.”

Earlier this year, 22 of the 53 U.S. annual conferences passed resolutions supporting the removal of anti-LGBTQ language in the Discipline. That total does not include conferences that passed similar resolutions last year.

One indication of shifting attitudes is that four United Methodist bishops attended at least part of this year’s convocation. They included Mountain Sky Bishop Karen Oliveto and Greater Northwest Bishop Cedrick Bridgeforth, the denomination’s two openly gay episcopal leaders. Also present were North Georgia Conference Bishop Robin Dease and Western North Carolina Conference Bishop Ken Carter.

“I thank you for staying with this church when this church singled you out for discrimination,” Carter told those gathered.

No matter what happens at next year’s General Conference, Reconciling Ministries Network organizers stressed that the advocacy work will continue.