When I was in high school, I primarily attended the Lutheran church I had grown up in. I accompanied the choir that my mom directed, I played the organ for Saturday night services. But when I could manage, I would visit the United Methodist Church where several of my friends attended. They had a thriving, interesting Sunday School class, and I loved the times when I was able to attend and engage with my friends with topics that fascinated us and made us think. In the small room at the end of the hall, we would sit around the big table, hashing out ideas, discussing problems that mattered to us, sharing our thoughts.
It was always good to visit, even if it wasn’t my regular church home. One of the things that made it comfortable was that I always felt welcome at the table. I wasn’t a part of the church, but I was always welcome to take part in the conversation. My perspective wasn’t something that I needed to keep to myself, even if it wasn’t the same as those who were a more regular part of the class.
I have been attending a UMC church for a few months now. I am grateful for the inclusive language that has been used at our church, and the way they have embraced us. As the general conference has been approaching, I’ve been following closely the issue of the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the denomination.
On the first night of the UMC General Conference, they kicked off the event with a worship service. One person slated to participate was Rev. Vicki Flippin from New York. She pastors an inclusive congregation in NYC, and as a part of her greeting, she intended to mention the LGBTQ community, a group that has continue to be held to the margins in the UMC.
However, she did not have the opportunity to give her greeting. Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett said, “…because of the context of General Conference worship being inclusive for everyone, …I wasn’t comfortable naming one group in that reading.”
The thing is, the UMC has not been inclusive for the LGBTQ community. The Book of Discipline states, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” Since 1972, an entire group of Christians in the denomination have been relegated to the sidelines, made to feel like they are worth less than their straight, cisgender counterparts.
This is the choice so many churches offer. You can be gay and still attend a Sunday morning service. You can be transgender and give them your money. You can be a lesbian and help in the nursery, changing diapers and cleaning up cracker crumbs. Serve, but only in the background where no one can see you.
There is nothing wrong with serving in these areas. We need people in all aspects of ministry. But if your gifts are best used as a pastor or a deacon, there is no place for you in the UMC right now. You must hide an essential part of yourself – either your calling or your sexual identity. You cannot bring your full self to your church community.
On Monday, 111 pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry came out in a love letter to their denomination. Some might ask why not just serve where you are welcome?Why not just go to the PCUSA or the ELCA or the Episcopalian church or the UCC, all of which are open and affirming? But being asked to leave your church hurts. We speak of our churches as our family and being asked to go join a different family because they’ll love you more than we do is not a particularly caring or generous way to approach ministry.
On the first night of the general conference, there was an opportunity, even if only a very small one, to affirm the value of people who have been cast aside time and again by the UMC. To make a group who has been asked to remain invisible, seen for just a moment. To make those who, rightfully, may not feel fully accepted or appreciated, feel instead that they were welcome. Instead, the choice was to put the comfort of those who are already included ahead of those who have been excluded. To say that you can be our guest, but you are not welcome.
It is my prayer that there will be a day in the UMC when we can all sit together, bringing our full selves to the table. A day when all will be welcome.