It took two weeks of explaining before I broke down trying to get through one more rundown of what happened in St. Louis.* Of course, I felt the pain of it even while I was at the General Conference. The Tuesday night it ended I stayed up late writing notes to former seminary classmates and current LGBTQ colleagues, family, and friends, finding no more words to say other than, “Have I told you lately that I love you?”
But I also knew how rough the traditionalists, who were said to have ‘won’ the ugly affair, were feeling. Even though the outcome was not surprising to me, the sad spectacle of parliamentary maneuvering, insensitive speeches, and the evaporation of a Methodist middle was hard to watch. The fact that the Conference will now have an afterlife of Judicial Council rulings on what was passed and ethics investigations into improper voting credentials only adds to the bad taste in the mouth.
I had been holding it together, however. As I have been meeting with clergy and lay members back here in Virginia and especially on the Eastern Shore, I have been comforted by the community we still are able to muster, born of a shared formation in a connection that still manages manifestations of broad, Wesleyan grace.
In most of our congregations, questions of sexual orientation are not topics of continuing dispute. We are inelegant and awkward when we try to discuss it and we know it, which means that we generally just try to stick to the Great Commandment of loving God and loving neighbor, whoever she or he is. When we’re at our best, we do this.
We’re not at our best at General Conference.
But the other night my campaign of listening, loving, and explaining broke down when I broke down. It’s a little-acknowledged fact, but District Superintendents have feelings, too, and I was in them.
It came as I tried to give voice to a belief that is bedrock to my calling, even if I’m not always aware of it. In the tight-knit community of Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas circa 1989, I was a small-town Virginia boy whose world had been turned upside down by the God I met in experiences that were essentially facilitated by United Methodists. Church camp, conference youth events, a summer in full-time service ministry, campus ministry—all of these had stretched me in ways a boy from Orange would never have had the chance to stretch had it not been for the “connexion.”
At Perkins that stretching continued in new forms even as we were imbibing a truth that seemed indisputable to me at the time: The God who had opened me up, who had inspired the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the Civil Rights leaders in Selma, who was always at work among those who live at the margins to bring transformation, new life, and liberation, was going to keep at that work so that we would see, in the land of the living and in the UMC, more and more people embraced and affirmed for leadership.
I looked at the walls of the seminary where old class pictures, which showed waves of young, white men in the 1950s and 60s, now, in the 1980s, revealed men and women of many cultures. Surely my classmates who were gay and lesbian would one day be acknowledged, too. We would all be in this together at the end. We believed in the arc Martin Luther King, Jr. often talked about—the arc of the moral universe, which is long, but which bends toward justice.
Of course, I knew that there were others, including many in my class, whom I loved, who did not see this is in the same light, who read the Bible differently and saw LGBTQ questions through an entirely different lens. I have worked and served with them for many years and we have celebrated God doing great things in our ministry together.
But a vision forged in that seminary community was still there for me. The arc was there, still bending even if it was pale to the eyes to see.
Until it wasn’t.
Instead there was a stumbling block, and not of the Christ-as-Cornerstone kind. And the stumbling block is that St. Louis revealed that the UMC is not constructed in such a way as to be able to be an instrument of those dreams. The stone’s weight and bulk seemed astounding when I acknowledged it was there.
I don’t feel betrayed by this. Every human structure has its limitations. I also am not so arrogant as to believe that God can’t do God’s new thing without us. I am, however, profoundly sad. Sadder than I realized.
Yes, I am committed to going forward and continuing the campaign of listening, loving, and explaining. There are tremendous people in the UMC and in the churches I’m privileged to serve.
But if you see a tear in my eye, please understand that in that moment I am remembering a community that existed for me in such a real way that I could taste it. It was a community that made me the kind of pastor and person that I am. It included people so diverse that it could only be drawn together by God. And even though I still believe I’ll see it again and see glimpses of it even now, I’m homesick for that place.
As befits the citizens of the already-yet-not Kingdom of God.