Bishop Mark Webb
Upper New York Episcopal Area
The United Methodist Church
324 University Ave., 3rd Floor
Syracuse, NY 13210
Dear Bishop Webb:
It is with deep sadness that I write this letter, for it seems incredible to me that after a lifetime of struggling for civil rights, the Church I have tried to serve is still in the place of denying fundamental human rights to persons having a minority sexual orientation.
It surely requires no explanation, for it is commonplace to suppose, that sexual orientation is not chosen by individuals. I did not choose to be “straight,” and it was not virtuous of me to find myself inclined to be heterosexual. Nor is it lacking in virtue for homosexual friends to be inclined to be gay. Nor is it morally or otherwise peculiar for any of us to express responsibly our given orientation, including the very human desire to be sexually intimate with a chosen partner. To me, the above assumptions seem obvious in our time—when sexual orientation has been for many decades researched by our society’s experts in psychology and counseling, and determined with virtual unanimity to be a way of being that is discovered, not chosen.
Society’s opinion was not always thus. But for a considerable period of time that conclusion has been endorsed by all of the relevant professional organizations representing our society’s chief practitioners of the counseling and healing arts.
I was in attendance at the 1972 General Conference, as a young pastor, volunteering as an usher. That was a landmark General Conference, for (as far as I can determine) it was the first such event in which the word “homosexual” entered the United Methodist lexicon. A committee appointed by the uniting conference in 1968 (or its follow-on event in 1970) brought to the 1972 Conference a proposed new Statement of Social Principles. Unlike the previous Methodist Social Principles, this proposal included mention of “homosexual persons” who it said were “entitled to the guidance and ministry of the church in their search for fulfillment.” (I am operating from memory, but I think those words are pretty close to the ones printed.” At the last hour of the last day of that event—if my memory is correct—the new Social Principles statement was under discussion. A caucus from somewhere suddenly surfaced with an amendment: “However, we do not condone the practice of homosexuality, and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Forty-one years ago, a large segment of the United Methodist Church had had no experience whatsoever in talking about, or really thinking much about, homosexual orientation. For the forty years since that event, the UMC has talked about it quite considerably. I hoped, when I went to General Conference last year in Tampa, FL, that after forty years in the desert of misinformation and prejudice, we might emerge into the Promised Land of genuine mutuality and more informed, more compassionate respect, and more justice. But not even a compromise statement of “agreeing to disagree” was allowed to pass—such was the control of an anti-intellectual, anti-gay alliance of church leaders from regions of the U.S. and elsewhere which have been saturated in bias.
When our Church is confronted with such misinformed prejudice, what is a conscientious pastor to do—especially when s/he has promised the children in her/his care that they will always be treated as children of God? Can it be the conscientious practice of our denomination to accept the (supposed) rule of “law” embodied in deeply prejudicial print, even when that “law” violates the dignity and rights of children of God? As a pastor, I have found that a bitter fruit. It is not only bitter to my particular taste, but that fruit is bitter to “the least of these” and therefore treasonous to the gospel of Jesus. The policies of my denomination, The United Methodist Church, violate the dignity of God’s children. No one chooses his or her sexual orientation. If we arbitrarily discriminate against those of a minority orientation, we commit exactly the same sin that we commit when a racial minority is relegated to an inferior or less advantaged status. That is why Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said he “would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven” and “would not worship a God who is homophobic.” He says, referring to the campaign for gay and lesbian rights: “I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level.”
When I went to Selma, Alabama, as a first year seminarian (in March, 1965) to speak with my body about the dignity of African Americans and the universal right to vote, I really did not comprehend the measure of deprivation caused my neighbors by racial prejudice. I feel certain, today, that I still do not comprehend the deprivation of dignity inflicted upon young (and older) people when they realize their sexual orientation is not “acceptable” to some of their supposed friends and family members. I do know that, in at least one instance, a father has put a gun on the coffee table when his son “came out” to him, suggesting the son use it to commit suicide.
For me, it is not “optional” for the Church of Jesus Christ to proclaim the universal grace of God, and the equality of all people—including the equal right to form respected, sacred unions and in such unions to receive the blessing of the God we worship.
I therefore struggle to understand how a United Methodist pastor can be “brought up on charges” for violating a law which, by any reasonable contemporary standard, could never be deemed Christian. I believe it is the duty of Christians to oppose unloving laws, not to obey them. I believe it is the duty of pastors to stand by those oppressed, and to offer them sustenance and spiritual nurture—the bread of life, and not a stone of rejection.
My hope would be that you will decide not to order a trial for the Rev. Steve Heiss, refusing to do so on the grounds of your conscience.
Yours in the peace of Christ,
(The Rev.) Gary E. Doupe, retired pastor
Upper New York Annual Conference