September 9, 2013
Bishop Mark Webb
UNY Conference Office
324 University Avenue, 3rd Floor
Syracuse, NY, 13210
Dear Bishop Webb:
Imagine for a moment that you have assembled your cabinet and executive team for a meeting in the church and the League for Biblical Literacy bursts into the room. You are all lined up against the wall and ordered to remove your clothing from the waist down. You all complain, and feel somewhat embarrassed, but they explain that it has come to light that many styles of underwear have mixed fibers, a clear violation of Levitical Law and they are committed to maintaining Biblical purity. When it is discovered that some of the members have underwear containing 3% spandex, a common situation in the secular world that we live in, and your meeting is banished from the building.
The League explains that while they do not approve of your heathen, secular practices and lifestyle choices which they believe are in violation of Christian teaching, they still love you and offer their blessings to you, but insist that you conduct your meeting outside of the church on the sidewalk. You might argue that the League has no right to expose your sexuality by requiring you to strip, and you would be right. You might argue that this law was written for a different place and time, and you would be right. You might argue that it is inconsistent to offer love and blessings to those who they do not accord the basic hospitality of the sanctuary of God’s house, and you would be right.
Let me introduce myself. I am a white straight married man. My parents met and were married in a Methodist church in Danbury, Connecticut. I grew up in Methodist parsonages, which means since I am 63 years old, my father was a Methodist minister, because women as ministers was considered to be incompatible with Christian teaching at the time. My grandfather carried small photos of John Wesley in his wallet which he shared with those that he met. What did my devout Methodist, Republican, member of the Rotary, Order of the Beaver from Boy Scouts of America, Certified member of the Mayflower Association, Daughters of the American Revolution (My grandmother resigned over their stance on Civil Rights) grandparents think about LGBT people? They embraced my gay cousin’s partner and mourned his partner’s death from AIDS alongside my cousin just as they embraced the African-American husband of another cousin, but I don’t even find that indicative of how deeply they believed that all people were worthy. The most moving example I know of that happened on a day I happened to be at their church for a weekend family event. A young woman had brought her baby to be baptized. The young woman was the daughter of my grandparent’s neighbor and the baby was biracial. The woman’s parents would not stand up with their daughter, because of the baby’s race, and so my grandparents, both in their late 80’s, walked to the front of the church and stood with the woman as her child became a child of God. I can’t even type this story without being brought to tears by the love that that act expressed. That surely is what the love of God is about.
I met my wife at Syracuse University while leading a graduate student study group (a Methodist College where I received an undergraduate degree in religion while also co-chairing the University Religious Council and singing in Hendricks Chapel choir) and we were married at Hendricks Chapel (interestingly, my best man was a gay person called by God into ministry who had to change denominations to answer that call). I attended and counseled at Methodist camps, participated in Conference Youth activities, served on the conference personnel committee, COSROW, and the Committee on Sexual Harassment and Abuse (as I also do for UNY on the Sexual Ethics Committee), was district Director of Lay Speaking, served on GCOSROW for eight years (where I also ironically served on a GCOM Task Force to identify discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline) and was a Jurisdictional delegate and served on the conference boundaries committee.
At the local church, I sing in the choir, I lead a breakfast that serves 100 hungry people two Sundays a month and a Christmas dinner for 150 each year, I preach and sing solos occasionally, lead Adult Bible Study (I have taught both Disciple Bible Study courses), and have been chair or a member of trustees, church council, adult education, church and society, worship, outreach, nominating, alter guild, and staff parish and I’m probably forgetting a few. In other words, I am a diehard Methodist.
And that is why it is so painful and embarrassing that beloved members of my Methodist church family have been told that because of their lifestyle choices, their violation of Levitical Law, what is exposed and judged when we ask them about their genitals (this is just as crude a concept as it sounds) cannot be married in the sanctuary that they worship in every week surrounded by the beauty of the stained glass, the rich woodwork and soaring ceilings, and the solemn tones of the organ, but must go out on the sidewalk where the exhaust of trucks, the noise of buses and sirens passing by, the inclement weather, the gawking of passers-by all compromise the beauty of the joining of their love in the presence of the God they have worshipped all their lives as they grew up in their respective churches. I cannot believe that you would accept this indignity for one of your sons, but yet, you choose to frame this day in these men’s lives with this indignity.
At your installation in the chancel of Hendricks Chapel, a place seeped with my life experiences where I had worked and preached and sang and was married, I watched you place the Bible on top of the Book of Discipline, declaring its supremacy, and yet I read your words about the charges brought against the Rev. Steve Heiss where you say that this is about church law. If you have already declared that the Bible has supremacy over the Book of Discipline, then I have to believe that whatever decision you make about the audacity Rev. Heiss had to want to officiate at his own daughter’s wedding (I wonder if you have thought about the joy it would bring you to officiate at the weddings of your sons if they choose to marry) is a decision based on your understanding of God’s Commandment (I understand it to be Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself) or on a cultural stereotype misidentified as a Biblical norm (Look at the Bible for models of marriage – sleeping with and marrying relatives, wives and concubines into the hundreds, sleeping with your wife’s handmaidens, living together outside of marriage, rape victims forced to marry their attackers, sending a woman’s husband to death in battle, stoning adulterers – there are lots to choose from) that will be tossed on the slag pile of history along with slavery, segregation, institutionalization of the mentally ill, subjugation of women, child labor, greenhouse gases and all forms of pollution and the military industrial complex.
My parents attended the 1960 General Conference that eliminated the Central Conferences that segregated the Methodist Churches in the US and ended a sad episode in our denominational history. A young black man from Mississippi who was displaced by Civil Rights activities lived in our parsonage home and some in my father’s church reacted with the same vitriolic response that churches in our district today have directed to our black District Superintendent. My father marched in the 1963 March on Washington and I marched in the 50th Anniversary march last month. The depressing news that I faced as I stood before the Lincoln and MLK Memorials and listened was that not much has changed in America’s attitudes. People are still being beaten and shot for being black (and gay) in America. What has changed is that societal structures have been changed so that racial agendas can be played out under seemingly colorblind practices. It’s easy to be colorblind when your color (or sexual orientation) is the dominant one.
I also attended the Reconciling Ministries Network’s ChurchQuake in Washington DC the next week. The question addressed by many speakers was, “Why stay?” The answer was clear – for the same reason that Paul and Silas stayed in the prison when the earthquake broke the locks from their cells, the same reason that Jesus marched into Jerusalem, the same reason the Freedom Riders stayed at the lunch counters and Rosa Parks stayed in her seat. They stayed because staying is the only way to save the oppressors. If Paul and Silas had left, the jailer and his family would not have been saved, if Rosa Parks had moved, we might still have “whites only” places in our public sphere. If the Reconciling Ministries Network leaves the UM church, and there are plenty of places to go where the love of God is freely shared and celebrated by all, it will leave our church graying and dying as it clings to a cultural stereotype that has been largely discarded by your sons’ generation. Bishop Talbert spoke movingly about changing the church so this generation of young people will know God loves them because we assert that God loves everyone.
Those who are beating on your door proclaiming that allowing persons to marry those whom they love and that allowing LGBT persons to answer God’s call to ministry will lead to the destruction of the church as we know it might be right. In fact, it is our highest hope. The more important consideration is to ask, what does it look like when the church as we know it rejects the very individuals God created in his/her own image? How has it looked when the church has used spurious Biblical exegesis to support genocide, slavery, destruction of the environment, and the inferiority of Africans, Asians, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and women?
Today many people identify that they are “spiritual” and even that they “believe in God,” but they won’t step in a church. The paper is full of religious leaders gone wrong. We had a Bishop like that who just thought one woman wasn’t enough for him. But besides the headlines of clergy and church leaders’ sexual, financial or political abuse, most people who consider themselves spiritual and believers in God who wouldn’t step foot in a church believe that because they don’t think the church will accept them for who they are. I have talked to so many people who, when their very lives depended on it, were shunned by their church families, were turned away from the door.
You have asked us to take a step back and “study” homosexuality. The UM church produced study materials on homosexuality in 1994. If someone really wanted to study homosexuality, they have already had the chance. How many more LGBT teenagers must commit suicide (The rate is at least double that of other teens)? How would you feel if one of your sons was one of them? Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT children who have been rejected by their families (and their churches). How many more persons will we not allow to celebrate their loving relationships in the bosom of their congregations because of the fear their pastors have of a church structure that defies the love or God and Christ for all persons. The Western Jurisdiction Bishops have taken a stand to support their Jurisdictional Resolutions which are contrary to church law but consistent with Christ’s teaching. In fact, the Book of Discipline itself supports the rejection of unjust laws and so their action is not only a Biblical expression of the love of God, it is also Disciplinary.
I implore you, for the love of God, to open your heart to these persons who have been called to the church through the love of God in Christ. Do not let them be rejected. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Member, University United Methodist Church
PS: If my repeated references to your sons was off-putting, I understand that I made it very personal, but the personal is so very important. Every LGBT youth or adult is not only someone else’s child; they are a child of God. Only by attempting to stand in the shoes of parents who stand by their children and who too often stand by their children’s gravesides, can we begin to understand the damage we are doing by classifying people as “incompatible.”