Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Prayers for the UMC

An ecclesiastical trial is being conducted this week in Wisconsin for Rev. Amy DeLong of the United Methodist Church, who is accused of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” and of celebrating a same-sex union.

There are lots of helpful articles out there:
here is the website for Rev. DeLong’s supporters; this article gives some helpful background, and this article covers some UMC polity issues. A UMC clergy friend of mine is in Wisconsin and is blogging about what’s happening. You can read his most recent update here.

I have a lot of reactions, more a series of scattered thoughts than a single cohesive essay, but here they are anyway.

The phrase “self-avowed practicing homosexual”: it is disgusting. Let’s start with “practicing.” It assumes that our sexualities are something that we only have when we’re engaged in physical sexual intimacy. That is nonsense. NONSENSE. And if you don’t believe me, reflect on your teens. Thinking back on mine, it is clear to me that my “non-practicing” years were some of the most fervently heterosexual years of my life.

Also about “practicing”: take a look at
1 Corinthians 7. Paul is pretty into celibacy, no? And yet, he writes this in 1 Cor. 7:7: “I wish that all were as I myself am [i.e. single and celibate]. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.” I’ve talked to some folks who do practice celibacy, and they’ve talked about how the decision not to have a spouse and children allows them more time and energy to devote themselves to ministry in the church and the world. Celibacy can work for some people. But even Saint Paul, celibacy’s head cheerleader, acknowledges that some people have the “gift” of celibacy and others do not. When a denomination rejects “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordained ministry, they say that gay and lesbian folks with gifts for ministry and a calling to the ordained ministry cannot follow that calling unless they also have a gift for celibacy. That whole “gift of celibacy” idea has been pretty much disavowed for straight ministers, by the way. Celibacy for straight people is seen as kind of weird and backwards (except by the Catholic church).

Now about “self-avowed”… honesty and self-knowledge are crucial to good pastoral ministry. Honesty can co-exist with boundaries, of course – there are things that are true about my life and myself that I do not share with my congregants. But hiding my marital status would be completely beyond the pale. I can’t do good ministry by pretending to be someone else. And it would be hypocritical stand up in front of people and tell them that they are created, beloved children of God, unique and blessed, while lying to them or to myself about who I am. What church hierarchy in its right mind asks people to do that?

My friend mentions in his blog that one of the arguments the defense has made is that there is no actual evidence of “prohibited sexual activity.” If I understand that correctly, the implication is that Amy and her spouse may have refrained from sexual intimacy. This is an argument being made in an ecclesiastical court to try to help Amy retain her ordination. It's a lesser evil. But the idea that this would be seen as a positive thing is so irksome. (Of course, sociological evidence suggests that it
may be a possibility.) Back to Saint Paul! “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again” (1 Cor. 7:5a). Saint Paul said that! Saint Paul!

Okay, enough griping. There are some really beautiful things happening, as well.

Although the jury may be constrained to finding Rev. DeLong guilty (if I understand correctly, objecting to the rules on the ground of conscience is not considered a valid reason for a not-guilty verdict), they do have considerable leeway in setting a penalty, and the clergy of Northern Illinois have passed a non-binding agreement to recommend a maximum penalty of a 24-hour suspension. (Again, lesser evil.)

If you want to be filled with hope and joy that light shines in the midst of darkness, take a look at Rev. DeLong’s
response to the charges against her. About some of the “evidence” against her, her certificate of domestic partnership and a thank-you note from the couple whose union she blessed, Rev. DeLong writes this: “these are precious documents, signs of a love and a ministry guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that I attend to with the deepest sincerity and commitment.”

I am so grateful for ministers like Rev. DeLong who are clear-headed and spirit-filled enough to preach the gospel with joy and integrity in the middle of such ugliness. Thanks be to God for her ministry and her witness! I pray for strength for Amy, her partner, family, friends, and supporters. I pray that the jury will be blessed with wisdom and courage. I pray that the UMC and the whole church may bear witness to God’s vision of love, justice, and extravagant welcome.

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