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An open letter to liberal or progressive friends

By A.W. Martin*

As many of you know, I am a long-time member of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Reconciling Ministries Network. Like you, I am not ashamed to identify myself as a liberal on both theological and social issues, and I like to think I am correct in calling myself “progressive.”

For the last five or six General Conferences of our denomination, I have belonged to a local church committee that prepared petitions to send to the conference. Many of these proposals were about full inclusiveness in our Church and the end of discrimination against LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) persons. Along with numerous losing efforts, there were a few small successes — most notably, perhaps, the requirement that aspiring deacons and elders promise to be in ministry to persons without regard to sexual orientation.

For the 2012 General Conference I hoped, as I know you did, that the effort to remove from the Social Principles the language that the so-called practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching would get out of committee. Although I did not really expect that such a change would be approved by the conference as a whole, I did hope that a resolution or two on inclusiveness that my local church had submitted might actually pass. But, as you know, the legislative committee kept the language that we consider so hateful, and various resolutions died in committee.

Again, as we all know, the ray of hope that Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter presented on the floor of the conference was extinguished. Their irenic proposal lost — it would have replaced the incompatibility words in the Social Principles with a statement that “we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other.”

If a General Conference cannot approve something like the Hamilton-Slaughter amendment, then it appears to me that there is little if any hope that any time in the forseeable future we shall see a change of our denominational stance against full inclusiveness.

Ironically, our loss of hope about full inclusiveness is, in part, because of a radical change that is also a sign of great hope: The rapid globalization of our Church, as represented especially by its growth in Africa. Where this change will lead our denomination is uncertain, but the vision for the Church submitted by a Liberian leader in 2008 may give us a clue. We are undoubtedly disturbed by its espousal of fundamentalist doctrine, but we can only rejoice in its prophetic call “on behalf of our impoverished brothers and sisters worldwide” for steps like “economic development, trade and property rights, electrification, industrialization, irrigation, transportation, basic health care and improved agricultural development.” And, we can affirm much of its “missional priority” list; its first two items, for example, are “Fighting deadly diseases. . .while also ensuring clean water for all” and “Protecting the air, water and land while improving the standard of living for the world’s poor” (petition 81562, 2008 General Conference; petition 20921, 2012 General Conference).

As we desire the best for our Church, we liberals who ardently wish for full inclusion for LGBTQ persons have, I believe, two obvious choices.

One is to stay within the denomination and continue to make our witness, hoping against hope that in another generation or two or three our views will triumph. Those of us who decide to follow this course may want to compare ourselves to the African American Methodists in the early 19th century who declined opportunities to become part of the African American Episcopal or the African American Episcopal Church Zion churches. It is difficult, I believe, to underestimate the importance of such a continuing witness.

The other choice, of course, is to leave the denomination. Individual departures occur, as we know all too well, after each General Conference. We all know long-time, loyal United Methodists who have finally reached the breaking point and have sadly withdrawn, either to leave organized religion behind altogether or to find another, more inclusive denomination. There are two ways, however, that departure can occur in a well-planned, organized way that allows inclusive congregations to stay together, and, one hopes, to thrive.

The first path is already mapped out in the Book of Discipline: A local congregation can request a transfer to “another evangelical denomination,” and its annual conference can direct that this occur if the resident bishop, majorities of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building, and the receiving denomination agree (Paragraph 2547.2). This provision has been in place for as long as the United Methodist Church has existed, and the term “evangelical” almost certainly is a synonym for “Protestant.”

The second way was outlined in a petition that went to the 2012 General Conference but lost in committee. Since originating in a strong, conservative congregation in Mississippi, it has begun to receive support from major conservative leaders in our denomination. It allows a congregation that views itself to be “in irreconcilable conflict for reasons of conscience” with the denominational stance “on the practice of homosexuality and the blessing of homosexual unions” to withdraw and “retain full rights to its property and funds.” Such a decision would have to be made by a substantial majority of “professing members present and voting at a duly called church conference” (Petition 20538). Congregations that take this step would of course be free to negotiate affiliation with another denomination.

Friends, at this stage in our denomination’s history, it will do the Church and our LGBTQ-friendly congregations little good to continue the struggle as it is now playing out. There is still an important witness for many of us, including LGBTQ persons for whom there is no other church they want to call home, to make within the denomination. But others, like the Methodists who formed the AME and AMEZ churches, can no longer abide the repeated slamming of doors.

In many situations, moving on, I believe, is highly preferable to prospective scenarios that include donnybrooks every four years, numerous church trials, breakdown of respect for Church law, and even the specter of formal division. In such cases, working to facilitate transfer to another denomination or to enable disaffiliation will advance full inclusiveness, potentially strengthen a receiving denomination in many geographic areas, and permit The United Methodist Church to get on with doing some of the things that it does so well.

My liberal brothers and sisters, some of our conservative friends have extended their hands to help us depart in an amicable way. Some of us may decline the offer even as we shake their hands. For others of us, it is time, as we also shake their hands, to express our thanks, accept their help, move out, and move on.

*Martin is an emeritus professor of religion at Oklahoma City University and a retired elder in the Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church. He was baptized and confirmed in The Methodist Episcopal Church South; was ordained in The Methodist Church, and retired in The United Methodist Church. He traces his Methodist roots back to the 1830s.