A funny thing happened when I opened the resolution section of this year’s Book of Reports before our upcoming session of the Virginia Annual Conference. If you are not a United Methodist, this is the large annual meeting of all the UM churches in Virginia. There are resolutions each year that we generally deliberate, debate and occasionally fume and fuss about before voting. It’s not like the rest of the world is peering through the windows of the conference center hoping to discover what the Methodists in Virginia think, so the outcomes are not exactly critical. But many of these resolutions indicate what is important to many, so the conversation is significant.
I read Resolution #1, which would change the denominational stance on marriage and ordination of persons who are homosexual. For many years the United Methodist Church has been wrestling with acceptance and inclusion of people who are gay. Here is an oversimplified version of the current position of the UMC: welcome everybody, don’t perform weddings for gay couples and no ordination for persons who are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Resolution #1 came as no surprise. People have been either affirming the current statement of the church or calling for change since the 1970s. That is not new. What caught my attention was that scattered amongst the many signatures at the bottom of the resolution were members of Floris UMC, where I serve as a pastor.
Like most pastors, I have had lots of conversations about issues of sexuality over the years with all kinds of people who are gay and straight. I consider such conversations to be sacred ground. It is not easy to talk about sex or sexuality to anybody, much less your preacher. When someone trusts you enough to talk about identity issues or decisions they face related to their sexuality, it is important to be a good listener. It is necessary to speak in love rather than perceived judgment. I have welcomed many individual conversations.
But I have not had many corporate conversations about this topic where I speak to our church as a whole or even in small gatherings. I am not alone. Most pastors avoid this topic because we know that it is incredibly divisive. For lots of reasons, many people feel nothing lightly when they talk about homosexuality, on all sides of the matter. Silence has been a convenient option to high emotion and division in the church.
Here is what those signatures on Resolution #1 taught me: the time of avoidance is coming to an end for all of us. Most younger people are more accepting. Many older people find their views are softening and even changing with time. Legalization of marriage for gay persons is moving state to state, and that creates conversation even amongst the silent types. And if you are a United Methodist, there are some who are actively calling for an amicable divorce over this issue, leading the rest of us to ask if it is really worth dividing the church.
It might be time to talk about it.
Trust me, as someone who has attended our General Conference three times and seen his share of consternation around all this, we are going to need Jesus and his ways. We are going to have to figure out how to have the conversations, church by church, pastor by pastor, so that we can talk about this tough topic. It is going to be hard. These conversations uniquely produce win/lose scenarios. We will need a process that will create structure sufficient to insure prayer, deliberation, listening, speaking in love and discerning a way forward. It is going to take time.
I may be the most hopeful person on the planet, but after 28 years of serving congregations, I think we are able to do this. I think the local church is the most likely place to do the conversation well. I believe we can talk about it, even as we hold each other in Christian love regardless of the opinions we bring to the table because those who signed Resolution #1 are not angry radicals. They are my friends. I had no idea they felt so strongly about that issue. In true community, I would know, which makes me wonder why, after all these years, we haven’t yet spoken of it.