June 5, 2014 Tom Berlin

Resolution #1

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.

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Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

Comments (9)

  1. Laura Horvath

    While I have a great deal of anxiety around engaging in this conversation, I too think it is long overdue. I believe it is one of many reasons we are experiencing a decline in our congregations, and I think it is an issue we are going to have to face with candor, love, humility, and courage. I pray that ‘my’ church will find a way to embrace and fully welcome all the members and seekers of faith in a loving and holistic way, but we won’t get there by persisting in silence.

  2. MAC

    In a video (or maybe even the book) connected to Adam Hamilton’s book/study series “Understanding the Bible”, he distinguishes between “homosexuality” then (violent, forceful, punishment) vs. what we’ve come to understand as loving and consensual between two adults. I stand behind the church in supporting healthy, long-term relationships between loving consenting adults, including homosexuals.

  3. Beverly

    Thanks you for your insightful comments. I ,too, have attended General Conference where this issue became distressing frightening. When it can come to the Table, in loving conversation, healthy dialogue can take place.
    I plan to be in attendance at both the NC and Virginia Conferences this year. My vote will come through the NC Conference and I covet your prayers. I remember your great addition to our conference last year, with gratitude and appreciation.
    We are in prayerful preparation. Beverly

  4. Jason Richards

    I greatly appreciate your willingness to begin this discussion, Tom. My best friend of 10 years (who I met in Bible study in college) radically altered my own preconceptions of homosexuality when he came out of the closet four years ago. This is a social issue that is of prime importance to young people today, and unless the church opens up dialogue, it will likely continue to see its membership steadily decrease in the coming decades. Making policy at the Virginia Assembly is all well and good, but a frank, open, and honest dialogue at the grassroots level (regardless of whether or not the argument is in favor or opposed) is what will make the difference in bringing young people into the church.

  5. Kelly

    I agree as well that it’s time we truly embrace our view that “everyone is welcome”.
    This is a conversation that I have intentionally avoided voicing an opinion on because of how passionate many are against gay marriage. I hope that one day we support gays in every way just as we do heterosexuals.

  6. John Ford

    In the conversations I’ve had with folks on both sides of this issue, I’ve come to realize that the greatest disparity is between those who believe that homosexuality is a choice they make versus being the way God made them. If a choice, then it seems to be viewed strictly as sin; however, I have come to believe it is the latter. And if folks feel that homosexual marriage somehiw attacking the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, then I think folks ought to address the fact that 50% of heterosexual marriages end in divorce before worrying that 3% of the population (of which only a small percent will actually get married) somehow affects their own marriage.

  7. Charles

    Hi Tom,
    I hope you will consider me a friend also – I attended Floris for many years and felt blessed by your sermons and pastoral council…I have followed the debate within the Methodist church on having gay clergy and performing gay ‘marriage’ – I guess I am one of the silent ones who didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but when the proponents of this keep pushing, there will be a push back. Despite all the fine talk of how Jesus loved everyone, etc, there will be a fatal division of the church if this goes forward. I have gay friends and in laws and while we can agree to disagree, I will not accept being called a hater, a bigot and other names because I believe in the normal, natural order of things. We are all sinners, but the current gay community thinks they are doing nothing wrong. Not only the church, but this nation as well is in very deep trouble. Having gay marriage in the church should be at the bottom of our list of priorities.

  8. I hadn’t read this before I reached out to you on facebook so that kind of gives me goose bumps. Yup. God is moving. I really feel that God is calling us in Virginia to model how to have safe, loving conversations about this issue for United Methodists throughout the connection. There’s something different about the collegiality within the Virginia Conference. I’ve heard horror stories from other conferences of people getting their ordination sabotaged because of their position on this issue. In Virginia, I truly believe that United Methodists are committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ above all else.

    So I think we need to propose an alternative to amendment one where we create resources on a conference level for church small groups to have safe, loving, prayerful conversations about this topic hopefully not as an isolated topic but more holistically as a conversation about holy sexuality in general. Two things I think are critical are 1) to make sure that we have the best possible representation of both sides and 2) to encourage all to have these conversations with a deliberately unconclusive ending, so that there’s not anxiety about trying to steer things to a “final decision” one way or another, but the participants can simply gain greater enlightenment about what the Bible teaches on sexuality in general and all the contextual issues surrounding this teaching. So many people who weigh in on this topic on both sides show that they haven’t read the Bible closely by what they say. If we could gain the maturity to read the Bible as Wesleyan disciples who recognize and value the tradition, reason, and experience that everyone brings to the table, then that exercise will be a means of grace for all regardless of what stance people end up with.

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