United Methodist Church Divided On God’s Unconditional Love

Rachel Maddow got a surprise last Sunday when she appeared on Meet The Press. During a debate about the pay gap between men and women in America, she found out that Republicans just don’t believe that the pay gap exists. They think it’s explained by men working more hours, women having more part-time jobs, and other factors. She spent a good portion of her show Monday night talking about her surprise and showing with real data that the disparity isn’t explained by those factors, and made the point that perhaps the disagreement on the facts has been a problem in the discussion of policy. After all, if Republicans think it isn’t a problem, they aren’t going to work to fix the problem. It’s a good point, one that can be brought into other areas. To wit:

For the last seven days, and through this Friday, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has been holding its big quadrennial General Conference in Tampa, Florida to talk about new legislation in the Church, decide what problems we need to focus on, and what basic tenets need to be updated, introduced, or deleted from the Book Of Discipline (BOD), the Church’s Constitution. (More information on the structure of the UMC and function of General Conference here.)

There was a bit of an uproar on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 over several items. The biggest of them, at least rhetorically, was the addition of what should be a wholly uncontroversial phrase to the BOD. Here’s the newly amended preamble, with the addition in bold:

“We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the Gospel. We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s love is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

After some contentious debate, the legislation passed, but not by much. In the end, only 53 percent of delegates agreed to add this very basic, very obvious, very scriptural, very Wesleyan affirmation of God’s love. Think of that. Nearly half of United Methodist delegates refused to affirm God’s unconditional love for everybody.

For the first time in a while, anti-gay and conservative United Methodists had to discard their usual “Gays Go Away” rhetoric and expose their true meaning: “People Who Don’t Believe Exactly What We Believe Go Away.” During the debate and the vote, the General Conference Twitter feed was filled with good people who were stunned by conservative United Methodists’ admission, stunned that in 2012 something so foundational to Methodism was even up for debate. More than one person said something to the effect of “This isn’t the UMC I know.”

Thanks to Pastor David Lafary for this image from General Conference 2012
Thanks to Pastor David Lafary for this image from General Conference 2012

Here’s the thing. This vote didn’t surprise me. At all. I figured it would pass, but it was fairly predictable to me that it was close. To be honest, I was as stunned by straight allies’ reactions to this admittedly horrifying vote as they were by the horrifying vote. This vote is the Church I’ve always known, the Church as it’s always presented itself to me.

In 1972, at the first General Conference after the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, anti-gay language was added to ¶ 161G, saying “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” *

Ever since, for longer than I’ve been alive, progressive United Methodists have been trying to remove the anti-gay language and ever since, for longer than I’ve been alive, conservative United Methodists have been beating them back. Every now and then something gets through that almost affirms the existence and value of gay United Methodists, but it’s always accompanied by some other statement that pastors are free to discriminate against gay people, or a reaffirmation that gay people are “incompatible” with the UMC.

But the vote Tuesday morning was different. The added language was so basic that those opposing it laid bare the unvarnished rejection that anti-gay United Methodists have been lobbing at gays for 40 years. The argument against was something along the lines of “you can be separated from God by things that you do,” by which they usually mean to say “you can be separated from God by the genitals of a person you have sex with or want to have sex with or even are just attracted to.” But because the wording was so broad, it became clear that their position was unscriptural from a Methodist point of view. “You can be separated from God by things that you do” means that much of what people do all the time separates them from God’s love, and that’s just not what United Methodists believe. At least we don’t unless you’re gay, in which case we’ve believed that since 1972.

Bishop Melvin Talbert said at the 2008 General Conference that when African Americans were separated into their own segregated conference from 1939 to 1968, at least they were still connected. At least the relationships and the dialogue could continue. But the UMC has chosen for 40 years to shut the church’s door on lesbians, gays, and bisexuals **, something that hasn’t been done to any other group. That’s a special kind of attack, one that you can’t know very easily from the outside.

I’m not saying that my straight ally friends and compatriots have done something wrong. On the contrary, there are wonderful allies working very hard to make a place for gays and lesbians in the UMC. I have a feeling that before this vote, many straight allies in the UMC had honestly never had the vitriol leveled against them as it is leveled against gay people in the UMC every day. They hadn’t been on the receiving end of this kind of attack, and they were shocked to learn, just as Maddow was on Sunday, that the reality of this argument we’re having is different than they thought.

And I wept with them after the vote on Tuesday morning. No, I didn’t weep; I sobbed. I sobbed because for the first time, people working on my behalf received what gays and lesbians have been receiving from the Church for 40 years, and it hurt them. Pain, disbelief, and despair permeated the messages coming from Tampa, and the punch in the gut that I read in their messages was all too familiar. I don’t want them to feel this; it hurts to know that they do.

It sucked. It was a bad morning, one that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and it sucked.

But my hope is that this horrible experience gave straight allies a Rachel Maddow Revelation, that it helped those fighting alongside us to understand a little better the reality LGBT Methodists live in, and that that better understanding will help them fight the battle in ways that none of us have considered before.

* The timing of this addition was not an accident. In September of that same year, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from their list of mental disorders. Conservatives in the UMC apparently got wind of this and wanted to affirm their disdain for gays, a statement that was previously unnecessary because we were officially considered mentally ill.

** The UMC is accidentally more accepting of transgender women and men than the rest of the LGBT community. Gender identity wasn’t a part of the original “incompatibility” clause, and being trans isn’t an official barrier to marriage rites or ordination, for example.


18 thoughts on “United Methodist Church Divided On God’s Unconditional Love

  1. The title of your blog “unconditional love” and the idea passed in the proposal aren’t the same. Love can be unconditional yet be rejected by the recipient, thus separating themselves from God’s love.

    1. Not according to Paul. He was “convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.” John Wesley’s and Methodism foundational doctrine of prevenient grace agrees. There are no conditions, not even if one desires separation.

      Thank you for your comment.

      1. A few questions:
        1. Are you a universalist?
        2. The line you quoted from Paul, do you believe Romans 8 is a chapter written to all people or those in Christ?
        3. What does it mean in the General Rules when Wesley mentions “fleeing the wrath to come”?

    2. Even a person rejects God’s love (for example atheists), they are still not separated from God’s love.    God is powderful, almight, omnipotent, omnipresent, and loving.   He loves all of us no matter what we do to offend Him.   Otherwise, he wouldn’t have sent His only son to earth.  

  2. Pathetic.

    Also: if i may ask, what is keeping you from leaving the UMC? Is there some doctrine they espouse that you believe in so wholeheartedly that you continue to withstand their abusive policy? Or is it just familiar, comfortable? Honestly really curious. I have a feeling you’re just fighting the good fight and trying to change the system, but i have to wonder: why bother? Isn’t there a better denomination somewhere? Wouldn’t it be better to just leave and let their numbers continue to dwindle until they finally get the point, once the rest of the world has moved on and left them, er, behind?

    When i first severed my ties with the Methodists, it was precisely because they clearly rejected the very existence of one of my uncles because he was gay. It took no time at all for me to make that decision. They pretend to be so progressive, but there’s that underlying element of old-guard “tolerant” bigotry that’s so pervasive, and so insidious because it’s such a nasty little badly-kept secret of theirs. 

    Anyway, far be it from me to recommend any religious institution, but i do wonder why you don’t just go with some kind of universalist church or something. I mean sometimes hope is just plain a waste of time when it comes to dealing with people who so steadfastly refuse to think.

    1. Because I’ve studied other schools of Christian thought and I’ve been to services in other denominations, and I’m definitely a good old-fashioned Wesleyan Methodist. This church is in my DNA.

      Because the UMC doesn’t belong to anti-gay Methodists; it’s my church too, and I’m not going to give up on it without a fight. 

      Thirdly, because I think it’s important for people, especially kids who will discover themselves to be gay and parents whose kids will discover themselves to be gay, to see gay people in the church.

      That said, I’m currently unmoored because of my current situation, which is unfortunate but necessary at this point. An earlier version of this post had about 250 words on that subject that I finally decided was too indulgent for an already-too-long post. You’re welcome.

      1. Matt, I am right with you brother. I am an ‘unmoored’ UMC as well and now I live in a very conservative area that even if the Gen Conf passed pro-gay items, I doubt they would be followed.  I am a long time UMC since my childhood 50 years ago. I was a certified layspeaker in the UMC and held multiple church offices and it has been VERY painful that I do not have a UMC to call home.

        Jeremy: you asked why not go to Universalist church? Because they are not always Christian friendly and do not represent my faith in Jesus Christ. 

        I pray that someday I can once again find a church home that I can worship in full joy of the Lord.

  3. Re: trans folk — I feel like I’ve heard that there was some kind of vote scheduled for this GC on whether trans people are as unlovable as gay/bi people. Do you know anything about this?

    1. I haven’t heard of anything like that coming from the committees this year. Hopefully it won’t happen, but it could be brought from the floor.

  4. I am the Church, You are the church, We are the church together.  As we sang this at our UMW Circle Tuesday, I thought a lot about the GC’s actions over the years.   I find myself agreeing with Jeremy Jarratt.  We rush to be more like the fundamentalists, who are growing in numbers, and with those members overseas, who have different cultural practices. 

  5. Thanks for naming the “shock” that allies finally feel when they experience what any demeaned community has experienced all along. And thanks for continuing to be there for g/l folks and parents–I left early in my journey (20s) to be ordained in the United Church of Christ (no regrets, but I still love the UMC and have been following this week with a heavy heart). Thanks. Thanks.

  6. For those that think God quit loving them for the choices in life that they have made; well He hasn’t, He made you and He made you to be a free decider to choose whatever you want! To jump off a ten story building is murder of ones self. Murders don’t go to heaven! God judges you on what Jesus thought, so read the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. It’s told that a man leaves his mother & father and takes a wife and the two shall become one and they shouldn’t divorce or if they do they shouldn’t marry another because you then commite adultry or only should go back with one another. Oh it’s so clear in the Books of the Bible, open your heart up to Jesus and let Him come in and He’ll help you. You know, Jesus says should a man start to plow and looks back that he’s not worthy of the Kingdom of God & goes on to say remember Lot’s wife, WOW it’s powerful….

    1. To put it mildly, I strongly disagree with your opinion that suicide victims and divorcees “don’t go to heaven!” So do most Christians, pro-gay or not.

  7. As a Liberal ELCA Lutheran I share your discontent.  Even thought our last passed resolution was slightly more positive, it still was frusterating and upsetting for my moderate congregation in a very conservative part of America.  I take heart from the fact that minds were opened at that meeting hopefully.  I’m very tired or I’d go into our churches story a bit more in detail, but suffice it to say when we called our new pastor this year (our hiring process is different from UMC the pastor’s sexuality was a big issue for a few people.  (he’s married to a woman, but the possibility was scary for some people) but for the most part people didn’t really seem to care if the pastor we called was gay. 

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