The United Methodist Church still maintains that “homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching.” As a denomination, the church prohibits same gender marriages and the ordination of any “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” In the Spring of 2012, a global community of United Methodist clergy and lay delegates met for our General Conference to discuss various legislative issues. Of course, “homosexuality” was a major topic of conversation and dissension.
A recently debuted television documentary called “A Church Divided” explores the current state of division in the UMC and highlights the support and opposition for equality at General Conference. As a United Methodist lesbian who desires to be ordained and eventually married, it’s a difficult documentary to watch. Various voices which speak passionately about the “sin of homosexuality” or the support of LGBT inclusion being against “God’s will” are always painful to hear. However, what disturbed me the most about the video was not the homophobia I am sadly accustomed to hearing, but the narrator’s approach to African members of the UMC and their presence at General Conference.
It is an odd thing that the UMC is trying to accomplish as a global church. It is erroneous to believe so many diverse voices and cultures should be squeezed into one legislative mold. Instead of allowing the UMC to bloom and grow wherever it is finding life in whatever ways its context calls for, we are pretending unity means global uniformity around social issues. I do not understand why we expect the gospel to be incarnate in the same way at the same time in America, Nigeria, and Vietnam. Nonetheless, our General Conference voting system is currently set up to support the idea that we can agree on issues of LGBTQ equality. Globally, we make one choice on social issues. I do not find this very hopeful as a lesbian eager for change in the UMC, however, I am also concerned about the way those of us who want change speak about our African sisters and brothers.
Immediately following a progressive American voice for change in the TV documentary, Marie-Louise Kpokpo, a woman from Cote d’Ivoire who is against changing the UMC’s current stance on LGBTQ persons, is introduced as the narrator transitions by saying with a dramatic tone “but then…the African delegates begin to weigh in.” Immediately, Africans from over 50 countries are grouped together as if of one voice and they are simultaneously “othered” from the rest of the UMC body. The narrator goes on to explain “they” refer to scripture for their belief and “they” warn of the impact the change could have on their churches. Fortunately, the next voice interviewed speaks with less generalization by saying “many of the folks of the country of Africa are more culturally conservative around the issues of sexuality.” While it may be true that “many” delegates from Africa are more conservative on this issue given their context, if it were not for the clarification of this man, one might be led to believe all Africans have the same view. Unfortunately, I hear this assumption insinuated far too often by those of us pushing for change. To generalize all Africans’ voices into one social belief is offensive in and of itself but it also overlooks the reality that a number of people in Africa actually are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
For some, this may seem a small and strange detail to pick up out of everything that is showcased in this documentary, but as American UMC progressives continue to struggle towards a more inclusive church, we must be aware of the ways we vilify voices from contexts outside of our own country. Even as we work towards ending the marginalization of LGBTQ folk, we have to remember that the US has a long history of patronizing, vilifying, or silencing voices in Africa. Just as we American queers in the UMC hate being stereotyped or “othered,” so do our African sisters and brothers. While I may disagree with any voices who spoke against LGBTQ inclusion, and even wish for them to have a change of heart, I will also disagree with my fellow progressives who too easily speak coldly and generally about Africans based on this issue.
I want change in the UMC but I blame its slowness in coming on a legislative system that is unrealistic and disrespectful to contexts. I struggle with patience towards the people in my own country who refuse to open their minds and hearts to the possibility they could be wrong about what God is saying in regards to queer folk. The winds of change are blowing in the US and I wish they would listen to the Spirit’s voice. However, I also wish for change in America’s understanding of people in the various countries of Africa. Their voices and cultures are diverse and they do not speak in once voice as a continent. May all of us in the global UMC begin to respect our various forms of diversity, not by way of forced assimilation or false universality, but by celebrating what makes us different. Whether gay or straight, American or African, or a mixture of both, we each reflect God in a different way and for that, we should give thanks.