A few years ago, my family was attending an out-of-town reunion in a tiny and strangely laid out town in Indiana. Being big believers in carpooling, we drove to all of the various events together, packing my father, mother, sister and myself into a tiny little four-door sedan. This wouldn’t have been a problem except for one inescapable detail: for whatever reason, on this trip, we kept getting lost. The roads were twisted and divided and laid out strangely, repeatedly resulting in us being able to see our destination, but having no earthly idea how to reach it, all the while feeling ever more claustrophobic in our cramped quarters. Since that vacation, the four of us have a catch phrase that we apply to a lot of things in life. It is simply, “You can’t get there from here.”
Recently, this phrase has come to mind time and time again as I reflect on a particular ethical dilemma many denominations in Christianity are facing – the question of LGBTQQI rights. My own denomination, United Methodist, is currently in the process of tearing itself up over the issue, as a large and incredibly diverse community of believers struggles to agree on the “Christian” thing to do. Listening to the voices in my denomination as well as others, I keep asking myself one important and ultimately ecumenical question: what do you do when the faith you have chosen is not behaving in a way that you believe is ethical?
Currently, my denomination does not allow our openly LGBTQQI brothers and sisters to be ordained. Members of the clergy are not allowed to perform same-sex weddings, and to defy this rule is a chargeable offense, as seen in national headlines last year when Reverend Frank Schaefer was put on trial and ultimately defrocked for officiating the wedding of his son who happened to be gay. Although that decision was recently overturned, I am sad to say that it is not the first or likely the last defrocking that will occur over this issue. It did happen at a crucial moment in my life, however, because the day the original verdict was instated was the day that I knew that I could not be ordained into the United Methodist Church as it currently exists.
In the United Methodist Church, we have two kinds of ordained clergy – elders and deacons. Elders are, for the most part, the ministers you find in churches on Sunday, preaching the word and leading the people. Deacons, on the other hand, are meant to the bridge between the church and the world. They are called to word, service, compassion, and justice, meant to be the presence of God in the community. When I applied to seminary, it was with the intention to become a deacon. I think like a deacon, I speak like a deacon, and I believe that I am built, created, and called to do the work of a deacon. However, to get there, I have to be ordained, and in order to be ordained, I have to answer Wesley’s historic questions. There are nineteen of them, and I can almost make it through with all of the right answers. However, I start to get nervous around question eight, which is “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?” I have, so that’s no problem. The issue truly arises in question nine, which is, “After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?”
No. No, I don’t. You see, I don’t believe that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which is a direct quote from our 2012 Book of Discipline. In fact, I don’t believe that the Bible has much or anything to say about homosexuality as we know it at all. You can disagree with me all you like, and I will be happy to talk to you about it, to examine it and debate it. However, at the end of the day, I simply do not believe that allowing any beloved child of God to feel excluded is ever the Christian thing to do. So, with question ten comes a real ethical dilemma for me. “Will you preach and maintain them?”
I can’t, in good conscience, promise to uphold a discipline that I don’t believe in. I can’t be ordained without making that promise. So here I stand, stuck between a call that I was made for and a promise that I know I cannot keep. In standing up for what I believe in, I am giving up my ability to live out some part of what God had planned for me. Ultimately, I can’t get there from here.
I know I am not the only one, either in my faith tradition or others. There are people openly abstaining from ordination for the same reason, believing that following their conscience is the only ethical thing to do. However, I also have friends who are pushing through the process with grand plans to work from inside of this system, trying to change it for the better. I have yet other friends who are jumping ship altogether, opting to become part of faith communities that openly affirm the human rights of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientations.
I, however, am United Methodist through and through. I love that we make rules for everything, that we fight, that we have processes and procedures enduring through time. I love the bulk of our theology. I believe in Wesley’s three kinds of grace. I want to do no harm, do all the good I can, and stay in love with God. So here I stay, well and truly stuck. I know that I am doing the right thing, and making the only decision that I can live with. I also know that I am sad, angry, and hurting because my faith of choice is failing so very many.
It’s amazing how our faiths can breathe life into us while simultaneously punching us in the gut.
Image Source: Brian Robert Marshall (Attribution via Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)