Sunday, June 26, 2011

Does 'All Persons' Really Mean All?

Two weeks ago at the Southwest Texas Annual Conference, a petition to General Conference was presented by our Conference Church and Society Board. Here’s the text from The Book of Discipline with the proposed changes in bold.

¶ 4. Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church—The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression.

We debated the motion in standard fashion—Mr. Roberts would have been proud. A lay person gave an excellent rationale for the changes. I also spoke in favor of the motion and the text of what I said is below. A young seminarian and candidate for ministry, Peter Borhauer, gave an emotional plea for inclusion. Here’s what I said, more or less:

"I understand that all of us are not on the same page in our theological understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Southwest Texas Conference is a big tent. However, I think all of us are on the same page with respect to offering radical hospitality. This was the theme of our opening worship service, it’s vital to the culture of growth and it’s the hallmark of our common life together.

"As we strive together with God to create this culture of growth, I hope and pray that we might include with specific language, all of God’s people, especially those in the LGBT community who have felt excluded from the UMC in the past. Young people with gay friends, parents of gays and LGBT people themselves are searching for faith communities that are truly inclusive. They’re watching us to see if we indeed embody the radical welcome of Jesus. May we have the courage to respond today! Thank you."

The speeches “for” were each followed by speeches against the motion. One pastor argued that including “gender identity and sexual orientation” would take away the prerogative of the pastor to decide who could and could not be members. A lay person from University UMC in San Antonio spoke about the difference, in her view, between “race, class, and gender” which are not sins and “homosexuality” which is a sin. She read one of the “clobber passages” in support of her view.

Following the debate, there were two different attempts to remove the motion from consideration, both of which failed. The final vote was 382 to 325 in favor of the petition to General Conference, or about 54% of those present.

Some other conferences who are opposed to this kind of language have observed that anyone can petition the General Conference, so why should we spend time in annual conferences debating these sorts of controversial motions. I would argue that this is exactly what holy conferencing is all about. Why should conference be reduced to the lowest common denominator of what we think everyone will agree on? And surely that the petition is coming from an annual conference in the South Central Jurisdiction is of great significance. I’m hoping that it signals that perhaps the times are a changin’ in the church and that we are ready to open our arms as wide as Jesus.