Jean Hodges: The Bumpy Road of My Faith Journey
MARCH 1, 2014
Recently, I received an email from one of our PFLAG members who was puzzled when she read that Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor who had presided at the wedding of his gay son some six years ago, was forced to relinquish his ordination papers because he had defied the egregious rules of this church. The email read: “I thought the Methodist Church was open and welcoming […] is this a different denomination or division? I found this odd […]” I have never written about the struggles I have had as a life-long Methodist, but my response to the email compelled me to go to a deeper place to share my bumpy faith journey.
This anti-gay position of the institutional, international United Methodist Church is NOT the policy or practice of my own congregation, nor of many, many other Open Door United Methodist congregations. But the institutional policy is the major reason I am so active in PFLAG. The core values of both PFLAG and John Wesley’s 18th century founding of the Methodist Church are about helping to make social change by reaching out to the marginalized. Sadly, and I would say “sinfully,” in 1972, the institutional church became entangled in conservative views of “homosexuality”. It angers and disappoints me and thousands of other United Methodists beyond words! We are ashamed and embarrassed of this one aspect of a denomination which has a worthy record on so many other counts!
Let me see if I can explain why the church is so stuck. The UMC makes policy every four years at a worldwide conference and allows for evolving social policy by its members. When I was a kid, the Discipline (rule book) was opposed to divorce, alcohol consumption and more. That is no longer true. Delegates from the United States to this conference represent congregations of all stripes, but unfortunately, for the past number of decades, conservatives in the South and Southeast, where church attendance remains higher than in much of the rest of the country, have both sent larger delegations and have been far better organized politically. As inclusive values continue to improve within the general public here in the United States, it is probably even more important and detrimental that delegates representing United Methodists in Africa, the Philippines, Korea, etc. reflect their countries’ old-fashioned, and many of us believe inaccurate, biblical “orthodoxy.” So, these conservatives from around the world unite in a “majority rule” manner that entirely opposes the higher Christian values represented by the inclusive, loving path both Jesus and John Wesley laid out for our denomination.
Belonging to a church, to me, is like being in a family, which, admittedly, can sometimes be a dysfunctional family. For years, my husband Jack and I and thousands of others have worked for change to eliminate the sentence in the Discipline that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and each four years it seems to get closer to acceptance; but like the Tea Party, some delegates are stuck in a theological position that we believe is outdated and just plain wrong. I wrote a play in 1996 when the General Conference was held in Denver and offered it to delegates at a small Denver theater a couple of blocks from the Convention Center. In 2000, I was in Cleveland at the General Conference to be a presence in witness of having a gay son. I wore his picture on my chest with the words, “My child is also of sacred worth.” It broke my heart to stand among passing delegates and be shunned, except for the infrequent pat and a whispered message: “Thanks for being here”. I can no longer expose myself to such spiritual abuse, so I will work within my local church family and the secular organization of PFLAG.
In 1993, with the passage of Colorado’s Amendment 2, we turned to the pastor of our local congregation, Paul Hood, who encouraged us to start a PFLAG Chapter. PFLAG became my safe haven where I could work for LGBTQ inclusion and equality. We continued working with our FUMC family in Boulder, which has moved from openly expressed homophobia in the l980s, through some uneasy years of struggle over fears of division and change, which ultimately transformed in 1997 into a congregation able to vote to become Reconciling, to where now I can proudly proclaim that First United Methodist Church in Boulder is a church which is unequivocally open and welcoming to the LGBT community. We have a congregation full of allies, more LGBT persons in places of leadership, and bold, visionary pastors who, among other things, have openly performed commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples. It warms my heart and strengthens my faith!
We are a part of a network of congregations and pastors who have vowed a higher loyalty to “Biblical obedience”, which mandates embracing the marginalized and affirming the values of all of God’s children, rather than following discriminatory rules of the institutional church. While they began somewhat underground, many of these United Methodists, particularly in the western part of the United States, have become more and more emboldened to act as their consciences demand. Our two FUMC Boulder pastors, Joe Agne and Pat Bruns, are leaders in this movement, organizing other progressives, stating clearly our congregation’s positions to the public and to our own Bishop, and taking actions such as inviting Rev. Frank Schaefer to preach from our pulpit and experience the support of our congregation and community.
I actually am glad to see the media expose the hypocrisy of the UMC with the story of Schaefer, the pastor who presided at his gay son’s ceremony. Just as Jesus instructed his followers to nonviolently but cleverly unmask the abusive actions of the power-holders of his day, this publicity may awaken more UM General Conference delegates to acknowledge how atrocious these policies are and how destructive they will be to the future growth of our denomination. Like the extremes of the political parties fighting endlessly in the United States, or a family in conflict over differing values, conflict and struggle may be inevitable, but speaking the truth to each other and acknowledging the pain we are inflicting is one necessary step if reconciliation is ever to occur.