I wrote the post below a few years ago, but I am compelled to share it now. As we in the UMC approach decisions that may well define our future, the broad theme that prompted me to write the post keeps confronting me. A speech at the 2021 Texas Annual Conference concretely illustrates that theme. A resolution was offered to suspend church trials related to human sexuality in light of the hope that our upcoming General Conference will end the stalemate at which the UMC has found itself for nearly 50 years. A delegate then argued against the resolution, saying that committing to not enforce our current policies against same sex marriage or ordination of openly gay pastors would be comparable to the Roman Catholic church having decided to not investigate and root out child abuse. The speech concluded with the sentiment that “Parents and grandparents do not feel safe leaving their children at a church that the people in charge allow [homosexual] tendencies.”
Again, it was not anything unique to this particular speech that stood out so much as the broad theme its specifics represent. That theme is the harm wrought in the way the UMC has tried to be officially welcoming to LGBTQ persons while also harboring significant fear, ignorance, and dramatic misunderstandings of gay and lesbian people. I don’t know or care if the conflation of consensual adult sexuality with child abuse was intentional or careless. What I care about is the harm that we cause by being a place that is theoretically welcoming to gay and lesbian persons except for a handful of prohibitions (primarily marriage and ordination), while at the same time failing to challenge such conflation, with leaders even relying on subsequent fear, ignorance, and dramatic misunderstandings to attain the votes necessary to ensure our denominational position never changes.
That very type of conflation is increasingly common within and beyond the church – notice how often claims of “grooming” are included as reasons to support prohibiting LGBTQ affirming resources or conversation in schools. In the last few years, I’ve also heard it said by church leaders who publicly desire to welcome gay people into their churches “that if we let gay people get married, we’ll have to let people marry goats as well,” “that the gay agenda is all about trying to destroy the church,” “that if we change anything we’d have to let bisexuals marry as many people as they want,” and a variety of suggestions about the danger posed to children by the LGBTQ community. Claiming to be welcoming while ignoring (at best) and incentivizing (in practice) such wild misconceptions is itself a source of harm.
There are obviously all sorts of ways people have argued for and against the biblical, theological, and traditional foundations of changing the UMC stance and policies or staying the same. I don’t here mean to comment one way or another on any of those. What I attempted to do below was take for granted the idea that “sinfulness” is a meaningful and specific category in United Methodist thought and that the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline and its related policies name something that rightly falls into the “sinful” category. My point is that we are not thereby absolved from coming to terms with the actual, significant, ongoing harm caused to LGBTQ persons by the ways we live out our convictions about what sin is and what to do about it.
To welcome someone into our church homes is to claim responsibility for our effect on that person, regardless of our intent. To hear the stories of same gender loving persons is to be confronted by the immense wake of direct and indirect harm that has been wrought in the name of purported accountability, correction, or faithfulness. What I’ve posted is my attempt to name and illustrate the effect of the status quo. It is framed in a provocative way, not because I intended to sensationalize something benign. It is so because I cannot think of a more adequate analogy to help me (and hopefully others) acknowledge the pain being expressed by real people. It is not yet clear exactly what the future will hold for United Methodism, but it is clear change is coming. Wherever I wind up, it won’t be acceptable to preserve the harmful status quo by valuing the right to speak our minds over the call to embody the radical hospitality of Jesus. My goal in acknowledging the harm we have caused is, before anything else, to do no further harm.
I can still remember reading bits and pieces of Dave Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called It. I have no idea when or why I initially read the book but I recently rediscovered some of the stories it contains. Dave was abused as a child. He suffered everything from simply being blamed for his brothers’ misdeeds to having his arm held over an open flame on the stove. Dave was starved and beaten countless times by an alcoholic, abusive mother and forced to live in the basement. Dave’s brothers, on the other hand, were treated well and even participated in the punishment games his mother would play.
I share a bit of Dave’s story because it is the most stark real world example in my memory of a certain way of life. That way of life could more simply be called a cinderella story. Obviously, I don’t mean the part of the story with a pumpkin carriage and a glass slipper that leads to true love. I mean the part of the story that we so often gloss over or ignore. In the classic story, Cinderella lives a life much like Dave – her step mother is abusive to her and not her sisters, punishing her often and severely, while also refusing to give her things like the good food or new clothing given to her step sisters.
While most retellings of the Cinderella story understandably focus our attention on fairy godmothers and the possibility of a better future, the tragic, abusive, and horrendous conditions of Cinderella’s pre fairy godmother existence have a great deal more relevance to what far too many people experience everyday. The kind of favoritism shown by Cinderella’s and Dave’s caretakers is a particularly damaging and far too common form of abuse.
What makes a Cinderella parent so abusive and damaging is not the specific acts of discipline against the singled out child (although such punishment often does result in its own kind of trauma); what makes a Cinderella parent so abusive and damaging is the dramatically disproportionate punishment handed out to one child over the others. Both children might try to sneak a cookie – one child might get a gentle slap on the hand and the other be forced to sleep in a basement closet for a month. Sometimes, by Dave’s recounting, he was the one punished even when it was his brothers who did something wrong in the first place.
I fear that the United Methodist Church has long been Cinderella parents to same gender loving persons.
I am not here interested in entering the debate regarding whether homosexuality or homosexual acts are in any way sins. If they are not sinful at all, the unwarranted harm caused by the church is obvious. I am instead taking for granted the conservative United Methodist position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Even given incompatibility, I believe that we have long since singled out this one and only sin as uniquely worthy of swift and decisive response. In so doing, we have acted as cinderella parents.
Language regarding homosexual persons being ‘sinners just like the rest of us’ is often intended to place same gender loving persons on equal footing with all others in the church. But equality is in no way embodied in the specific actions and responses the church takes. I, a typical, American Christian who can’t imagine any other life than the American way of material greed and gluttonous excess barely even get a slap on the wrist.* Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters might as well be locked in the basement with how desperately we want them to be present in the house of God but not seen or heard from.
Instead of envisioning a positive view of sexuality through the lens of healthy, Godly relationship components like consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, or respect we have instead narrowly confined our gaze on a single prohibition upon which we have decided that the entirety of the Christian faith and biblical witness rises or falls. And we continue to focus only on this one prohibition because we believe there is something inherently different between male and female despite the fact that we, in the UMC, no longer believe that difference to be lived out in any functional, hierarchical, or complementarian manner. Gender somehow has come to mean nothing except a line in the sand regarding with whom one can have sex. All of our talk about “speaking the truth in love” or needing “to have higher standards than the world” too quickly becomes the means by which we focus all our energy pointing out and arguing over the one and only sin over which we are willing to risk the existence of our denomination.
Giving lip service to the idea that both of our kids did something wrong is nowhere near the same thing as embodying the self giving love of a parent. No matter the intent, the effect of our actions has made us Cinderella parents to some of the most vulnerable people in our midst. I don’t expect that a church made up of people will ever perfectly define and live into the values it claims to espouse. On the other side, I would never argue that the church should give up any moral standards in the name of being ‘nice’ or ‘inclusive.’ Put differently, my hope is not to find a fairy godmother to dramatically and beautifully solve all our problems. My hope and expectation is simply that we at least find a way to stop acting like Cinderella parents to this one subset of the children of God. Cinderella parenting is the opposite of the kenotic way of Christ.
*I fully recognize that there is room to disagree about exactly how to define such potential sins and to understand how lax or ambiguous the church’s stance has become on any given issue. It is the shear weight of how often and how profoundly the church singles out homosexual behavior as especially deserving of rebuke and correction that prevents me from being able to ignore the profoundly different treatment of same gender loving persons.
It is often said that the Bible is “clear” about sexuality. My problem is not with the truth or falsity of that claim – my problem is with the extent to which the criteria for what we mean by “clear” is exclusively applied here and nowhere else. I doubt a full list of sins and thorough analysis of how meaningfully/appropriately we respond would be fruitful, if even possible. Instead, I offer here a list of some of the most obviously problematic, related, and potentially damaging ways in which the church not only fails to condemn what we claim to be sin, but in some cases even condones and supports deeply problematic systems that produce outcomes “clearly” opposed to specific teachings of Jesus and Christian tradition.
We have found and embraced a multitude of healthier ways to respond to other changes, behaviors, identities, choices, and realities that challenge the way things had always been done. That we cannot articulate why one thing and not another is worthy of swift and decisive response, instead defaulting to an imprecise assertion of scripture’s “clarity,” reinforces the patterns of harm explored above. Again, my argument is not that it is desirable to ignore sinful behavior nor is my argument that we should take radical steps to restrict or fight against the actions below; my point is that not responding comparably to so many other potentially comparable sins is a specific cause of actual, meaningful, lasting harm to at least one subset of the children of God.
- Regarding other aspects of human sexuality
- Premarital sex – I’ve officiated over 30 weddings. Around half of those couples were living together for months or even years before the wedding. I know plenty of other colleagues who could say the same. The UMC has taken such a lax stance on celibacy before marriage that it would be easy to question from the outside whether we actually care about this traditionally clear requirement.
- Divorce – There is a ‘joke’ among some UMC clergy that you can continue to be appointed as an ordained leader up until your 4th divorce. There are plenty of reasons that allowing for the possibility of divorced and remarried clergy was a good and reasonable choice. But one of the most widely quoted verses against homosexuality in Matthew 19:4 is an explicit prohibition against divorce. Yet almost no one argues for the exclusion of divorced and remarried clergy as a general rule.
- Heterosexual Marriage – The rampant notions of destiny and romanticism that define modern views of marriage do more to undercut any semblance of Christian commitment than anything same gender loving people could do. Even dating sites that promise compatibility convey a picture of marriage that has almost nothing to do with the mutual submission, overcoming of difference, and self sacrifice at the heart of Christian love. Any argument that allowing lesbian and gay persons to marry would suddenly and uniquely undercut the sanctity of marriage is absurd on its face given how far heterosexual marriage norms already stray from anything remotely resembling a biblical understanding of marriage.
- Regarding other potentially sinful aspects of human life
- Money – Luke is uniquely focused on the impossibility of the wealthy finding comfort among the followers of Jesus. Acts goes so far as to portray tithing as a matter of life and death through the story of Ananias and Sapphira. The use of money is a central concern through much of scripture and yet little is ever said against those who most blatantly flaunt their wealth in church. If anything, love of money is a driving force behind church decision making rather than the deeply problematic force portrayed by Luke.
- Drunkenness – Drunkenness is listed alongside homosexuality in at least two of the most often quoted verses used against allowing a more inclusive attitude toward same gender loving persons. Further, United Methodists were one of the most influential organizations in the passing of the prohibition amendment. It would seem scripture and a great deal of church history fall on the side of temperance. Yet, few Methodists even consider the idea that drunkenness in its own right (meaning drunkenness not leading to abusive acts or causing harm through an accident) would be grounds for stripping a pastor’s credentials or removing someone from church leadership.