A Time to Stay and a Time to Leave: An Open Letter to The UMC
- by Autumn Dennis -
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”
With all due respect to Ecclesiastes 3, I feel there is one line missing that I would like to add: “There is a time to stay, and a time to leave.” I was not raised in The United Methodist Church, or in any church for that matter. My interest in the Divine emerged at the same time I was realizing I was gay, at the ripe age of twelve. My first experience with church was at a Baptist megachurch in Tennessee, where I have vivid memories of crying in the pews as I was told I was going to hell. The next few years were marked with me trying to pretend I wasn’t interested in God, because clearly this God hated people like me! These feelings drove me into an intense depression with strong suicidal thoughts. I admit that when I came to the United Methodist Church at sixteen, it was only because the girl I had a crush on invited me. However, the reason I stayed was because this particular church contained the first Christians I had ever met who didn’t immediately tell me I was going to hell. Instead, I found a safe space in their youth group where I was free to be who I was and to ask questions about God. Through my involvement in this church, I got a full scholarship to a great Methodist college.
As I was welcomed into the Methodist church, my campus ministry and local Tennessee Conference connection fostered my gifts and my budding call to homeless and prison ministry. However, I wouldn’t allow myself to consider a call to ordination, even though I felt one—I knew what the church said about people like me, so why even try? Whenever I had pastor friends affirming my gifts, graces, and fruits for ministry, I heard the institutional church say, “You are incompatible with Christian teaching” (Paragraph 161F). When my campus minister suggested I consider ordination as a deacon, I heard the institutional church say, “You will not be accepted as minister” (Paragraph 304.3). However, God’s calling soon overwhelmed the dirge of condemnation from the institutional church: “Yes, I am already ordaining you, you are not incompatible with me, and I will accept you as a minister.” When the Church reduced me to a faceless “homosexual,” I knew God saw me as more.
I decided to enroll in the candidacy process anyway. I began skating through the requirements set by my Tennessee Conference, believing that being ordained through The United Methodist Church could give me a greater voice for change in the church. I was proud to be a representative of The UMC. I felt that I was giving my church an opportunity to recognize what God was already doing in my life, ordaining me as a minister to the margins. However, over time, the pressure I felt from The UMC to hide who I was grew and grew. I began to be paranoid about who was a “safe” Methodist and who was an “unsafe” Methodist. I watched many of the Methodists that had first welcomed me into the church fight to uphold the same discriminatory passages of theBook of Discipline that were ruining my life. I watched cases like Amy DeLong’s, Mary Ann Barclay’s, and Frank Schaefer’s, wondering, “Who will rat me out?” Living a half life, I was stressed over whether or not the conference physicians and psychologists would ask me about my sexuality, worried about if I was dressing feminine enough for when I visited the Conference offices, and wondered if my voice was high-pitched enough for when I visited the head of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Pretty soon, I couldn’t focus on my call from God at all anymore; instead, I felt like I was in a perpetual den of Methodist lions.
The stress of this paranoia compared with the indescribable pain of recent events in the life of the Church became too much for me to handle: seeing the inflammatory language against me from the Book of Discipline in my candidacy guidebooks, witnessing General Conference refuse to even “agree to disagree,” observing the Council of Bishops condemn Bishop Melvin Talbert’s presiding over the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, having my classmates and professors speaking insensitively about “the gay issue in The UMC” as if I weren’t in the room, and others. One of the most harmful things to me was seeing the open letter from my own Bishop Bill McAlilly condemning Bishop Talbert, upholding an idolatrous clergy covenant over God’s truth of inclusion. I began to think about leaving the ordination process.
I decided to postpone my decision until I attended Exploration, the biannual event for United Methodist young adults considering ordination. During this event, the Council of Bishops sent us a video with President Bishop Rosemarie Wenner saying, “The Church needs you!” In my head I finished her sentence: “…unless you’re gay.” More than ever, I felt like the church was repeating over and over a hollow lie. I felt like the church needed me to support its broken bureaucracy, but when I needed the Church, it wasn’t there for me. It threw me the bone of “Sacred Worth” and threw me away. As soon as I returned home, I saw the Internet explode with new stories of how Rev. Frank Schaefer was given a guilty verdict for presiding over his son’s wedding to his partner of the same sex. I felt like I could no longer go on rationalizing the state of The United Methodist Church; this was the last straw.
When I began the ordination process, I figured I would “see how far I got before the church kicked me out.” Never did I expect that the church would push me out before my District Committee even had the chance to expel me from the process. It is with immense pain in my heart that I confess to you, my beloved United Methodist Church, that I have to leave the ordination process in order to follow God. I cannot represent an institution whose idol is the Book of Discipline. I cannot pledge to uphold that abusive Book which has long since stopped being a source of illumination in how we connect with each other and God, but now is a glorified bludgeoning tool. I cannot join an order of ministry that is complicit in injustice. I cannot lie my way into an abusive clergy covenant or lie my way through the Historic Questions. I cannot pretend that my church has “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” when it does not. I cannot lie about who I am or what the Church is any longer.
However, there are “Reasons I Stay.” For all the ways that The United Methodist Church is incredibly broken, you are my dysfunctional family that I cannot leave. I still believe in the Church that welcomed me when no one else did, and I believe much more in thatChurch than I do in the same Church that is pushing me away. I still believe that our Methodist connection is something mystical and holy—something I wouldn’t exchange for the world. If I left this church totally, I would just be a Methodist sitting in another denomination. I need to be here to see this Church change. I need to be one of the people joining hands with all the other Reconcilers as we proclaim, “Love Prevails! Draw the circle wider still!” My liberation is bound up with yours, UMC.
(Oh, and one last thing—I’m still being ordained by God and I will find another church to recognize it. If you’re serious about getting more young clergy, make this is a church where we don’t have to lie about who we are in order to serve God. You’re better than that.)
The Lord be with you, and I’ll see you at the open table.
Autumn Dennis is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and is a senior at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee. She studies religion, is passionate about social justice, and is engaged in ministry with the children of Go on streets and in prisons. She is a freelance writer.
A few years ago when I was new to working as an advocate for inclusion and equality for all in faith communities, Ross Murray from GLAAD taught me that people generally move from active opposition to silence to tolerance to acceptance and then to advocacy. I've seen this happen over and over now in my work with my film, Seventh-Gay Adventists, a character-driven documentary about three gay and lesbian people of faith in a conservative religious denomination.
As we move into the holiday season, when families gather around living rooms and tables, often with very different perspectives, I thought it would be helpful to remember how changes and paradigm shifts happen.
My favorite story of change is about my own mother, who is nicest, most loving conservative you'll ever meet.
When we started filming Seventh-Gay Adventists, my mother was deeply worried. As it became a project that was clearly going to be a major focus of our lives for years, she got even more worried, and we had some tough conversations. Though she knew we had good intentions, she worried we would lead people astray making “sin seem okay” and jeopardize people's personal salvation.
I’m sure many readers here have been on the receiving end of family members feeling that the most “loving” thing to do is alert someone of their “sin.” But the important thing is that we kept talking, sometimes a bit heatedly, but we talked.
And to let you know what sort of person my mother is—she still housed us often in between filming trips, made numerous airport runs, fed us, watched our dog while we were on the road, and more, even though our work discomforted her.
Once when she was babysitting our then 18-month-old daughter while we filmed, I teased her: "You know Mom, this is sort of an in-kind contribution to the film."
She quickly responded. "Oh no it's not. I love you and support you, but I won't give a dime to that movie."
When she saw the film for the first time almost two years ago, she was deeply moved. And the next week there was a check in the mail supporting the film. She told us, "I want my name in the credits."
Now, I can assure you, having landed at my parent's home rather a lot in-between screening trips last year—and going through an election cycle together—that she is still very conservative religiously and politically.
But she has shifted into a positive space where it's her job to love and God's to judge. Now she sends me Biblical exegesis and other moments of inspiration from sermons she hears about how Jesus had such a heart for those marginalized by the religious authorities of his day.
She's the one who first pointed out to me that in the story about the woman caught in the act of adultery, Christians have really missed the whole point.
She was praying with me on the phone before a screening I was particularly nervous about, and she shared with me an insight she’d had during her morning devotionals:
You know, Daneen. I tell people often about your film and how I’ve been convicted that it’s my job to love and everything else is God’s job. And they often say to me, "Yes, we are to love, but even Jesus told the woman caught in the act of adultery to 'Go and sin no more.' So we have to draw the line somewhere."
My mother continued: “But I re-read that story, and it struck me that it’s Jesus, that is, God, who says that to the woman. There weren’t any humans left to witness that. So again, it’s my job to love.”
My mother is still shifting, but she has become quite the advocate in our family and in her circle of friends for the cause of listening and loving unconditionally—without caveats or clauses.
I am pretty sure she still wrestles with those famous six verses. But I’m also sure she is not a bigot.
My mother is still engaged, and she's still listening. Just a few weeks ago she wrote asking me for my suggested resources to help her understand why I believe that committed LGBT relationships can be blessed and celebrated.
I don’t know where she’ll land theologically, but I know that we have a much stronger relationship because of our openness to dialogue and our acceptance of each other.
And the larger cause of equality and inclusion is better off for each of these personal conversation spaces as well.
That’s how change happens—ongoing conversations over time, through the lens of real people and real stories.
To help facilitate conversations over the Thanksgiving holiday when many families are gathered together, we have decided to offer free screenings of Seventh-Gay Adventists online. Anyone can either stream or download the film (DRM-free to easily transfer between devices) entirely for free on our website starting tomorrow night—from Wednesday, November 27, to Sunday, December 1. Just use the coupon code “watchfree” to redeem a free copy.
This is our gratitude to our grassroots community who more than doubled a recent Kickstarter goal to make the film widely available, and it’s also the very best alignment we can imagine with our goals to help start more authentic and meaningful conversations in families and churches about what is often a hard topic to navigate.
To learn more about the film, see “The Making of Seventh-Gay Adventists." To learn more about how this film has been changing paradigms, see “When a Redneck Loved a Queer." And to read a review of the film, check out links here and here.
May you and your families be blessed this Thanksgiving with authentic conversation, even when those conversations are difficult.
No matter where you or your loved ones are between active opposition and advocacy, may just a little more love, grace, and understanding grow.
- See more at: http://www.believeoutloud.com/latest/family-conversations-my-mom%E2%80%99s-journey-advocacy#sthash.0WFVFbx3.rJzyWm8o.dpuf