The United Methodist Church, like the Anglican, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, proselytized Africans and taught them Christianity. For hundreds of years, these Christians taught them that women were not equal, that slavery was permitted and that being gay was a sin. Today in Africa, even as women’s rights are being expanded, members of the LGBTQ community face harsh treatment.
Here in the United States, all these churches, except one, have stopped teaching that slavery is permitted by the Bible, that women are inferior to men and that being gay is a sin. That one is the United Methodist Church, which recently refused to remove language from its discipline that being LGBTQ is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It has stopped denying women equal rights, and has stopped claiming that slavery is permitted.
The United Methodist Church is not known to be more intolerant than its Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopalian sisters and brothers. Why, then, does this church lag so far behind in recognizing that God doesn’t make human beings incompatible with Christian teaching simply by being who they are?
Well, it turns out that the Methodists in the United States allow their sisters and brothers around the world to vote on matters of faith and tenets of the church, so that 43 percent of the voters are foreign. In fact, a third of them are Africans, who voted overwhelmingly to keep saying that gay people are incompatible with Christian teaching.
The Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalian churches in the United States did not have to contend with their African brothers and sisters when those denominations embraced the LGBTQ community. In a way, that is good, since young men and women in our country can be embraced by their churches and not condemned for who they are. Yet now, as the tears dry after the vote in St. Louis, we must recognize that we helped create this debacle, by our teachings and by our inclusion of those converts in our faith. They get to vote. They get to be heard. They get to kill proposals to stop condemning the LGBTQ community. And they did, albeit by a narrow 53-47 percent margin. The other American denominations could move forward with doctrinal change without the approval of those they had converted in foreign lands. The Methodists cannot. That is the reality.
They must either perform some sort of separation; either from their foreign colleagues, or separate into different denominations in the United States, since the overwhelming vote of the American delegates was to rid the discipline of the exclusionary language and stop punishing clergy for supporting marriage equality. Even the church’s Council of Bishops supported the removal of the exclusionary language, recognizing that it was not in keeping with Jesus’s teaching, and not very welcoming to young people whose core beliefs is that being gay is not incompatible with being a Christian. Even the Mormon mascot for Brigham Young University has come out of the closet and affirmed who he is.
With this disappointment comes opportunity. In a time of rising nationalism, xenophobia and tribal politics, the Methodists have a challenge in communicating with, and listening to those converts who helped defeat the Bishops’ attempt to make things better. It is true that there are some Methodists in the United States who helped the Africans outvote the majority of American delegates, but without those African delegates, the church would’ve joined the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians in embracing the LGBTQ community. The road to equality; for women, for slaves and for LGBTQ friends is occasionally paved with thorns, and the vote in St. Louis felt like the sharpest and most painful of thorns. That African delegates are not in harmony with those in our country shouldn’t make them marginalized or condemned, since the African constituents of the Methodist church were converted by us long after John Wesley began this denomination in the UK. The doctrinal changes that occurred for slavery and equality for women came after decades of infighting and a civil war. James advises us to be considerate and open minded.
The Americans and African Methodists must have the courage to deliberate together, argue, discuss and discern what Jesus would do here. We are stuck. This then is an opportunity to share light and love to others on different continents, one that other faiths don’t have. Here is hoping that those of us wanting to press ahead will remember the words of James, who said that “peace is the seedbed of righteousness, and the peacemakers will reap its harvest.” We must understand this even as we are hurting.