Yesterday, as we do every Wednesday, residents of the Methodist Building gathered to worship in the Simpson Chapel. Having celebrated communion, we had remaining consecrated elements with which we could extend Christ’s table. Across the street, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments on DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, a case which could forever change US policy on same sex marriage. We decided to cross the street and offer communion to those gathered outside the court.
Working our way through the crowd, Michelle with the bread and I with the cup, we asked, “Would you like communion?” Some averted their eyes and ignored our question. Others smiled, eagerly partook, and thanked us. One man gestured toward the elements and exclaimed, “I don’t even know what that means!”
Among all the different responses, there was one that continues to trouble me. It was from a woman who at first seemed excited and then stopped herself and asked, “Wait a minute…is this poisoned?”
This question, asked in complete seriousness, did not emerge from some paranoia on the part of the woman. Just steps away were persons who claim Christianity as their faith holding signs declaring, “God Hates Fags.” As Michelle and I started to explain in more detail who we were and where we came from, the woman added, “Well…you never know.” Unfortunately, I knew exactly what she meant.
“So, where does the United Methodist Church stand on the issue of gay marriage?”
Her question was a mirror, reflecting how many of those who fight for marriage equality view Christian believers. While there were certainly many Christians among the marriage equality crowd and many respected Christian leaders who spoke out publicly on behalf of justice, the fact remains that the perception many hold of the church is that we are small minded, bigoted haters.
As we continued to explore the crowd offering the bread and cup, I found myself quickly adding, “We’re Methodist…” to those we encountered. Our denominational affiliation seemed to offer some credibility to other Mainline Protestants. “Oh! I’m Episcopalian!” they’d share. At the same time, I feared the question, “So, where does the United Methodist Church stand on the issue of gay marriage?”
A Spectrum of Beliefs
We recognize the detrimental effects of privileging one class of people over another and pledge to fight discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation.
As many times as I have fielded this question, it’s a difficult one to answer. On one hand, our Social Principles state that, “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (BOD¶ 161B). At the same time we passed Resolution 2042 in Opposition to Homophobia and Heterosexism, in which we recognize the detrimental effects of privileging one class of people over another and pledge to fight discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation.
Like these statements of the church, individual disciples and United Methodist congregations hold a spectrum of beliefs about marriage equality. Ask any two United Methodists how they feel about same sex covenant, and you can get two completely opposing answers. Unfortunately, most conversations that take place on this and other issues that relate to homosexuality are had within groups of folks who hold similar beliefs, and attempts to bridge these gaps have often ended in the kind of malicious speech and behavior that truly does poison the body.
Months ago, GBCS was invited to sign on to the major religious amicus brief in support of overturning DOMA. The brief was excellently written. It noted that different religious traditions have different opinions on gay unions, but that persons of faith have a fundamental belief in equality and justice. In signing on to the brief, we would have acknowledged that Edie Windsor, after having spent a lifetime in faithful and loving partnership with Thea Spyer, should have been afforded the same surviving spouse privileges as if she’d spent her life married to a man.
Ultimately, no matter how much individual members of the United Methodist Church or the General Board of Church and Society believe in justice, our Book of Discipline kept us from signing on to that brief. We can’t publicly support marriage equality or the basic human rights provisions of civil unions. Heck, we will probably even get nailed by anti-marriage equality Methodists for offering bathrooms and a warm room in our building for some of those participating in the rally.
Ultimately, the progress toward justice will advance as Spirit moves in the world. Whether the cases heard before the Supreme Court the past two days are the ones that change our law or not, the inequality suffered by same sex couples will be rectified. The question for United Methodists is whether or not we are willing, even with our different understandings of Scripture and different views of homosexuality, to be part of the fundamental arc of justice.
I keep coming back to what the woman asked, “Is it poisoned?” and asking myself the same question. Is the body of Christ poisoned? Has the hatred born by its members made it unsafe? Or can the body nurture us beyond this schism and take us all to a new level of understanding and loving one another? Because we serve a powerful and just God, I’ve got to believe that the body isn’t poisoned, it’s just broken, which is the exact state through which God can make us stronger.