As I sat at my computer to test the results of my recent cataract surgery, I found "I woke up this morning" not with my "mind on freedom" (the Civil Rights Era song) but with memories of a book I read years ago that has left a lasting impact upon me.
The book: Living the Questions by Robert Raines (Word Books, 1976). I continue to have questions about the Christ-legitimacy of certain words in our United Methodist Book of Discipline that I believe have served to compromise our capacity to interpret for ourselves and for the world, the deepest meanings of Christian teaching. The specific words I have in mind are these:
"The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching."
My hope is that as delegates from all over the world gather at this year's General Conference, they will dare in their deliberations to question what good or what damage have these words done for/to the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church. I suggest they consider the following questions.
1. What do these words say about our understandings of the why and who Jesus was and is? I have friends who have told me more than once that they find more meaning and challenge in a book written by Deepak Chopra, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore, than they do in the above United Methodist interpretation of "Christian teaching."
2. Why do we seem to be less definitive about how incompatible with Christian teaching are war and inequalities of income, health care, education, jobs and immigration? At the very least, is it not fair to say that on a proportional scale, there are violations of Christian teaching that harm millions of people in ways that "the practice of homosexuality" never has or could?
3. Will the Republican Party national convention be a mirror image of The United Methodist Church, both meeting this year in Florida, when it articulates its position on the rights of same-sex couples?
It is an interesting coincidence that as United Methodists will meet this year in Tampa, Florida, the Republican Party will meet at a later date in the same city. I remember the time when some persons with tongue-in-cheek used to call the Methodist/United Methodist Church, "The Democratic Party at Prayer." I disagreed with them. But I am struck by the fact that the position of The United Methodist Church on homosexual practice and same-sex couples, and their right to legal unions and marriages, reflect similarities with the Republican Party position on these matters. There have been times when at the local and state levels, Republican candidates have gotten my votes. But despite their expressed commitment to the rights of individuals, and individual liberty, Republicans turned their backs on black people as we sought our rights during the Civil Rights Movement. They are now doing the same vis-a-vis same-gender loving persons. Why do the Republican Party and The United Methodist Church, both claiming to believe in the God-given rights of persons, contradict that belief when it comes to the rights of LGBT persons and same-sex couples?
4. How can United Methodism or any Christian denomination enact legislation that restricts the practice of women and men who have been called by God to ordained ministry? The contradiction of Christian teaching of our "incompatible with Christian teaching" prescription may be most vividly expressed in The United Methodist Church in language and legislation that denies United Methodist clergy the right to perform union and marriage rites for same-sex couples! Regardless of whether we believe in Deepak Chopra's "third Jesus" or not, none of us can deny that comprehensive and inclusive ministry was at the heart of Jesus' mission.
5. Is The United Methodist Church confused about the teachings of Jesus that it should be following? Bishop Leontine Kelly, the first African American woman elected to the United Methodist episcopacy, told a poignant story in a sermon she delivered at the World Methodist Council meeting in Kenya. She met a man who had had heard about her successful ministry at her church in Virginia. But he found it necessary to say to her that she had no right to be in the ordained ministry according to the writings of the Apostle Paul. Bishop Kelly ended the conversation by telling him, "Paul did not call me to preach, Jesus did!"
In other words, Paul may have taught against same-gender loving relationships in the same way he preached against women's calling to serve God in the pulpit, but the ultimate authority for the church should be Jesus, who taught that loving God and one's neighbors as one's self are the heart of faith.
6. If this year's General Conference does not entirely rescind the negative language and legislation in our Book of Discipline about the practice of homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching, would delegates be willing at least to modify them? Even some acknowledgement that the church is divided theologically over the application of Paul's teaching today could mitigate much of the harm that the phrase "incompatible with Christian teaching" now causes.
I firmly believe it is time for The United Methodist Church to "live" the question of whether it follows Paul or Jesus in regard to its stances on homosexual practice.
The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a retired member of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, co-founder of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, and co-founder of United Methodists of Color for an Inclusive Church.