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Jeanne Audrey Powers
The Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers
Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Annual Conference recently made a statement at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church near Orlando where they are intentionally welcoming and affirming LGBT people. After many years of either silence or painful words about persons like myself by church leadership in Florida, I’m heartened to hear Bishop Carter’s words advocating welcome and inclusion of gay and lesbian people in Florida UM churches.
Bishop Carter has inserted himself into the conversation not because he was required to make a ruling or respond to a trial, but because he wanted to be Bishop of the entire church—including those gay and lesbian people who continue to be marginalized. For that, I am thankful. While I am pleased that Bishop Carter may be signaling beginning steps for greater love and welcome of LGBT people in the state of Florida, I hope he understands that The United Methodist Church already does belong to LGBT persons and that they need no “permission” to be fully involved in the life of the church. There is still much to be done to address homophobia and heterosexism in Florida.
I’m most troubled by Bishop Carter’s encouragement to gay and lesbian people to have patience. Bishop Carter says, “Patience is here understood not as a false tolerance of difference,” but instead as a Christian virtue and fruit of the spirit. As a lesbian woman, I find this deeply problematic. I first struggled with my sexuality in the 1950s while I was in seminary where the church assumed LGBT persons were not fit for a Calling because of a particular “sin” by virtue of being born in a certain way (like being left or right handed). In the 1970s, they named it “incompatible” and it is still taught to seminary students because “it is in the Discipline.”
As I said in my sermon at the 4th Convocation of the Reconciling Ministries Network at Augsburg College in 1995, “As long as the phrases ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the Christian faith’ are incompatible and ‘celibacy in singleness’ continue to stand in our Discipline, no matter how these phrases are introduced or framed, our church is on record as perpetuating heterosexism in its life and homophobia in its teaching.”
I have been an ordained clergywoman for 55 years. It has been 41 years since The United Methodist Church adopted the policy that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” How long am I expected to be patient? How long am I expected to be patient with, as Bishop Carter says, my “brothers and sisters in the church who have not walked [my] journey”?
I am 81 years old. I do not have as many years ahead of me as I do behind. I may likely die before The United Methodist Church changes its policies of exclusion. It grieves my heart that the church I have given my life to refuses to recognize the good gifts and talents of the many LGBT pastors and lay persons who have led our churches and the many more who have left for other mainline denominations.
Bishop Carter states that over the years LGBT people have “sensed a limited access to the means of grace.” I want to be clear in the fact that myself and people like me haven’t just sensed it. The church’s attempts to limit the means of grace have been a real presence.
We need to do more than just welcome LGBT people into our congregations. As Christians, we seek to overcome powers and principalities of this world, even when they are the church itself. We need to work to end these unjust policies. My comfort is in the scriptures that tell us that while we may not live in the promised land, we shall see it.
Ordained in 1958, the Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers was one of the first female ordained elders in The United Methodist Church. She served on the staff of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and was instrumental in forming The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. In 1995, while speaking at Reconciling Ministries Network’s convocation, she came out as a lesbian. In retirement she continues to further the movement for full inclusion of LGBT persons in The UMC, most recently helping to establish The Center for Sexuality, Gender and Religion at Claremont School of Theology.