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By Thomas Hawk, Flickr
During its 2012 session, the Pacific Northwest Conference voted overwhelmingly to support the marriage equality bill that was before voters in Washington state on election day. Bishop Grant J. Hagiya embodied the will of the conference by offering his voice to the Washington United for Marriage campaign; speaking with clarity about the importance of religious freedom. With the approval of Referendum 74, United Methodist clergy and congregations have two distinct questions to wrestle with.
First is the question of religious freedom and to whom it belongs. While much of the debate in the public realm has been focused on defining marriage rights, the Pacific Northwest Conference through its legislative action in June, and under the subsequent leadership of its Bishop and others this Fall, has taken a clear stand that no one group is entitled to define marriage for everyone. So the first question we need to answer is this. While faith communities in Washington state are now legally sanctioned to offer marriage rites to same sex couples, do United Methodist clergy and congregations currently have that same religious freedom?
The second question is one of fidelity; to whom or what are United Methodists ultimately accountable to. In a sense, the passing of Referendum 74 rips the proverbial bandaid off of a ecclesiological problem the church hasn’t resolved. Mixed messaging and clashing belief systems leave us with a series of different answers to the question of faithfulness. To name but a few:
Is United Methodist faithfulness to be located in a literalistic reading of the Scriptures that some find simplistic, the latest church growth strategy that some find consumeristic, or a progressive vision of Gospel fidelity that some find heretical?
Each possibility has its champions and detractors but their distinctions are not easily waived away as different facets of the same thing.
Those who seek unity within The United Methodist Church speak fondly of the church as a big tent, inclusive of many different opinions and points of view. I’ve always appreciated the metaphor just as I’ve valued those churches that embody it in positive ways. But sometimes, a big tent is just another name for a circus and while I’ve always found them interesting, I’d never turn to a circus for advice or leadership. Preserving unity at any cost runs the risk of leaving us looking like a sad clown; intent on bringing happiness but missing the joyful spirit, and appropriate face paint, to do so.
For some, it seems that the legalization of same-sex marriage is the worst thing they could ever imagine. But I pray that United Methodists, on either side of the aisle, see this as a gift from our mission field. When a same gender couple comes to one of our churches we have to own our decision when we turn them away – and vice versa.