Thursday, November 17, 2005

When Open Means Closed

Earlier this year something wonderful happened. A man was invited to join the choir of South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia. He took the invitation seriously, and enjoyed his time so much there that he soon began participating in other church activities. Before long he made the decision to move his membership from a church in another denomination to what he felt was his new home at South Hill.

Sccreeeeech!!!! If you could hear a moment of exclusion it would sound like that--kind of like fingernails running across a blackboard or the drawn out whine of tires skidding across the pavement right before you hear the muffled thwump of two cars slamming into one another.

One day during a meeting about joining South Hill, the senior pastor informed the would-be Methodist that he would not be allowed membership in the church. The reason? Because he was in a committed relationship with another man. The pastor believed, as many do, that any kind of homosexual relationship is a sin, and that unless the man was repentant he was not fit for membership.

I'm sure you know I don't believe that being in a same-sex relationship is a sin. But even if I did, the “every unrepentant sin” standard can be tricky. To all potential members of any church--anyone who does any of the following need not apply: wears polyester double knit, eats shrimp, grows peppers next to tomatoes in their garden, is a woman who prays with her head uncovered. (See Leviticus 11: 9-12, Deuteronomy 22: 9-11, I Corinthians 11: 3-16).

So what happened in our story? Well, an associate pastor at South Hill was appalled when our guy was refused membership and took the matter to the Bishops of Virginia. The Bishops, after quite a bit of conversation, put the senior pastor on leave of absence. The Judicial Council, the Methodist's Supreme Court, allowed the pastor to deny the man membership and reinstated the pastor based on a Clintonian use of the word “may” and a procedural technicality:

"all people may attend (church) worship services," and, "a member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to unite with The United Methodist Church may be received as ... a professing member."

See how that works? “May” might be interpreted to mean, “hey, these are the people we can let join!” Instead, “may” was used to mean, “hey, these are the people I can keep out!”

The point is, the J.C. (not to be confused with Jesus Christ) chose to prefer a specious application of the letter of the law over human value.

Here is how my friend Duane put it in a letter to our local Bishop. Watch for the Pharisee references, which I think are particularly apt in this case:

…It was with great dismay that I learned of a decision announced by the United Methodist Judicial Council on October 31 regarding the reinstatement of a pastor after his refusal to allow into membership a gay man. I am aware that the Council of Bishops has made a statement that attempts to reaffirm the inclusive values of the United Methodist Church. I also know that many individuals, pastors and congregations have spoken out regarding the wrongness of this decision. I urge you, as the highest representative of the Indiana area to actively speak out clearly and decisively against this action.

It is my belief that the ruling on the Johnson matter was politically motivated in an attempt to assuage a segment of the UMC body that clings to old prejudices. If the Judicial Council had upheld the lower ruling, it would have sent a bold and courageous message to the church and the world. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. The Judicial Council chose to overrule the decision of the Virginia Annual Conference and supported its decision with reasons of legal technicalities and bureaucratic misapplication. The message sent is that politics and policy is more important than the human beings involved in the case. It puts procedure over people. And that, in addition to the injustice to the individual denied membership, is deplorable!

Though it may sound like an uncharitable comparison, I cannot help but think of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' condemnation of the religious legal system of His day tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. Matthew 23:23 [emphasis mine]

It is my hope that out of this injustice, some good will come. We, who are members of the United Methodist Church are being given an opportunity to examine our commitment to the values that we espouse. I hope our words, deeds and actions will affirm that we are all one body, called by God and united by Christ...

And what about the man who just wanted to join the church? I don't know what happened to him. I have my doubts that he is still singing in the South Hill UMC choir. As for the Methodist catch phrase, “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors”, well, sometimes a slogan is just a slogan.


Anonymous Jeff said...

I always thought there was only one unforgivable sin.

I'd find another church.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Troy said...

I would too.

3:16 PM  

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