Photo by NEILL CALDWELL/ Virginia United Methodist Advocate
Virginia Greer is a student at Shenandoah University in Winchester.
And a young adult shall lead them.
There was a lot of talking on November’s “Day of Holy Conversation” – hosted by Woodlake UMC in the Richmond District and webcast across the conference at multiple sites – but it was generally agreed that the youngest panelist shared a lot of wisdom in her brief comments.
Virginia Greer, a student at United Methodist-related Shenandoah University in Winchester, related a story about traveling with her family on a long journey in the car and her parents getting angry and frustrated with each other. When the family stopped for gas, Virginia’s dad returned with something of a peace offering: a flip-flop-shaped air freshener with a coconut scent. “And my mom doesn’t even like coconut,” Greer said.
The point, she said, is that The United Methodist Church’s 40-plus years of arguing over human sexuality is like her family’s situation in the car. “There are many moments at church events where people are arguing, people talking over each other and people in the back who just want to get out,” Greer said. “When we ought to be thinking of how we can show love when it is most needed. … We’re Christians; we’re used to loving someone we can’t understand. But we can do so much better…”
“If we want to get anywhere together we need to agree that loving one another is more important than being right,” Greer continued. If we can do that, she concluded a few moments later, “we’re going to lose the easy answers, the feeling of safety and of being right. But we gain the Spirit.”
It was a positive message late in a day of positivity, with a few minor exceptions. People on social media during the day’s program called out the Rev. Bruce Johnson for using the phrase “bless your heart” in addressing Greer, saying that although he said he “didn’t mean it in a condescending way” it still came off as very condescending. And there were tweets complaining that the morning session’s three panelists were all middle-aged, white and straight.
Generally there were no breakthrough moments. The conservative speakers stressed that the covenant in the Book of Discipline has been and is being broken, meaning the church is already in schism. The progressive speakers argued for full inclusion for all on the basis of that’s what Jesus taught us to do. And the “centrists” on the two panels used, “We hang in there and find ways to work things out together.”
The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” how to look at Scripture with reason, experience and tradition, was also mentioned several times.
Bishop Young Jin Cho set the tone for the day with his message at the outset of leaning on Christ and the Holy Spirit. Facilitator Dr. David Hooker used a gentle hand of guidance in both morning and afternoon panel discussions. Following each, there was time for small group discussion, both at Woodlake and the remote sites scattered around the conference. And, finally, everyone came together around Christ’s table to share Holy Communion.
“As I participated in A Day of Holy Conversation,” said the Rev. Marc Brown, conference director of Connectional Ministries and chair of the Common Table that organized the event, “I was especially encouraged by the comment that Virginia, representing the voice of the Young Adult Council, shared about hope being present when persons engage in holy conversation even when there are no easy answers. It’s my prayer that A Day of Holy Conversation was a step forward in hope as we continue to consider what it means to be disciples of Jesus.”
Bishop Cho, in his opening sermon, likened the debate over sexuality to a storm, particularly the storm that panicked Christ’s disciples while he slept.
“If Jesus is the answer to the storm,” Bishop Cho said, “then we need to trust in the Holy Spirit to still guide our churches. … We must let the spirit of Christ be our Lordship as we listen to each other. No person owns 100 percent of the truth. All human beings have their short-comings and are moving on to perfection. We should be more humble and open to each other, and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit together.
“The bottom line of this issue is that it’s a faith issue,” the Bishop concluded. “Are we willing to give up our own agendas and be willing to follow the guidance of the Lord?”
Presenters for the morning presentation were the Rev. Rob Vaughn, on behalf of Methodist Federation for Social Action and Virginia Reconciling United Methodists; the Rev. Greg West for the conference’s Evangelical Fellowship; and the Rev. Tom Berlin, representing a centrist position.
Participants for the afternoon panel were Greer, Johnson, West and Vaughn, along with the Rev. Gina Anderson-Cloud and laywoman Rives Priddy.
There were thoughtful comments made across the spectrum of thought on human sexuality issues.
“We are a family but a family in deep disagreement,” said West at the outset of the day, long before Greer’s analogy. “I would urge progressives to reconsider the authority of Scripture and the tradition of 2,000 years.”
Vaughn countered that “it’s not what the text says but what it means and how we interpret it. … Taking the Bible seriously means digging deep to learn what God wants from us.”
Vaughn reminded the audience that the early church gave up circumcision and strict dietary laws to be more inclusive to Gentiles.
Berlin brought a belt from his daughter’s closet to illustrate how trying to hold two ends together is a huge point of tension. “I’m disappointed in both the disobedience to the Book of Discipline and the calls to divide the church,” he said. Berlin quoted Jesus’s greatest commandment and Paul’s statement that we are all one in Christ. “We all interpret Scripture all the time. We’d love for it to be simple but it’s not.”
He also said that his personal opinions about gay people have changed over the years. “I’ve had college friends who have ‘come out’ in recent years tell me that they didn’t come out in college because of how I might react. … If I am uncomfortable around homosexuals then that’s my sociology and not my theology.”
Vaughn pointed out that the vast majority of scientific studies have shown that gender attraction is not a choice but a physical part of our makeup. “We don’t choose sexual orientation. If this is how God made the diversity of creation – and we agree that God made no junk – who are we to say God made a ‘mistake’?”
West countered that the jury was still out on the science about human sexuality. But he also concluded that most of us have “made up our minds” on this topic and simply “seek affirmation of our positions.”
The afternoon panel was larger and more diverse. Vaughn started out by outlining some of the changes that progressives will seek at the 2016 General Conference, but also urged that people “do no harm” and stop injuring others with harsh language.
West said that the church has reached a crisis phase after more than 40 years of debate on homosexuality. “The division has already grown when you have episcopal leaders and pastors deliberately breaking our covenant and encouraging others to do so. And there is a pattern developing in the church that when pastors break this covenant and perform same-sex weddings the punishment is symbolic and the reward is real. We already have schism; we already have separation.” He also quoted Mark Chapter 3, where Jesus says “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
West urged an amicable separation. “Both sides are sure they’re right. There are people of good will on both sides. Paul and Barnabas separated but mission continued. Our (Methodist) church began with separation from the Church of England.”
Anderson-Cloud talked about her experience as a church planter trying to reach the unchurched, and said “Our denomination was founded on casting a wide net and taking the cross into the fields and slums. We need to move beyond this political process of taking sides. … Our divisions are ripping us apart but our mission – to make disciples for the transformation of the world – unites us.”
She also urged participants to read the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s “A Way Forward,” but West countered that Hamilton’s plan will only transfer the conflict to the local church.
Priddy, the only gay panelist, agreed that the church was broken. “Our numbers (in The United Methodist Church) have dwindled, but many of those are our gay brothers and sisters and their families who have left the church” because of the way they have been treated.
Johnson said that there were “reasons that we’re still in disagreement after 42 years… there are some things on which we just won’t agree.”
“When you start changing the definition of marriage, who’s going to say what marriage is,” said Johnson. “If we’re going to change that, or acquiesce to a society that wants to change it for very un-Christian reasons, then where will it stop? And what will the church do? If today we bless same-sex unions then tomorrow when the polyamorists show up at our door and we want to love them as Jesus loves them then what are we going to say?”
At that point Dr. Hooker reminded the audience that the “men after God’s own heart” in the Old Testament had multiple wives.
Anderson-Cloud cited the church’s rejection of homosexuals as “one of the top five reasons people won’t try church. … I’m concerned about our perception (with unchurched persons).”
Vaughn concluded that he would rather have a “bias of inclusion rather than exclusion.”
“I don’t see a way ahead when we’re going in two different directions,” said Johnson.
“It takes conversation,” added Anderson-Cloud, “and that’s what we’re doing today.”
Priddy expressed hope that “this day is only the beginning of how we talk to each other. Yes, we do disagree, but God is among us.”
By NEILL CALDWELL Virginia United Methodist Advocate
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE Virginia United Methodist Advocate