Standing at a Moment in History

No matter where anyone stands on the side of gay marriage, today was a moment in history. No doubt, there are people will be talking about this day in history for years to come. This was the day that the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled in favor of the rights of gay and lesbian persons to be enjoined in marriage. Someone sent me the 105 page decision, and I only had a chance to scan through it. The one thing I knew, however, was that today would be a day long remembered in history.

Of course, the ruling of the highest court in the land does not mean that the church has reached consensus on this matter. The matter is far from settled among the people known as United Methodists, and it is still a matter to be discussed at the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to be held in Portland, Oregon. As we consider the impact of the ruling today, the one thing we cannot do is move to reactive positions on either side of the debate.

It was with that same pastoral sense that our own bishop, Mike Lowry, shared a pastoral letter with the clergy of our conference, and I think the best use of my space this week is simply to share the pastoral letter of our bishop here. What follows are the words of Bishop Mike Lowry as he addresses this matter with the clergy and with the people of our annual conference:

June 26, 2015

Dear Friends in Christ,

I write you in response to today’s ruling by the United States Supreme Court that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States. First, I offer spiritual guidance consistent with the best shared understanding of the Christian faith. Wherever you may be on a spectrum from overjoyed reaction to the ruling to deep despair over the Court’s decision, catch a breath. God is in charge of the universe, and we are not. This is a good thing. Christ still reigns and the Holy Spirit is still active in our lives. The advice of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4 applies to us all regardless of our convictions on the contentious issue of same-sex marriage.

Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:5-7)

While fully respecting the Supreme Court ruling, The United Methodist Church’s position on same-sex marriages has not changed. My understanding and that of our Conference Chancellor is that the Supreme Court’s decision is directed at state laws that bar same-gender persons from marriage and not at religious doctrine or church law, therefore the decision does not change section 341.6 of the Discipline or any other church law.”  [“Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”  (¶ 341.6 The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 270)]

It is important to note that the decision contains the following statements concerning the rights of religious persons and organizations: “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

Paragraph 161f of The Book of Discipline, 2012 states: “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (p. 111).

The Discipline goes on to state: We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (¶ 161b The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 109).

Nothing about our current doctrine or discipline has been changed. United Methodist clergy are not permitted to perform same-gender marriages and such ceremonies may not be held in our churches. Performance of a same-sex wedding ceremony is a violation of current church law (¶ 2702.1(b) The Book of Discipline, 2012, p. 776).  Only General Conference has the right to change church law.

I have been asked by some clergy about the limits regarding what they can and cannot do. I offer the following guidelines in line with other bishops of The United Methodist Church. Along with many of my colleagues on the Council of Bishops and for the sake of transparency, members of the Central Texas Conference should be aware of what may and may not be done without committing a chargeable offense.

  • Clergy may not allow any United Methodist church building to be used for same-gender marriages.
    • They can help the persons find another venue—another church, home, etc.
    • They can suggest they hold the service outside the church and off church property.
  • Clergy can participate in these ways:
    • Pre-marital counseling
    • Attend the ceremony
    • Read scripture, pray or give the meditation
    • Lift up a same-gender, newly married couple in worship or by printed announcements. [Please note: If clergy choose to do this, I strongly urge that they be in prior conversation with the lay leadership of their church, especially members of the Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.]
  • Clergy cannot participate in these ways:
    • Preside over the ceremony, specifically the vows, exchange of rings or the declaration and pronouncement of marriage.
    • Sign the certificate of marriage.
    • Clergy should not participate or stand during any ceremony where it might appear to those present or in photographs that you are presiding or conducting the ceremony. Clergy may engage in limited participation in the ways described above.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough that we be a people of love and care for all in the name of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!  All really does mean all – for those who we agree with strongly and for those with whom we disagree passionately!

The United Methodist Church has been debating the practice of homosexuality for well more than 40 years. This most recent U. S. Supreme Court decision will not end the debate. Good, godly people hold passionately different convictions on this issue. Let us first and foremost live as a people of the Savior’s grace and compassion to all involved. The great hymn of love sung by the earliest Christians needs to be lived out in our lives by each of us.

Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

Yours in Christ,
Bishop Mike Lowry
Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference
The Fort Worth Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church

Consider a Third Way

The tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, this week has weighed heavily upon my heart. The people who suffered this tragedy are not only Christian, but they are Methodist Christians … they are more than friends and neighbors … they are family.

And to have such harm come to my family has brought many emotions to the surface. There is the shock and the sorrow for those who have suffered loss. There is fear for the safety of other family members in other churches who are subject to the same fate. There is fear that my family members whose skin is different from mine will continue to suffer at the hands of a culture that somehow can’t get beyond the racist, bigoted attitudes that shaped us so long ago. And there is anger and desire for revenge against the perpetrator who killed our brothers and sisters and who wanted only to start a race war.

My first thought was that, if its a race war, then put me on the side of those who are oppressed. If there’s a fight to be had, I will be on the side of those who have suffered at the hands of bigoted, prejudiced and hateful people. Let’s work to beat them at their own game! A good offense, after all, is the best defense.

But then I remembered Jesus. Jesus never lets me alone. He never lets me just get wound up in my emotions and my ignorant way of thinking that there are only two ways … either we win and they lose, or they win and we lose.

The way of Jesus is the third way. And I’m pretty sure that God led me this week to start a book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu, titled The Book of Forgiving. In that book, they talk about Bishop Tutu’s work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the atrocities of South Africa and forged a new way forward for their people. They tell stories of some of the most horrible atrocities and how people have transformed a culture through something as simple as forgiveness.

Forgiveness, however, seems too early now. The hurt is too fresh. Talk of forgiveness seems only to gloss over the pain and ignore the reality of this tragedy. But forgiveness as they describe it does no such thing. The Tutus describe a fourfold path that includes telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness and then renewing or releasing the relationship. In no way is the harshness of the crime minimized … as a matter of fact, it is told with such startling truth that the full weight of its pain and sin is obvious to all who hear.

And while I was hearing the stories of this unprovoked, ferocious attack, I was feeling nothing but anger and hatred toward the perpetrator. Then I went back to a chapter I had read only a couple of nights ago. Early in the book, Bishop Tutu talks about our shared humanity. As I thumbed back through the book, I found this passage:

People are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition. Children do not dream of growing up to be rapists or murderers, and yet every rapist and every murderer was once a child. And there are times when I look at some of those who are described as “monsters” and I honestly believe that there, but for the grace of God, go I. I do not say this because I am some singular saint. I say this because I have spoken with former police officers who have admitted inflicting the cruelest torture, I have visited child soldiers who have committed acts of nauseating depravity, and I have recognized in each of them a depth of humanity that was a mirror of my own.

Whether the perpetrator of this act is an individual suffering mental illness or whether he is a victim of a culture that has ingrained in him a hatred for people of color, I look at him and suddenly realize that it could have been me. What if I had lived with his upbringing or his mental struggles? As Bishop Tutu said, “There but by the grace of God, go I.” The people in the church that night were not the only victims … the killer and so many others like him are victims of a culture that breeds within them a hatred and lust for violence that destroys the very fabric of their souls.

So I am back to sadness … not hatred or the need for revenge … just sadness that we live in a broken world. But I hold out hope for joy because I hold out hope for Christ. Perhaps a third way will give us a way forward. Perhaps a path that lets us tell our stories, name our pain, practice our forgiveness and then move forward is the path best taken. Maybe that is the pathway of the Christian life.

The opening story from The Book of Forgiving puts this in perspective. A woman had told of the horrible death of her husband who died at the hands of the white minority during the reign of tyranny in South Africa known as apartheid. She told of the 43 different wounds caused by different weapons, how they had cut off his hand and the horrible death he experienced. Then after the wife spoke, it was time for their nineteen-year-old daughter to speak.

She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned me and left me breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”

I am reminded that I, too, am a Christ-follower and that I am called to seek a path that is not the conventional path. I am called to consider a third way. Perhaps then, too, I can seek out those who have harmed me and offer forgiveness. And maybe … just maybe … I will be forgiven for my own failed humanity and the times I have hurt others.

Then by the grace of God may we find peace!