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COMMENTARY: What’s next, chaos or community?

June 6, 2018

By Rev. C. Anthony Hunt* 

I am a fifth generation Methodist. I sense that one of the primary reasons that my family members before me remained in Methodist churches — worshipped and served faithfully, and steadfastly supported them —  was because of hope.  They had hope that despite racism, gender bias and social stratification, the stated leaning toward inclusion that was a theological precept and practice of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, lent itself to their Methodist churches being places where all people could someday find a spiritual home in Christ.  

In fact, John Wesley opposed and worked to eradicate the most egregious, dehumanizing social and spiritual American sin of his day — slavery — and its concomitant racism, notwithstanding the social teachings on race of the church of his ordination, the Anglican Church. Wesley preached and practiced a form of social holiness that evidenced that the world (all people) was his parish. 

Tony HuntMy family remained Methodists holding on to a hope that despite structural segregation and discrimination against Black, Brown and Native American people, women of all races, divorced persons, and others, the church would eventually live into a vision of real diversity and inclusion, and realize that what inclusivity really looks like is spaces where “all people” really does mean “all people.”

The reasons that my family members before me remained Methodists are the very same reasons that I choose to continue to live out my faith as a United Methodist today. With the recent gathering of the 234th session of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference in Baltimore, we experienced again that we are challenged to live into fully practicing what we say we believe that “all people” means “all people” when it comes to the full inclusion of our sisters and brothers who are LGBTQI+ as it regards membership, marriage equality, and ordination and ministerial appointments. Again, the Annual Conference Session refused to commission and ordain LGBTQI+ persons who have presented themselves to the Church for service in these capacities. 

For me, as Chair of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, a member of the Order of Elders, a local pastor, and most importantly, as a disciple and servant of Jesus Christ, my conscience compels me to write, speak and act regarding this. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who intimated to the German churches in the 1940s amidst the injustices and atrocities of Nazi Germany against Jewish, gay, “non-white” people and others that “not to speak is to speak, and not to act is to act.”

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. distinguished between a just and an unjust law: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” He based his understanding of just and unjust laws largely on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas on natural law in Summa Theologica. King further said that “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” This is the nature of civil (and holy) disobedience. 

Many persons who, at this juncture, advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ persons in the Church believe that the 46 years (since 1972) of exclusionary policies contained in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, and the resultant exclusionary practices, are effectively (church) laws that are unjust. 

King’s Birmingham Jail letter was written to address eight white clergymen (two of whom were Methodist) and their churches that, in 1963, were insisting on gradual, moderate approaches to change in addressing the atrocious racial and social injustices occurring in Birmingham, Alabama, and across the nation at that time.

Then, a few months after the Birmingham letter, at the March on Washington, D.C., in August 1963, King again addressed the matters of gradualism and moderation, and argued for immediacy, and the “urgency of now” in acting against unjust laws and seeking to move toward racial, social and economic justice for all people. He said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” 

It is my sense that along with a clear sense of their faithfulness, fruitfulness,  fitness and readiness for the ministries of Deacon and Elder in The United Methodist Church, this same sense of immediacy and the urgency of now around affirming God’s calling on LGBTQI+ persons to serve in ordained ministry is the spirit in which the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry earlier this year conducted our inquiry of candidates presented to us, and arrived at our prayerful decisions to recommend 29 persons for commissioning and ordination, including two persons who are LGBTQI+. 

Two questions that persist for me are: 1) what Jesus might do; and 2) what is Jesus doing as it regards the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ persons in the life of The United Methodist Church? In some of his first recorded public words, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Then, over the next three years, Jesus went about acting on what he said he believed. I believe that Jesus would act today in ways where unconditional love is demonstrated to all persons, and that he’d act in ways that all persons who are on the margins of the Church are welcome and fully included in the Church’s life. And I believe that if Jesus deemed laws and rules to be unjust and harmful today, he would necessarily resist, reject and disobey them (as he did in his day) for the sake of the kin-dom of God. This is the nature of civil (and holy) disobedience. 

As it pertains to the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ and all persons in the life of The United Methodist Church, the path forward now leads to St. Louis, Missouri, the called session of General Conference in February 2019, and consideration of the recommendation of the Council of Bishops and its Commission on a Way Forward. My fervent prayer is that in the weeks and months to come, God’s Spirit will move in ways that make it clear what the Church’s commitments are, in our words and actions, to the full inclusion of all persons in all facets of the Church’s life. 

 

*Rev. Tony Hunt is Senior Pastor at Epworth Chapel UMC in Baltimore and Chair of the BWC Board of Ordained Ministry.

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