By Rev. Austin Adkinson
Fears of schism are heightened this week as our denomination’s equivalent of the Supreme Court considers cases about the legitimacy of LGBTQI leadership. With the decisions of multiple conference Boards of Ordained Ministry to not consider sexual orientation as a factor in ordination, the mass coming out letter of 111 LGBTQI clergy and candidates (now 140+), and the election of our first out queer bishop, 2016 clearly demonstrated the breadth of the divisions between inclusionary United Methodists and those who seek to continue rejecting the gifts, talents, value, and calling of LGBTQI Christians.
The highest body in our church trial system now has to decide on some of these issues. How they rule will have significant bearing on whether or not we will be able to remain as one denomination. Or they might decide to kick the can down the road as General Conference did last May. Either way, the tension related to LGBTQI leadership and whether our denomination’s actions reflect our claim of everyone’s “sacred worth” are not going away.
I am praying that The United Methodist Church can remain united, but that unity cannot come at the expense of our LGBTQI siblings in faith. We are here. We are called by God to serve in lay and ordained ministry. We aren’t going away, and even if we did, more like us will come out of even the most conservative United Methodist congregations. To pray for unity without regard for the most vulnerable in the system is a false unity. End of story.
I don’t want schism. I want us to be able to keep doing the best of what we do well together. UMCOR is one of the best disaster response organizations in the world. Its value is incalculable. The General Board of Global Ministries cares for the needs of many of the most abused peoples at the periphery of the world’s empires. It would be a shame if we weren’t able to continue the same level of vital work that meets the basic needs of some of the world’s most marginalized and destitute because some Methodists can’t see the God given worth of their LGBTQI siblings.
I refuse to concede, however, that such a fissure would be our fault for asking that our worth be validated. I am not sorry we came out. I am not sorry for voting for the Pacific Northwest Board of Ordained Ministry to approve new (qualified) LGBTQI clergy candidates. I am not sorry for my leadership in our Annual Conference’s decision to stop enforcing discriminatory church laws. I am not sorry for helping elect Bishop Oliveto. I am not sorry for helping expose the rift that has long existed. I’m only sorry we weren’t so bold sooner.
If some United Methodists decide that they want to pack up their toys and go home to conditions where they can discriminate more freely, that’s entirely on them. We didn’t cause this by claiming our right to exist in the church that baptized and raised us. We didn’t cause this by calling on the church to stop causing harm in the name of Jesus. We won’t stop demanding full inclusion so that those who call us abominations and incompatible with Christian teaching are willing to remain seated at the table of (false) unity.
It is time for us to start talking about what we agree on and what we can do well together instead of arguing about what divides us. Even if conservative congregations choose to continue leaving the denomination, they could still decide to remain in partnership with progressive United Methodists on the humanitarian causes and other vital work on which we largely agree.
Whatever Judicial Council decides this week, the tensions within our denomination will remain or get worse. That doesn’t mean that God can’t still work through us, especially if we are able to see the God given worth in each one of the people called Methodists. The future of The United Methodist Church hangs in the balance in the weeks and months ahead. The future of God’s life giving ministry through faithful discipleship in Jesus does not.
Rev. Austin L. Adkinson is a currently the Minister of Just Discipleship at First United Methodist Church of Seattle. He is a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry of the PNW Conference, the convener of the Just Love Action Network of the Western Methodist Justice Movement, serves on the steering committee of the Praxis Forum of the Westar Institute (formerly of Jesus Seminar fame), and part of the emerging leadership of the newly formed UMC Queer Clergy Caucus. He was in New Jersey this week as part of a queer clergy witness at the meeting of Judicial Council.