Image credit: Adapted from the image ‘Zirkus – Monti’ by Flickr user def110, Creative Commons license.

By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries

During its 2012 session, the Pacific Northwest Conference voted overwhelmingly to support the marriage equality bill that was before voters in Washington state on election day. Bishop Grant J. Hagiya embodied the will of the conference by offering his voice to the Washington United for Marriage campaign; speaking with clarity about the importance of religious freedom. With the approval of Referendum 74, United Methodist clergy and congregations have two distinct questions to wrestle with.

First is the question of religious freedom and to whom it belongs. While much of the debate in the public realm has been focused on defining marriage rights, the Pacific Northwest Conference through its legislative action in June, and under the subsequent leadership of its Bishop and others this Fall, has taken a clear stand that no one group is entitled to define marriage for everyone. So the first question we need to answer is this. While faith communities in Washington state are now legally sanctioned to offer marriage rites to same sex couples, do United Methodist clergy and congregations currently have that same religious freedom?

The second question is one of fidelity; to whom or what are United Methodists ultimately accountable to. In a sense, the passing of Referendum 74 rips the proverbial bandaid off of a ecclesiological problem the church hasn’t resolved. Mixed messaging and clashing belief systems leave us with a series of different answers to the question of faithfulness. To name but a few:

Is United Methodist faithfulness to be located in a literalistic reading of the Scriptures that some find simplistic, the latest church growth strategy that some find consumeristic, or a progressive vision of Gospel fidelity that some find heretical?

Each possibility has its champions and detractors but their distinctions are not easily waived away as different facets of the same thing.

‘Tears of a Clown’ by Flickr user daybeezho

Those who seek unity within The United Methodist Church speak fondly of the church as a big tent, inclusive of many different opinions and points of view. I’ve always appreciated the metaphor just as I’ve valued those churches that embody it in positive ways. But sometimes, a big tent is just another name for a circus and while I’ve always found them interesting, I’d never turn to a circus for advice or leadership. Preserving unity at any cost runs the risk of leaving us looking like a sad clown; intent on bringing happiness but missing the joyful spirit, and appropriate face paint, to do so.

For some, it seems that the legalization of same-sex marriage is the worst thing they could ever imagine. But I pray that United Methodists, on either side of the aisle, see this as a gift from our mission field. When a same gender couple comes to one of our churches we have to own our decision when we turn them away – and vice versa.

For those opposed to marriage equality, this is what one might call a contrast point; an opportunity to share how being United Methodist makes you different from the world. Christians can and should draw such distinctions when they exist, even as we are called to do so with genuine love. As emerging generations continue to see inclusion as a civil right, the onus will fall upon these churches to offer compelling arguments that move past the politics of fear and are clearly distinguishable from homophobic arguments of the past.

Progressive supporters of marriage equality are faced with a gift of another sort. As gay and lesbian couples seek the blessing of our clergy and churches, The Book of Discipline remains an obstacle that threatens retribution; if other United Methodists choose to use it as such. As the government extends to us the religious freedom to act as our conscience moves, supporters will be compelled to decide where their ultimate sense of faithfulness lies; and those opposed will be forced to decide how much freedom and grace they would choose to offer those who disagree with them.

Together the church will decide who they want to be in the coming months. Will we be a big tent filled with people who model humility and grace for a world that can’t often disagree without being disagreeable? Or will the church be revealed as a circus with performers of all sorts but no compelling vision of hope to offer to a increasingly partisan world.

‘Ringmaster’ by Flickr user Thomas Hawk

Or perhaps we’ll rediscover the role of ringmaster, the one who “stage-manages the performance, introduces the various acts, and guides the audience through the entertainment experience 1.” If we envisioned God as ringmaster and the goal of all our actions – love, how might we look more generously at the lion tamers, the high-ropes acrobats, and those people who are foolishly willing to project themselves from a cannon for the sake of the show? Despite all of our protests, the beautifully messy circus act that is The United Methodist Church is not beyond God’s power to make sense of and direct to the benefit of a world in need of healing and hope.

Maybe a circus, with all its discordant acts, is what we are called to be.


  1. It is important to make the distinction that the Bishop was only speaking for himself and not the entire conference when lending his voice to the Approve Ref 74 movement.

    • Thanks for mentioning the distinction; I agree it’s important. It is also worth noting that his voice, speaking most clearly to the issue of religious freedom, was both in line with the Annual Conference’s action (which again doesn’t speak for every person) and the ecumenical and interfaith generosity of most of mainline Christianity. And of course that many others spoke in favor, and others against, practicing that freedom.

  2. Perhaps there is another option. When a same gender couple comes into a UM congregation, we absolutely should NOT “turn them away”; neither can we affirm a relationship which the Church has deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching”. But perhaps we can take the opportunity to let the couple know that our position is borne out of love…the idea that God has something better in mind for us than we have for ourselves. We can let them know that God loves them – and all of us – in spite of the decisions we make are incongruent with his will. We can also let them know that we will continue with them on this journey toward the heart of God in Jesus and will continue to love them no matter what.

    Church teaching may be providing for us an opportunity for ministry which we may not want to utilize because of our own reservations or political leanings.

    • Keith, I do expect that those who believe that same sex relationships are incompatible with Christian teaching would have such an opportunity but I hope, as I mentioned, that some real care could be given to how people share their understanding so we might live up to the maxim of ‘do no harm.’

      It’s still hard for me to see many convinced if the case is based on pseudoscience and ‘because God said so’ argumentation. Currently there is a huge credibility gap for the church as it has equal (and sometimes higher) rates of divorce, spousal abuse, etc. Is Christian teaching a card one can categorically throw down when the church seems to only apply when it does so to someone else?

      • Patrick…we should be sensitive in ALL of those cases, and yes…learn to apply Church teachings, fairly, across the board; heterosexual behavior outside of marriage is just as “incompatible” at homosexual behavior and should be just as concerning for the Church.

        IMO, we should NEVER resort to science to support Church teaching, but should always stick to Scripture and theology. We have wisdom & authority in those areas…science, not so much.

        • Keith, I agree but I do think we have to resolve the tension between our experiences of the world (which science helps us to interpret and understand) and our theological heritage. To draw a wall between the two is to ultimately disenfranchise the church from being a constructive voice in society. I know this isn’t what you are suggesting – but I am curious about the intersect.

      • Patrick, I think you need to clarify what you mean when you say, “Do no harm.” Is that the same thing as hurting someone’s feelings? I would contend that it is harmful to ignore or deny Christian teaching.

        • Holly, hurting a person’s feelings isn’t something the church should shy away from; thanks for pointing this out. Though we are of course called to be discerning in our words to not do so unnecessarily.

          An example, from another era (though perhaps this is optimistic), might be the church’s insistence and refusal to permit divorce even in cases of spousal abuse. I’m sure those who reinforced this traditional belief intended the best but the application, regardless of circumstance, led to some results worth repenting of.

  3. Yes, considering “circus” rather than “big tent” might be a better and beneficial way of thinking about Church. As I image circus I think of the few who “put on the show” while the majority of the tent folk are watching “the show.” Those who are in the ring are not God, but rather folk who strive to reveal aspects/considerations/dreams of God, and who know their action and voice matters to whether or not those in the stands will stay through the show, enjoy the show, and return to the tent another day.

    If those in the ring present the everyday, the normal, there is little reason for those in the stands to remain seated. However, when the ring challenges the stands and they begin considering their norm may not be the norm of others there is reason to stay in the tent a little longer—What might I be missing? What might I learn?

    To challenge the stands and have them consider returning to the tent may be advantageous to their wellbeing, the ring itself must also be challenged. When the Book of Discipline becomes the norm for those in the ring and when it is right and does not allow for questioning or change, then will not the tent soon empty and those in the ring become little more than clowns without an audience? Perhaps the tent is called to be that place where all who enter are challenged, where any book is challenged the moment it is written, and no one leaves unchallenged or unchanged.

    • I appreciate you thinking through the metaphor more fully. I’ve always gravitated toward the tent you describe toward the end. As a young evangelical I went to a liberal seminary. As a progressive adult I enjoy conversation and even debate with conservative friends and family. It is sad to see the bitter partisanship of our political realm mirrored in the church where we seem to isolate ourselves in like-minded groups. And when we disagree we struggle to leave the debate as friends recognizing that we grow in dialogue even with those who are wrong when we engage that debate in love.

  4. This weekend I went to the Barna Group, “You lost me” event. As I sat in an evangelical church surrounded by white male pastors who would not even recognize me as a pastor because I am female I understand fully why the church is losing people. They lost me at an event that is suppose to help church leaders understand how to invite people in!
    I walked away from that event grateful for the grace embodied by the Wesleyan movement. We have a message to share to a broken world that helps people walk out of a den of repression into the light of love.
    Let us move forward with this grace — sharing it freely and openly. We would be clowns to deny the age of enlightenment.

    • Beth, thanks for the insight. I’m also sorry that you were such a minority presence at the Barna event. While some of the Barna Group’s methodology is suspect, especially their narrow definition of what a Christian is, there are some things we all could glean from their work. I hope this was the case.

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