By Rev. Mary K. (Sellon) Huycke
‘It seldom happens that the Church is wise to know her day of visitation. When God would have her move forward and take up some new enterprise, it usually happens that he has to beckon often and long before he is obeyed”
Bishop James M. Thoburn, My Missionary Apprenticeship
My grandmother’s uncle wrote those words in 1884 as he reflected on the work of women in the church. As a young Methodist missionary in India frustrated by his inability to be in ministry with women in that culture, he’d written home to his sister, Isabella, and off-handedly suggested she join him. To his utter dismay, she promptly accepted.
Once she arrived and he saw the fruit of her work, he quickly discovered his mistake in thinking women unfit for the work. Recalling a colleague perplexed at “the curious phenomenon” of the great numbers of women wanting to serve as missionaries, Thoburn wrote, “It did not once occur to him, it did not then occur to any body, that the presence of a conviction so strong and general was an indication of the will of God.”
Among the many pieces of legislation that we will discuss and vote on at General Conference will be some on removing exclusionary language around LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. This is as disconcerting to some as the idea of women in ministry originally was to my ancestor.
We’ll talk and pray and ultimately, vote. Ideally, our intent will be to determine, as best we can, God’s will — looking for what Quakers call “an opening of way.” And yet I imagine, like me, the vast majority of delegates arrived with a firm idea in their minds of what the “right” answer is.
I am supportive of removing exclusionary language in the Book of Discipline. Even as I commit to engage all the legislation in a discerning spirit, I have a hard time imagining what would change my mind. Even the question, “what if I’m wrong?” leaves me convicted that it would be for the right reasons – my belief in God’s all pervasive love and a denominational history of continually expanding the idea of who’s included. I believe that the Church has been slow to know her day of visitation. I believe it’s time.
At the same time, as I’ve spoken with colleagues from Africa I’ve learned how certain language, were it included in our Book of Discipline, could put them in danger from their government and would impede their work. Our delegation committed before arriving to hold the welfare of the world as as guide.
These conversations have strengthened my sense that removing exclusionary language is the wisest course. This would allow for contextual interpretation both outside and within the United States, without endangering the ministry and in some places the lives of colleagues working in other countries.
Isabella Thoburn said “yes” to a call when others ridiculed it. Her brother and other denominational leaders opened the door, believing there could be fruit. Her one-room girls school grew in her lifetime to be the first women’s college in India. Today, Isabella Thoburn College is associated with Lucknow University and offers both bachelor and master’s level degrees.
There are persons today experiencing genuine calls; others are longing for hope and healing and finding none. Ministry calls. It’s time.
Mary K. (Sellon) Huycke works as a leadership coach for clergy, congregations and judicatory bodies navigating change and transition. She has served as a DS and as pastor in settings ranging from new church start to redevelopment and co-authored several books, the most recent being Pathway to Renewal.