As the United Methodist Church meets this week for its 10-day quadrennial General Conference, a group of more than 100 UMC faith leaders have come out in defiance of official church rules, openly declaring themselves as gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex in a letter posted online just one day before the conference's start.
Addressed simply to "United Methodist Church," the 111 signatories to the letter ("local pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry") write openly about their frustrations with having to "not bring [their] full selves to ministry," as a result of the Church's policy regarding homosexuality.
Originally published May 9 on the website for Methodist LGBT advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network, the letter generated so much traffic that RMN's site reportedly crashed. It has since been republished by Believe Out Loud, another Christian LGBT group.
"While some of us have been lucky to serve in places where we could serve honestly and openly," the letter reads, "there are others in places far more hostile, who continue to serve faithfully even at tremendous cost to themselves, their families, and yes, even the communities they serve, who do not receive the fullness of their pastor’s gifts because a core part must remain hidden."
In their "Book of Discipline," the United Methodist Church states "[t]he practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," and that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" are to be denied ministerial positions within the Church.
Anthony Fatta, an associate-pastor in Silicon Valley who signed the letter, explained to Think Progress that "…no one knows what ‘practicing’ means, and no one knows what ‘self-avowed’ means either … So the letter is not a window into 111 persons’ sex lives or lack thereof. It’s just a proclamation that we’re serving the church, and we’re just as much ministers of God as any other clergy person."
While publicly declaring themselves members of the LGBT community brings with it the possibility for disciplinary actions from within the Methodist Church, the benefits of signing seem to far outweigh the potential risks for Rev. Laura Young, an Ohio based pastor who told CNN, "I feel lighter already. I can be a better pastor and a better person when I can be my full self, living in the light and with integrity."
It's that sense of service which permeates the text of the letter. "You cannot legislate against God’s call," it reads at one point, explaining that no matter how restrictive the Church's policy may be—or become—"God will continue to move mysteriously in the hearts of LGBTQI young people and adults and will call them to serve within this denomination."
It's here that the signatories make their most concrete argument in the whole of the letter—namely, that by instituting a policy which is exclusionary to, the Methodist Church tacitly (and sometimes not-so-tacitly) contributes to the at-risk environment in which many young members of the LGBT community find themselves:
We come out, too, to provide hope for LGBTQI young people in hostile UMC churches. These young people are more at risk for suicide than their peers, in part, because of the condemnation they hear from the pulpits and pews of their churches. We come out to remind them that God’s love for them is immeasurable, and offers them a love that will never let them go, even when it feels like the church is willing to let them go.
While Church rules may be fairly static when it comes to acceptance of homosexuality, attitudes within the Methodist community itself appear somewhat more open-minded; a 2015 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found a full 67% of white mainline Methodists either favored, or strongly favored same-sex marriage.
In fact, days before the letter was published, Pastor David Meredith (himself a signatory) married his boyfriend of 28 years, while clergy at a Methodist church in North Carolina made waves for officiating a same-sex wedding in late April. And early this month, 15 members of New York's Methodist community published their own open letter to the Methodist church, declaring "[w]e are compelled now to speak out and tell the whole truth of who we are to the wider church."
Despite these grassroots moves toward inclusiveness, some of those who signed latest letter appear focused more on attitudinal changes, rather than doctrinal ones. As Anthony Fatta told Think Progress, "Our main focus [with the letter] is to change hearts and minds, and not necessarily focus on legislation. For me, personally, I’ve lost a lot of faith in how we do business in the church and legislate these things. Robert’s Rules of Order are not the best way to discern God’s grace."
Still, many of those who signed the letter have taken to social media to celebrate their newly declared openness, using the hashtag #CalledOut.
The letter itself ends on a hopeful note, simply saying, "may we provide a powerful witness of finding unity even in our differences to a world fractured by fear and mistrust."