In my previous post, I highlighted some of the things I didn’t see at Reconciling Ministries Network’s (RMN) convocation Churchquake. In this post, I will highlight some of what I did witness
Were I to summarize everything I saw or heard at Churchquake that would shock, bemuse, or anger the typical United Methodist, it would take me at least a half dozen posts. For the sake of my sanity, I will instead highlight only the most controversial or blatantly false things I heard at Churchquake.
Bishop Talbert’s blessing
The most widely reported controversy of Churchquake has been the fact that retired Bishop Melvin Talbert offered a blessing of same-sex couples during his Sunday sermon (you can watch the blessing here, beginning at 1:34:00). There has been some confusion and debate about whether or not Bishop Talbert’s actions are in violation of The Book of Discipline. The United Methodist Reporter notes that the Book of Discipline prohibits clergy from “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions.” On the other hand, Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of Good News, opined that Bishop Talbert “never followed through to violate [The Book of Discipline]” and that his act was “purely symbolic.”
I am slightly inclined to agree with Rev. Lambrecht. Without a doubt, Bishop Talbert’s blessing “celebrate[d]” homosexual unions, and did so in a manner that intentionally drew from the Declaration of Marriage: “Because these couples have given themselves to each other by solemn vows… I announce that they are married, in the name of the Creator, Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit.” But for me, the defining question is whether or not the blessing constituted a “ceremony” in the sense The United Methodist Reporter seems to think. At the very least, Bishop Talbert’s actions are highly questionable and deserve further discussion.
Bishop Talbert has long called for UMC clergy to practice “biblical obedience” by performing same-sex marriages in violation of The Book of Discipline. At the same time, he himself has always made sure to barely tip-toe the line. As Rev. Lambrecht points out, Bishop Talbert had the opportunity to preside over the two gay marriages being performed at Churchquake, but didn’t. While Bishop Talbert is creeping closer and closer towards an outright disobedience of the UMC’s prohibition on presiding over gay marriages, for now he is content to watch other clergymen and women face the consequences.
Bishop Swenson’s troubling advice
Alongside Bishop Talbert, active Bishop Mary Ann Swenson spoke on Sunday, during which she made clear that she saw her position as the ecumenical officer on the Council of Bishops as one way to push forward a pro-gay agenda. “Now, praise God, I get the privilege to serve as the ecumenical officer… [and] I believe it offers us one of our ways forward in our biblical obedience…. Bishop Talbert and I, along with [RMN Executive Director] Troy Plummer and some others attended a consultation last fall with the United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian church leaders on how we can all work together in our reconciling efforts…”
Bishop Swenson even gave out instructions on how to work with liberal denominations to avoid punishment for performing same-sex marriages. “When United Methodist pastors find themselves threatened because of officiating marriages or unions, then we say ‘Let’s work together with our ecumenical colleagues. Our neighbors can help us!’ If you feel like you cannot have it in your sanctuary because of what will happen to you if you do, then have it in your UCC sanctuary next door, and have all the United Methodist congregation come and be a part of it…”
Other sermon highlights
Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, the senior pastor of Glide United Methodist Church in San Francisco, delivered the Saturday morning sermon. Mostly she gave a fairly typical liberal sermon in favor of a greater acceptance of homosexuality in the United Methodist Church, but there was one part of the sermon that stood out. Rev. Dr. Olivetto, who is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pacific School of Religion, claimed there was an ongoing American “eradication” of people of color:
“There are genocides going on right now right outside these doors in the United States of America. There is a genocide of brown and black people that is occurring on our city streets. Gun violence, a failed drug policy, poverty, industrial prison complex, have been instruments of eradication, while racism has made walking while black a crime punishable by death… Families have been torn apart, children literally ripped from their parent’s…”
“…arms because of broken immigration policies.”
Oh. I thought she was onto something there.
Mary Ann Kaiser, a former candidate for ordination in the UMC, also spoke on Sunday. Ms. Kaiser is still misrepresenting the sequence of events that led to the Board of Ordained Ministry removing her from consideration. As Kaiser tells it, the Board quashed her candidacy simply because she was gay: “I was never asked the defining questions about whether or not I was ‘practicing.’” But as the IRD’s John Lomperis noted months ago, Kaiser was open about the fact that she cohabited with and intended to marry her lesbian partner. The fact that Kaiser continues to claim her sexuality was the sole issue even after she got married is baffling at best, and dishonest at the worst.
Another sermon was given by Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a Native-American Christian activist. Briggs-Cloud spoke not just of how homophobia was a form of “spiritual warfare” against America’s indigenous peoples, but spoke out against deforestation, capitalism (“a system which perpetuates inequity in the world” ), GMO crops, hormone injections for livestock, uranium mining, the use of fossil fuels, and even proposals to make English the official language of the United States. At one point, Briggs-Cloud called on Christians to ignore parts of the Bible they disagree with, and instead listen to nature: “Let us not seek to redeem all scriptural text… [P]erhaps just rip out and leave those biblical pages suggestive of oppression for the wind and the rain to disintegrate them, and then start listening to the wind and the rain.”
Open Bathrooms (And the Not-So-Open Bathrooms)
Coming off the heels of the Desert-Southwest Conference’s decision to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice, Churchquake went a step further. Rather than saying that people could use the bathroom they identify with, Churchquake removed all gender distinctions from their bathrooms entirely. “Public restrooms labeled for women or men only can have adverse effects,” the RMN brochure reads, “Transgender and gender non-conforming persons report facing discrimination, harassment and even violence in bathrooms.” [italics in the original] A strong statement. But it would probably be more meaningful or believable if Churchquake didn’t also have two sets of bathrooms labeled by gender in addition to the open bathrooms.
I visited both the open bathrooms and the evil, bigoted men’s room. It was interesting that even though the open bathrooms were theoretically genderless, it was still clear that one had been designed for women, and the other for men (Perhaps there’s a metaphor there…). This sometimes led to awkward bathroom arrangements, such as when four women were waiting for stalls while urinals were sitting there unused. Needless to say, contrary to the constant assertions that greater LGBT acceptance is the cure for the UMC’s decline in membership, I doubt widespread implementation of the Bathrooms for Everyone policy would lead to anything but a mass exodus from the church.
Daily Bible studies were led by Peterson Toscano, a gay comedian and Christian actor who uses his acting to give a unique spin on Bible stories. Typically, he would take a verse and explain how, if you look close enough, there was a “gender non-conforming or gender variant” character in Bible, usually relying on a quirk or an ambiguity in the original language. For example, Toscano notes that the Hebrew word used to describe Joseph’s coat of many colors and the Hebrew word describing clothing worn by David’s daughter Tamal are the same. “If you have any intellectual integrity,” he then declares, “you have to admit that one possible interpretation is that Jacob gave his son a female garment.” He then acted out a scene where Jacob’s twin Esau declares how he and Jacob’s sons dislike Joseph because he’s too “girly” and isn’t manly enough. Selling him to slaves is their way of toughening him up. (Of course, if Toscano had a shred of “intellectual integrity,” he might have noticed that the Genesis text makes it clear Joseph’s brothers hated him out of jealousy for his “princess dress”)
Among some of Toscano’s other points: the man drawing water from a well who led Jesus’ disciples to his home for Passover was engaged in a chore usually reserved for women and children. From this tidbit, he imagines a situation where the man came out as transgender to his family over Passover. Likewise, every eunuch in the Bible is described by Toscano as part of a third gender: “Neither male nor female, somewhere in between”. The fact that eunuchs in the Bible are always referred to with male pronouns, sometimes as “man,” goes unmentioned. From there, Toscano acts out a scene where a eunuch gives Esther advice on how to win over King Xerxes in bed. “When you go into his private bedchambers… bring with you this feather, this leather strap, oh yes, and this over-ripened mango. Trust me, it will all make sense.”
To Toscano’s credit, he did say there isn’t enough Biblical evidence to say King David was gay. Instead, David was a “naked-dancing polyamorous bisexual singer-songwriter soldier shepherd after God’s own heart.” All in all, not exactly your mother’s Bible study.