A prominent lesbian activist within the United Methodist Church was surprisingly frank in admitting that it “doesn’t look” likely for our denomination to officially liberalize its current biblical standards on sexual morality anytime soon.
Earlier this year, Sue Laurie led a workshop earlier on “Resiliency as a Calling” at Winter Warming, an annual retreat of the Northern Illinois chapter of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). Laurie was a longtime RMN staffer, and relatively recently switched to working for Amy DeLong’s Love Prevails group.
At times, she was funny and friendly, so that I appreciated the chance to see a more three-dimensional view of her character than I had in my previous years of running into her.
She shared at length about her own experience of gay-rights activism within the UMC. Because of her unwillingness to live by the denomination’s biblical policies prohibiting clergy from sexual relations outside of man-woman marriage, she was denied ordination, twice. As a student at the denomination’s Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, she was outspoken in promoting the addition of “sexual orientation” to the school’s non-discrimination policies. She explained her often confrontational approach as telling those debating homosexuality, “I’m here to personalize it for you,” and dismissing those who would tell her “this is not about you.”
Laurie recalled being arrested, along with many other pro-homosexuality activists, for illegal disruptions of the UMC’s 2000 General Conference. She admitted that some of those protesting our denomination’s meeting were non-Methodist outside agitators. But she justified this on the basis that “what the church does hurts a lot of people who are not United Methodist.”
I wonder if by the same logic she would accept a militant group of non-Methodist pro-lifers disrupting a liberal Methodist conference that was defending abortion violence. But that seems unlikely given the strongly abortion-supportive position taken by both RMN and Love Prevails.
Throwing cold water on hopes of mild bridge building, Laurie decried how traditionalist Christians have expressed respect for her honesty in contrast to those who have lied about their sexual practices for the sake of getting ordained. She described such interactions as someone “who is my enemy” trying to separate her from her people. She also recalled how realizing “that I have enemies” enabled her to pray for them. In any case, Laurie insisted that there could not be “brokenness” or “lack of integrity” among those who deliberately lie for the sake of “following their calling” to be ordained in the UMC, but that the only brokenness is with our denomination.
This liberal caucus leader’s declaration was rather striking in its radical break from basic biblical, Wesleyan teaching on several levels. Her rhetoric about brokenness not lying in people (particularly not among herself and those with whom she most identifies) but instead in allegedly unjust structures seems to reflect the fundamental refusal of folk in the UMC’s liberal-caucus faction to accept such basic realities as the Fall and the fundamentally sinful nature of ALL of fallen humanity. As VII of the Methodist Articles of Religion puts it, “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam[‘s example] … but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” As Laurie outlined it, the high value the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition especially places on communal accountability must be replaced with recognizing no greater authority that the autonomous individual doing whatever they want, based on what they feel. If someone says they feel “they are called” to have a special spiritual leadership position in the church, then that is so “primary for people who are called” that apparently they are entitled to what they demand, with no one having any right to question if God has really called them to this. According to Laurie, such radical individualism must be so absolute that individuals following their feelings have no personal responsibility to live within such basic moral boundaries as not lying through their teeth to ordination boards. And individuals with such values are who the United Methodist Church most desperately needs as Christian teachers, moral examples, and providers of pastoral counseling.
Laurie reported that in the 1990s, “we” had encouraged gay people unwilling to live celibately to nevertheless to pursue UMC ordination, in spite of the UMC Book of Discipline’s prohibitions on clergy being sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, since there were “real signs then that we were going to fix it soon.” At another point, she reported that she and others in her movement “were able to convince friends into the closet” – apparently meaning encouraging people unwilling to live by biblical standards of sexual self-control to lie their way through ordination, rather than more honestly in another context – “because we really thought that it would change soon.”
But now at this workshop she repeatedly admitted “now it doesn’t look that way.”
Laurie expressed bitter disappointment with liberal bishops and officials of the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) for agreeing with her cause but failing, in some way she did not specify, by “still allow[ing] this to continue.” She denounced the UMC’s continued traditionalist policies on sexual morality as “corruption,” akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s covering up clergy sexual abuse or the NFL’s covering up football players’ concussions. She particularly decried resistance to the Connectional Table’s plan to impose same-sex weddings and openly homosexually active pastors in every region of our denomination.
Laurie’s expressing clear support for this plan to a small gathering of liberal activists would seem to confirm the perception that the more public opposition Love Prevails made a show of making to this plan amounted to little more than “crocodile tears” to assist Connectional Table leaders in dishonestly presenting this plan, which would have actually put the UMC to the left of the Episcopal Church on sexuality, as somehow being a compromise or a “third way.”
She at one point encouraged participants to discuss reasons for staying in the UMC or leaving the denomination. But she declared that LGBTQ people as being “in an abusive relationship” with the United Methodist Church, adding that people should not be told that they must stay in an abusive relationship, while still affirming staying as a personal option.
Of course, I don’t know anyone in our denomination who says we should be “abusive” towards same-sex-attracted individuals or anyone else. Rather, the majority of us recognize that of course United Methodist pews as well as pulpits are full of sinners of all varieties, and we all need the church to stand firm in teaching biblical truth and the moral boundaries God has given us both for honoring Him and for our own good and flourishing.
But the would-be United Methodist pastor did not seem interested in really understanding or fairly representing adherents of biblical, United Methodist theology. She insisted that orthodox United Methodists are “trying to kill me and throw me out with the trash.”
The liberal caucus leader also made very clear that even dramatic one-sided concessions and appeasements of activists like her would not bring peace to our denomination’s battles over sexuality. While in the 1990s, she recalled promoting the “compromise” of replacing the UMC’s traditionalist teachings and policies with language affirming people can have different beliefs “in good faith” – and apparently allowing same-sex unions and homosexually active pastors for those who wanted them – now even this would not be good enough for her. (To see Laurie speak for herself on this, you can read here.)
On this note, it is worth remembering that even allowing homosexually active ministers in every single United Methodist pulpit and requiring them in every single United Methodist congregation would still ultimately not go far enough for leading activists like Ms. Laurie.
When she was on staff with RMN, back when it was called the “Reconciling Congregations Program” within the UMC, her group co-published a magazine, Open Hands, which ran an article blatantly celebrating non-marital promiscuity – from bisexual threesomes (“polyamory”) to anything-goes group-sex parties – as acceptable Christian behavior. This article applies the logic for acceptance of homosexual practice to acceptance of promiscuity, saying that “others are nonmonogamous and feel that to be otherwise would be to deny an important part of themselves.”
If you don’t want to take my word for it, go ahead and click here to see for yourself some scans from that issue of Open Hands, where its affiliation with the Reconciling Congregations Program and with RCP representative “Susan Laurie” can be clearly seen.