This is Part 1 of my reports on the For Everyone Born conference held by liberal caucuses of United Methodists from July 26—29 in St. Louis. For Part 2, click here.
From July 26—29, the For Everyone Born conference brought together a few hundred United Methodists from the Love Your Neighbor Coalition, a collection of LGBTQ-affirming organizations like Affirmation, Reconciling Ministries Network, and United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus. The groups gathered for fellowship, to listen to members of the Commission on the Way Forward, and to plan for their presence at the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) special General Conference in February 2019. The majority of the conference’s leaders and presenters are lesbian, gay, queer, or transgender themselves.
Naturally, the progressive and unorthodox beliefs held by the speakers led to scathing statements about the UMC and bold claims about the conservatives who they oppose. The Rev. Dr. Tyler Schwaller, a lifelong United Methodist and a professor of Religious Studies at Wesleyan College who is openly gay proclaimed: “I feel that the United Methodist Church isn’t in a state of dying, that it’s dead,” and later continued, “A church that proclaims unity but is obsessed in persecuting and prosecuting LGBT persons has no integrity and is spiritually dead.” Recalling a meeting he attended with District Superintendents who had filed complaints against self-avowed, practicing Iowa clergywoman Anna Blaedel he said “I don’t think I’ll know death more when I’m dead, like underground. That room was dead, and that was a moment I thought, ‘This church is done.’”
The Rev. Dr. Tracy West also made outrageous claims about those who have upheld the church’s standards on human sexuality. “Literally, the Bible and the Discipline are used to terrorize. That’s what all the churches and trials are about, it’s about terrorizing. Terrorizing queer people…” (Emphasis added.) In a year in which domestic terrorists have gunned down dozens of Americans and extremist groups worldwide maim and murder countless innocents, it is deeply disappointing to see West equate such violence with refusals to ordain and to marry individuals who openly violate church teaching.
Dr. Dorothee Benz, Chief Communications Officer for Lambda Legal, a national legal organization that fights for LGBTQ causes, had a cutting explanation for the cruelty and passion for punishment they see in conservative Methodists: “Honestly, sometimes I wonder if these people have even met Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that I know, because the Jesus I know values relationships over rules and people over policies.” (Emphasis added.)
Karen Oliveto, the “bishop” for the Mountain Sky Area whose episcopacy has been under constant question due to her being in a same-sex marriage, gave a more positive and hopeful perspective than many others at the conference. Seeking to encourage the room, she said, “The church is in good hands, it’s in good hands with our young people” because they have moved beyond LGBTQ issues and “they’re waiting for us to catch up.” Though she has faced criticism and challenges, she says the support she has received has far outweighed the rejection, which gives her hope that the UMC on the whole is more LGBTQ-affirming than not, and that conservatives are overrepresented in church leadership: “What that says to me is that the people in the pews are in a different place than our polity… That’s where the hope lies.”
Oliveto’s facts and logic are misleading at best. Most conservative United Methodists upset by her illegitimate election would not see any point in writing her hate mail, which is a wise choice, while her supporters, many of whom are not Methodists, are naturally eager to communicate with her. Oliveto and her supporters also tend to ignore the global church – outside of the US, United Methodists are much more traditional in their values. Within the US, after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, a survey done by UM Communications found that 54 percent of both American pastors and lay people still supported the church’s ban on it. Among lay people, this traditional view grew stronger after the ruling, jumping 4 percent from before.
The notion that conservatives are over-represented in UMC leadership is absurd. As John Lomperis has reported, the very small but extremely liberal Western Jurisdiction (WJ) has more bishops per church member than any other American or African region. It has been proportionally the second best represented in the influential Connectional Table, which brings together representatives of all of the major official denominational power structures. Further, the WJ is the only US jurisdiction which contributes nothing for overseas bishops and gets its own bishops subsidized by other Americans. If the WJ was limited to only bishops it could pay for, Oliveto wouldn’t have been elected in 2016, since there would have been no open slots.