As the United Methodist Church (UMC) splits apart, the depth of the denomination’s division over human sexuality and related theological questions is becoming increasingly obvious. Recently, a video was posted by openly gay Isaac Simmons, an associate pastor at Hope UMC in Bloomington, Illinois, who has been widely celebrated as the first drag queen certified as an ordination candidate in the UMC. Simmons regularly preaches in drag as the female persona “Ms. Penny Cost,”and has been featured as a speaker for progressive United Methodists across the country.
The video immediately raises questions about the wisdom of ordaining Simmons. Blatantly titled “The Bible is Nothing” the video is now featured prominently on Simmons’ website. It contains repeated use of profanity (including blasphemy), consistent anger-filled claims against orthodoxy, casual hate, and a denial of God. Simmons opens with a shocking disparagement of the Bible’s unique authority, stating, “The Bible is no more holy than Allen Ginsburg’s howls of life, no more peaceful than Oscar Wilde’s Requiescat in pace, and no more stronger than Tammy f—ing Faye’s g—d— eyelash glue.”
Simmons delivers the poem orally as himself (wearing a shirt with the words “PROUD MARY” and an apparent picture of a statue of Jesus Christ’s mother overlaid with rainbow colors), rather than in his drag queen persona. In this video, he calls the Bible “nothing but poetry, pain, and performance” and refers to God as “God, themself” (avoiding male pronouns for God).
The poem eventually devolves into a condemnation of “theology of toxic masculinity” and “Christian terrorists who wield their flappable doctrine to inflict harm on God’s queerly anointed creation.” Simmons even likens Christians with traditional biblical beliefs to literal murderers of gay people like Aaron McKinney, Roger Nunez, and Omar Mateen.
Simmons even repeats “God is nothing” several times, at one point declaring “God is nothing, but if she were, she would be a seamstress, of divine couture, weaving together string theory and self-portraits to form the fiercest gowns of queer existence.” Simmons goes so far as to reference the “nothingness” of the Bible, God, and religion with an explicit gay pornography term. Throughout the entire five-minute rant, Simmons belittles God’s divinity, holiness, and supremacy.
According to Ms. Penny Cost’s “About” page, Simmons found a home in the UMC after coming out as gay, and discovered in the UMC’s doctrine a “beautiful understanding of Grace, a history of reformation, and a desire to right the wrongs of injustice, oppression, and exclusion.” Throughout this brief autobiography, Simmons never directly mentions Jesus Christ, salvation, or repentance of personal sin. There is, however, a reference to the “reclamation of Spirituality” and a claim of “Love, Affirmation and Celebration which ever flows from the Divine.”
Now certified as an ordination candidate in the historically moderate Illinois-Great Rivers Annual Conference, this drag-queen activist has been celebrated by liberal United Methodists across the nation. He was an invited speaker for the distant, Arizona-centered Desert Southwest Conference’s “Pride Month Worship Service” last year. He will be a speaker at a large, liberal United Methodist congregation in Missouri later this year. The official United Methodist News Service’s YouTube channel has even produced a one-sided video sympathetically detailing how Simmons uses “the art form of drag” to “speak in a new way.” Simmons says he celebrates everyone fully for who they are because he sees it as “divine.”
Ms. Penny Cost was also recently featured as the keynote speaker for a major event organized by the Indiana “Room For All Coalition,” the main caucus of liberal leaders in the UMC’s Indiana Annual Conference. During this speech, Simmons outlined an alleged difference between the “Duty to Doctrine” and the “Duty to Care” He then stated that church doctrine would have to give way to “Care,” if the two are in conflict, because “doctrine is but a document of humanity, but humanity is a testament of divinity. In caring for one another, we care for the Well of Justice… the River of Peace… the Source of Unyielding Love itself.” He portrayed doctrine as an obstacle, rather than divinely established truths that lead to love, freedom, and the best care. In the same speech Simmons referred to God as “God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Trans-Identifying Parent of Color.”
Simmons’ obvious disdain for traditional believers and biblical faith raises many questions his candidacy for ordination. When Simmons produces such forceful diatribes against the foundations of biblical Christian faith, what kind of service would he conduct as a minister of a flock? How patient and loving should would he likely be with conservative members of any United Methodist congregation to which he may be appointed as pastor in the future?
Ms. Penny Cost is a symptom of a larger issue facing the UMC, and a possible indicator of the future of the post-separation United Methodist Church. If the UMC continues to celebrate the self-centered postmodern theology that glorifies individual power, it will lose all connection to the biblical truths of sin and salvation. Church people will continue to struggle with what it means to love others without condoning sin. But Simmons’ provocative, angry activism, and the way it has been widely embraced by liberal United Methodists beyond his annual conference, suggests that the post-separation UMC may increasingly silence and “cancel” as bigots anyone who objects to the flamboyant queer spirituality or questions the radical theology of such drag-queen pastors in the denomination.
UPDATE [10/14/2022]: Isaac Simmons preached October 2 at Allendale UMC in St. Petersburg, Florida, as Ms. Penny Cost, including a children’s sermon. Read more here.