March 3: “Houses Divided” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
What they say about people is also true about churches – no one is an island. What one religious community does has an impact on the perception of us all. When a Catholic priest is accused of sexual abuse, it makes everybody wonder whether their children are safe with their clergy. When one megachurch pastor asks for donations to enable him to buy a second private jet, it makes all givers wonder where their contributions go. When one synod silences the wisdom and refuses the leadership of women, it makes most people living in the 21st century perceive all religions as outdated artifacts. And when one denomination decides that gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people are not worthy to be blessed in marriage, or to stand in a pulpit and preach or bless or pray for their community, it makes all churches look like narrow-minded, unwelcoming, harmful places.
The decision this week by the Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to affirm and reinforce policies prohibiting GLBTQ clergy from serving churches, and all clergy from officiating at same-gender weddings, is an occasion for dismay far beyond that one Christian denomination. If it were not for this ripple effect, the internal political struggles of United Methodists would be in some sense none of our business; none of anyone’s business outside of that confessional covenant community. Unfortunately, the struggle within that denomination mirrors the same struggle going on in our nation and around the world, and reinforces the perception among our GLBTQ neighbors and loved ones that they are different, vulnerable, and in some inescapable way less than others. And make no mistake; that perception does harm. And causes pain. The only thing it defends is the anxious identity of people who are insecure in their own sexual self-awareness, and the only thing it protects is the hetero-normative privilege so long inscribed in Western colonial culture. I can say with perfect assurance after 15 years since Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, that weddings of gay and lesbian people have had no negative impact whatsoever upon my own marriage of more than four decades.
It would be easy to wax self-righteous about all this from our position as Unitarian Universalists today, but that also serves no good purpose, and creates pain. It is well for us to remember that we have had our own struggle with issues around sexuality and gender identity. We survived, to arrive at a fairly clear consensus of acceptance now, but we lost members and leaders over these questions back in the 60s, and it was only 25 years ago that we had UUA staff doing educational interventions with search committees in order to persuade them to even consider openly gay and lesbian candidates. We are not now, and have never been, immune to the pressures of popular prejudice. Some courageous and determined leaders helped us to get out in front of the curve on this particular issue, and that is testimony to our good fortune as much as our good sense or compassion.
Part of what has made it simpler for our denomination to achieve and maintain consensus has been our having remained a largely North American tradition, centered in the USA. While the United Methodist church had become a truly international body, with the strong presence of more traditional notions of Christianity from overseas, we UUs have almost never confronted this form of internal diversity. More recently colonized, or less economically developed, cultures have often been exposed to Christianity first from an evangelical missionary perspective, which does not lift up a more progressive, flexible, or developmental understanding of faith. We might have regarded this global outreach to be a virtue of the United Methodist institution, and the lack of it something of a failure in our own. In point of fact, even the less robust connection with our historically Unitarian cousins in Eastern Europe exposed us in a much milder way to this dilemma, when the Bishops of the Unitarian churches in Romania supported their government’s recent referendum to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage. That initiative failed in the popular vote, but the Bishops’ decision to endorse the amendment served both to illustrate and to widen a division between the younger, progressive members and clergy in our partner churches, and the more conservative church power structure. The older leaders in part seek to cultivate influence and a favorable view from the secular state, but they also represent a culture of white, male, heterosexual privilege that seeks to continue its dominance. Again, it is a matter of luck that this perspective has no practical power over American UU congregations under our radically independent congregational form of governance, but that also implies that we are well-defended against any demands from or accountability to the world outside our privileged nation. Is that a good thing? In this instance, perhaps. In a more general way, I’m not so sure.
It is unclear what the next step for the United Methodist community will be. As I understand it, the policy decision that was voted by the delegates to the General Conference will be challenged before the denomination’s Judicial Council, which has the power to decide whether that policy conforms to the body’s governing constitution. If aspects of the voted policy are declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council, then presumably a new, corrected version would again be submitted for another vote. If the policy is not substantially struck down, then it seems likely that a number of American churches would leave the denomination, and many individuals would leave local congregations. This is no occasion for satisfaction in other denominations; as I said before, these kinds of proceedings reflect poorly on all churches as institutions, and on religion as a whole.
It is certainly true that the doors and the hearts of Unitarian Universalists, in this congregation and elsewhere, remain open, as they have always been, to anyone who finds their spiritual journey leading them away from their earlier church affiliations. Many of us arrived here after that kind of leave-taking, and we know a few things about welcome. But let’s not imagine that we know everything; many people have struggled to find a place here among us, even when they agree with our principles and mission statements. We can be just as clique-y and judgmental and culture-bound in our own ways as any other group, and it is a never-ending process of learning and growth to stay aware of the roadblocks to entry into this community, and to be continually engaged in trying to dismantle them.
But beyond that constant vigilance, I want us to think and feel carefully about our United Methodist neighbors in this very difficult moment. I want to start by inviting you to ponder this question: What would the national organization of the UUA have to do or decide in order for you to consider yourself no longer a Unitarian Universalist? Perhaps you have not really made that connection yet, and it’s not even a part of your identity, or maybe it’s so recent and tentative that you could let it go without much struggle. Possibly, having left one or more previous traditions, it would be just one more step along your journey; some disappointment, perhaps, that the institution failed to live up to its ideals and promises, but no trauma or deep grief. But then there are those of us, like me, who grew up in this faith, and have never known another religious identity. Or those who found this community as a literally saving force, and source of sustenance, in our lives. Those who were married here, who dedicated and raised their children here, who mourned and celebrated the lives of their dear ones here; who have put untold thousands of hours into working and planning and imagining for the future of particular congregations, and of the movement as a whole. Those who learned skills of compassion and connection, leadership and accountability, spiritual maturity and the practices of depth and meaning here. Those who find their friends here, and bring their friends here. Those for whom the stories of our heroes and our history shape the way we make choices and measure our days, for whom the songs of our church are the sound track of our lives.
As I contemplate the question I have just proposed, it seems to me that there is nothing – no policy or pronouncement, however misguided – that could make me say, “I am no longer a Unitarian Universalist.” I might disagree ferociously with the direction of our various governing bodies, or our leaders. I might feel deeply betrayed that the democratic process has led to the adoption of decisions I perceive as antithetical to our principles as I understand them, or dangerously mistaken. I might believe that the whole denomination has taken an incredibly wrong turn, but that would not make me believe that *I* was not a UU anymore. Indeed, I expect I would see myself as holding the tradition in trust until the institution and the majority should return to their senses.
I can only suppose that a great many of my United Methodist colleagues and the members of their congregations are now feeling the same way. It is no act of compassion or solidarity to say to them, “Oh, well, never mind; just become one of us!” Their Christian and specifically Methodist identity may be as precious to them as our theological diversity and UU identity is to ourselves, and they may be grief-struck and hurting, as well as angry. And this is just as true of those who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual, or in other ways queer, as it is of those who do not, but want to be authentic and trust-worthy allies. I personally feel great sympathy and solidarity with those who want to stay and fight for the soul of their religious heritage, as well as for those who want to remove themselves from a space where they feel harmed and in continuing danger. That is a choice that must be made with great inner searching by each individual, discerning carefully what they are called to do by the creative love and energy of the universe and the highest common good. It is not the place of any outsider to judge that decision.
I propose that there are three things we can do, carefully, as bystanding friends to support those who are directly involved in this crisis. One, we can hear them respectfully as they wrestle with the options that confront them personally. We do not need to have answers; we do not have answers. All we need to do is acknowledge how difficult the dilemma is, and listen as they ponder what their faith requires of them. They will need to do this together with others in their own community, but they may find it helpful to explore with someone who is not also invested as they are in the outcome. This reminds me a little of the work of a Quaker ‘clearness committee’, whose only task is to ask questions of the person who is confronted with a challenging decision. Listen, inquire, and hold a space of affirming attention – and that is good spiritual practice at any time.
Second, I think it becomes more important than ever for us as UUs to live out our own large consensus of celebrating diverse sexual and gender identities. To remember both that our movement did not get where we are without pain, struggle, and harm to the vulnerable, and that we are far from perfect even yet. But also to testify that in the event, nothing bad has happened to our communities, or our marriages, or our children, because of our efforts to welcome more GLBTQ people into our faith, to encourage and rejoice in openness about those identities, and to become more effective allies. Both for our supporters and for our detractors, our movement is a kind of beta test for how that approach works; let it be clear to the world how much it has deepened and enriched our communities, helped to heal brokenness, and made our covenant more authentic.
Finally, if I were ever to believe in a god, it would have to be one with both a fine sense of timing, and a sense of humor. It cannot be a cosmic accident that this week brings us to Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter, with its memory of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus for the sake of his teaching of liberation and love. Ash Wednesday is all about our common humanity, the most persuasive evidence for which is our shared mortality. “Remember, O human; (no matter who you are, no matter what you believe, no matter how much power you have) you are but dust and ashes, and unto dust you shall return.” Faith of any sort is not something that you inherit, or acquire by accident, or stumble into. If it is real, it is something that you suffer for; something that you doubt and test; something that tests you. And this is true whether your journey takes you to distant continents of belief and strange languages of myth and practice, or if you never depart from the covenant community into which you were born. Even there, your ancestors’ faith alone will not suffice you; it must be renewed and achieved again in your own striving, on your own terms. Our friends in the United Methodist communion have their Lent set before them, in the challenge to reconcile their history with their vision for the future of human community, their global connections with their understanding of inclusion, their commitment to the discipline that unites them with the cry of the oppressed and the voice of their god. Whatever the outcome, that process will not be without pain and loss; indeed, the pain and the loss are already underway. As I carry them tenderly in my heart, I acknowledge that they are profoundly not alone. Every one of our covenant communities of memory and promise aspires to greater wholeness than we achieve at any finite moment; every one of them does harm, unintended yet complicit; every one of us is called to bear witness to a larger love than we can practice in this mortal life, and every one of us is challenged to transformations greater than we believe we can endure.
The poet Jan Richardson says, if you find it is hard to let the blessing into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for. The journey of Lent; the journey of justice, the journey of life – all of them opportunities to let the blessing in, to learn to be human. For behold, O mortal, you are dust and ashes, and unto dust you shall return. Every one of us, bi or trans or gay or straight, Methodist or atheist or literalist alike – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And in the meantime, as Holly Near reminds us, we are engaged in nothing less than singing for our lives.