Greater NW Pride: Who's Going to Get It Right?


Who’s Going to Get This Right?

Something amazing is going on concurrently involving the LGBTQ community and the Church. More specifically, something is going on this week in both the Roman Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church and their respective relationship with LGBTQ people, having to do with the matter of including and integrating us into their largely cisgender and straight faith communities. In the Roman Catholic Church, columnist Frank Bruni of the New York Times focused on the book, In the Closet of the Vatican, by Frederic Martel, claiming that up to 80% of the priests who work in the Vatican are closeted gay men, with the number of 15-60% of the priests in the US are gay (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/opinion/vatican-gay-priests.html). This weekend as well in the New York Times there was an article by Elizabeth Dias, “’It is Not a Closet. It is a Cage’: Gay Catholic Priests Speak Out” (Feb. 17, 2019). This article contends that 30-40% of priests in the US are gay. That’s almost half of the priesthood. Even while the Roman Catholic Church’s authorities were chasing away LGBTQ Catholics from the Church, nearly a majority of the priests are gay. And—this comes as no surprise—those who were angriest and most caustic were the ones who were most deeply closeted. And while there was a glimmer of hope that the Church could get it right regarding closeted gay priests, that door was suddenly shut this past week with the former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC being defrocked by the Vatican because of his sexual abuse of boys and young men. Even Pope Francis was more critical this past week, calling people’s identification as being LGBTQ as “fashionable,” or a passing fad, and that men with this “deep seated tendency” not be welcomed into the ministry. In the coming week, the Vatican is convening an important meeting on the sexual abuse of children that has gone on in the life of the Roman Catholic Church, while in the US, many states like Pennsylvania and Texas are bringing out stories of further sexual abuse by priests in their respective states. Needless to say, the continual lawsuits of victims of sexual abuse by priests is taking a large church of money away from the coffers of the Roman Catholic Church (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/17/us/it-is-not-a-closet-it-is-a-cage-gay-catholic-priests-speak-out.html).
Meanwhile, in the United Methodist Church (UMC), leaders, staff, and spectators are starting to prepare to go to St. Louis, MO for the specially called General Conference this week. As an out gay Presbyterian clergyperson working in the OR-ID UMC Conference building, I can feel the wild and fierce mixture of hope, anxiety, and dread of this coming gathering. And, like the Roman Catholic Church, the issue is about the inclusion and integration of out-LGBTQ people in the role of leadership, marriage, financial, and congregational support in the United Methodist Church. After all, much like the Roman Catholic Church, church doctrine and law prevent out-LGBTQ people from being priests and ministers, even though there is a large number of closeted LGBTQ people in the UMC who are currently serving churches, with those who are often the loudest in their protestation over LGBTQ , themselves, deeply closeted and homophobic  LGBTQ people. Finally, like the Roman Catholic Church, there is the issue of money, too, which will come with whatever decision is made, with various factions of the UMC already armed and ready with designs for what to do with church property and pension funds of the clergy, a.k.a., money, if there is a schism.
So, who’s going to get it right? By “right”, I mean which universal faith community is going to join the other mainline denominations who now welcome, include, and integrate LGBTQ people who sense the calling of God to be ordained clergy and  active members, welcoming marriages of same sex couples along with baptizing our children, just like any straight, cisgender, heterosexual member? In other words, which community is going to get it right and follow the example of Jesus, arms open wide, the Realm of God embodied, and welcome all, no ifs, ands, or buts?
And the next question: What might the Roman Catholic Church and UMC need to do to get it right? After all, this is the biggest opportunity or the biggest threat to each institution’s future.  In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, as has been said by others, this is the biggest challenge since the Reformation. For the UMC, this is the biggest challenge and threat to the denomination since John and Charles Wesley tried to reform the Anglican Church in England. In every other mainline denomination faced with this opportunity or threat, there has either been a smooth transition to inclusiveness and integration if the denomination were small enough, e.g., the Disciples of Christ and Moravians, or a schism was experienced by the larger denominations, e.g., the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians. Because of the size and universality of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the United Methodist Church, there will probably be some kind of schism, as there was for the UCC, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and Presbyterian Church (USA).  Individual congregations, dioceses, synods, and conferences who split off will choose to keep LGBTQ people out of leadership roles, much like they already keep women out of leadership roles. Outside those who choose a more-conservative path, there are other denominations and their congregations that might choose a model that favors a progressive incrementalism. For example, in the Presbyterian Church USA (an example of progressive incrementalism I'm well aware of), we amended our constitution, which now states that some Presbyteries are free to welcome LGBTQ people in leadership roles, while others may choose to exclude LGBTQ people. This is the very example of the “One Church Model” that was put in place in 2011 in the PCUSA. In subsequent General Assemblies, we have slowly, incrementally, taken away the language that kept LGBTQ out of leadership, as well as introduced LGBTQ language into our Book of Order, having already made sure that “two adults” may marry in our congregations, so that we are now a denomination that looks like the UMC’s “Simple Plan”.
A caveat: money. Amid the talk of unity in our diversity, keeping the “family” or “household of faith together,” “celebrating our universality,” I am watching the money trail. Why? Because money is the life blood of institutions.  And the Roman Catholic Church and the United Methodist Church are institutions as well as beloved “communities of faith.” I sat in countless Presbytery meetings, watching congregations take their church buildings and pension funds and foundations with them through a process of “graceful dissolution,” in join a smaller, conservative Presbyterian denomination. In one Presbytery, they finally put a moratorium on such “graceful” leavings because the Presbytery was almost out of money if it continued the process of “graceful dissolution.” The answer to “Who’s going to get it right?” has to do not only with a moral, theological high ground, and the Spirit's leading, but the low ground, human game of greed and money. In this regard, I'm a cynic, and this is where my hope is less than sure.
Who’s going to get it right? Personal opinion (this is a blog): I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church is going to get it right. I think the issue of money speaks volumes, more so than following Jesus and embracing all. Faceless institutions will sacrifice their own to save themselves. The priests who feel they are in cages will continue to be in cages.  And Frank Bruni is correct: upon learning that there are 80% of priests who are gay, in the midst of the sexual abuse scandal being split wide open, rather than working towards a healthy understanding of the sexual lives of human beings—in which some of us were born straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning—I fear the closet door will be shut tighter than ever. 

The question remains for the United Methodists: Will the leadership of the General Conference get it right, and be a faith community that follows Jesus and embraces all?
Stay tuned…history is in the making, and unfolding before our very eyes and ears… 

Brett Webb-Mitchell
Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is an openly gay Presbyterian pastor in the Portland area serving as the part-time LGBTQ+ advocacy coordinator for The Oregon-Idaho Conference of the UMC. He can be reached at brett@umoi.org. Become a subscriber to the Greater NW Pride blog to get Greater NW Pride in your email box!