Saturday, May 13, 2006

Dull Edge of Methodism

What happened to so blunt the former cutting-edge Methodist Church? It should be on the forefront of same-sex marriage and other gay-rights issues.

It used to be a civil-rights leader. Now, it disguises itself in the conservative clothes of the mumbling coward.

As you likely have surmised, I grew up as a Methodist. Having known that church from its tradition of equal rights and respect for all, I am dismayed when I see how far it has walked from its founder's path.

Crows on a Fence

Long ago in a state far away (okay, South Carolina), I walked into a girlfriend's family home to meet the folk. This was in a small, cotton-mill town in the uplands. I knew I was suspect -- from New Jersey, earring and so forth.

However, I was not prepared for the initial sight nor for the accompanying question. She was tall and slender, but her mother and three aunts were not. Stereotypical of the millworker culture, the women were broad, squat, sturdy and severe. This was most apparent as I entered, because they were a seated jury, assembled for the sole purpose of judging my appearance, as well as every word and action. Four matriarchs sat attentively, in four chairs, eight hands on eight knees on their print dresses.

Despite what my sons might say now, I can be quite charming and had spent years in Danville, Virginia, the last capital of the Confederacy, and three miles above North Carolina. I got along well with many Southerners and knew how to show respect for women befitting the culture.

Boom. They got me though.

When the woman with whom I was keeping company, as the local expression goes, introduced me, Mama spoke first. As crisp and sure as a homicide detective, she asked, "What denomination are you?"

Today up in this city in Yankeeland, that may seem both innocent enough and inconsequential. We might think it odd to ask a new acquaintance about religion as well as peculiar to assume Protestant Christianity as the base state.

However, I knew I was covered. My answer would be second or third best, but it would be in the acceptable range. I answered, "Methodist," and foolishly thought I was free. On, no. In under a second, she shot back, "Wesley or Southern?"

Historical note: Long before there was a United Methodist Church, the denomination splintered several times. Notably, the Wesleyan branch was strongly abolitionist. Before the Civil War, the northern and southern branches split over slavery, kind of reunited after the Great Depression and didn't really rejoin until 1968. Many Methodists feel the strong bonds of the Free and Wesley Methodists, the main church, and the former AMEs that went with the United version.

Well, I had attended Southern Methodist churches because they were there, but had been raised as a Wesleyan. With eight squinting eyes on me, I knew the game was over. I don't lie and knew I was already in trouble belonging to a church that did not have immersion baptism and had a bishop governance. I said, "Wesleyan."

Pause.

Lip smack.

"They're nice too," said Mama, but she meant the opposite. She would never approve of me, nor would her sisters and sister-in-law.

What Would Wesley Do?

Today if you notice the news from the United Methodists, you are likely to see them forbidding the ordination of gay ministers, of opposing same-sex marriage, and in general, of having the Roman Catholic hierarchy's view of homosexuals -- if you can't help yourself and are gay, well okay, but you're out on your ear if you practice your sinful sexuality or, God forbid, marry another one like you.

Just recently, the news was that a Methodist minister in Virginia who refused to let a gay man become a member was supported by the UMC Judicial Council. That august body ruled that its ministers can refuse members for being gay. This is despite published and preached UMC principles that include "Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation: Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons."

Those Social Principles have a paragraph on marriage too:
We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God's blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage. We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Interestingly, it does not play the marriage-is-for-procreation game. Yet, it is DOMA friendly and gay hostile.

From outside the UMC, that sort of dichotomy would seem odd enough. However, given the long history of the church in social issues and progressive politics, it is truly sad and strange.

John Wesley was out there, the quintessential, 18th Century walk-it-like-you-talk-it cleric. His resulting church and ministry were leaders in the English and U.S. abolition movements, pioneers in prison and mental-health reform, and true believers in equality for all.

Even during the Vietnam War era, you could see it in the Methodist Student Movement and particularly its motive magazine. Other churches tucked their tails and equivocated over the war. Much of the Methodist church was against it.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all did their versions of what George the Lesser and his minions do now with the if-you-don't-support-us-you-are-for-the-enemy. To us college students, reading motive's pro-civil-rights and anti-war articles and hearing those sentiments from a Methodist pulpit were powerful and empowering.

Well, the church tossed its most liberal ministers and shut down motive. In the past three decades, it has become as conservative as the Baptists and as exclusionary as other mainstream churches.

What a pity...several centuries of social action subsumed under the rule of the timid and distrustful. I have a very good idea what John Wesley would do and it would not include selective equality.

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