big·ot·ry – noun – intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.
I must confess that I use the word bigotry with some reluctance. Too often people employ the word bigot to paint another as intolerant while remaining blissfully unaware of their own ideological bigotry. That is why I started this post with the definition so we might share a sense of what I mean as I use the word.
A bigot isn’t necessarily right or wrong; they are simply someone self-convinced that they hold an absolute truth. In this sense, it is perfectly accurate from any perspective to describe the United Methodist Book of Discipline as bigoted when it comes to the question of full inclusion of LGBTQIA folks in the life of the church. It leaves no room for those who have come, through discernment of Scripture and faithful study, to believe that sexual orientation ought not be a barrier to full inclusion of individuals in the life of the church.
I happen to be friends with a lot of people who are celebrating the consecration of the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a United Methodist bishop; a part of me is celebrating along with them, truth be told. But I’m intentional about trying to keep voices who are seeing this same action as troubling, confusing, and unfaithful on my radar as well. With the simple definition of bigotry in mind, I know at least as many progressives one might define as bigoted as conservatives or traditionalists. In our United Methodist circumstance, the prevailing difference is who holds the power.
Our affirmation of connectional bigotry
If you were at, or followed along with, the 2012 General Conference you may remember a moment of some significance where two well respected large church pastors, the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter, brought a largely aspirational substitutionary motion to the floor. The petition, which intentionally honored the majority, traditional view, had the audacity to call upon the church to recognize “that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.” How dare they ask us to be so open minded?
When the General Conference rejected this motion 368 to 572, one which aspired to set a low bar of recognizing the fidelity of those who disagree with the majority, it affirmed a bigoted position on human sexuality. Technically speaking, our official position as a church is bigoted not due to the specific content of said position but because of the way we continue to hold it. In a sense, this vote was a direct rejection of the “open minds” refrain of our United Methodist marketing. Put another way, in this one area we have voted that all faithful minds are unified and fixed upon a single position; this is textbook bigotry, folks.
None of the legislative work in the 2016 General Conference succeeded in addressing, or significantly discussing, our bigoted position. It is hard to interpret the intentions of the thin majority that asked the bishops for a path forward; some certainly wanted to address this wound, others may have voted out of episcopal respect, still others to avoid conflict. In the subsequent months, it has grown clear that any hope for a moratorium on church trials and the persecution of those who are minorities in terms of sexual orientation and/or theological action, was fanciful thinking.
The response to the election and consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto was both rapid and fierce from those in opposition. The South Central Jurisdiction passed a request for a declaratory ruling challenging the election almost before it even occurred. In addition to the critique that her election violated church law, it was also quickly framed as disrespectful of a proposed bishops’ commission. The Rev. Ed Tomlinson summed up this sentiment when interviewed by United Methodist News Service, “It seems they [the Western Jurisdiction] rushed to judgment without really caring whether all voices are heard or not.”
Is it ironic that one would defend a bigoted position by proclaiming a need to “hear all voices” or is that simply disingenuous? I’ve never been able to understand irony correctly since Alanis Morrisette.
Lancing a boil
On his website, The Survival Doctor, James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H., offers advice on how to care for a boil in the event that one cannot reach a doctor. A boil is an infection under the skin. Filled with pus, “it can be the size of a pea or golf ball.” He offers advice on several treatments to get the infection to go away on its own or to come to a head. I was surprised to learn that you should avoid squeezing a boil as that will spread the infection.
If time and care don’t ease things, or if the boil is painful, causing weakness or high fever, the advised treatment is to lance it, to open the wound and drain the infection. Hubbard takes time to explain the process emphasizing the importance of hygiene throughout. While lancing may ease the severity of the pain and be a positive step toward healing, without deliberate ongoing care and attention to the wound, the infection can easily return.
While some are prone to proclaim that the sky is falling, I would suggest we are better served in seeing Bishop Oliveto’s election as an opportunity. Her consecration as a bishop of The United Methodist Church is a lancing of the infection in our church which has resisted 40+ years of attempted treatments and, at times, ill-advised squeezes which have caused the infection to spread and weaken us significantly. Contrary to the position of some that wish to identify LGBTQIA folks as the problem, the infection within our church for some time now has been an enshrined bigotry in our Book of Discipline which leaves inadequate space for a faithful opposition.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
If, as I assert, an enshrined bigotry is the true infection plaguing The United Methodist Church, we might expect that the election of Bishop Oliveto would be painful to the church as the lancing of any inflamed tissue would be. Any who can’t feel that pain in some way should question whether they truly remain in the body. I was encouraged to find many of the leaders in the Western Jurisdiction working quickly to acknowledge this reality and to name the need to listen deeply even as they were caught up in a moment of celebration. Bishop Oliveto’s first letter after her consecration explicitly names this need to “[stand] before those who are angry, anxious, or fearful and be a witness to all they are feeling.”
Over a certain time, we should see the pressure and pain ease as people recognize that the sky isn’t falling, ministry in the local church continues, that a leader’s ability to serve isn’t defined or much related to their sexual orientation, and that God still has much for us to do to serve and transform the communities we are called to.
Still, I’m concerned by Hubbard’s repeated reminders about sterilization and care for the wound. I worry because some of us have grown quite used to the pain; a few are already making plans for what they will do after the body is forced to acknowledge that our wounds as untreatable.
And I fret that in celebrating the lancing of this particular boil we’ll forget how easy it is to get another infection. In our vulnerable state, will we simply replace one bigoted position with another leaving little room in our minds and hearts again for those who see their faith differently? Complex questions of identity face us which will require the Spirit-driven conversations we often talk about but too infrequently practice.
Our situation reminds me of a popular quote from the affable Mister (Fred) Rogers.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
As we head into these next few months, we’ll see numerous statements, inevitable news releases of complaints and charges, and continuing threats of schism from those who have been seeking a reason to leave for some time now. But in these moments, where uncertainty undeniably lies, look for the helpers. Look for the people who are applying ointment to the wound, promoting healing as the infection of bigotry oozes out, and seeking to bind it together with prayer and deep listening across the divisions that we share. These are the church’s true leaders.
But they can’t do this work alone. May we all be anointed as healers in this moment, even as we acknowledge our sin in not loving our sisters and brothers as much as Jesus would ask. Let us be diligent in our task of applying balm to the wounds in our body, and aware of the different measures of power we may wield, so that we might find renewed vitality together in love for the work God has for us.
May we be ever vigilant and committed to open hearts, minds, and doors as we are all quite capable of closing each.