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Are United Methodist liberals still afraid to act?

by TERRY MATTINGLY | August 7, 2021 at 3:02 a.m.

As one of the founders of the United Methodist Centrist Movement, the Rev. Doug Damron spent years hiding his rejection of his church's rule that the "practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Centrists used a "perfectly delicious" theological platform defined by words such as "unity," "peace" and "moderate," he said, during a recent guest sermon at the historic Broad Street United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio. After decades of fighting about sex, many hoped "traditionalists" and "progressives" could keep "United" attached to "Methodist."

The goal was "compromise," said Damron, a "sweet word" that hid a "status quo of oppression." But there was "an institution to protect," and many clergy feared being honest. Thus, they didn't openly attack the denomination's Book of Discipline.

"By nature, I am a rule follower," he said. "I knew that such defiance may have cost me my clergy credentials."

Now it's time for candor and courage, Damron said. When United Methodists finally split, conservatives will build a church defined "by who they will exclude today and who they will exclude tomorrow." The question is whether progressives will act on their convictions.

"It is time to speak into existence, following the Spirit's leading, a church which fully welcomes, includes, affirms not only God's beloved gay and lesbian ones, but a host of other folks who have found the door of the church closed," he said. This would include embracing and ordaining "trans folks, bi folks, kink folks, poly folk, gender-fluid folk and others."

The United Methodist clock kept ticking this summer, even as covid-19 realities delayed -- again -- votes on the "Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation" negotiated by activists on the left and right. The General Conference will not meet until August 2022, since the Church has declined to take actions in virtual forums.

Once the Protocol is approved, conservatives plan to create the Global Methodist Church, merging their large minority among the denomination's 31,000 U.S. congregations into a structure built around the booming churches of Africa and Asia. This new denomination will retain the Book of Discipline's teachings on marriage and sex.

The Protocol's preamble noted that "centrists" still hope to preach compromise after this divorce, while stating that doctrines can be modernized. Thus, the "post-separation United Methodist Church will strive to create a structure of regional conferences ... adaptable to regional contexts" while removing all "restrictive language related to [LGBT] persons."

Meanwhile, in social media, podcasts and Zoom conferences, the voices of those on the liberal side of doctrine have declared that it's time to move past debates about committed gay relationships. Some say it's time to affirm those, including sexually active clergy candidates, cohabitating in straight or gay relationships or living in "poly" -- short for "polyamorous" -- unions of three or more.

One denomination -- the Liberation Methodist Connexion -- has already formed, rejecting what it believes are the "powers, principalities and privileges" plaguing Methodism, such as "colonialism, white supremacy, economic injustices, patriarchy, sexism, clericalism, ableism, ageism, transphobia and heteronormativity." The faith group is committed to all people "living out their God-given identities," including "gender expressions and sexual identity" as well as "monogamous and nonmonogamous" relationships.

Earlier this summer, leaders of Love Prevails -- another liberal network -- announced their exit from the United Methodist denomination in a letter stating: "We once thought the church's proclamations of grace were simply ironic, but now we understand them to be wicked hypocrisy. We wrongly assumed that the [Church] would ... welcome queer people, if only out of institutional preservation. We failed to realize that the church would rather destroy itself than become fully inclusive."

Truth is, many clergy are still afraid to be honest, said the Rev. Austin Adkinson of the Pacific Northwest Conference, a leader in the United Methodist's Queer Clergy Caucus. In a "Multiamory" podcast from 2018 that is still being quoted, Adkinson stated: "I'm trying to find ways of being able to say, without pulling the carpet out from under some folks, that really it doesn't matter who you're sleeping with, but how you take care of those people. ...

"I think a lot of more-progressive clergy would have similar thoughts, but don't really have the courage to jump in and put themselves on the line for advocating something that's going to shake the boat," Adkinson said. "Change is slow, and change in the church is slower."

Terry Mattingly leads and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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