CORNET NOTE: Leslie Penrose withdrew as United Methodist clergy in March, 1999. For an update about her and the church she pastors, visit Community of Hope. The Community of Hope is, as of February 2004, in an exploration process with the United Church of Christ.
I have chosen to sign the Statement of Commitment because I seek to honor and live out the call, the charge, and the vows of my ordination.
The ministry to which I am called and have been ordained is the ministry of Christ by my work as an elder in the Church with all Christians to the whole world. I am called and ordained “to serve rather than be served, to proclaim the faith of the Church and no other, and to look after the concerns of Christ above all.” I was and am charged by my ordination “to lead persons to trust in Jesus Christ... to order the life of the congregation... to counsel the troubled in spirit and declare the forgiveness of sin... to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people... to love, serve and pray for all the people among whom I work, caring alike for all... to conform my life to the life of Jesus... and to proclaim by my words and by my deeds the gospel of Jesus Christ...” And I vowed at my ordination “to trust God, to be faithful with God’s gifts to me, to be a steadfast disciple of Jesus and to fashion my life by the gospel .” I also vowed, “in covenant with other elders, to be loyal to the UMC, to accept it’s order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, to defend the UMC against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and to accept the authority of my supervisors.” (Order for the Ordination of Elders, UMBOW)
As I have studied and prayed and wrestled to discern the “concerns of Christ” and invested my time, my heart, and my life energy in “accompanying people to a trust in Jesus Christ,” I have struggled to make my life and my ministry embody, in concrete and particular ways, the ‘gospel’ that my words proclaim. As one ordained to love and serve a community of faith and hope, I have pitched my tent in their midst, and over the years we have laughed and cried together; lived and died and grieved and healed together. We have celebrated healthy relationships and asked forgiveness for broken ones; we have shared our stories and let go of our secrets; we have faced our fears, embraced our neighbors, welcomed strangers, and prayed for light and hope and peace.
We have grown in numbers and in spiritual integrity as we have said no to shame and dared to believe all people are beloved by God. And we have been blessed to witness the healing power of Christ’s grace at work in the lives of gay men and lesbians as they have risked trusting God and the Church again. I have been privileged to share their journey from old fears to new faith as they have laid open the soul-wounds caused by abusive experiences in churches where they heard and learned to believe they were unacceptable to God, and then allowed those wounds to be slowly healed by the over and over again assurance of God’s extravagant, faithful, unconditional love. I have seen hope born and life renewed by the simple act of a community of faith and struggle saying... “you are welcome here, just as you are, all of who you are.” Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)
Along the way, I have experienced many gay and lesbian ‘couple-relationships’ that are creative, healthy, caring, monogamous, mutual, and life-giving. Several couples in the congregation I now pastor have been in committed relationships for twelve years, fifteen years, twenty years, and longer. I have witnessed the sincerity with which gay and lesbian couples share their vows of love and commitment with one another, and how deeply significant it remains throughout the relationship that their vows were shared in the presence of their pastor and their community of faith, all claiming the blessing of God together. Their commitments to one another may not be “legal” but when said in the context of their faith, they become deeply binding ‘covenants’ that are not dishonored or discarded lightly... and I find myself humbled by the reminder that, of course, grace forms a more sacred bond than law. It is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations... ( Hebrews 13)
The One in whose name I was baptized, confirmed, married, and ordained, the one whom I have promised to follow, and whose concerns I have vowed will be first in my life, gave his life to and for the marginalized, breaking religious taboos and purity codes; eating with, touching, teaching, welcoming, affirming, healing those his world and his religion had labeled sinners and outcasts. He invested his life energy in saying no to the religious paradigm that said some were more worthy of grace than others, and in creating a new community of love and grace at the margins with the marginalized... “here are my mother and brothers and sisters.” (Mark 4)
I have signed this Statement of Commitment because, I cannot know and claim all of that as my journey, and then be willing to say “No” to gospel grace simply in order to say “Yes” to church polity. I understand the process of conferencing and discernment which is usually behind the creation and confirmation of our church polity, and I affirm it. However, I also know and have experienced, that once in awhile there is not an opportunity for real conferencing about an issue, and once in awhile a piece of legislation passes not because the Conference has struggled to discern the will of the Spirit in regard to it, but because the agenda is full and the time is short and the delegates are tired and the majority rules... and suddenly we find ourselves with legislation that rather than reflecting our commitment to the gospel, simply reveals the very human fallibility of our system. What then? What of those people whose lives will once again be wounded, even scarred, by the consequences of this legislation while we wait four years--or even two years-- to deal with it? Are we -- am I -- bound to ask those at the margins to sacrifice again, to once again bear the full burden of a crisis we have created?
My heart breaks as I watch the people that we, the Church have invited to the table of grace, -- “we commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (BOD) --respond to the news that not all ministry is available to “all persons”, with painful looks of betrayal, tears of deep grief, and offers to sacrifice their restored sense of self-worth, their right to celebrate their relationships, their wholeness, in order to protect me. And I wonder who is truly living as the body of Jesus Christ?
As so finally, I have signed this Statement of Commitment as my witness that I will continue to strive to be loyal to the UMC, and “to defend the UMC against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word,” In situations where I sense conflict between Church polity and God’s will, I have and will continue to communicate that struggle to my supervisors, and work with them toward compromise and mutuality and solidarity that embraces hospitality rather than insisting on uniformity.
But, I also have and will continue to struggle to honor that in all that I do--in my life and in my ministry--I am called, charged and ordained to “look after the concerns of Christ above all.” and to put those concerns first... even when that is unpopular and risky. Faithfulness to the gospel is and must be my first goal, rather than benefit to or preservation of myself or the institution. To do anything less is to dishonor the One in whose name I am ordained, the ones I am ordained to serve, and the Church that has ordained me to service.
And so, I continue to struggle and hope and pray...
Elder, Oklahoma Annual Conference
Pastor, United Methodist Community of Hope, Tulsa, OK
April 27, 1998