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  • Writer's pictureAffirmation

Race, Gender, and LGBTQ+ United Methodists

Rev. Gil Caldwell, historic civil rights leader in the UMC, pointed out recently that conservative, and sometimes progressive, United Methodists have used LGBTQ issues as a smoke screen and a distraction from racial issues.  Rev. Caldwell urges us to learn and remember our history. I want to reflect on this history as a white woman who works to be anti-racist and works against homophobia.

Methodists split over slavery in the mid 1800’s and remained split until 1939, when white Methodists in the North and South negotiated a reunion after the Civil War. At special conferences they debated the “negro problem” for weeks. Many wanted to eject African Americans like southern whites did when they founded the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church before the Civil War. In the end, Methodists in the North and South made a pact with racism by forming the “Central Jurisdiction” which segregated Black Methodists. The only time the races interacted was General Conferences every four years. From 1939 through 1968, the “Central Jurisdiction” elected its own bishops and ordained/appointed its own clergy.

The Women’s Society for Christian Service resisted the segregation lines and met together across racial lines when they could. In the middle of this, Hispanics from the Rio Grande Conference and Native peoples in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, Navahos, and Alaska Natives, along with all women, sought footholds in a denomination that taught them they were children of God but usually kept them out of leadership roles. It was only in 1956 that women were given the right to ordination and full connection in conferences.

Segregation of African Americans became the foremost issue at the 1968 founding of the United Methodist Church. The Methodist Church was forced by the Protestant Methodist Church, the Evangelical United Brethren, and protesting Methodists to dissolve the segregated “Central Jurisdiction.”

The 1968 General Conference commissioned the drafting of the Social Principles wherein a positive statement was brought in four years later which included homesexuaity as part of human diversity. In 1972, in the final moments, conservatives dropped in the language, “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Additional prohibitions accumulated over four decades, until the church reached its breaking point in 2016 and called a 2019 “Special General Conference” to work toward a “Way Forward” on inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ people.

Today, the global United Methodist Church has roughly 12.5 million members, with about 7 million in the USA, 5 million in Africa, and half a million in Europe and the Philippines. The USA is in crisis over a number of issues: white nationalism, xenophobic efforts to build a border wall, police violence, mass incarceration, exponentially high rates of murder of transgender people and homeless youth--all multiplied by racism. Globally, dictators in Russia, Uganda, Zimbabwe and too many other countries announce death to gays and foment street violence to reinforce their own control of whole populations. Religious leaders seal their privilege with their authoritarian governments by echoing their bigotry.

All of these oppressions have been used to pit one group against another. Can we claim our sacred antidote to these insidious persecutions? Is the Gospel of open doors to God and the body of Christ, the church, enough to bring us out of the sin or self-righteous exclusion? If the United Methodist Church can stand down from its own discrimination, perhaps it can then stand up against this horrific web of violence that plays out in racism, homophobia, and gender violence.

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