Full Inclusion of LGBTQ Persons in the Methodist Church at Stake
A cohort of 14 people from Pacific School of Religion will be attending the Special Session of General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in St. Louis, February 23–26. The denomination, with a worldwide membership of over 12.6 million people, is gathering to decide its way forward on the issue of its current language in its Book of Discipline that presently discriminates against LGBTQ people. The PSR group seeks to bear witness to this moment in the life of the UMC and, in so doing, affirm the seminary’s historic commitment for the full inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ+ persons and their ministries.
At issue is the denomination’s stance on the ordination of LGBTQ people. Since 1972, General Conference, the denomination’s decision-making body, has approved and reiterated several times that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and, since 1984, that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” do not meet the “high moral standards” for ordination and have thus being excluded from ordained ministry in the UMC. After inconclusive discussions at its last General Conference in 2016, the Council of Bishops of the UMC called a special session “limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” 864 delegates from around the world will be in attendance this weekend to determine the church’s stance on ordaining LGBTQ people.
The PSR cohort, led by Dr. Filipe Maia, Assistant Professor of United Methodist Studies, Leadership, and Theology at PSR, consists of ten PSR students, a PSR alumna, and three members of the Annual Conference who are either auditing the class or receiving CEU credits for the immersion. Rev. Diana Bohn, coordinator of United Methodist students at PSR, will also join the group and will be offering pastoral support to the cohort. Dr. Maia offers that the immersion “is both a way of affirming PSR’s progressive identity and our long ties to the UMC.”
While at the Special Session, members of the PSR cohort will have a chance to experience first-hand the decision-making processes of the denomination. The group will meet with delegates and other key figures in the church and also participate in daily debriefing sessions convened by the Bishops-in-Residence of United Methodist seminaries together with other seminarians attending the conference. This will give the PSR group a chance to understand the context of General Conference and ask questions about the possible implications that General Conference decisions may have for ordination. Students will be contributing their reflections and impressions to a blog via the PSR web site. You can also follow select social media posts by following the hashtag #PSRImmersions on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
A week before their departure, a service of commissioning was held in the Chapel of the Great Commission attended by the PSR community and members of area UMC churches. PSR President David Vásquez-Levy offered the support of the school and community: “To our students and those who will go together to the General Conference, you go with the prayers of our community who stand with you as you hold this difficult conversation. You go with our prayers and also our support.”
The commissioning was led by The Rev. Israel Alvaran (PSR DMin ’10), ordained Elder in the Philippines Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and Western Regional Organizer, Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization seeking the inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in both the policy and practices of the UMC. (Read a recent commentary on life as an LGBTQ Methodist by Rev. Alvaran.)
This is a “historic moment in the life of the United Methodist Church,” Dr. Maia states. “It is historic because what the denomination is now facing is a result of a long process marked by unresolved tensions and theological and ecclesial disputes.” He adds that the historic nature of the events in St. Louis will shape the future of global Methodism with “repercussions that are still unforeseeable to us.”
Julie Harris, current PSR MDiv student, is a lifelong member of the UMC and serves as a lay leader and worship leader in her current United Methodist church. She says, “Bearing witness to this important moment in the history of the church as part of a PSR cohort— with seminarians across the connection—presents an incredible opportunity to experience it in a supportive learning environment with others who will need to make sense of its implications in the immediate aftermath and in the years to come.”
Judy Cayot, a lifetime member of the UMC, lay leader at Epworth UMC in Berkeley, 11-year youth director there, and a long-time member of Affirmation and Reconciling Ministries Network, is also participating in the PSR cohort. Cayot, who attended PSR in the 1970s, sees the Special Session as “a critical juncture in the life of the UMC” and is participating to gain “a more in depth look at what is happening.” She adds, “I thought attending with seminary students would be engaging and energizing for me. And that maybe I could bring a personal historical perspective that could be useful.”
Another PSR MDiv student, Angel Rivero, is an openly gay candidate for ordained ministry in the UMC. Rivero grew up in and attended a liberal arts college affiliated with a denomination that excludes LGBTQ people from ministry. Once he came out, he was told he must surrender his calling to ministry. Unwilling “to allow an institution take away his God-given call,” Rivero continued with his calling and enrolled at PSR. It was there—through a process of discernment and experiences with UMC communities—that he found a theological home in the Methodist tradition.
Rivero believes it is important “as a queer seminarian and candidate for ministry to be present at this historical event in the life of the UMC.” And he is invested in the outcome in St. Louis: “Although the current official language in the Book of Discipline doesn’t allow room for me to serve as an openly gay elder, I have embraced Wesleyan theology and have discerned my call in the United Methodist Church. This is my church.”
As a United Methodist with a long history of advocacy for LGBTQ people, Cayot says her preparation for the immersion, which included reading the petitions for the church plans that will be discussed and voted by General Conference, roused in her familiar, strong feelings about her own advocacy of and the struggle for inclusion still experienced by many people in the UMC. “When you don’t have to face the flood of words themselves, it is easier to stay afloat above the fray and act as an observer/activist. Harder in many ways to be in the trenches of the plenary floor.”
Regarding her hope for the outcome of the Special Session, Harris added, “I also love this church, for the way it has transformed my life and the lives of so many others, and my hope and expectation is that among this global gathering of loving, faithful people who have experienced pain in different ways different from each other, God will also show up in ways we can’t yet imagine.”
Rivero added, “My ultimate hope is to witness the UMC to take a step in the right direction and to celebrate that step, whether great or small. On an individual level, I hope to see all as God’s children—even those who disagree with me—and to remain grounded in my calling and discernment regardless of the outcome.”
The Special Session is being broadcast live on the UMC web site.