The day the Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional in its failure to offer all people equal protection under the law, I did something I’d never really thought I would do. I celebrated a simple communion service with my boss, a couple of parishioners and their best friends, in honor of the pair’s fifteenth wedding anniversary.
I never anticipated an event like this for several reasons: one, I’m a Methodist, and in my experience Methodist laity are far more likely to think we “do” communion too often (and that the liturgy takes too long) than to ever request what amounts to a private mass. Secondly, though, I’d assumed that my status as ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church, and as such, as someone largely bound to uphold our Discipline, precluded me from getting to care for parishioners like Dan and Allan in this way. I never thought I’d be the only straight person at a post-communion lunch, the only one at the table whose marriage has been legal for years and years and years, in every state of this union, even though I’m not yet 34 and they were all in their sixties. (How ridiculously unfair is that?) I did not anticipate this because I thought my denomination, to whom I have pledged, in this arena reluctantly, to be loyal, would mean that I didn’t get the privilege of marrying my gay parishioners.
Now, technically, I have not married my gay parishioners. I didn’t even celebrate the Eucharist last Wednesday. But I led some prayers, and I typed up the bulletin, and I celebrated the coincidence of their event falling on the auspicious day that it did. Perhaps more importantly, if the opportunity arose for me to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and not just hang out reaffirming commitments, I have pledged before my annual conference that I would do so (along with several hundred of my colleagues committed to marriage equality and full inclusion).
I feel afraid typing those words, or rather posting them on the internet for all God’s children and all the trolls alike to see. I feel afraid telling this story. I feel afraid of zealots in my denomination, who think the Good News of Jesus Christ is, well, not the same as I think it is, and who would love to bring me and my comrades up on heresy charges which would challenge our standing and our ability to serve. And then I feel ashamed of my fear, for I am truly among the most privileged in any number of categories, and what I stand to lose is so inconsequential – and unlikely — compared to what so many LGBT folks have already lost and suffered daily and throughout the years.
As we got in the car to drive to lunch that day, my boss and I chatted about the ruling of the court, and I vented some of my frustration with my denomination, and how our last church-wide discussion of the issues surrounding LGBT inclusion went down. (It was ugly. If you missed it, rest assured that it was not like the UCC joy-filled denominational affirmation of gay marriage this weekend.) She noted that the times are a’changing (she didn’t say that; she’s British and would never say that), and that soon the denominations will see what the masses see, and will come around to know what the majority of Americans know: that people are born gay, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, that this is the same love (S/o Macklemore!) poets and the faithful have extolled for years.
When she said this, I nodded. But I confess (as I blundered to her), that I am not sure what to make of a theology that is staked entirely on shifting majority opinion. That’s not really what she meant, of course, but in conversations with unchurched friends, I have heard similar sentiments. The church is off base (surely), how can they not see? Similar sentiments are echoed in the Barna Group’s work, published in Unchristian. Young people are staying away from the church in droves, because they perceive the church to be homophobic or, if not afraid, simply exclusionary and hate-filled toward their gay friends and family members. But — and I do so love cultural wisdom and popular culture — surely the church has to have better justifications for changed understanding then “well, if we want to popular with the post-college set…”
After the Supreme Court announced their decision in this case, Ralph Reed appeared on Meet the Press and suggested that the next step for Christian conservatives was to take this issue back to the states, and to work hard to turn out the evangelical vote to pass statewide measures to limit same-sex marriage. Rachel Maddow offered a response that suggested that Reed and his cohort had turned out the evangelical vote, and had yet lost. In increasing numbers of states, and in the hearts and minds of public opinion. The culture is shifting. And what is interesting now is that a whole host of Americans – and the vast majority of my facebook feed – rejoiced when the Court finally saw fit to get with the cultural program, to see what we had already seen – that DOMA was wrong-headed in 1000 different ways.
But this feels new, for the Court to be behind the culture, at least in the most obvious of analogous cases. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a good chunk of the people affected were not in favor of desegregating the schools. It was not a popular decision, and it was one fought tooth and nail by some state and community governments; we have the pictures to prove it. The Civil Rights movement was mobilized in response to a dominant popular culture rejecting the “elitist” decision of the Court. The Civil Rights movement helped bring the court’s decision to life and give it broader authority and legs.
In the United Methodist Church, the formulas which produce our representation in our democratically structured legislative body have left us in a place, still, where the majority can’t agree that living as a non-celibate gay person is not a sin. We can’t even agree that we read and interpret the Bible differently. After General Conference last year, I dreamed of a more authoritative body, a Supreme Court, to tell us that our homophobic disciplinary language had to be thrown out. But there is no such structure. We only have the majority, and for now, the majority of the church looks nothing like the majority of Americans.
In thinking this through with friends this week, I was offered two brilliant thoughts. The first is an experiment; imagine this:
What if you were a liberal Methodist preacher in North Carolina in 1954 when Brown came down? You might be with nine justices, half or more of the yankees, and approximately none of your neighbors. That’s probably a good example of a time when the church was more liberal than some of its laity. How would you speak? How would you act? Can the pastoral clergy person challenge their congregants so directly?