Post Author: Angela M. Flanagan
“The issue.” That’s how we are often talked about by conservatives and progressives alike. To those who would like to purge The United Methodist Church of all of us queer folks, we are discussed not as real people in the church but as “the issue of homosexuality.” Then there are allies who are quick to point out that human sexuality is just the “presenting issue” as our denomination grapples with how we understand scripture, where the locus of power should rest, and the complex realities of a global church. While there is truth in that argument, that truth fails to dull the sting of dehumanization. Either way we are talked about as if we weren’t right here.
The United Methodist Church has been fighting about LGBTQIA+ inclusion/exclusion since 1972 when language was inserted into our book of polity that declared homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and then in 1984 that barred “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being clergy. This antiquated language enacts not just exclusion but also erasure as those of us who identify as BTQIA+ but not as homosexual are left unclear whether we are even being talked about to begin with. I have heard allies defend themselves for only speaking out for gay and lesbian rights because our book of discipline only discriminates against homosexuality. And yet, United Methodist polity has reduced identity to action—sexual orientation to sex acts. Being bisexual will not protect me from charges filed if I decide to marry a woman nor will it protect me from the much more complete purge the so-called traditionalists would like to enact.
And now, as our denomination gathers for a special called General Conference (Feb 23-26) in St. Louis to vote on a way forward for our denomination, the “issue” will be fought over as though it were just the future of our denomination and not real lives that are at stake. Our lives. My life. In the fall of 2018, I made the complicated decision as a young United Methodist clergywoman to come out as bisexual. I began claiming my own queer voice just as my beloved denomination has disintegrated into a shouting match—speaking sometimes against, sometimes for, but always over me. Rarely with me.
When I was deciding how, when and if I would come out to my congregation, a queer friend and mentor asked me to consider if I wanted to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights “as an ally” or if I wanted to fight for our rights as a queer woman. I looked at her funny. I know who I am. I can’t do anything as anyone other than who I already am. “That’s your answer,” she told me matter-of-factly.
As I have claimed my own voice as a queer woman, my understanding of voice has changed. Somewhere along the way I had fallen into a more utilitarian ethical understanding of voice. We claim our voice in order to speak truth to power. I claim my voice in order to witness to God’s love. We claim our voice in order to be represented. I claim my voice in order to dissent. We claim our voice in order to speak change into being. All of that is true. All of that preaches. But it’s only a partial truth.
I have come to realize that claiming my voice is of value regardless of whether or not anyone listens. My voice does not have to do anything to be of inherent value. By naming and claiming who I am—all of who I am—I can show up in the world differently, claim abundant life more fully, and live more vibrantly and joyfully. All of which, as it turns out, helps me be a better pastor. I do not wish to minimize the difference my or another’s voice can make. I do believe my voice matters to others because representation matters. I do believe some are listening. Whether the UMC as a whole is listening to me or any queer voices…now my cynical side takes over…
And yet, no matter what happens at General Conference, I know deep within my bones that I will not regret coming out. I will not regret claiming my voice and naming my truth. No matter what the UMC can take from me—and let’s be clear, they can take a lot—they cannot take the sense of self, the confidence, the freedom, the identity, the abundant life, the voice that Christ had always offered but now I have claimed for myself.
It would have been safer to stay tucked away in the closet. Many do, and for very good reasons. In the closet I didn’t have anything to be afraid of. After all, I passed as a straight woman for 33 years. And yet, I lived in fear. Since claiming my voice in coming out, I don’t feel afraid. Many do feel afraid and that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction to the events transpiring in our denomination. It’s just not something I feel. It wasn’t until after I came out that I realized that the thing I was most afraid of was the slow suffocation that, for me, came along with that safety. And how could I ever find my voice when simply trying to breathe?
I came out publicly in a sermon that was live-streamed on Facebook. There is no shoving me back in that closet now. I don’t know what will happen at General Conference. I don’t know, when all is said and done, if I’ll be allowed to stay in The United Methodist Church. But I do know who I am, and I have spoken my truth out loud. Others listened in, but I spoke my truth for me.
And it turns out that is enough.
The Rev. Angela M. Flanagan serves as Lead Pastor of Silver Spring UMC in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has been known to jokingly, but truthfully, describe herself as a bilingual, bisexual, divorced, white mom of two black kids, ordained pastor. Obviously.
Image by: nancydowd
Used with permission