The United Methodist General Conference is just around the corner, and one of the issues facing General Conference 2012 will be, as always, whether or not the UMC should ordain non-celibate lesbian and gay persons (oh, my apologies, the language is actually “self-avowed practicing homosexuals”). It is my belief, put simply, that a truly Wesleyan policy would be, not to have a standard that automatically excludes certain people from consideration, but to allow a process for examining the fruits of each individual’s faith and love in the world (shouldn’t this already be the inherent purpose of a Board of Ordained Ministry?). (For a bit more on this perspective, see my post “Who Cares about the Bible? Part 2.”)
I don’t want to focus here on what the UMC should do and why because that is a tired debate (but one I will certainly continue to engage). Instead of thinking about the church, I want to address those who remain in the UMC despite the fact that its polity is exclusionary and hurtful. I want to address specifically those who would even seek ordination in the church they love because they believe in their gifts and calling, not in spite of their sexuality but as beloved LGBT children of God.
I’ve heard it expressed — by both straight and gay people — that for a lesbian or gay person to take the vows of ordination is to somehow undermine the oath that others make. The logic is that a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” knows that s/he lives in violation of the Book of Discipline and so ostensibly lies when promising to support the polity of the church.
What is most troubling to me about this line of thought is that it places an undue ethical burden upon the lesbian or gay candidate for ordination. The idea that setting aside regard for a policy that excludes oneself from full participation in the church somehow taints the vow that others “take seriously” is disturbing. First of all, I’m still not sure how persons who are LGBT have the power to bring down all of society (destroying the institution of marriage and apparently also the legitimacy of ordination).
Secondly, and more significantly, it’s offensive to think that a person cannot love her church, have a calling and passion for ministry, and possess a desire to build up the church while disagreeing with a policy that violates her sense of being and sacred worth. Why is it that LBGT persons alone are ethically burdened with weighing whether their ordination somehow vitiates ordination in general?
Why is it not the ethical responsibility of the church, first and foremost, to consider how its policies might harm its members? Early Methodism was built upon mutual accountability; however, there can be no mutuality if the church expects lesbian and gay candidates for ministry to bear the burden alone without the church having to consider and weigh the ethics of its own practices.
I took up this issue of the ethics of LGBT ordination in my final paper for the class on United Methodist polity at Harvard Divinity School. I am sharing the paper here as a contribution to the debate but, more importantly, as a way of thinking for LGBT persons to move past any anxiety they might have over whether or not it is right for them to engage the ordination process, instead being able to consider whether it is personally and spiritually good for them.
Please do keep in mind that this paper was written in the spring of 2008, and my own thinking about the complexities of sex, gender, and sexuality have developed, and likewise my language for talking about these issues has expanded and been refined. We are always learning and growing.
And so, I offer my thoughts: Queering Ethics, Ordination, and Church (PDF).