The other day, I was shopping for groceries in Napa and ran into a fellow I know. We worked together years ago at a large winery in Santa Rosa, and after catching up a bit, the topic of last week’s United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis came up.
You may have heard about this conference on the news or perhaps the title above caught your eye. The reason for this recent global gathering of United Methodists is because the worldwide church is not unified on the topic of gender identity and sexual orientation.
In effect, a split has developed where some, the Progressives, feel that the church body has a responsibility to be more welcoming, more accepting of all people, no matter their race, culture, ethnicity, politics, sexuality or gender, whereas others, the Traditionalists, agree on most of these points but disagree vehemently on the issue of sexuality and gender identity. The vote taken last week, widely reported in the media, by the delegates at the end of the General Conference, was in favor of the Traditionalist plan, thereby continuing the practice of not allowing LGBTQIA peoples to be ordained as pastors or to be married in a church setting or by an ordained Methodist pastor.
What is important to know is that not all United Methodists voted this way. The actual number of votes that separated the Traditionalist from the Progressive vote last week was just over 5 percent; 52 out of 800 cast. The Methodist Church, in my experience, is a very welcoming community for all people. Black, white, gay, straight, men, women, children and all backgrounds and theologies.
In fact, the reason I became a Methodist, and have been ordained as a minister in the church, is the very liberal, forward progressive church that I have found here in Napa Valley and in California and, really, all of the West Coast.
My point is this — our church here in St. Helena, and the Methodist church in Napa, and the one in Petaluma, and Santa Rosa, and Forestville, and Windsor, and Davis, and the many in Sacramento and Berkeley and San Francisco and San Jose and Oakland and so many, many more — these are all welcoming, progressive churches where everyone is valued, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, culture, tradition, theology, physical or financial ability.
We currently have four gay pastors serving in Sonoma County, with many more in the Bay Area. The first avowed gay Bishop Karen Oliveto is currently presiding at the Rocky Mountain Conference in Idaho and Montana. She is from our California Nevada Annual Conference and served in the Bay Area before her election three years ago. Our Annual Conference is on the cutting edge of inclusiveness for everyone. All are welcome. You do not even have to believe in God to have a seat at our table!
Unfamiliar ways of experiencing sexuality or identifying gender can be challenging. Yet the 21st century is a time when these issues are no longer kept in the shadows. Secular business, government agencies and society in general is asked to overcome old prejudices, misunderstandings and fears. Religious denominations, too, will have to learn to connect and value differently as they wrestle with how their tradition and beliefs relate to God and community.
These issues of belonging, of identity, have been a challenge for all religious organizations for too long. And they may continue to be so for a while yet. Religions, like any other human endeavor, can be poorly run, can do harm and side with power over others, can overlook the real and lasting needs of its constituents. But that does not mean that the church is through or has lost its value.
Places of worship are community, they support their members, they worship and praise the good and sacred in all of life. Religious organizations are here to help us in times of trouble, to bring connection with our better selves and to encourage us to see this in each other. This is incredibly valuable and should not be forgotten.
Ultimately, the great mystery, the source of all, the one we call God, is with us all the time and the church and its people are here to remind us of this in good times and bad. As Methodism’s founder John Wesley once noted, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”