To Dissent or Be Silent: The History of The United Methodist Church’s Approach to Homosexuality (Guest Post)

From its earliest days as a movement within the Church of England, Methodism has always pushed for progressive social action in the face of the unjust status quo. It is a tension that can be traced to as far back as John Wesley’s struggle with the Church of England over the issue of ordaining lay preachers. In June of 1754, a Methodist preacher was excommunicated for preaching without a license. This was not unlike more recent episodes in our denomination of defrocking those who disobey the Discipline.  Recognizing the urgency of the situation, John Wesley reacted succinctly: “It is probable the point will now speedily be determined concerning the Church: for if we must either dissent or be silent, Actum est [it is all over].”[1] For some, this statement fully describes Wesley’s opinion toward the Church establishment. According to the Wesley Center for Applied Theology at Northwest Nazarene University, this statement represents Wesley’s entire approach “from first to last. He loves the Church of England but he cannot be silenced.”[2] For many of us Wesleyans, choosing dissent rather than silence in the face of injustice is at the heart of everything we value about our tradition. It is the underlying reason our heritage includes so many stories of heroes working on the frontlines against war, poverty, slavery, racism, and gender discrimination, even while being pushed back at every turn by an unrepentant Christian rigidity disguised as holiness and an ecclesiastical bureaucracy adopted and adapted from the Church of England.

The stated purpose of this space, the Via Media Methodists blog, is to move beyond polarization, simultaneously raising the level of discourse with the United Methodist Church. So while my own theological views on social issues are more radical than most — the curators of this blog project included — I think many of us recognize that our current moment calls for utter honesty, genuine humility, and increased engagement from people with diverse viewpoints. What is often lacking—what I think we are in desperate need of at this stage—is a review of our history so we can all see how we ended up here. My hope is that those with traditional views on sexuality and marriage will come to understand how those of us on the other side of the debate believe we are acting in accordance with the values of our Wesleyan heritage. My overall argument is that speaking out against exclusion and inequality on the issue of sexual orientation is essential if we are to be faithful to the “extraordinary dispensation” that God began in the Methodist movement.

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Before the 1960s, Methodists and mainline Protestants had given little attention to sexual orientation and gender identity (apart from gender equality, such as the debates that led to the Maud Kiester Jensen being the first female to be given full clergy rights on May 18th, 1956). In many ways, Methodist advocacy for persons who did not fit within the gender binary and heterosexual norms of the wider American society—often termed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons—had an important initial moment at Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. Glide’s minister, Rev. Cecil Williams, with the help of Rev. Ted McIlvenna headed a project to offer compassion and assistance to teenage runaways living on the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood. This quickly brought the ministry into contact with homosexual individuals who had been treated with hostility and ostracized by their parents and peers. McIlvenna provided a meeting space at Glide for gay organizations, and sought for advocacy and support from the larger Methodist connection. This was the act of hospitality that brought about the movement for compassion and inclusion in the wider Methodist Church.

At the end of May, 1964, the Glide Urban Center organized a four-day consultation that gathered sixteen ministers and gay activists to tour San Francisco and meet with gay and lesbian men and women. Acknowledging the role that religion had played in the persecution of homosexuals, the group promised to initiate a dialog with their denominations. This group continued to meet for several months, eventually forming the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in December 1964. In order to raise funds for the new organization, they held a New Year’s Eve party for the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, this party only resulted in harassment and intimidation by police who looked on the whole affair with disdain.

In March 1972, the United Methodist’s social concerns magazine, Engage, published the final report of the Social Principles Study Commission’s drafting committee. While neither condoning nor condemning homosexual practices, the statement concluded: “We declare our acceptance of homosexuals as persons of sacred worth, and we welcome them into the fellowship of the church. Further, we insist that society ensure their human and civil rights.”[3] Later, the General Conference Legislative Committee on Christian Social Concerns met in Atlanta to deal with a proposal concerning the statement. Based on the testimony of Gene Leggett, who had been discontinued as a clergy member a year earlier because of his sexual orientation, the committee drafted a text that included the affirmation that homosexuals are “persons of sacred worth,” while removing any language that outright stated that homosexuals were welcome.

The proposal was met with great opposition, including the telling of a horror story of a 14-year old boy who had supposedly been kidnaped and murdered by a homosexual. Thus, the long and hard work of the Study Commission and the testimony of real individuals were met with homophobia and a demonizing urban legend. Eventually, the statement passed, but not without being amended with a clause added by a lay attorney, Don J. Hand, that stated: “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

This passage has not significantly changed since. Nevertheless, there have been numerous cases of clergy appointments of gay and lesbian pastors, as well as pastors who have been defrocked because of their sexual orientation or public ritual performances blessing homosexual unions.

In July 1975 several pastors joined to organize a United Methodist Gay Caucus, which was later renamed Gay United Methodists, and then finally, Affirmation. In 1983, in order to make it clear that the UMC was of a divided mind on human sexuality and prepare for the 1984 General Conference, Affirmation created the Reconciling Congregation Program. This program aimed at identifying local congregations where LGBTQ persons are welcome to participate, to provide an avenue for education and ministry around issues of human sexuality, and to empower churches to advocate for LGBTQ concerns on the national level. The Reconciling Congregation Program continued to grow and, in 1989, officially broke away from Affirmation. Because its reach continued to extend to ministries beyond the traditional congregation setting, in 2000 it changed its name to what we know it as today, the Reconciling Ministries Network.

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As John Wesley would say, our calling as Methodists is rooted in an “extraordinary dispensation.” In other words, our existence as a movement is rooted in the freedom and power God gives us “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This is the commitment we make each time we repeat our baptismal vows. And anyone who takes Wesleyan holiness seriously cannot skirt this commitment just because it challenges oppressive traditional views on human sexuality. Failing to speak against teachings and practices that encourage the demonizing and dehumanizing of others—rather than affirming their God-given dignity—is an utter disavowal of our baptism. The compassionate work of Rev. Cecil Williams and Rev. Ted McIlvenna in the 1960s raised the initial awareness that we Methodists needed to respond to the needs of burdened and broken people that both society and the wider Church had excluded. These heroes of the faith were acting in accordance with the heart of Wesleyan holiness by living up to their baptism vows. And the faithfulness of our movement today depends on following in their footsteps—as so many have already done—beyond the desire to protect the status quo. We must decide to live up to our calling. Otherwise, the time for that “extraordinary dispensation” of a people called Methodists will have ended. In the face of injustice we must dissent. The faithful must refuse to be silent.

michaelhowardThe Rev. Michael Anthony Howard is a licensed local pastor and a certified candidate for ordination as an Elder in the Greater NJ Annual Conference. He serves as the Associate Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Mullica Hill, New Jersey. He was born and raised in the hills of Kentucky, and he has done ministry all around the world, including Peru, Brazil, India, and Ethiopia. He holds a Master of Public Administration from Morehead State University in Morehead, KY and a Master of Divinity from Drew Theological School. He blogs at pacificpilgrim.com and you can follow him on Twitter @pacificpilgrim.

[1] John Wesley, The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 26, ed. Frank Baker (Oxford: O.U.P, 1982), p. 563.

[2] The Wesley Center Online, “LONDON, June 23, I755,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1755/ (accessed January 9, 2013).

[3] “Report of the Social Principles Study Commission,” Engage 4, no. 6 (March 1972): p. 18. Quoted in Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 469.

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4 thoughts on “To Dissent or Be Silent: The History of The United Methodist Church’s Approach to Homosexuality (Guest Post)

  1. In the interest of a hearty support for not remaining quiet, can the candidate for ordination answer the 19 Wesley questions (particularly the ones about being in agreement with, and teaching the doctrines) honestly?
    Additionally, the (as yet) unordained MR. Howard seems to hang the end of Methodism, and God’s hand within her, upon the peg of whether or not full inclusion of LGBTQ persons becomes another footnote in the Book of Discipline.
    To “speak out” is a good thing, and I would agree that homophobic hysteria driven by ignorance and fear is something which deserves being put to the fires. However, Mr.Howard blunts his own point when he high-handedly demonizes Methodist minds who hold as truth that Christian (Biblical) orthodoxy and homosexuality are at odds.
    Were I to sit on the Board of Ordained ministry at his examination, I would send him home to think about that!

    1. Now, that’s not very nice.
      Rev. Howard is simply making his case. AND there is plenty of ‘demonization’ on both sides.

  2. The story of the development of the Social Principles statement on Sexuality needs to be fully examined and told. That document is and was flawed in so many ways. The committee tried to push the denomination as far to the left as possible, with plenty of weasel words so as to allow the Boards and Agencies to take ambiguous language and run as far to the left with the language as they could get away with. If Donald Hand’s moderating language had not been appended, the statement most likely would have been rejected, or, even better, the split would have happened in 1968 and saved us a lot of wasted energy.

    James W. Lung, Greensboro, NC

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