Fifteen years ago I was an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. The newly adopted denominational ad campaign proclaimed the UMC to be a denomination distinguished by “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” When the North Alabama Conference of the UMC – of which I was a member – met on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College, the floor of the basketball arena that served as our meeting space was adorned with free-standing door frames. The doors were all open wide.
It was a powerful symbol; it is a powerful symbol: the open door.
Before the legislative body that day was a resolution to affirm the stance of the denomination towards the ordination of homosexual persons to the ministry. The denomination’s stance was already pretty clear: “homosexuality,” the Book of Discipline stated, was “incompatible with Christian teaching” – gays and lesbians were not welcome into the ranks of clergy. There were stirrings in the church, however –indications that things might, some day, change – so some in the North Alabama Conference wanted to affirm that they were opposed to that change. Some hearts, some minds, some doors just weren’t ready to be opened.
The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority. I, and a few others, spoke against it. I can’t remember my words exactly, but I do remember that I pointed out the staggering hypocrisy of the open doors.
I probably ruined my career in the church by speaking that day. When I arrived at my new appointment the next week, many members of my new congregation had already heard about what I had said. From day one, I was a dead man walking. Soon, I came to understand what Dylan meant when he said, “I’ve been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.”
I stayed there for two hard fought years – fighting constant battles about this issue and countless others. Parishoners called to ask my opinion on abortion. (I, like the UMC, am pro-choice.) Lessons that I had delivered at other congregations without comment were the subject of scrutiny. My supervisor received regular calls about my “liberal” heresies. As a well-known conservative, he gave me no cover; he did his part in tightening the screws.
I remember talking with other, more senior, pastors about the situation, pastors that said they were sympathetic to making the church more inclusive. One said that he wasn’t going to say anything until he was farther along in his ministry; once he made it to a flagship church, or was elected bishop, then he would be a champion of the cause. Another – with whom I was interviewing for a job as an associate pastor at a large Birmingham-area church – said he was afraid to say anything because the church wasn’t ready; he was afraid that, if we made too much of it, it would kill the church.
I reminded him of something Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it.” I didn’t get the job.
When I was able to get my finances in order, and buy a home, I asked to be moved from full-time to part-time status. After three years, when my finances were a little more in order, I turned in my papers.
Except for weddings and funerals, I haven’t been in a church since.
Now, all these years later, I see that the United Methodist Church is arguing in earnest about how wide they should open their doors. The discussion today has expanded from issues related to clergy ordination to include the issue of same-sex marriage. There are a lot more people in the church now with open hearts and open minds who are working hard to open doors. Indeed, there are people who have worked their whole lives to get the church to move – to inch – closer to true openness. Things are changing. I admire those who are leading the charge.
But, despite all of that effort on the part of so many, the denomination still asserts that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Some things, some hearts and minds, haven’t changed at all.
Cultural change happened without them, of course; hearts, minds, and doors were opened despite the church. Now the church is torn between those who want to hold on to the past and those who are trying to play catch-up with a culture that, as it turned out, didn’t need the church, or its teachings, to discover the truth.
To me it all seems so ridiculous – here in 2016 – that the church still stands on the side of wrong. Ridiculous. Shameful. Sinful. I honestly wish that I could say that I thought that things would be farther along by now for the church. But, if I had thought that, I might never have left.
Throughout the South, legislatures rush to enshrine bigotry and discrimination in the guise of “religious freedom.” Mississippi Governor, Phil Bryant, claims that he signed that state’s version of the bill into law in order “to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.”
Sadly, Methodist beliefs are the sorts of religious beliefs and moral convictions that bills like this one are meant to uphold. Beliefs about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching. Beliefs that those who live different sorts of lives from our own are, because of that, sinful.
I want to make it clear that I’m no hero in any of this. I haven’t marched the streets for justice. I haven’t fought the fight alongside my gay and lesbian friends. I haven’t written letters to elected officials. I just turned in my papers. I just resigned. Fled.
And, like Lot when he fled from Sodom, I don’t even deserve credit for doing that. The messengers from Yahweh told Lot to go, but he lingered. He debated and weighed the merits of their arguments. He did a cost/benefit analysis. Finally, the angels had had enough so they seized him and forced him to safety.
That’s the way it was with me. It wasn’t so much a noble gesture on my part as a necessity of life. Things got so bad that there was no way that I could stay. As Dylan says, “I didn’t know whether to duck or to run. So I ran.”
There’s no heroism in that.
But, for me, it was worlds better than staying behind.
Much is made of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But, in the Genesis narrative, it is pretty clear that Yahweh didn’t destroy those cities because the residents were gay. Yahweh destroyed those cities because of the way they treated the strangers who came to their door.
In Genesis 18, Yahweh and his two partners came from out of the desert and greeted Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre. Without hesitation, the couple invited them into their home. They killed the fatted calf and prepared a feast. They gave them water to wash their feet.
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.
But, in Genesis 19, when Yahweh sent his messengers to Sodom, the greeting they received in the city could not have been more different than the greeting they received in the desert. The angels were forced to run for their lives. Lot opened the door to his home, but the crowds gathered to demand that the foreigners be turned out to face the violence of the mob. Yes, it is true that the men of Sodom threatened the angels with sexual assault. But sexual assault is a far cry from the love of two men or two women for one another. Surely it would not have mattered, in the eyes of God, if it had been women who were threatened by the angry mob, would not have made any difference if Yahweh’s angels had been female instead of male.
We’ve always had it wrong. The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality. The sin of Sodom was the sin of closed hearts. The sin of closed minds. The sin of closed doors.
I’m happy that more and more United Methodists are arguing and debating the church’s mistaken stand on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching. I’m happy to see congregations breaking with the church to open their doors to any and all who will come. I’m happy to see bishops and clergy and laity standing firm against the evils of the crowd. I’m happy to see that the church is slowly – sinfully slowly –beginning to think, talk, consider, change. Finally, the church is beginning to debate and weigh the merits of the arguments, analyzing the costs and the benefits.
I admire those who have stayed, in my absence, to speak as prophets and to lead the way.
But – for the life of me – I can’t make myself understand why anyone would want to stay in a land of closed hearts, closed minds, closed doors. I can’t understand why anyone would give time and money to an organization with bigotry enshrined in its very code of laws.
At one time, I was a part of the UMC; now I’m just an outsider looking in. Take my words as just that, as the words of someone who jumped ship, fled into the night, abandoned his post.
But it is past time to draw the line in the sand. Past time to negotiate. Past time to count the cost and analyze the benefits.
If the doors won’t open, it is past time to remember the words of Jesus to shake the dust off your feet and be on your way.
I know it’s scary, but life’s not so bad out here in the desert.
Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.
Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.