A reflection from the Chair of Dignity and Worth, Sam McBratney:
I have been very concerned about news of the resignations of ministers and members of the Methodist Church because of the report God in Love Unites Us. Since the process of resigning is a confidential one, it is hard to know all the reasons why someone chooses to step down from ministry or office, but to do so before the final vote has been taken seems a little premature. I utterly respect anyone’s decision to go, and I know it must take enormous heart-searching, but am obviously sad that a brother or sister has felt the need to separate themselves from people like me.
What concerns me far more is those who politicise such actions in an attempt to spread worry and fear in the Church. Some insist it is proof positive that the ‘Mixed Economy’ cannot work. But if it were genuine concern about the unworkability of the proposals, there would have been care taken to see who from the ‘other camp’ had or was intending to leave. There might even have been attention drawn to those who have left or been driven out of Circuit appointments, even in the last year, because of their sexuality, a sign that the current arrangements are clearly not working.
Let’s be clear about what the Conference proposed last year. No-one is being asked to alter their views on marriage. For those who want to maintain a position of one man and one woman for life, that is clearly stated. For those who wish to extend marriage to include couples of the same sex, that is also to be allowed for. What is being asked of all of us is that we respect the consciences of those with whom we disagree. This is not about cajoling or coercing people into agreement with one view – far from it. I am incredibly grateful to those who worked with the leadership of Dignity and Worth to amend the report’s recommendations to include a specific reference to the conservative position on marriage. We wanted to ensure that people who could not take that step were recognised and protected. Sadly, those who claim to speak for conservatives refused to engage in making the report better and offered nothing other than complete resistance and rejection.
The proposals, if accepted, won’t change the fact that our Church is made up of LGBTQ+ people and heterosexual people and others who live beyond those definitions. It doesn’t alter the fact that openly LGBTQ+ people have been ordained as presbyters and deacons and that ministers and members live in civil partnerships and same-sex civil marriages. It certainly doesn’t change the reality that Methodists search the Scriptures and their hearts and arrive at contradictory understandings about relationships. We have lived with these realities for at least 25 years and have seen very few resignations as a result. So why now?
Is it because the proposals move us to a position of deeper honesty about the differences that exist in our church and ask us all to, at least, acknowledge their existence? Or that one set of views is no longer being privileged over another, and those who disagree with us will be allowed to exercise their consciences publicly and on Methodist premises? Or is it because the so-called ‘Pilgrimage of Faith’ has not been undertaken in some parts of the Connexion and so these proposals feel like they have dropped out of the sky?
I understand that there is worry and fear in some parts of our Church. But the way to deal with fear is not to stoke it nor to privilege it, but to engage lovingly with those who are fearful. If Scripture is to be believed, fear and love cannot co-exist, so the presence of fear is a challenge to all of us to love more. Dignity and Worth supports the report, not because it is perfect, but because it offers us a chance to move beyond fear. We continue to hear stories of LGBTQ+ Methodists who are bullied into silence, or openly attacked for being honest about their sexuality. We know the names of those for whom the stress placed on them has become too much and so they have had to leave our congregations and our pulpits. We have listened to those who have been rejected in stationing because of their sexuality or relationship status, as well as those who have had to curtail. Too many people assume that, because they do not hear bad news, there is none to report. We press for change because the status quo is not a safe place for LGBTQ+ people in our Church and we believe that only more transparency and honesty will help. We affirm Scripture’s belief that truth is the key to freedom.
If the Methodist Conference adopts the proposals in the report, it will allow for a diversity of practice to emerge. It will also highlight the work that remains to be done, for in many places in our Connexion, members have not been given the opportunity to engage properly with issues of marriage and relationships. They have been ‘protected’ by well-meaning gatekeepers who have decided either that it doesn’t affect their congregation or that ordinary Methodists are incapable of having a respectful, grown-up and caring conversation about these things. I have been inspired and heartbroken in equal measure, as I have engaged in conversations around the country, by stories of members’ families and personal experiences that have been suppressed by this culture of silence. Rarely has the conversation seemed less than loving.
Those who are fearful of the ‘Mixed Economy’ are right about one thing: it will take work to make it work. We will need to learn to trust others, especially those we disagree with, and we will have to get to know one another better. We will need to learn to listen more and speak less, and to handle hearing things that move us out of our comfort zones. And, when we have heard those things, we will need to learn to go on loving the one who said it. As difficult as that might be, it is also the vision of the Beloved Community, where Christians are bound together in love and bear the burdens of the other. May the Spirit guide, protect and challenge us to be better Christians and siblings to others.