Had things gone the way I once assumed, I would not be a United Methodist right now.
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to leave The UMC as much as it was simply a given that I wouldn’t stay.
I became a United Methodist more or less by accident, after attending an interdenominational Wesleyan seminary when everyone at my Southern Baptist church wondered why I would do such a thing. I chose the school for my program and the faculty, but I ended up also receiving with gratitude the theological distinctives, liturgical customs, and forms of community that the Methodist tradition had to share. The summer before I graduated, I was invited to participate in an internship program at a large UMC congregation in my hometown. I just recently resigned from there after going on to serve four years on staff following my graduation. That was supposed to be the end of my season in The United Methodist Church.
But here I am, and whatever assumptions I once had, I remain a United Methodist by choice. And it’s the context in which I made and am continuing to make that choice that I want to tell you about.
FULLY AND FAITHFULLY
I have never been so aware of the presence, care, and activity of God than I have been in the past year–through the exhilarating and excruciating process of coming out as gay, and doing so in the heteronormative and even largely homophobic American South.
Until about two years ago, I adhered to the conservative view on sexuality and gender identity. It was after undergraduate and graduate degrees in biblical studies, and then even more a couple more years after that of personal study, that my mind changed. I emphasize that I didn’t intentionally “change my mind.” In fact, up to that point, my theological pursuits (though they did influence this shift in my understanding) had for a long time been driven by my questions about the theology, meaning, and function of Scripture overall. If anyone is curious about what this process looked like in the finer details, I am currently working on writing my story at greater length. But to put the matter succinctly, I gradually came to see this:
There is nothing about Christian theology and practice that is at odds with someone living fully and faithfully into their sexual identity.
And not only did I not set out to change my mind–I actually realized after the fact that I didn’t want to change my mind on this. I had denied, suppressed, and hidden who I am out of fear, and for my mind to change on this meant that there would suddenly be no barrier between me and the scariest, most vulnerable thing I could do: finally and fully seeing myself and letting myself be seen to others. No barrier, that is, except for what people would think.
In my understanding of the “ideal” traditional view regarding sexuality which Reconciling Ministries Network is a witness against (and again, which I used to hold to), LGBT people are to be faulted only for any sexual activity corresponding to their orientations and not for the orientations themselves. In families and communities which hold to this view, anyone should be able to be LGBT without fearing shame or exclusion.
However, in my understanding–and in my experience–this is not what tends to happen. Individual instances accounted for and celebrated, the traditional view–when it is embodied within a larger community like the church–fails to foster an environment which welcomes people to be who they are, apart from anything they might do. This is part of the reason why I do not believe I would have ever been able to accept my being as a gay person if I continued to believe that my doing as a gay person would be wrong. The celibate gay Christians who adhere to this understanding have my unwavering admiration for their faithfulness. For me, however, faithfulness is working itself out in a different way.
Indeed, the path faithfulness has me on leads me through this final barrier of caring what people think, not over or around it. It certainly matters what people think, but what people think is not going to hinder in my life what I have no doubt is God’s will for those who are hidden. And that is to be seen. Now, I can make the biblical/theological arguments. And in this most pivotal struggle and opportunity in the life of the church for the people of God to once again catch up to the ever- expanding diversity that God intends, the arguments certainly have their place.
But the most important thing we have to offer is really all that we have to offer in the end, and that is ourselves.
INCLUDING AND BEING INCLUDED
This theology of being seen has not only arisen from my coming out experience–it continues to guide how I witness for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the church. In a word, my witness is grounded simply in my presence. Our presence is the most basic way any of us receive and extend God’s grace. And, just as it is with my sexuality, my witness at this crucial moment is about who I am, and not only about what I do. So when it came to the matter of my employment at a church which would not recognize and include all of my being/doing as a gay Christian, I realized that it was hugely inconsistent for my message to be that we should not hide and should instead be seen, and at the same time to keep a job that would have kept me hidden. I resigned when I came out under the conviction that my position in the community as a staff person is different from my inclusion in the community as a member. And it is rather from a position of including and being included that I most genuinely witness to the maddeningly generous divine hospitality, even for people like me. It is also how I most faithfully fulfill my purpose and calling as part of the people of God. I like to say that the missio dei could also be called the inclusio dei. The church exists not as its own product, but through the actual ongoing action of God’s fully-embracing welcome.
When we obstruct God’s inclusive action from moving onward and outward through us, we fail in any meaningful sense to be the church.
This means, as we approach General Conference 2016 and then continue on together in this new era, that we must all be present; that we who are hidden must be seen; that any of us who are excluded must be welcomed, and, that our witness must be heard.
STILL UNITED METHODIST
During my last days as a staff member at my church, I had honest conversations with my colleagues about the decision of affirming LGBTQ+ Christians and their allies to stay in The UMC when there are other denominations that recognize full rights for LGBTQ+ people. Indeed, with the law laid down in the current Book of Discipline as it is, denying as it does that who I am–with my embrace of who I am–is compatible with Christianity, even I once assumed that I would of course leave The United Methodist Church. But I cannot. This is about my personal presence, not just my religious preference. I have been included and have learned to extend God’s welcome through this community which was surprisingly gifted to me. To part ways with it now would be a denial of my gratitude for it, and it would be to reject my role in pursuing the gospel-granted vision for what it can be.
This does not mean that none of us is ever led to leave even entire denominations behind in order to forge ahead onward to the newness God is always bringing in other places. The faithful voice of Verdell A. Wright recently published on the RMN blog is one example of this. It does mean, however, that the choice to stay and to be genuinely present where we have been placed is a witness to us all that God’s newness comes even right where it is not convenient or comfortable– just outside the parameters of our theology, and ever and always on the expanding margins of who is included. In the meantime, so many of us are still United Methodists. Why wouldn’t we be? We are the heirs of those named for how their lives showed how they had been caught up in the divine activity in the world; those who took so seriously God in human flesh that it revealed humanity as it really is and as it really could become; those that spoke of holiness in such a way that blurred the boundary between personal and social; and, those who proclaimed salvation not in terms of correct belief, remaining pure, or being the chosen ones, but rather as, in the words of Wesley, the “recovery of the divine nature, the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.”
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