This is a letter from a guy named Chase Bannister who went to school with my wife Cheryl and me at Duke Divinity School. Chase is gay. That’s why he left the United Methodist Church. Cheryl and I have other friends and seminary classmates like Chase who are beautiful people with amazing gifts that have left the Methodist church because they’re gay. I’m sharing this letter because Chase is a person, not an issue. And because he said in his letter, “Remember me,” like the thief said to Jesus. Those words condemned me because I’ve often tried to forget friends like Chase, since my life as a Methodist pastor would be easier if I had never known them. In any case, whatever you believe about this issue, I hope that you’re willing to listen to a person whose life is directly impacted.
Though a few of you have the honor of putting up with my tedium on regular occasion, many of you to whom I write today I haven’t seen in too many moons. The vast majority of the twenty or so of you I’m writing today I have known through Duke Divinity School, and are out and about doing work within the context of the United Methodist Church. Some of you have taken your holy orders as elders or probationary elders, and some of you are fastidious in your work of social justice and societal welfare. Thank you for your work; goodness knows the missional life is under appreciated. For my part, I understand that the daily work in ecclesial setting is taxing to say the least; your expressions of the holiness-of-the-ordinary have my endless gratitude.
Most of you, I believe, are aware that I formally renounced my membership in the United Methodist Church a few years ago, saddened by the denomination’s double-speak on “prophetic voice” vs. “long-term dialogue and holy conferencing” as part of its hospitality-free polity barring LGBT persons from particular-sacramental work. It was a dichotomous decision for me–both tremendously difficult to per force leave behind a people and institution that formed me into who I am and yet concomitantly a decision of great ease—wheresoever I (and my fellow LGBT persons) are banned from formal ecclesiastical work, I cannot remain. For me, it was and has been a decision of personal ethics, turning away from an endlessly abusive system which calls congregants and those who tend them to abide by a book which disparages beautiful identities as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’
Incompatible. What a horrifying, bitter word.
Imagine what it must be like to be called ‘incompatible’ with all of Christian teaching. Incompatible in relationship to the polity of the church. Incompatible, implicitly noted, with one’s relationship with God and neighbor.
Though incompatible and far-too-broken to break the bread for those gathered for eucharist, we are of “sacred worth.” You’ll forgive me, I hope, as I call this double-speak just what it is – bullshit.
I watched as the General Conference of the United Methodist Church made a mockery of authentic engagement, saddened to witness the further detriment of this denomination; emancipated, as it were, from the emotional violence, I still (and always will) have a strangely-warm place in my heart for the people of the UMC and the parishes and institutions they comprise. Oddly enough, it was the UMC (once considered a progressive denomination among protestants) which helped me escape literalism and hold on to confounding concept that God could change God’s mind, as God did with the people of Nineveh (yes, believe it or not, I still have a copy of the canon somewhere about, though I’m still peeved that it is a closed-canon).
Some of you are working tirelessly and to speak truth to power, flying right in the face of the discipline (as your retired bishops did). And for that, I thank you.
I cannot speak to what others of you are doing amid this onslaught of ecclesial fratricide, so I include you in this bold request. When next you don your stole and liturgical vestments, when next you hold out your hands over the bread and wine, when next you speak on behalf of your denomination in word, order, sacrament, when next you remember the mighty acts, when you next lecture to a class or lead a faculty meeting—-please also remember me. Remember how much power you have, however neophyte you might feel in the context of your career. Remember the connections we shared over time, and whether in the context of those connections, you found me worthy to be with you, as we together would proclaim our unworthiness.
Whether out of fear, vows, anxieties, belief systems – I confess that I hold bitterness with some of you, particularly those of you I met and loved through our theological education. I’ve been desperate to see your signs of protest, your willingness to speak honestly, your willingness to stand up for me and ‘my people’–who are also your people, as many of you continue to baptize LGBT persons into the methodist flock. I’ve been desperate to see your willingness to stand trial – with my commitment to be present with you should such bureaucratic devilry come to you.
I suppose my request could be framed a bit more directly, so here goes—– Would you stand trial for me? If you are empowered in any way whatsoever and believe injustice is afoot, would you stand trial on my behalf–in the service or my ordination (and one day, my marriage)?
For many of you, I imagine this hasn’t been much of a personal issue, and I wish to have it be so, as I hope our connection and friendship would make it personal for you. Would you speak so boldly that you’re censured, dismissed, or defrocked? Until so many of you go that far will the church begin to listen. Would this have been about the status and role of women in the clergy or (may it never again be so) divisions in the ranks about the rights of persons of all ethnicities and races, I would have gone to the mat for you. Would you do likewise for my kindred? So much violence and abuse has been done by your church against my identity that it seems unlikely I would return to your denomination – but I care too much about the good that is left within your fractured body (and the young persons in your congregations struggling with sexual orientation hearing what their pastors say…and do not say). Your silence can be rather deafening.
A few of you on this list are deans, tenured faculty, retired faculty at Duke (and a few other spots). With no apologies for directness, you–most empowered of all–seem to have done very little. I’ve been watching and listening – hoping, even, for you to say publicly what you’ve said to me privately. I expect more from you, and live with a disappointment grounded in hurt for your inaction. Please turn your whispered support into something substantial. Maybe even reconsider and recall words of moral vision that (while once fully well-intentioned) now carves the heart out of the ontological joy concomitant with being grafted into–rather than intentionally anathematized of–the kingdom of God and ordained service to it.
Of all of us, you have the most power, backed by tenure, institutional equity councils, centers for ethics, and the ability–nay, responsibility–within the academy to engage students, alumni, faculty, and the wider community of theological schools (particularly those with ties to the UMC). If you live in fear there, why do you still live there? And what can I do to help you overcome such a burden? I will show up in every circumstance I can, as I have for Sam Wells anytime he came calling for panel discussions at the divinity school on issues of disenfranchisement and hetero-normativity of the church.
Be patient, we’ve been told. Dialogue. Holy conference. Empty words, masking an unwillingness to really do anything; mortician’s rouge spread thickly upon approaches meant to pacify, never really to empower.
Would you stand trial for me? Saint Peter Storey once gave us all a stern reckoning from the pulpit of Duke Chapel in his 2006 baccalaureate address in, as he prepared to make his way out of a toxic environment into another:
“Resist with all your might the temptation to play “church” while the world bleeds. Until you lead your congregation to engage with that real world, your pastoring will be mere pampering, your proclamation will be a religious form of talking to yourself. Jesus wants to lead us past our self–absorption into the only place where it costs something to be the Church – the world. God invites us to join Jesus there declaring the good news that God’s heart breaks in love for that world… that God’s arms are nailed wide open in welcome to all, especially those broken by poverty and bigotry, and shackled by injustice.”
Would you stand trial for me and my kindred? If you will, I will get on a plane and support you, wherever you may be. Will you risk being slapped by your District Superintendant or Bishop or Dean or President? If you will, I resolve to be with you and stand to take the hit with you. I’m used to it, and the callouses protect me (at least partially) from the sting.
Am I asking a lot? You can bet on Balaam’s !@#$%^&* I am. If these years of emotional vitriol haven’t been personal to you yet, I hope they are now, else I have earnestly misplaced my trust and hope. I am asking you to set aside your quiet whispers for a potent disquietude; I’m asking you to turn over a few tables in the temple; I’m asking you to upbraid the violent language of your church; I’m asking you to openly speak truth to power, as one you said you would; I’m asking you to do risk crucifixion within your order; I’m asking for your civil disobedience – refuse to marry anyone in your congregations until you could wed me to one who would be my betrothed; I’m asking you to take the floor at your annual conferences until so ruled out of order and carried out in shackles that it makes the front page of the local paper; I’m asking you to do what true friends would do for one another. I’ve sung with you, traveled with you, lived with you, laughed and cried with you, studied with you, argued with you healthily in the midst of academic intrigue, apologized for you, and now respect you enough to ask you directly to do more.
I’ve asked it of you; so you can ask it of me. If you need me to come and speak to your parish or board or be beside you as you walk into an office of power, ask it of me. Please.
I’m certain I’ve failed to stand up for some of you in some way; in the ways in which I have, please help me come to reconciliation with you, and help me learn to speak boldly on your behalf. So long as you’re willing to let on un-Methodist come to your aid, you needn’t carry your cross alone.
There’s always a place for you in Durham, NC, should you ever need a visit to this wondrous city, by the way. Alongside two brave and brilliant clinical social workers, I’ve dreamt, planned, raised capital for, and opened a specialty behavioral health hospital for young people & center of excellence for the treatment of eating disorders, right across the street from Duke (so good luck getting rid of me!). Here, I am privileged to serve as Vice-President & Chief Clinical Officer. I like to say that it is a place that’s been ‘loved into being,’ and I am proud to have such an incredible, expert staff. If I can ever help with your congregant families (either in getting specialist connections for outpatient care near you or care at our hospital), let me know.
There can be a temptation to say at this point, “but look – you found a different calling about which you are incredibly passionate.” Resist this temptation, please. I love my work with a fiery passion, and am most glad to have fallen in love with what I get to do in this world. Resist the urge to pacify and look back to a larger issue of the institutional invalidation of identity. Because you are a part of the people called Methodist, you find yourself squarely in the center of a political, bureaucratic maelstrom which wounds, disenfranchises, and leaves your church impoverished from the gifts of service, leadership, and care LGBT persons have to offer–just like you.
It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t lend you a song – so here’s to you, Fred Rogers, for understanding that being different is beautiful, something to be proud of, and (despite what one might see) is only truly handicapping if the community decides it so.
It’s you I like,