A Call to Justice, Inclusion, and Reconciliation: An Open Letter to Moderate/Centrist Delegates to the United Methodist General Conference

The following was written by Dr. John D. Copenhaver, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University and a member of The Clergy Letter Project. He has long been active in issues at the intersection of religion and social action, writing and speaking regularly on peacemaking and reconciliation. In his powerful open letter below, he calls on delegates to the United Methodist General Conference to recognize that it is time for justice, inclusion, and reconciliation for LGBTQ members. I'm proud to be able to share his letter with you:

An Open Letter to Moderate/Centrist delegates to the United Methodist General Conference:

As you begin General Conference, I know your head is likely spinning from reading resolutions and proposals regarding human sexuality, as well as keeping up with the United Methodist blogosphere. My thoughts are directed to you because I believe your votes will make the difference in the outcome. I know many delegates will come to General Conference with a fixed agenda in these matters: we can count on Good News and the Confessing Movement to advocate for stronger disciplinary measures to enforce the current position and we can expect the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) to advocate for removing the incompatibility sentence ("The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.") and the policies related to it. But, if you consider yourself a moderate/centrist you likely do not feel comfortable with either alternative. How you sort this out will play a large role in the future of our church.

No doubt you will be courted/cajoled/harangued by one or more of these camps to adopt their agenda. So, as you consult your conscience and prayerfully consider the various proposals, I humbly ask you to consider this plea to choose the Wesleyan path of grace and inclusiveness.

I make this plea not because I have been personally harmed by the language and policies of the Book of Discipline, but on behalf of LGBTQ friends and colleagues who have been excluded or condemned because of their sexual orientation, whose gifts for ministry have been rejected, and whose loving committed relationships have been denied the blessing of the church.

As a moderate/centrist you may have concluded that the Biblical condemnations of homosexuality are rooted in a cultural context that associated homosexuality with idolatry and temple prostitution and are not relevant to the current context. You understand that sexual orientation is biologically rooted and rarely a matter of choice. For these reasons, you may be inclined to drop the incompatibility statement, but the implications worry you. If the incompatibility statement is removed, there is no longer a theological or moral justification for denying ordination and marriage to LGBTQ persons. You may fear that such an abrupt shift would lead to schism or significant losses in membership. For that reason, you may believe half measures are the way forward.

Though I share your desire for unity, I believe our first concern must be to do what is right and just, and that also happens to be graceful. Justice demands that we remove the derogatory language and discriminatory policies in the Book of Discipline. We cannot wait to do what is right and just--as Martin Luther King, Jr wrote: "Justice too long delayed is justice denied."

In my course on the Philosophy of Nonviolence at Shenandoah University, I used King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" as the centerpiece of that course, but it wasn't until the second time teaching the course that I noticed a shocking footnote. The footnote revealed that among the eight clergy who wrote King telling him that his action in Birmingham was "unwise and untimely" was Bishop Nolan B. Harmon. Bishop Harmon was a hero to me and to my family! My family knew him personally and he was the general editor of the Interpreter's Bible as well as the author of Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette. How could Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, our hero, be so wrong about King's nonviolent struggle for civil rights? Perhaps Bishop Harmon saw himself as a moderating influence. He suggested, along with the other clergy signing the letter, that the "Negro community . . . should press its cause in the courts and not in the streets." They urged the "Negro community to withdraw support for these demonstrations and unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham." These leaders were not opposed to integration, but they did not feel the same urgency as those suffering the effects of segregation and Jim Crow laws. Bishop Harmon's action illustrates that Christians, even noble ones, can become an obstacle to God's unsettling but reconciling work.

Delegates to General Conference are in a position much like that of Bishop Nolan B. Harmon. Though the struggle for marriage equality has succeeded with the help of the Supreme Court, the struggle for equality in the church is squarely before you. You can slow that march toward full equality or make it a reality. I believe half measures will only prolong our church's agony and slow the reconciling process. None of the options before the General Conference assures the continued unity of the United Methodist Church. Our best option is to acknowledge the harm our words and policies have done to our LGBTQ members, to repent, and to remove the obstacles to their full inclusion and equality in the church. I believe this grace-full move would once again release the dynamism of the Wesleyan movement that has been hobbled by what appears to be an eagerness to judge and exclude rather than ever-expanding ministry of the early church that broke traditional Jewish boundaries to include Samaritans and later gentiles.

Justice has been too long delayed for our LGBTQ members. IT IS TIME to recognize these members as moral equals in the church, to affirm and harness their gifts and graces for ministry, and to bless their marriages. You know as well as I do that such a decision may be costly for the church, especially in certain regions, but discipleship has always had its costs. Like Bishop Harmon, you have a choice. By your vote, you will say that the movement for full inclusion is "unwise and untimely" or that IT IS TIME for justice, for inclusion, and for reconciliation.

Thank you for taking the time to read this "plea" during the busy early sessions of General Conference.

Sincerely, John D. Copenhaver, Prof. Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University