Yesterday the District Superintendent (DS) for the Frederick District of the Baltimore-Washington Conference (BWC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC), Rev. Edgardo Rivera, visited Oakland Church to deliver a message from the Bishop of our conference, Latrelle Miller Easterling. This message was in the form of a letter that the District Superintendent read in front of the church near the beginning of each of our two services. I think most people present felt that the timing of this visit – on Easter Sunday, disrupting the flow of what was already a full service and injecting tension into our joyful celebration of the Resurrection – was very poor.
I suspect that this disruption could have been overlooked had the Bishop’s letter shown an understanding of our church’s concerns and provided pertinent responses, and had DS Rivera’s interactions with our members been more directed to genuine dialogue, answering questions, and learning why we feel our denomination is leaving behind Biblical inspiration and authority. However, the letter did not address our actual concerns but rather refuted caricatures that bore little resemblance to our actual stated goals. Given the effort required to write the letter and have DS Rivera deliver it, I would have hoped for its contents to be more accurate and relevant.
While there are several parts of the Bishop’s letter that border on the very “misinformation” and “half-truths” that the Bishop was supposedly denouncing, perhaps the most serious is the fact that she seems to respond more forcefully to a claim we never made, on a topic that, while important, isn’t our only or even central concern.
Specifically, the bulk of the Bishop’s letter focuses on the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF), a Commission the sole purpose of which is to determine how our denomination will handle the issue of the ordination of homosexuals and conducting same-sex “weddings” narrowly, and sexuality and gender issues more broadly. However, we view the unbiblical views of sex and marriage espoused by our liberal counterparts as symptomatic of a deeper and more insidious problem: an erosion of belief in the deity of Christ and in the authority and inspiration of the Bible. We view the approval of homosexuality and abortion to be the result of elevating emotions and private experience above the authority of scripture – which is exactly how scripture itself views the matter in Romans 1, where idolatry leads to sexual immorality. Even as far as symptoms go, many of us are just as alarmed at the BWCs stubborn insistence on supporting abortion with apportionment dollars as we are at the approval of sexual sin – if not more so.
Ironically, Bishop Easterling’s letter is most misguided at precisely the point at which it is most emphatic. She states, “There are some who have said that if the denomination changes the language in the Book of Discipline to be more inclusive, all pastors and churches will be forced to conduct same-gender weddings. That is absolutely and completely false.” [emphasis in original]
Perhaps some have said this – but we have never said this. We have researched the various options being considered by the COWF, and none of them make any claims along these lines, so consequently neither have we. The closest option to the caricature the Bishop presents is Option 2, also known as the “contextual” model or the “local option.” This option would allow churches and pastors to decide for themselves whether they performed same-sex marriages. As the book of Judges describes, this would be a case where “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.” Our concern in such a scenario would be obvious; we should not be asked to support what we believe scripture clearly calls sinful simply because we are not being forced to participate in the sin ourselves. The thought of being part of a church that takes scripture so lightly that it cannot condemn sin, to pay apportionment dollars to an organization wherein these sins are being committed freely and unrepentantly, and which “gives hearty approval to those who practice them,” (Romans 1) is unconscionable. Of course, I hardly need add that the Bishop can’t guarantee the outcome of the General Conference vote on these issues anyway.
To add to the irony, immediately prior to her emphatic refutation of a straw-man, the Bishop decries “misinformation” and “half-truths” (supposedly being circulated by Oakland?). I will give Bishop Easterling the benefit of the doubt here; I don’t think she is intending to grossly misrepresent our claims. I think she simply doesn’t know them. She focuses on just one of several symptoms rather than on the underlying problem. Even then, she misrepresents our concerns with respect to that symptom. This is disappointing, especially given the fact that we have voiced our concerns at length to DS Rivera several times at Charge Conferences. Several of us again attempted to do so this Easter.
Let’s hope that these concerns will finally be taken seriously this time.