Memorial United Methodist Church, White Plains
May 8, 2016, 10:00 a.m.
Seventh Sunday of Easter
60th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Methodist Church
Day after Helen Andrew’s funeral
General Conference starts Tuesday
Hymn of Preparation How Can We Name a Love? UMH #111
These and Those
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May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
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Unity. Such an attractive idea until you try it. In John 17, during what’s called his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prays:
23I in them
and you in me,
that they may become completely one,
so that the world may know
that you have sent me
and have loved them
even as you have loved me.
I would like to take you back to the General Conference of the Methodist Church, when the body took up the question of the ordination of women. On the morning of May 5, 1956, the majority report of the Standing Committee on Ministry was presented.
As a matter of principle, they all agreed that women should not be excluded from ordained ministry. The problem was practical. The majority report therefore proposed that women should have full clergy rights, but only single women and widows would be allowed to serve as pastors.
Quoting the presenter: “We turned to our District Superintendents. They presented very carefully, very persuasively some of the problems, the practical problems, involved, in appointing female pastors to local congregations.”
So the Standing Committee on Ministry made a proposal that they realized was still discrimination against women, but which seemed the best anyone could hope for at the time.
Next the minority report was presented: leave everything exactly the same. Because: nobody wants a woman pastor. And if you let women be pastors equal to men, then in our system you’ll have to appoint them to churches, and then imagine the mess.
The presenter claimed no discrimination against women at all. He said: “I trust that The General Conference, not out of any spirit of division, not out of any spirit of ill will, but only with a sense of the importance of the practical problems of administration, will not change our current system. Thank you.”
Next someone helpfully made an amendment that women of any marital status could be ordained but didn’t have to be appointed to a church. This speaker’s underlying concern was that he didn’t want single women out loose in churches. So he wanted to include the married ones, because it would be better for the children--as long as none of the women were entitled to appointments and might come to, for instance, his church.
Objections were raised, that women with husbands or children to care for should be staying at home.
Then a man spoke from the Central Jurisdiction--the segregated group of black churches in the Methodist Church formed in 1939, which would not be abolished until 1968. He suggested that women applying for ordination and appointment should be treated exactly like men.
Note: the first person to suggest that women should be treated exactly like men was a black man from a segregated unit of the Methodist Church.
Discussion followed. “We need to do this thing and we will have to do it some day. Why not do it now and do it graciously?” The arguments against basically went: it will hurt the poor women’s feelings when churches don’t want them. They will be better off if we leave things as they are.
Then for the first time a woman spoke. She said: if you let women be clergy, then we won’t be able to recruit deaconesses and missionaries any more. She further said: if you do this crazy thing, you will have to be prepared to accept a woman pastor at your church. And how about a woman District Superintendent? And--unthinkable!--a woman Bishop?? “Now, you may think that is a rather exaggerated idea, but, believe me, it is not. [One thing leads to another, you know.] I would urge that this matter be considered very seriously, that we have no more joking around, and that you vote “no” when it comes to [clergy rights of any sort for women]--for the sake of the women of our Church.”
The proposal for full clergy rights for women was defeated. Back to discussion of limited clergy rights.
It was pointed out that some conferences that didn’t have enough male clergy were already using women as lay preachers very satisfactorily-- though these women had to bring their male Lay Delegate to Conference to vote on their behalf, because they were not allowed to vote.
A closing speech in favor of limited clergy rights for women mentioned how good-looking the women in the speaker’s home conference were, and that he, himself, might consider a few women he knew to be qualified to serve on the staff of his church.
Next: proposal to let individual annual conferences decide. Defeated.
Then something happened. A series of substitutes and amendments and amendments to substitutes were offered, and it seems the delegates weren’t quite following. The votes were rather confused. And then someone asked for a recount, for clarification on exactly what was being voted on. They voted again. And the chair announced:
“The substitute motion offered by William H. Alderson (New York East –NE) as Amended by Zach T. Johnson (Kentucky –SE) has been adopted. The final vote: 389 in favor of Full Clergy Rights for Women and 297 opposed. Women will now be welcome to apply for full membership in the Annual Conferences and will have Full Clergy Rights, rights equal in every way to the men.”
Sixty years ago this week.
This week, sixty years later, we find ourselves still not in the “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” unity that Jesus describes. General Conference starts on Tuesday, and again, as we have done every four years for the last 44 years, we will fight about full inclusion in the church of another class of marginalized people--GLBT persons.
Unity. Such an attractive idea until you try it.
On Monday--seems so long ago!--fifteen clergy and candidates in our Conference came out as LGBTQ in an open letter to the denomination. Sara and Siobhan were among them. The next day the chair of our Board of Ordained Ministry co-signed an open letter affirming the welcome of the Boards of New York and Baltimore Washington to all candidates irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender expression. A statement from the Pacific Northwest Conference followed later in the week.
Critics on the right responded to all of these actions by saying that the progressives are “pushing for schism.” Their story paints progressives, and especially the people for whom they advocate, as the problem, the source of strife in the church--when the actual problem is the church’s stubborn insistence on homophobia and discrimination. It makes the victims responsible for the discomfort of their oppressors. I’m sure you can see / that is wrong.
The critics say that our ecclesial disobedience--doing gay weddings, ordaining and appointing gay clergy, in violation of United Methodist rules--destroys the supposed covenant unity of our church.
Unity. Such an attractive idea until you try it.
As Dr. Dorothee Benz brilliantly laid out in an article this week, there are three primary motivations for non-violent breaking of rules, whether civil or church government. The first is the response of conscience. As we discussed last week, life if simpler if you just do the right thing. “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us. We refuse to comply with rules that do harm to people. This does not mean running red lights.
Second, Benz writes, ecclesial disobedience is a form of non-violent resistance, and non-violent resistance is a spiritual practice as well as a strategy. It is rooted in the belief that oppression cannot be defeated with the methods of oppression but rather only with the methods of love. Beloved, let us love one another. When we withdraw our cooperation with the system without doing harm to our opponents, we open up possibilities for new solutions. We maintain and uphold the dignity of our opponents, without which reconciliation will forever be impossible.
Third, it follows from this that non-violent resistance is a practice grounded also in hope, because if its practitioners did not believe that the withdrawal of their cooperation could effect change, they would not undertake it. Thus, non-violent resistance is built on the conviction that all human beings are redeemable. As a strategy, it is therefore quintessentially one of reform or transformation. It is not an exit strategy. It is not a push for schism. If we wanted to leave, we would already be gone.
We don’t have much hope that the votes will come in favor of a change for inclusion in our church at General Conference next week. Only one of us in the room right now will be there, personally protesting, non-violently resisting / the injustice and harm done to so many in our churches.
What about the rest of us? What will we be doing?
Some people here aren’t even Methodists. Please pray for us.
But for all of us, I ask you to consider: What kind of unity will do?
How far are you willing to go for justice?
Apparent unity that is actually the silence of the oppressed is not justice.
Methods of non-violent resistance cause discomfort. They bring tensions to the surface, and that’s not fun. They bring tensions out into the open--where they can be dealt with.
I urge you Methodists to pay attention to what’s happening in our church. Watch for Jayson and Benz and Sara and Siobhan on the live feed. Stand up for justice.
Injustice exists beyond the bounds of the United Methodist Church. Injustice may exist even in some of your closest relationships. Are you willing to resist injustice, in the name of love?
Prayer Song Spirit of God TFWS #2117