I grew up in the United Methodist Church. I went to Vacation Bible School. I was confirmed. I wore a WWJD bracelet and a cross around my neck. I spent many Sundays in pews and Wednesdays in Bible-study fold-out chairs. I played instruments. I sang in the choir. And after being captivated by a particularly charismatic pastor, I even thought that I wanted to be a preacher.
But once I accepted that I'm gay, I knew that becoming a preacher would no longer be possible. The treatment I received, generally one of rejection and revulsion and at best a Cheney-esque "compassion," was eventually enough to turn me off of organized religion forever.
Now the good Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor probably not unlike the one I idolized as a child, has been suspended for officiating the wedding of his gay son. It is a blow that, even after nearly a decade away from the church, leaves me filled with anger and despair.
Michael Rubinkam of the Associated Press describes the United Methodist Church as the largest mainline Protestant denomination in this country. I often describe my Christian upbringing as "mainstream" to those who think that all Southerners attend foot-washing revivals where we speak in tongues and eat chitlins. I would explain myself by simply saying, "Oh, I grew up in a Methodist church."
Unfortunately, "mainline" does not mean "mainstream." The sad truth for all LGBT people in the South is that there are virtually no religious safe havens for them outside a few major cities. I still remember driving past a Metropolitan Community Church in a Methodist Church van when I was a teenager. We were in Raleigh, N.C. Someone whispered to me conspiratorially, "That church is for the gays."
In Boston, where I now live, you see many churches of all flavors and sizes festooned with rainbows, inviting everyone to come and worship. In much of the South, such a gesture would still be met with scorn and derision. The church there is too often not an instrument of God's love but a weapon for smiting God's supposed enemies.
To strip a pastor of his credentials for presiding over his son's wedding is national news because it strikes directly at the heart of the family, the bond between parent and child. It reminds me of the story of Abraham, who bound his son Isaac to a sacrificial altar in the Book of Genesis. He is prepared to kill him. At the last moment, God intervenes, saying, "Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Isaac is spared. Most Christians interpret this as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but I remember it mostly as a disturbing, horrific tale of a God I didn't want to know.
The United Methodist Church has proven to be more wedded to this Old Testament God than to the God of the New Testament. It states that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." You can read this for yourself on their website under the laughably hypocritical slogan "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors."
It is not hard to come up with a good advertising campaign. It's much harder to go against the prejudices of your parishioners and take a moral stance against bigotry. I am sure that some would like to focus on the fact that the good Rev. Frank Schaefer performed a gay marriage ceremony in defiance of church doctrine. But the man was doing it for his son. And he did so privately. It was only when Jon Boger, one of his flock, stood up against him and filed a formal complaint that Schaefer was "outed."
I am sure that Boger will (rightfully) be the target of much vitriol. But we should thank him for forcing Schaefer to come into the light as a once-reluctant but now fierce champion of LGBT rights. In 30 days Rev. Schaefer will lose his credentials if he does not recant. He has stated that he will not. His stand is taking place not on the steps of the Supreme Court, where recent legal victories have been won, but from within a mainline church filled with hearts and minds. And churches can still be great forces for positive social change; we only have to look back at the civil rights movement to see their potential.
Unfortunately, as people like Boger have become the zealous face of religion in America today, the Schaefers of the world aren't enough to keep gays in church. I know many gay men who regularly attend churches where rainbow flags fly out front. But many of those of us who grew up in the mainline churches in the redder parts of America have left behind the institutions that once gave us a sense of community and belonging and family. We left them because they left us. We left them because they kicked us out the door.
Thomas A. Lambrecht, who advised the church counsel on Schaefer's penalty, commented that the punishment "registers how serious the breach of the covenant was that took place."
But for LGBT people, the United Methodist Church broke its covenant with us long ago. And most of us will never go back.