On Monday morning, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), an LGBT advocacy group within the United Methodist Church (UMC), published a letter signed by 111 ministers openly declaring their dual identity as both clergy and LGBT persons. The effort constitutes a direct affront to existing church policy — which currently prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” — and comes just one day before thousands of UMC leaders gather in Portland, Oregon, for General Conference, an event held every four years where delegates vote on issues of church governance and theology.
“As we gather in Portland to begin the 10 day discernment of God’s leading for The United Methodist Church known as General Conference, we, your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Intersex (LGBTQI) religious leaders — local pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry — want to remind you of our covenant with you,” the letter reads in part. “…While we have sought to remain faithful to our call and covenant, you have not always remained faithful to us. While you have welcomed us as pastors, youth leaders, district superintendents, bishops, professors, missionaries and other forms of religious service, you have required that we not bring our full selves to ministry, that we hide from view our sexual orientations and gender identities.
“As long as we did this, you gladly affirmed our gifts and graces and used us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in the varied places you sent us,” the letter adds.
The letter sent a shockwave throughout the UMC, a global denomination that claims around 12 million members worldwide: soon after it was posted, the RMN website promptly crashed due to overwhelming traffic, forcing the group to post a version of the message on another blog. The letter caught people’s attention in part because signers could face repercussions for coming out, as bishops are able to defrock them for violating the UMC’s Book of Discipline.
But according Anthony Fatta, a 29-year-old associate pastor of Los Gatos United Methodist Church in Silicon Valley and a signer of the letter, going public is worth the risk. He told ThinkProgress that he and others felt the letter was the best way to express their frustration with current church rules, which not only condemn “practicing” LGBT clergy but also label all same-sex relationships as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“This letter is letting the general church know that there are a substantial number of …LGBT people who are very much entrenched in the UMC at all levels of leadership,” Fatta said. “According to our Book of Discipline, you’re not allowed to be a ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual,’ [but] no one knows what ‘practicing’ means, and no one knows what ‘self-avowed’ means either … So the letter is not a window into 111 persons’ sex lives or lack thereof. It’s just a proclamation that we’re serving the church, and we’re just as much ministers of God as any other clergy person.”
The letter follows a flurry of LGBT activism leading up to this year’s General Conference. In January, a Methodist minister in Kansas came out as a lesbian to her congregation in a sermon, declaring that she is in a relationship with another woman. Another pastor disciplined for officiating his daughter’s same-sex wedding has been sleeping in a tent for months to protest the church’s anti-LGBT stance, and pastors in North Carolina publicly officiated a same-sex union in late April in direct defiance of church law. And last week, 15 Methodist clergy from the church’s New York Conference came out as LGBT.
The efforts, often organized by RMN and similar groups, are geared toward swaying votes on LGBT issues at conference in Portland. They also represent the liberal bent of most American Methodists: a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute reported that that 53 percent of both evangelical and mainline Methodists backed same-sex marriage, and a 2015 poll found that solid 67 percent of mainline Methodists said the same.
But even LGBT advocates express doubts that the church will take steps towards equality this year, in large part because progressive-minded delegates are often been outvoted by more traditional American Methodists and conservative-minded delegates from other parts of the world.
“Our main focus [with the letter] is to change hearts and minds, and not necessarily focus on legislation,” Fatta said. “For me, personally, I’ve lost a lot of faith in how we do business in the church and legislate these things. Robert’s Rules of Order are not the best way to discern God’s grace.”
Indeed, many pro-LGBT Methodist leaders have resorted to extreme measures to support equality within the church. Several bishops have simply refused to take up trials against clergy who officiate same-sex marriages, and some ministers brought up on charges have been acquitted on technicalities.
Regardless, Fatta says he doesn’t regret coming out, even if it results in sanctions from his bishop. Noting that “it’s God who calls me, not the UMC,” he explained that living a closeted life doesn’t just hurt his personal life — it hurts his ministry.
“It really does take your entire self to be a full minister,” he said. “As people in your church open themselves up to you, you want to be able to provide a very open sounding board — and one of the ways to do that is live authentically.”
“I don’t think keeping secrets is the best way to do that,” he added.