Note: Since the time I started writing this post on Thursday, it was announced that Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Conference was the primary author of the statement released by the Council of Bishops, and also that amendment one would be reconsidered without the “controversial” passage in it that led to the harmful discussions on the floor of Annual Conference. The new wording will probably pass. But I decided to finish this thing up and post it anyway, for two reasons. First, God is not male, and that theological value is too important to ignore. Second, the harm done by our floor discussion and our broader conversations didn’t go away, and it needs to be talked about, because it should not happen anymore.
Earlier this week, I found myself transported back in time to a day that I had done a pretty god job of blocking from my memory.
The moment happened in a business session at our Texas Annual Conference meeting where we were discussing some constitutional amendments. The results of the votes, taken in every conference around the world, were announced this week. They went like this.
This was an upsetting result. The Council of Bishops offered this response.
All the female bishops issued this joint statement.
The bishop in Alabama/West Florida, one of the three Annual Conferences in the US that voted against the first amendment, issued this statement.
I serve in one of the three US conferences that voted against this amendment, one of only two conferences here in the states that voted against both amendment one and amendment two. I was in the room for our conversation about these amendments. The tone, tenor, and substance of those conversations was brutal, harmful, and way outside the bounds of our Wesleyan heritage.
Speakers insisted that God was, “A man of war,” that women are complimentary to and by that token subservient to men, that denying the maleness of God somehow discounts the personhood of Jesus as the incarnation, and a bunch of other things that stand against the long and proud Wesleyan heritage of equal footing and standing for women.
There were bizarre statements about human gender, and a lot of fear-based rhetoric about radical agendas dismantling churches. And I was just so flabbergasted and angry I didn’t have words to say. But my pain is so unbelievably unimportant to this story.
Some of the greatest blessings of my life are the relationships I have with female clergy colleagues. I could write full length blog posts about the incredible women who have led me in life, in the classroom, in my work as a clergyperson, in my faith, and in everything I do. Not passing this amendment does harm to women and girls and countless people in vulnerable positions around the world.
I watched my mentors and friends and colleagues have their identity demeaned. I watched people cry, yell, send angry all caps text messages, and question deeply how in the world we got here. My friends were under attack.
There are churches that do not welcome women in ministry. There are places that uphold complimentarian doctrines. We as the United Methodist Church are not one of them. Or at least we aren’t supposed to be.
When things are not how they should be, we can respond in several ways. We can throw up our hands and say, “well, nothing we can do about it.” We can feign moral superiority and take comfort in the fact that, “at least I don’t behave that way.” We can find someone else to blame.
Or we can do what needs to be done, and accept some of the blame, apologize, and get to work on a better future.
I am sorry I have not done more to proclaim the truth about who God is in words or in action. God is not a man, and there are human characteristics that we consider to be feminine that are part of the image of God. I will do more of this, not just on Mother’s Day, but year-round.
I am sorry that I haven’t done more in my local church to teach how unbelievably expansive God is, and how language about God matters. I will talk about the depth and richness of images of God that are masculine, feminine, and much, much more.
I am sorry that when people call me “Pastor Nathan” but they call our Pastor of Music and Worship “Miss Lindsay,” I don’t correct them. I will stop doing that.
I’m sorry I didn’t stand up on the floor of Annual conference and remind people that the United Methodist Church has distinctive doctrines and beliefs, and that they matter.
I’m sorry I haven’t put up signs in our church bathrooms to offer support and information to people suffering domestic abuse.
I’m sorry I’ve been unwilling to have conversations with people about why bible studies and curriculum and videos that reinforce female subservience have no place in United Methodist Churches.
If you’ve ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about the Kingdom of God; Jesus’s incredible vision of the here AND the hereafter in the way that they ought to be. A place where life is abundant and eternal today and forever. It’s where I try my hardest to get every sermon I preach to end up. And when I preach this way, I preach hoping to stand in the shadow of Mary Magdalene, the first preacher of this Gospel following the resurrection.
Jesus said to her [Mary], “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, “I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
John 20:17 (CEB)
United Methodist Christians believe, through the doctrine of the trinity, in a God far too big and broad and incredible for any name to be complete enough. In the verse above, when the first preacher of the Gospel was commissioned by the resurrected Christ, Jesus was quick to follow the image of God as loving father with expansive language.
We look more like the image of God when women and girls are not denied their place at the table, their positions of leadership, their authority to preach or teach, or the ability to follow God’s call on their lives. Let’s get there.