On Equal Marriage

Today, one week after the press conference for clergy in support of equal marriage, the Vermont Senate will conclude its hearings on full marriage rights for gay and lesbian persons in Vermont.

As many of you may know or have seen, I have made myself a pretty vocal and visible supporter of equal marriage. I will attempt to reconstruct some of what I said at the press conference last week (remembering that quite a lot has happened in my life since then), but first I want to say why I said it.

It needs to be said that many clergy, whether they have the support of their congregations, denominations, or overall religious movements or not, support this. I have heard from a few people who are upset about what I said, mostly because they think I misspoke, exaggerated, or lied (see below), but I’ve also heard from some who are glad I said it.

But not all.

I have to imagine, in some ways, the people I know who are out there. A character in a novel I read recently had the mystical experience being confronted by the knowledge of all the people she had injured or wronged, all the people who had died for her or because of her actions or at her command. Later in the same novel, however, she begins to understand that, while she can count the people she has wronged, she will never know how many she has saved, how many she has uplifted, how many live lives a little better and brighter because of her. She has to take that on faith, and trust her god to measure the balance, if that is indeed what matters at all. So with us. We know who we upset, but we have to trust that we have uplifted more.

Imagine a teenage man, struggling with how to be honest about his sexuality, who has just been told by his pastor, perhaps his United Methodist pastor, that, while he is a person beloved by God and he is welcome to be part of the church, he can never be married and should never be married, and that his ‘lifestyle’ is incompatible with the teachings of Christ (I didn’t make that up; it’s my denomination’s current, and in my mind misguided, stance). This young man represents one of the highest demographics for suicide, we should also note. Would he be at all comforted, would he be given any hope at all, to see another clergy person voice a different truth? Or the woman grown tired and hard from fighting, who left a church I know after years of devotion, because she couldn’t  be the token anymore, couldn’t be the face of the fight. She wants a place to belong spiritually, but the UMC and in many ways the Christian Church as a whole is too painful a place right now. Does she draw any strength from a new generation coming from a spiritual perspective and seeking to bring a new religious voice to the table? I have to believe so.

Those who are upset when churches take a stance in favor of same-sex marriage, those who threaten to walk away from the church if the UMC changes its policy, how are their voices any more important, their pain and anger and sorrow at their church’s brokenness any more real or significant than the countless women and men who have been hurt, pushed aside, and driven out already by our current policy? No one’s experience trumps the other here. We need to learn to live in that difference (which is not mutaully exclusive from trying to correct the error we see). It’s a tough balance, and I get that.

Now, some are upset that I said the majority of United Methodists in Vermont support same-sex marriage in our own [internal to UMC] legislation. I don’t think I misspoke.

I believe that’s true. In fact, I think some of the anger around what I said might come from the fact that I am right, and many folks don’t like that their denomination, in this time and place, has voted in favor of same-sex marriage (and ordination of GLBT clergy as well). That’s the way our voting in our local annual conference goes, consistently and overwhelmingly. If people in pews felt differently, they would send different delegates to Conference, just as Americans send different representatives to Congress when we disagree with policy decisions. Could I have said that the majority of voting delegates to the Troy Annual Conference support equal marriage? Yes. I should also have said that the majority of voting delegates to General Conference oppose same-sex marriage. In both cases, I simplified the language because I thought more detail would be confusing.

My biggest regret is that I think my words, which the reporter says she picked because it was interesting to her to hear someone from a mainline denomination talk about the tension between local politics and denominational policy, helped distract from a show of unity and support from members of the faith community to the GLBT community. That’s a shame.

Below is my reconstruction of what I think I said. You can see the press conference at Vermont Freedom To Marry‘s website (where my statements are not included, because I was literally a footnote!), and read the news report as it aired on the news from WCAX TV.

The question, asked by the WCAX reporter, was, ‘do you clergy represent the opinions of your congregations and denominations as well or just your own beliefs?’ Many people answered, mostly from denominations like Unitarian Universalist or United Church of Christ, which have a more congregation-driven policy structure. I thought it was important to include the position of a denomination that has national or global policy, since we operate differently, and having the support of my congregations would not be enough. So I opened my mouth.

I am Becca Clark, United Methodist pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Montpelier and Grace United Methodist Church in Plainfield. And I am one of those clergy who would *not* be forced to marry a gay couple, regardless of this legislation. Currently, my denomination, the United Methodist Church, does not allow clergy to officiate same-sex marriage. That’s another battle I fight on another day, in another place. While there’s no one opinion in any congregation or regional body [here I’m refering to conferences, but didn’t use the word intentionally, because I thought it would be too confusing to non-UM listeners], or denomination, our global policy would not allow it, and I think it’s important to understand that this proposed legislation would not and should not override that denominational policy. Although I think a majority of my congregations would support it, and would support their pastor marrying a gay couple, and the majority of Methodists in Vermont support same-sex marriage and have supported civil unions in our own legislation, the policy of the United Methodist Church is set on a global basis, and that policy is different. That’s what happens when you find a majority opinion– and that’s by no means a consensus– on such an emotional issue. All of us here today, though, support equal marriage, and I support it, because I believe that equal marriage is a question of love and a question of justice, and God is a god of both.

‘would you officiate a same-sex marriage?’ the reporter interjected, as I was walking away from the mic.

I returned and said: I would not be permitted. Once my denomination allows it– and that day is coming, yes, joyfully.

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11 Responses

  1. I’ve also heard from some who are glad I said it.

    For the public record, as a lesbian who is now an atheist and is no-longer a United Methodist, I am glad you said it.

    When an individual identifies as a member of a group, the traits associated with that group are then associated with the individual. As a self-governing, identified body of people understood by outsiders through policies and procedures and Laws, Christians generally and United Methodists specifically are intolerant, unwelcoming, and hateful toward gay and lesbian human beings.

    As a lesbian living in a nation where Judeo-Christian faith is very much the majority, where individuals of all subset denominations seem to feel justified or even compelled to share their faith statements and prayers and certainty of good and evil, unsolicited, with others, it is often difficult to not think that every Christian is generally intolerant, unwelcoming, and hate-filled. When I feel targeted by and afraid of those who hate, it’s difficult to remember that not everyone who chooses to wear a cross around her neck is evil.

    When even one person stands up to speak the truth — that in at least one Christian denomination the decisions about whom to disallow and disdain are put to vote and “the majority” (or “the minority but some” when that is the case) regularly say that this is wrong — you accomplish two very important things (among others).

    1. You offer an individual face from the crowd to associate with the opposing viewpoint. There’s no longer the idea that a silent, faceless, powerless group opposes hatred and intolerance, but specific, legitimate, real people who are willing to stand for what is right. It becomes much easier to see differences in individual members of a group when those differences are intentionally noted; in this case, it becomes easier not to fear an individual based on principles of group membership — in other words, even more clearly, not all Christians are evil.

    2. Your statements and your sharing of a story makes it clear that there is an ongoing dialogue about thoughts, about feelings, about (dare I say it?) belief structure. “Christians” aren’t an immovable, implacable, unfazed group of people; they (some denominations of them, anyway) are individuals engaged in dialogue about who and how we all are as people, and who and how we all should strive to be. People who dialogue, people who try to come to greater understandings together, are people who care about others than themselves. People who care aren’t evil.

    By standing up and speaking, by stating the truth, by stating the facts, by stating what the questions are and what processes groups of people take to answer those questions and attempt to live and lead well and fully and honestly, you paint a picture of a group of people who are of necessity individuals coming together to work. While the group may still be terrifying and horrible to think about, the individuals are not.

    If I, personally, am hurt, or hungry, or sick, or lost, or broken I will not reach out my pleading hands to a stranger identifying him or herself as a Christian and expect aid and compassion and love. But nor will I expect to catch a fistful of stones in the teeth.

    That change in my understanding of human beings and grace is due to those — like you — who stand up and speak the truth.

    • You know that you are not the only reason I take the stance I take (nor were you my example #2 above), but you are a big part of it. And you know how sorry I am to be a part of an organization that can be so very wrong sometimes. Thank you for loving me anyway, and tipping the balance of the number of positive vs. negative emails I’ve received!

      Love you,
      Becca

      • Since I know the specific stories of both of your example people, I knew I wasn’t one of them — nor, given the intended readership of your blog, would I expect to be.

        I give you a very hard time over the stance of the (big C) church on lots of things — which I wouldn’t bother with if I didn’t love you as dearly as a sister — so it’s only fair I give you major props when you earn them, too.

        Love you right back,
        Lissa

  2. Yes, Becca. Keep on.

    When is it a good time to speak truth to power? Always.

    • Thanks, John. The committee might be voting as early as today and sending the bill to the Senate floor.

      Sometimes advocating for justice for others is a balm for your own aching heart.

      becca

      • Becca,
        Having read your blog, I must say I am surprised. I believe that it is very clearly presented in the bible that same sex relationships are against God’s laws for us. I personally feel that it is morally wrong. Does this mean that I hate gay and lesbian people? Absolutely not, one of my previous pastors, Donald Schmidt is now married to “Don” – at the time he was our pastor he was married to Debbie, but many of us believed that he was gay. I think a lot of Donald (not however of his lifestyle). I know many other people that are gay or lesbian and just like any other group of people there are good and bad.
        I can’t say honestly that I have “no problem” with the “civil unions” but I can deal with that. Marriage however is a holy creation of God between a man and a woman.
        Erni and I had a discussion on the way home the other night after listening to the news and her response was times are different now. I cannot politely tell my pastor my reaction to that statement. Is not that type of statement part of the reason our whole world is where it is now? Many things in our world are changing and we need to change with them – but should our moral code change? Does this mean that if enough of us decide it is OK to cheat on our spouses that we should pass a law that says you can’t use that as a reason for divorce – I mean after all, don’t we have a right to do morally reprehensible things as long as more and more people are doing it? Which one of God’s commandments do we throw out next? Do we not as Christians hold ourselves to a higher standard than those who do not yet believe in Jesus?
        Last, I ask – if everyone knows that the majority of Vermonters believe in same sex marriage, why are our “representatives” both in the clergy and in our churches afraid to actually put this to a vote of the people?
        I apologize for the spelling errors that may be in here – no spell check and my two finger typing don’t help much.
        Confused and distressed,
        Dick Wilbur

        • Hi Dick,

          Thanks for reading and bringing up your disagreement in so open and honest a way.

          My short answer is that Christians of good faith disagree on this question, and strongly, but I believe that doesn’t change the fact that we are Christians of good faith, who read the same scripture for the same reasons– to know and love God– but come to different conclusions based on our interpretation of that scripture in light of our reasoning and experiences. The important thing is that we find ways to live and serve together in the midst of our difference, which can sometimes be challenging. This is why Trinity, for example, has a very intentional policy that ALL people are welcome to be fully included in the church, regardless of sexual orientation, yes (or any number of distinctions), but also regardless of what one believes about sexual orientation (or any number of social and political issues).

          My longer answer, and more discussion, I will leave for a phone conversation or a conversation in person. I love technology and it can help us connect with folks we might not otherwise be able to reach out to, but from a pastoral perspective, nothing can compare to a good old fashioned heart to heart. We’ll talk soon, if you want to.

          God’s peace,
          Becca

  3. I’ve introduced myself before, but I’ll remind you that I’m a seminary student on track to be an elder in the UMC. I just want to say that folks like you give me hope. As an Ally to the LGBTQ community, I couldn’t be a pastor in the UMC if we weren’t allowed to do things like you just did. I would leave this church and perhaps the big-C Church if I couldn’t witness to God’s love and justice regarding equal rights. Sometimes I wonder if I can withstand the pressure of being ordained in a church that isn’t equal in its polity and speaking out for equal rights. Knowing you can do it shows me that I can do it too.

    • Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks again for your comments and your support. I’m glad that it is encouraging to you to see the diversity and sometimes division in our denomination voiced and named, and hear the (current) minority voices speak out. It is not without consequences or difficulty, and it requires a great deal of grace and forgiveness from both sides. Blessings on both your journey as a student and as a seeker of justice.

      Shalom,
      Becca

      • Thanks for your words of encouragement, Becca. I came back to say that I read your earlier post about the baby you lost and I was speechless at the time… but you’ve been on my heart in prayer this weekend. I’m deeply moved by all you’re going through. Sometimes I don’t think I can make it through, but to hear from folks like you who endure such awful things and still keep their faith shows me that God can get me through anything. I know that’s not much consolation. I’m so sorry that you lost your precious child and I pray for healing for your whole family.

        • Thank you for your prayers and your words of encouragement, Carolyn. Remember too that we are all vessels and God uses us in different ways. Those of us called to the ministry are no stronger, smarter, holier, or more immune from loss and grief than anyone else. You know this, of course, but I remind myself every once in a while (or life reminds me). I hope that my honesty about my own struggles and pain and joys as well encourage others to live out their callings from God. So keep the faith, in God and in you! And thank you again for your prayers of healing.

          Blessings,
          Becca

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