Once upon a time, I chose to be confirmed in the First United Methodist Church. I was twelve years old and a singular outlier in a closed society. I joined, hoping that membership would foster a kind of belonging I hungered for. I needed to feel embraced and protected by a great, all-encompassing love. The Methodist Church promised me that all were welcome there. I believed.
It is clear now that my iconoclastic half- Jewish self would not even be invited to join the United Methodist Church today. Having recently announced their decision to allow ministers and administrators to ostracize members of the LGBTQ communities, the church has tacitly granted their congregations a license to shun anyone with traits the church finds offensive. There is no way they would welcome me.
I stopped attending church and identifying as a Methodist some sixty years ago. But until the announcement, however, I harbored a feeling of warmth for what I believed were its precepts. Those I learned from my father, perhaps the noblest Methodist of them all, and they are rooted in a memory I have of a time he acted in a way that demonstrated what I still believe Christianity is basically all about. Long after leaving his church, I attributed his accepting nature to the education it had given him.
In the 1970s, my brother was about to come out to my parents. I worried at first that my father might be less than sympathetic.
Daddy, a conservative, Iowa-born Republican, belonged to the First United Methodist Church in my small Upstate New York home town. He was known there for the dour parables around which his lay sermons were constructed and by the incongruently kindly manner with which he delivered his fire and brimstone messages to the seventh graders he taught in Sunday School. Though he treated all people with compassion and consideration, his attitude could be harshly judgmental toward people with ethical or moral standards that were not his.
From early childhood, Daddy had been taught that liquor, gambling, card playing, and dancing were sins, as was pre- or extra-marital sex. His sense of humor was corny, old-fashioned, chaste. He allowed no swearing of any kind in his presence. I was reprimanded when I said, “Oh, gosh,” or “Jesumcrow,” the faux curses that punctuated our Adirondack lingo. In our home, there were no alcoholic beverages, no playing cards, no off-color books or art house nudes. All were banned, I assumed, because my father’s faith required that he disdain them. He seemed to have been indoctrinated by a kind of paradoxical orthodoxy. It was hard to predict how he would react to being the father of a homosexual.
In the first place, the news did not surprise him. And in the second, it did not faze him. “You are my son, and I love you,” he said to my brother. “Nothing could change that.” Not long afterward, my brother, newly mustered out of the Air Force and figuring out what to do next, moved in with my parents. The man who was his first serious partner moved in with him.
I needn’t have worried.
One evening, I arrived at my parents’ house to find my brother and his boyfriend intertwined and making out on the couch in the middle of the family room at the center of the house. More surprising than their unabashed PDAs was the fact that my father sat in the easy chair next to them watching television and eating watermelon. “This doesn’t bother you, Daddy?” I asked pointing to the lovers, who were oblivious to my arrival.
“Should it?” Daddy replied.
“No. Not at all,” I stammered. “But your religion. . . “
“My religion is Jesus Christ,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ Shall I be less open than Jesus, whose teachings define my life?”
“But the church, Daddy, won’t the church. . . .”
“The church would never defy our Lord’s teachings.” He stopped. His eyes were distant. He lifted his arms. He was in preacher mode. “The Church welcomes all.”
I accepted him at his word. And I trusted that his beliefs emanated from the doctrine espoused by the religion to which he had unfaltering allegiance. He never missed a Sunday service, never failed to participate in church programs, never refused to teach or to counsel or to take to the pulpit. He was a true believer. So I presumed – hoped – that this church, in which he had raised his seven children, was as accepting as he was.
Hence my shock and confusion when I read the church’s announcement. Traditions I was not aware of had superseded those I had inferred. Traditions of barring homosexuals from ordination, of refusing to sanction same sex marriage, of enforcing strict penalties against clerics who broke the rules and accepted the “gay life style” as a viable human alternative.
Luckily, the declaration is no more than an abstract annoyance for me. And an affirmation of my choice to leave the church all those many years ago. But what of the people – there must be many – like my father. . . the true believers, the ones who honestly see their church as the messenger of their Christ? Does this feel like a betrayal to them? Their church has rejected the notions of inclusion, of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, of refraining from a judgment that Jesus demonstrated by washing Mary Magdalene’s feet, by breaking bread with sinners, by feeding and healing the lepers.
Surely Jesus would be disappointed in this Methodist manifesto. I know Daddy would be.