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Chicago-based religious movement shows progressive colors
by Chuck Colbert
2012-04-25

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As Methodists gather in Tampa, Fla., for their general conference this week, the director of a progressive religious movement associated with the denomination is calling for a coming together around several issues, including LGBT rights.

"People need community," says cathy knight, executive director of a Chicago-based progressive religious movement that grew out of the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination's exclusionary policies towards gay and lesbian persons.

For more than seven years, knight ( who spells her name all in small letters ) has served the Church Within A Church Movement ( CWACM ) that is all about "inclusion and just ministry."

Inclusion means affirming LGBT persons, she said.

Justice is about fighting racism and white privilege.

Perhaps more important, justice ministry requires ordaining women and men who are still barred by The United Methodist Church's prohibition on openly gay ministers.

The United Methodist Church may also deny ordination on the basis of gender identity or expression and/or because a candidate for ministry's progressive or inclusive theology, said knight.

The spiritual home of former President George W. Bush and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, The United Methodist Church has an estimated 8 million members nationwide and in Canada. That number includes larger concentrations in the South and Midwest of the United States.

The United Methodist Church is also a global church with an additional 3.5 million members in Europe, Africa and Asia.

The denomination, like other branches in mainline Protestantism, has seen its numbers drop in North America, but membership has risen in Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile, CWACM is growing "exponentially," said knight, readily acknowledging in the same breath it is a small movement, with hundreds of members and a listserv of a couple thousand. The "presumed risk," knight said, of CWACM membership keeps many supporters from joining.

"We are non-hierarchical, very open to how the spirit informs this justice ministry," she said. "It's a very liberating place for people who have been harmed in the name of church."

"When people can find wholeness and healing and a loving community," knight added, "that is what I think is church. And when people remember who they are, who God has made them to be, then they, we, can in turn, transform and liberate our communities and the world."

While other mainline Protestant churches—Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and Episcopalians with roots in the English Reformation—all have lifted bans on out clergy and have become increasingly welcoming of LGBT persons, the United Methodists have not. That, in large part, is what draws progressive Methodists to CWACM.

In fact, since 1972, United Methodist Church doctrine has become increasingly explicit in firming anti-gay policy.

The United Methodist Church does "not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching," states the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, which includes its Constitution, history, mission, and doctrinal standards.

Sure enough, "homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth," according to the law book.

And while "We insist that all persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured," the Discipline adds, The United Methodist Church advocates "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman."

Not only are "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" unsuitable for ordination, but also pastors who celebrate same-sex unions or marriages can be put on church trial and defrocked. The high-profile 1999 trial of the Rev. Jimmy Creech is a case in point.

And yet, The United Methodist Church ( UMC ) "implore [ s ] families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends" and commits itself "to be in ministry with all persons, affirming that God's grace love, and forgiveness is available to all," according to the Discipline.

The last 40 years have been "extremely painful," said Rev. Kevin Johnson, co-founder and pastor of Bloom in the Desert Ministries, a United Church of Christ ( UCC ) and Reconciling Methodist congregation that is the first new church start affiliated with CWACM.

Johnson was referring to "the injustice and misinformation and intransigence," what he referred to over the telephone as "the march toward greater exclusion of gay and lesbian people," which, he added, "is consistent and documentable" in The United Methodist Church.

Bloom in the Desert Ministries is located in Palm Springs, Calif.

However, the congregation with 105 members has ties to Chicago. As Johnson explained the connection, "I remain a UMC minister on 'honorable location,' serving a UCC congregation, commissioned by [ Chicago's ] Broadway United Methodist Church."

Every four years, The United Methodist Church gathers in General Conference, a convening of clergy and laity, to determine denominational polity.

Over the last four decades, The United Methodist Church, meeting in General Conference, has become increasingly conservative, primarily because of its growth globally, overseas.

Nearly 1,000 delegates from all over the world will gather in Tampa, Fla., April 23-May 4. There, delegates will grapple with petitions and resolutions, among other matters.

General Conference is significant insofar as it the only body that can set official policy and speak for the denomination.

CWACM's knight said that she expects any number of LGBT-related proposals to come up at General Conference. Some directly aim at "striking 'the homosexuality-is-incompatible-with-Christian-teaching' line while others—unbelievably, in 2012 when the acceptance of lesbian and gay folks is on the rise—seek to bolster that exclusion," she said.

Yet, other resolutions may seek "to include transgender clergy in the list of people who cannot be ordained in The United Methodist Church," said knight.

The Church Within A Church Movement plans a visible presence in Tampa, to give what knight calls a "justice ministry witness of hope and equality."

Joining knight will be the Rev. Annie Britton and her wife Terry Schwennesen, along with the Rev. DeLyn Celec and her wife Sarah Celec. CWAC ordained Britton in 2008 and last year ordained Celec.

A former United Methodist clergyperson, Dave Lafary, who gave up his clergy credentials two years ago when he chose no longer to remain closeted, will also attend General Conference with CWACM.

Over dinner, CWACM will give conference attendees a chance to learn more about the movement.

"Because we were born out of the exclusion of The United Methodist Church, there will be great interest in our presence at General Conference," said knight.

"Simply in our being there," she added, "people think we are having an impact."

However, "some people think we are irritants. We've been called 'renegades' by one bishop in the United Methodist Church," said knight, adding, "We are renegades—so was Jesus."

-Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.

SIDEBAR

Two very different people following UMC

by Chuck Colbert

When the nearly 1,000 Methodist delegates converge in Tampa, Fla., this week for their quadrennial gathering, one church insider and one outsider—both with deep ties to the mainline Protestant denomination—won't be there.

However, that doesn't mean the Rev. Gil Caldwell and Marilyn Bennett are indifferent to what happens at the United Methodist Church's ( UMC ) 2012 General Conference.

They are calling for a change in the anti-gay policies of a church that has rattled and sustained their spirituality and faith journey for decades.

The insider, Caldwell, 78, is a married ( wedded for 54 years ) , straight African-American Methodist minister, retired and in good standing, now based in Asbury Park, N.J.

The outsider, Bennett, 50, is a single, white, lesbian author and video biographer who said, "As my roots grew deeper and deeper, ironically the teachings of Jesus led me farther and farther from the church."

Now, "I feel that I have been liberated from the church, and my heart has opened more and more," she said.

Bennett's exodus out of Methodism is a story of being driven out, even though she was baptized and confirmed in the Methodist tradition, going on to serve in campus and youth ministry. Bennett even earned a master of divinity degree from Southern Methodist University and worked as an administrator at a UMC seminary.

From 1999 to 2003, Bennett was executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, "a growing movement of United Methodist individuals, congregations, campus ministries, and other groups working for full participation of all people in the [ UMC ] ," according to its mission statement.

However, after a lifetime in the denomination, she felt that she could no longer be a part of a church that sanctioned discrimination—inside and outside the church. Having relocated from Chicago in 2004, Bennett now lives in Helena, Mont., and is no longer affiliated with the UMC. She left the church at the age of 42.

Looking back, she said, a defining moment came at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland. As delegates prepared to maintain UMC anti-gay policy and doctrine, a "woman in the balcony stood on a railing and cried out in despair about how she had been raised in the church and was now rejected," Bennett explained. Delegates feared she would jump, but the woman was persuaded not to do so.

After a "two-week multi-layered campaign" for progressive church reform, Bennett went on to say, and after "demonstrations" and "arrests" on the conference floor, and the "woman's shared pain," delegates voted to uphold LGBT exclusion.

Stories like that rankle Caldwell, who still dearly loves the UMC, despite anti-LGBT policies that hurt good people like Bennett, driving them away.

Caldwell said he wonders, "Why do any of us feel that authentic faith means that we screen some people out, while we screen others in?"

"At one time we screened out women, Blacks, divorced clergy, clergy who drank alcohol, and now we screen out clergy who are open about their committed same-sex relationships," Caldwell added.

"When will the UMC cease requiring that its gay clergy continue to compromise their integrity?" he said.

Meanwhile, the former Methodist and the retired minister are staking out common ground at the intersection of race, sexuality, and religion, which they see as key to making headway in the church.

The issues of race and sexual orientation are particularly vexing as the United Methodist Church is growing in Africa where resistance to gay rights is strong.

Through an interactive Web site, over the telephone, and sometimes in person, Bennett and Caldwell facilitate Truth in Progress ( www.TruthinProgress.com ) , a multimedia project taking "a special look at the similar yet difference experiences and histories" of the black civil-rights and LGBT-rights movements.

They hope to produce a documentary from their work.

Theirs is a ministry of connecting the dots among the "big three" — race, sexual orientation, and religion. It's a lot to explore in one project, Bennett and Caldwell readily acknowledge.

However, they remain confident that in examining crossover threads that often intertwine and become entangled, the truth about the sacred worth of LGBT persons will over time progress into the heart of the UMC.

Bennett is not sure when that may happen. "Frankly, I think society is way ahead of the church, and the church's anti-LGBT stance only makes the church seem more irrelevant and out of touch," she said. "A lot has changed in our country since 1972, but the UMC had held onto its ' [ homosexuality ] -is-incompatible-with-Christianity' language all that time."

Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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