frgavin on September 2nd, 2011

by Barton Gingerich

Suspended minister Amy DeLong took shots at Methodist leadership and likened herself to “Brer Rabbit.” (Photo credit: Sing a New Song)

A rally for sexually liberal United Methodists featured retired Bishop Joe Sprague, recently suspended minister Amy DeLong, and Garlinda Burton of the General Commission on Religion and Race. They all encouraged hundreds of listening liberal activists to lobby against United Methodist teaching about marriage and sexual ethics in preparation for the 2012 General Conference.

The Sing a New Song (SANS) conference, August 25-27, was sponsored by the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). It is fitting that the event occurred near Thomas Edison’s birthplace in Huron, Ohio; doctrinal innovation and experimentation were central to SANS.

Most SANS speakers targeted United Methodism’s Book of Discipline instruction that homosexual behavior is “incompatible” with Christian teaching. But activists also denounced Israel, defended the Welfare State, and touted pacifism. The Gay Galvin Jazz Trio provided entertainment, but drag singer Carmen Di Va failed to appear as promised.

The Friday morning sermon was provided by none other than United Methodist minister Amy DeLong. “I was unwilling, in an environment that meant me harm, to share intimate and sensitive information about me,” she declared. She recently was suspended for a month from ministry for conducting a same sex union. A church trial declined to convict her for homosexual practice after she declined to confirm in court her previously announced lesbian partnership that is registered in Wisconsin. “I have been sentenced to teach and write,” she recalled mockingly of her church trial. “Honestly, I feel like Brer Rabbit-‘Please don’t throw me into the briar patch.'” She characterized her accusers as Pharisees, who reduce “to the minutiae of rules.”

DeLong especially targeted Rev. Tom Lambrecht, who was the church prosecutor at her trial. Mention of his name aroused virulent hisses and moans from listeners. She colored Lambrecht as a satanic tempter when he offered her “conditional acceptance” if she pledged celibacy. Similarly, DeLong denounced Rev. Karen Booth’s Transforming Congregations movement for ignoring “every shred of scientific evidence.”

A full-time activist who does not pastor any church, DeLong downplayed ecclesiastical accountability. “The word covenant has become an abusive term,” she complained. “There was a time when the Book of Discipline was a guide to principled living… We now call it our law book.” She deemed it blasphemy “to declare limits to God’s love.”

In a similar vein, retired Bishop Joe Sprague mocked claims about Jesus’ exclusivity. “Ain’t no way but the Jesus way? Come on, Jesus would have puked at that.” He smilingly warned amid laughter: “Mark Tooley [of IRD] will come looking for me.” Sprague, who retired in 2004, infamously during his active career renounced traditional beliefs about Christ’s deity, virgin birth and resurrection. He was briefly arrested in protests against the church’s beliefs at the 2000 General Conference.

Sprague was the only United Methodist bishop present. But West Ohio Bishop Bruce Ough wrote “Sing a New Song” supportively: “It is difficult to sing a new song when the church you love refuses to love you back…Thank God that God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church.”

The most senior active United Methodist official present was Garlinda Burton, General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She compared opponents of full acceptance of homosexual behavior to the disbelieving crowds from Jesus’ ministry. Looking at the story of Jairus’ daughter revival from the dead, she observed, “Here are all the ‘good church people’ all up in the way. Or is it just the Tennessee Conference?”

Burton complained of Southeastern Jurisdiction conservatives who, concerned with U.S. United Methodism’s decreasing numbers and finances, are singing “dirges” and “bewailing” the inescapable collapse of their denomination. She criticized the decisions and methods of “the dysfunctional–I mean connectional–table.” “Some of us are still wishing for the church of the 1950s, she decried. “Some of us are wanting the church of 1969.” She urged a new church. “Our churches are still segregated” by class, race, and gender orientation, she claimed. And she longed for the day when the Book of Discipline would read: “Homophobia and heterosexism are incompatible with Christian teaching.” At that point, Methodists could truly praise God, “dancing to her amazing grace,” Burton predicted. She urged: “Disrupt business as usual when you go home.”

Also urging disruption was Choctaw activist Jennifer Battiest Neal, a recent dropout from the ordination process who described her “love-hate relationship with the church.” She resents the treatment of her “brutally missionized” ancestors. And she is “embarrassed” by her United Methodist heritage of post-colonialism, especially in its old support for slavery and the removal of Native Americans. Neal claimed the prohibition of homosexual marriage and practicing homosexual clergy falls within this shameful history. After more denominational self-loathing, she promised: “God promises something new will happen.”

San Francisco United Church of Christ clergy Yvette Flunder presented herself as a “Bapti-Metho-Costal” hoping United Methodism starts “getting beyond culture.” Also a bishop in a small liberal group called “The Fellowship,” she declared, “Love does not bear prejudice…Love breaks rules.” And she insisted: “We have gotten confused with what is institution and what is Christ…a day has to come when autonomy and covenant kiss each other.” Flunder complained: “Why is the voice of the African folks…informed by those who oppose progressive theology?” She painted African United Methodists as deluded tools of the Religious Right.

Transsexual activist Sean Delmore voiced even more liberal concerns about United Methodism “We forget those words are a litany of heartache,” the part-time Massachusetts United Methodist associate pastor complained of United Methodism’s sexual teachings. Delmore also condemned proposed financial streamlining that endangers United Methodist bureaucracies. “The church’s social witness will be blunted” by consolidating boards, Delmore warned. “It is unbelievable to me that people would profit by denying healthcare to others.” Delmore transitioned from female to male while also becoming a United Methodist and studying at Boston School of Theology. Attacking Christian Zionists and urging government run universal healthcare, Delmore explained: “This is the work of making disciples for the transformation of the world.” And the New England Conference clergy concluded, “We are standing in the center of the way of Jesus Christ.”

Another speaker was Althea Spencer-Miller, a self-defined “gay Jamaican pastor” who provided morning Bible studies meant to “read Scripture through queer eyes.” She is a clergy member of the New York Conference and teaches New Testament at United Methodism’s Drew Theological School.

Reflecting on U.S. United Methodism’s long membership decline, Reconciling Ministries Network Board President Rev. John Oda insisted: “You know what hinders our ministry? The language in the Book of Discipline.” Pointing to recent LGBT victories in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Presbyterian Church (USA), he predicted: “We are next.” He did not explain why liberal areas where LGBT activists are strongest are the fastest declining parts of United Methodism.

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