A pastoral letter
As I write this letter, many of us are experiencing a range of emotions regarding the anticipated deliberations of an upcoming United Methodist General Conference. Meeting in St. Louis at the end of February, the General Conference will take up the question of whether our denomination should allow local churches and their pastors to decide for themselves whether to participate in the weddings of same-sex couples, and whether gay and lesbian persons will be allowed to pursue ordination.
Over the last fifty years the church has wrestled with questions regarding appropriate moral standards related to human sexuality. Through a great deal of prayer, Bible study, and spiritual discernment, essentially two divergent views have resulted. Some—I among them—have come to believe that same-sex covenantal relationships, held in fidelity and mutual regard, can be a faithful expression of God’s covenantal love. Others, including many United Methodists with whom I am in close relationship, believe that the understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman should not be altered.
My own understanding is based on the recognition that Christian moral guidelines are tested and often adjusted from generation to generation, even within the Bible. Examples include the embrace of slavery, compulsory male circumcision, the prohibition of women from pastoral leadership, mandatory celibacy in the priesthood, and the condemnation of divorced persons.
This process of discerning moral beliefs occurs by means of four “tools” used in Christian moral discernment and decision-making: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these four tools work together—and sometimes in tension with each other—to generate guidelines for living faithfully within a certain context, leading to either new or reinforced perspectives over time.
On the level of reason and experience, my own has been to experience gay and lesbian members of the community of faith as offering Christ to me and others in faithful, generous, and often poignant ways. At one level, it is to this group of people, and to one mentor in the faith in particular, that I trace my own call to ordained ministry. I am among you because these persons are among us.
As your pastor, I hold you in my heart, no matter your view on this subject, and I esteem each one of you as a precious friend in Christ. As we move through these days of working through profoundly important questions of belief, I remain constant in my commitment to be faithful as your pastor, and to shepherd you as carefully and well as I am able. Regardless of the outcome of the conference, the great joy we share in the work of the gospel at Laurel Heights will continue to be sustaining and life-giving for me, as I hope it will be for you.
What will happen in St. Louis when 864 delegates from around the world gather to discern what the Spirit is saying to The United Methodist Church in our time? The challenge of seeking, in four days’ time, to do this intricate work of discernment and decision is immense. Whatever the result of these proceedings, Laurel Heights should be able to determine its own path forward and its own pace in following that path. Such a process would not be mandatory or coerced, nor affixed to any external timeline.
I give thanks that in season and out, in times of agreement and times of strife, God is with us to guide, strengthen, enlighten, and enliven us toward faithfulness in following Jesus Christ, proclaiming grace and freedom in his name. Over the coming weeks, please join me in prayer for The United Methodist Church, the General Conference delegation, and Laurel Heights. In all things may we be faithful, and may God be glorified.
Yours in Christ,