Image credit: Adapted from the image ‘Zirkus – Monti’ by Flickr user def110, Creative Commons license.
During its 2012 session, the Pacific Northwest Conference voted overwhelmingly to support the marriage equality bill that was before voters in Washington state on election day. Bishop Grant J. Hagiya embodied the will of the conference by offering his voice to the Washington United for Marriage campaign; speaking with clarity about the importance of religious freedom. With the approval of Referendum 74, United Methodist clergy and congregations have two distinct questions to wrestle with.
First is the question of religious freedom and to whom it belongs. While much of the debate in the public realm has been focused on defining marriage rights, the Pacific Northwest Conference through its legislative action in June, and under the subsequent leadership of its Bishop and others this Fall, has taken a clear stand that no one group is entitled to define marriage for everyone. So the first question we need to answer is this. While faith communities in Washington state are now legally sanctioned to offer marriage rites to same sex couples, do United Methodist clergy and congregations currently have that same religious freedom?
The second question is one of fidelity; to whom or what are United Methodists ultimately accountable to. In a sense, the passing of Referendum 74 rips the proverbial bandaid off of a ecclesiological problem the church hasn’t resolved. Mixed messaging and clashing belief systems leave us with a series of different answers to the question of faithfulness. To name but a few:
Is United Methodist faithfulness to be located in a literalistic reading of the Scriptures that some find simplistic, the latest church growth strategy that some find consumeristic, or a progressive vision of Gospel fidelity that some find heretical?
Each possibility has its champions and detractors but their distinctions are not easily waived away as different facets of the same thing.
Those who seek unity within The United Methodist Church speak fondly of the church as a big tent, inclusive of many different opinions and points of view. I’ve always appreciated the metaphor just as I’ve valued those churches that embody it in positive ways. But sometimes, a big tent is just another name for a circus and while I’ve always found them interesting, I’d never turn to a circus for advice or leadership. Preserving unity at any cost runs the risk of leaving us looking like a sad clown; intent on bringing happiness but missing the joyful spirit, and appropriate face paint, to do so.
For some, it seems that the legalization of same-sex marriage is the worst thing they could ever imagine. But I pray that United Methodists, on either side of the aisle, see this as a gift from our mission field. When a same gender couple comes to one of our churches we have to own our decision when we turn them away – and vice versa.
For those opposed to marriage equality, this is what one might call a contrast point; an opportunity to share how being United Methodist makes you different from the world. Christians can and should draw such distinctions when they exist, even as we are called to do so with genuine love. As emerging generations continue to see inclusion as a civil right, the onus will fall upon these churches to offer compelling arguments that move past the politics of fear and are clearly distinguishable from homophobic arguments of the past.
Progressive supporters of marriage equality are faced with a gift of another sort. As gay and lesbian couples seek the blessing of our clergy and churches, The Book of Discipline remains an obstacle that threatens retribution; if other United Methodists choose to use it as such. As the government extends to us the religious freedom to act as our conscience moves, supporters will be compelled to decide where their ultimate sense of faithfulness lies; and those opposed will be forced to decide how much freedom and grace they would choose to offer those who disagree with them.
Together the church will decide who they want to be in the coming months. Will we be a big tent filled with people who model humility and grace for a world that can’t often disagree without being disagreeable? Or will the church be revealed as a circus with performers of all sorts but no compelling vision of hope to offer to a increasingly partisan world.
Or perhaps we’ll rediscover the role of ringmaster, the one who “stage-manages the performance, introduces the various acts, and guides the audience through the entertainment experience 1.” If we envisioned God as ringmaster and the goal of all our actions – love, how might we look more generously at the lion tamers, the high-ropes acrobats, and those people who are foolishly willing to project themselves from a cannon for the sake of the show? Despite all of our protests, the beautifully messy circus act that is The United Methodist Church is not beyond God’s power to make sense of and direct to the benefit of a world in need of healing and hope.
Maybe a circus, with all its discordant acts, is what we are called to be.