My Open Letter Resigning from The United Methodist Church (2014)

On a Palm Sunday in the early 1970s, I was confirmed as a member of The United Methodist Church. I was excited to officially join my church, and I looked forward to being active in the large, dynamic youth group which became the cornerstone of my social life throughout my junior high and high school years. At the time, the extent of my church-related knowledge was this: Rev. Yocom would usually answer questions by telling a story about his life, and I looked pretty cute in my mini-skirt and mod white shirt with a band collar and lacy bell-cuffs. A product of the times, I was schooled in a combination of traditional Wesleyan theology (scripture, tradition, reason, experience) and popular theologies, probably summed up via a combination of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and—I’ll admit it—the Beatles. Those influences along with a Jesus people-esque emphasis touting “All you need is Love” and “God is Love” were the basis of my youthful spiritual foundation.

Now I’m embarrassed to admit I belong to the United Methodist Church. I’m appalled that when non-Methodists think of the church, it is most likely based on our draconian approach to dealing with issues relating to homosexuals and those called to minister to them, including Rev. Thomas Ogletree of New York and Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania. I’m puzzled that when there have been opportunities for the church to at least acknowledge that wisdom is needed to help the church determine its role in ministering with and to gays, the church has shut the doors of communication, choosing instead to reaffirm its current position; the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida, made headlines because of its refusal to consider an “agree to disagree” amendment on the topic when it was presented by Rev. Adam Hamilton of Leawood, Kansas, and Rev. Mike Slaughter of Tipp City, Ohio.

The church—any church, not specifically the United Methodists—has the duty and right to interpret scripture and other leadings however its leaders and people feel is correct. I don’t question that. At an organizational level, every church is a human-created and -operated entity that prays it is following the dictates of its understanding of what God requires of his followers. If the best minds and hearts of the Methodist church agree that its treatment of homosexuals and those who minister to them is God-driven, then I won’t question that its people are acting in all sincerity.

But I can’t continue being part of an organization that uses the Wesleyan tradition to exclude and marginalize others. The Methodist tagline—“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”—is still emblazoned on the UMC website; it needs an added note: **unless openly gay. Inviting people based on the idea that we have open minds and open hearts, then slamming the door unless they stay in the closet—that feels like the type of mindset which compelled Jesus to overturn tables at the temple and play word games with Pharisees.

 In fact, the Methodist slogan seems tailor-made to welcoming gays, inviting them to leave their closet behind to find community and fellowship with a local congregation. However, many Methodists I know champion the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, a phrase which embeds judgment in a micro-aggressive claim of love. Christian theology via St. Paul claims “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but my job is to love people and support them as they find their path. For me, labeling people as “sinners” is wrong. Jesus was harsh about people who were judgmental and hypocritical. I’m not in any position to throw the first stone—especially because I accept that sexual preference, like eye color and handedness, are inborn; critiquing how God chooses to create people is not my job either.

There are groups within the church which are working for equality and recognition. I applaud their efforts and believe they will ultimately make a difference. I’m not called to actively fight on this issue; I’ve struggled with this since 2005, when at South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, Rev. Edward Johnson refused to let a gay attendee become a member of the church. The church’s position on the issue hasn’t changed; I have. As an enthusiastic 12-year-old, I never considered asking questions about the church’s stance on homosexuality. At this point in my life, I cannot be officially listed as a member of an organization that judges my gay friends and family as unworthy of being treated like a child of God. Those who are fighting for change have my support—and I believe that the way I need to support them is to show that this issue matters enough to me that it’s worth leaving the Methodist church.

I’m proud that my own congregation is more inclusive, and at this point I intend to continue attending there as a non-member, but I’ve also attended a Quaker meeting that comes much closer to fitting my general theological understanding at this point in my life. Eventually that may become my “home church,” but my current Sunday school class offers opportunities for growth and fellowship, and I don’t want to leave that.

One of my favorite songs when I played guitar for my church youth group eons ago was “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” That song is in now in the Methodist hymnal, and instead of long-haired teens with guitars leading it, adult organists perform elaborate introductions to signal the congregation’s singing. The last time I sang that song, surrounded by the beautiful stained-glass windows in my impressive sanctuary, I choked up. Who will know we are Christians by our love? Not our gay brothers and sisters, or those ministering to them. After all my words and justifications, that’s the simple explanation why I’m resigning my membership to the United Methodist Church.

The Church of Jodi Picoult

The longest hours of my life were the couple times I went to prayer meeting with Grandma. I was young, not more than eight or nine, and I have gauzy memories of sitting quietly in a small-town living room littered with lace doilies, surrounded by serious women wearing hats, dresses and semi-sensible shoes.

Not their fancy Sunday hats, of course–this was an every day sort of dress up occasion. God frowned if women were too dressy during the week–and if women weren’t dressy enough on Sunday. I learned that in junior high when I suggested God wouldn’t mind if I wore dress pants to church. (Apparently, God tolerated dress pants better if the person in question was on the Honor Roll at school.That’s part of the “Mysterious Ways” He works, I guess.)

They sat in the overstuffed living room, holding their Bibles and small notebooks with their prayer list. The kitchen was where I wanted to be, near the table brimming with pies and fruit punch, chicken salad sandwiches and potato salad, but no. That was for after prayer meeting.  For the first hour, sitting piously in the livingroom was required, even by slightly squirmy children. If I’d been allowed to bring a book, Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys and I could have weathered the hour quite well, but somehow, leafing through the King James version of anything didn’t catch my imagination quite the same way. All these ladies did was talk, then cluck and awwwww in sympathy, then talk some more. Every so often, there would be some silence followed by a jarring “Amen,” then back to talking.

There might be a tale of someone who had something very something exciting happening, a promotion or new baby. Or they might tell about somebody’s child who was struggling in school, or someone who was facing temptation–but it wasn’t gossip, of course. They had to discuss it to find out who needs prayer. Names and situations flew, intermixed with exhorting God to do something about so-and-so’s liver condition or their neighbor’s crabgrass–literal or metaphorical.

Do women’s prayer groups exist anymore? My observation suggests not, especially as the community social/spiritual outlet that Grandma’s meeting was. In fact, the women’s-only groups of the churches I know suffer from a distinct lack of participation.  Life has changed, and we all have other obligations. Plus, prayer meeting… It sounds a little bit, well…old-fashioned. Heaven forbid that we be old-fashioned!

I don’t think the “prayer meeting” experience has declined, though–just the opposite, in fact. As I go through my list of female friends, almost every one of them is in a book club. Some of them, more than one book club. I’m not in a book club, and I had an odd conversation with someone recently who speculated that I didn’t really like to read that much because I’m not gathering with other women for a group discussion of a selected title.

That conversation amused me. I’m an English teacher. Reading isn’t just my hobby, it’s my profession–and possibly my religion. Yet in this day and age, the fact that I’m not on speed dial looking for a book club to join apparently leads makes it reasonable to question whether I am much of a reader at all.

Of course I’m a reader. At any given moment, I have Shakespeare, the complete works of Emerson, most of Thoreau’s writings, and the complete poems of Longfellow with me. I have Stephen King, Harry Dresden and Alastair Crowley,  the Bible and Richard Foster’s works, too, toted around on my Kindle, available every time I have a moment. I do read, voraciously, spanning classics to best-sellers, fiction, poetry and drama to non-fiction and serious academic research papers; I just don’t belong to a book club.

Women in my generation and younger have opted for the book club paradigm instead of the prayer meeting. We are socializing in a structured manner, giving us an excuse to get out of the house all under the guise of  “doing something important.”  Book clubs are still the same source of gossip that prayer meetings were. They’re the same source of social interaction and peer group bonding. In fact, I know of book clubs that throw social events and sponsored educational events, huge affairs with major authors attending. It’s the prayer meeting/women’s circle vibe all over again, just light on the Jesus–except some church-based books clubs, probably.

Is this a bad thing? No. It’s just the thing. Neither good nor bad, but the way society is now. One notable difference: prayer meetings tended to be organized by churches, there was a sense of commitment to an organization bigger than the prayer meeting. Book clubs are generated on an individual basis often by friends, neighborhoods, or even online–there’s often no overseeing organizations such as church. No answering to a minister, priest, or principal. It’s a grassroots organization.

As I think about this, I remember how my sister would get the best gossip from my Grandma by earnestly asking, “Grandma, who do I need to be praying for in the family?” She found out things none of us knew because Grandma was so touched by her interest in praying for the family. Of course, I’m not suggesting her need for updated prayer was less than sincere–that would be heresy. Or at least a venial sin…if we were Catholic. However, it was always interesting to hear what she found out. I suspect that now, the day after book club meetings, the families of the book clubber are regaled with as many tidbits of gossip and information as my sister got by pumping—no, asking–Grandma for her prayer concerns.

(***and why is this titled “The Church of Jodi Picoult?” She’s an author who is a staple of many book clubs. Evidence that I don’t belong in book clubs is my fatwa against her since she wrote the cheesy, lazy ending in My Sister’s Keeper.)

Why You Might Not Want To Be In Sunday School With Me

We were talking about the Apostle Paul traveling around doing his apostle thing when this conversation took place (recreated as well as I can):

Man: Well, I see the rules that Paul set forth and wonder why we’re not following them better.

Teacher gets a gleam in her eye and turns to me.

Teacher: Jeannine, do you have any ideas about that?

I look at her, deciding whether to nod, smile and claim ignorance.

Me: As far as I’m concerned, one Jesus card  beats a hand full of Pauls.

Man: (looking confused) I don’t know what you mean.

Me: I mean Paul was as much a Disciple as Pete Best was a Beatle.

I stand by that position, but it took a while to explain what I meant to him.

 

 

 

Stone Soup

Years ago, when I was a much younger teacher, I had a conversation with my Grandma Flo that I still mull over sometimes as I do lesson plans. Grandma knew I was an English teacher, but she was curious exactly what I did. She assumed meant I taught grammar and punctuation, “things that would help kids get a good job,” as she put it.

Well, no, that isn’t emphasized in high school English, I confessed. We did lots of essay writing, but not sentence diagramming and activities like she was asking about. We didn’t even have a grammar or punctuation textbook. She was pretty incredulous at that, and couldn’t imagine what I did with my students.

“We read a lot,” I explained. “And we talk and write about the reading.” That was the simple version, but basically covered everything we did in the 80’s in English classes.

She nodded her head, agreeing that reading is important, yes. “There are lots of good stories out there. Do your students read about Corrie Ten Boom?” She was on a Corrie Ten Boom kick then. I shook my head no. “Well, there’s lots of other good stories. Do you read any of those stories by Dale Evans that you liked?” Grandma remembered when I was in elementary school and read the books by Roy Rogers’ wife that were laying on Grandma’s end table.

Again, I shook my head no. Grandma looked at me, brow furrowed. The stare went on for a long time….possibly hours, the way I remember it. She finally said something:  “Now Jeannine, you aren’t going to tell me you waste your student’s time with made up stories, are you?”

We’d been reading Hemingway. I was starting a Chekhov story the next week. I had to admit to it.

“Well, that’s just wrong. There are so many true stories out there, so many people those kids could be learning about and inspired by. You just need to look at what you do and ask yourself why you’re wasting their time with lies and made up stuff.”

I tried to counter her position: “Grandma, Jesus told stories. That’s what parables are.”

“He surely did tell stories–and they were teaching a lesson to uplift us. And you don’t know that they weren’t about real people, do you? He just didn’t use names because he wasn’t going to air somebody else’s dirty laundry in front of everybody and their neighbor.”

I could have kept trying. I can explain all sorts of literary theory about the power and universality of fiction. I can explain Bruno Bettelheim’s and Joseph Campbell’s and Jung’s defense of the need and purpose for fiction. I could have quoted C.S. Lewis and Susan Sontag.

But it would have been sound and fury; I would have been protesting too much. I knew the look on Grandma’s face. I wasn’t changing her mind on this.

I’ve told that story a couple times to other English teachers, and we chuckle and shake our heads. Of course we read “made up” stories–and find great Truth and meaning in them.  Using my Grandma story as a quirky icebreaker, though,  ignores the bigger issue, and this is an issue that plagues education reform today, but it’s a difficult, messy question: what is the purpose of education?  Why do we do what we do?

Grandma’s mission statement was crystal clear: formal education is to help people get good jobs. With that as the goal, an emphasis on fiction really doesn’t make sense.  When education reformers emphasize the need to educate a work force that can compete globally, they are rallying behind Grandma—21st century jargon as a value-added fun piece.

Or do we need to create citizens who are capable of governing a democracy wisely? Or should the goal of education be to form “educated” people in the classical sense–people who know the classics, who are well-versed in the humanities? Or to provide an underclass that will consume and keep the free market growing?

At the early elementary level, all the purposes are served by similar methods. But by middle school, it’s clear that we’re trying to do a bit of column A, a smattering of column B–it’s the stone soup approach to education. Everybody brings what they have to the pot and throws it in, hoping that it all fits together in a tasty broth.

But if Grandma were sitting down with reformers and politicians who are cooking the educational broth–I have no doubt that she’d look at them with the same furrowed brow, asking hard questions about what we are doing and why. I’d have wanted a front row seat for that!

My Patron Saint

2020 Note: I no longer am Methodist or want to turn Quaker, but St Clare is still my patron saint.

Ok, so a Methodist who wants to turn Quaker probably shouldn’t have a patron saint. I understand that. But when I discovered St Clare, there was no choice. As a saint, she’s got impeccable creditials. She was one of St Francis of Assisi’s first followers, and was noted for her disdain and disinterest in worldly possessions and events. She is described as having a “radical commitment to poverty,” (wikipedia) meaning she did not believe in personal or even communal ownership of anything. She is the founder of the order of nuns nicknamed the Poor Clares, who are among the strictest about not having personal property. She lived from 1194-1253.

So far, typical nun. No doubt holy and awesome, but…ho hum. BUT, in 1958, Pope Pius XII surrendered to a massive fit of irony and named Clare the Patron Saint of Television. Pius was obviously an insightful man, to realize as early as 1958 that television would need a patron saint, so I applaud his choice. St. Clare, the saint of poverty, also the saint of conspicuous consumption, culture-altering advertising, and total shifting of the societal zeitgeist? I need a T shirt for her. Or him. Using irony to make the point about how television would impact post-modern sensibilities, as a statement about the commodity-driven paradigm shifts that would occur because of the flickering influence of Lucy, Mike Wallace, AlkaSelser ads, Disney channel, and Saturday Night Live–the pope was a prescient genius.

I know that the cynical amoung you will suggest that the pope didn’t anticipate all that, couldn’t have guessed that TV would turn our population cynical, selfish, and sedentary–that’s the impact of television you’re feeling, you know! Yippee for St Clare! August 12th is my new Feast Day. I’m writing the ceremony now!