Pastor's Comments

Pastors Comments

ALONG THE PATH
April 2019

Dear Council Members, Church Members and Friends:

As you know, I have returned from the General Conference of our denomination held in St. Louis, Feb. 23-26. I attended for several reasons. First, I wanted to witness history unfold within our denomination, and did it ever unfold. I wanted to support our clergy and lay delegates, who had worked very hard, spending countless hours on the road and in meetings on our behalf as voting members of the Virginia Conference. And last but not least, I wanted to share firsthand accounts with you, the members and friends of Chestnut, because what happened affects all of us, even though you may not think it does. You may not think it has anything to do with the pumpkin patch, the fall bazaar, the yard sale, Mystery Dinner Theatre, VIMS mission teams or Journey to Bethlehem. But it does. It affects the taste of the delicious hot rolls we butter and how our softball players run across home plate. It affects the music we sing and what we share on Sunday mornings. If we care about being rooted in faith and reaching out in love, where the presence of Christ is experienced by everyone, we should be attentive to the tremendous pain and damaging consequences the actions of General Conference have on our youth, and particularly members of the LBGTQ+ community.

As a matter of clarification, I never changed my position regarding the three proposed plans: The One Church Plan, The Multi-Church Plan or the Traditional Plan. No one can accurately say the plan I preferred changed, because for the last two years, despite being asked and encouraged by members and leaders, I never publicly stated my position regarding the three plans. It was my intention to educate and simply inform members as to what was at stake and on the horizon, because it would affect everyone. Specifically, in the last year, I brought this before our membership in conversations and public forums, inviting outside clergy and lay delegates as our guests last July and November. The defeated vote of the One Church Plan carried the strength and favor of both conservatives and traditionalists, with a majority of delegates representing the seven central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

Upon my return, on Sunday, Mar. 3, I shared what I experienced in St. Louis. I also conveyed to the congregation why I favored and supported The One Church plan. It was the same exact plan supported and affirmed by our United Methodist Bishops, as they introduced a way forward for our local churches on issues of human sexuality, the ordination of gay clergy and same-sex unions. To state it simply, I favored this plan because it gave both clergy and laity the freedom to make choices within the context of their local church setting. Had the plan prevailed, churches and clergy would be given a choice as how they could best respond to God's call within their contextual framework for ministry and discipleship. Subsequently, I gather my expression of what I believed to be a good plan and a worthy vision, is now being confused as a threatening agenda by members who don't want to acknowledge that there is a change.

Since my return from St. Louis, both sides of the aisle have responded to my perspective. I have welcomed words directly addressed to me of favor, appreciation, kindness, support and gratitude. They have been conveyed as: Thank you so much for sharing with us what happened in St. Louis. Thank you for finally taking a position and letting us know where you stand. We support you and appreciate you. Also, there has been an expression of deep disappointment and a shared expression of grief. And of course, there have been other words, some -- not all -- indirectly spoken to me through "messengers." They have been conveyed as: We are leaving because our leader has changed his position. Why is Chappy making such a big deal about this? Chappy is turning this into a big problem for us. Chappy was annoyed when he returned from St. Louis, coming back with an agenda. His agenda is not going to work at Chestnut.

Allow me to cut to the chase and go to the raw core of what happened in St. Louis. Through all the rhetoric, social media postings, speeches and legislative particulars, the denomination has basically stated the following. Here is my translation: If you are not a person of a heterosexual origin, nonetheless created by God, you fall short within the embrace of God's love. Your sin is worse than mine. Therefore, as we have since 1972, we continue to maintain an expression of condemning you, denying your identity and human rights. Your purpose as a human being, your makeup of how God designed you to be and become is wrong from our perspective and thus, you are to be treated differently. We do not consider you as a complete or normal child of God, because you are gay. You are not a person whose life is “compatible” with Christian teaching. Therefore, we exclude you. We exclude you because you are different from us, and we will continue keeping you from feeling included, making sure you stand out as different. You are a person of no sacred value or worth. If you have a partner and you want a blessing from the church, go somewhere else, you will not receive it here. If you are gay, if you want to become or continue as member of the clergy, forget about it. If you were ordained a gay clergy person, or even consecrated as a bishop, we will bring charges against you, put you on trial and fire you! You are no longer worthy of being part of this denomination. Surrender your credentials and be gone, you're done.

This is what prevailed and will be written into church law from St. Louis. Some of it has been deemed unconstitutional by the Judicial Council, and more renderings will come forth Apr. 23 -25. Shall we speculate about further legislations in the future? How about this scenario when looking at a marriage license? “Hmm, I see both of you have the same address. Are you living together? So sorry, our church law forbids my officiating your ceremony.” Or how about: “I see one of you happens to be divorced. Sorry, I am not allowed to celebrate a ceremony for a divorced couple. You have failed in sin. You may have better luck at the Episcopal church down the street.” Or how about: “I understand you have a mental health problem. Sorry, but you might want to contact a justice of the peace. Our church has a no-tolerance policy for people with problems.” Legislating human behavior in the church is a big deal.

May I take a moment and share with our youth and members of the LGBTQ+ community. I regret the United Methodist church has taken this stance, and I have a right to disagree with this action and harm caused by our denomination, while at the same time honoring others who disagree with me. Frankly, I don't blame you if you have no desire to affiliate with Chestnut or any other United Methodist church. My hope and prayer is that you will stay, because we need you; but you need to follow your heart and convictions. As a pastor in our denomination, I want you to know that you are valued and loved for who you are and who God created you to be. I know you may have a mother or father, a daughter or son, a niece or a nephew, a brother or a sister, an aunt or an uncle, or a lost cousin who is gay or transgendered. You probably have a teacher or a best friend who is gay, as well as your dentist or doctor. And if you are gay, I hope you will know that despite what came out of St. Louis, as long as I am the pastor at Chestnut, I affirm you, bless you, cherish you and welcome you into my life and into our congregation. This is what really matters. I can only hope and pray that our members share the same conviction. I believe most of them do. I care about you as much as a father who welcomed his son yearning to come home. If you feel like you are an outsider, like a Samaritan woman, please know Jesus dips from the same well as you, sharing and drinking from the very same ladle, and he will always welcome you, calling you one of his own. If anyone wishes to accuse me of having an agenda at Chestnut, please accuse me of this one. An agenda of giving a clear expression of unconditional love, support, safekeeping and pastoral care to everyone. Now more than ever, I extend a branch of hospitality and welcome to these beloved children of God who have been emotionally and verbally harmed by the expression of a religious denomination.

My wife Elaine, the mother of a gay person, throughout her life has experienced hatred, prejudice, danger and anger directed toward her daughter throughout their lives. She is most appreciative for many positive affirmations expressed to her by members of the congregation. And this is why she raised a flag on your behalf at our home, so that you might find company and an expression of inclusion and love where you may not find it otherwise, as a gentle reminder that God loves everyone and there is a place for you. This was Elaine's call to action, her sentiment and agenda, not mine. Her visual display toward inclusiveness is not meant or intended as defiance or as a calling out of anyone's fixed opinion, conviction or moral certainty. Unfortunately, some faithful take it as a threat or disdain toward their faith and principles.

Within our congregation, there remains a sentiment of relief. It sounds like this: I am glad the Traditional Plan passed, because this is the way God wants it to be. I am glad the Traditional Plan passed, because I was going to leave the congregation if it hadn't. The traditionalists among us are relieved, as they never wanted nor would tolerate a same-sex ceremony performed on church property, nor receive an ordained gay or lesbian appointed pastor. However, don't be fooled, this will occur despite what transpired in St. Louis. Disregard for authority and the Book of Discipline will likely continue as predicted by many. There is also another sentiment as expressed directly to me. The first Sunday after I returned from St. Louis, a member said to me: “You know I love Chestnut. But I am not sure if I can continue being part of a denomination which has taken such a harsh position on this issue. I am not sure I can stay.” Regardless of the acceptance of either the three plans, people will leave the church and the denomination.

On the first Thursday of each month, I share a meeting with what I call our NOW (Nurture, Outreach and Witness) leaders. Respectively, they are Gary Coverston, Anita Willard and Rex Evans. Also around able are our Lay Leader, Connie Thompson; our Lamplighter editor, Becky Stewart; our Lay Delegate to Annual Conference, Cindy Jacob; and our Chairperson of Church Council, Wayne Ewing. I appreciate the work of our church leaders, as they represent many flavors of our congregation. I respect their counsel, I appreciate their support of my work, and their different thoughts and opinions.

Before General Conference occurred, I expressed to them how I would be looking toward their leadership. In my thinking, General Conference would probably elicit a perspective from the clergy and a perspective from the laity. And certainly in most congregations, not everyone is on the same page. Within our NOW committee, thoughts and rationale vary and differ as to how we should proceed as a congregation. There is the opinion of continuing to go forward as we have been, remaining just as we are in our mission and programmatic ministries. There is an expression of caution, not irrationally “reacting” to General Conference. There is fear of alienating many of our longstanding traditional members, not wanting to steer the USS Chestnut in a different direction. There is also concern at this juncture, of our being too complicit in response to the pain, hurt, and destruction caused by the General Conference. There is an expression of how we cannot afford not to address these matters. At my invitation, there was discussion of our exploring the ministries of the Reconciling Ministry Network, which some NOW members favored and some did not.

There are many options available to congregations as to how they will respond to General Conference. Throughout the United States, congregations have been quick to respond with new vision statements and creative expressions. One can see they are exhibiting a unified effort in opposition to what happened. Generally speaking, they are deliberately trying to send a message of welcome and inclusion toward everyone. Some churches have replaced the word United on their church signs with a rainbow flag. They have placed multi-colored doors of welcome on their lawns. They have written new mission statements, adding fresh colors on their websites and even on their altars. Even in Richmond, churches have joined together placing ads in newspapers, wanting to repair the damage, intentionally inviting everyone to feel welcomed in their churches. Whereas we may choose to acknowledge this at Chestnut or not, be mindful this is a movement in United Methodist churches sweeping the country.

The General Conference took a harsh, offensive stance toward members of the LGBTQ+ community, and all people for that matter. I say all people, because many souls have been harmed from hateful and violence-laden remarks. Despite being heterosexual themselves, they are broken in spirit, feeling deeply for their children, their relatives, their friends, their coworkers, and their church members who are devout followers of Christ, devoted disciples themselves. Young students in seminaries are very concerned, as they feel much uncertainty about the future of our denomination. United Methodist church-related colleges are just about ready to break historic ties with the church, as they find the disparity and ill will caused by the denomination contrary to the very foundations of freedom and inclusion that make their campuses thrive.

This matter is not only in relation to a more intentional design of inclusiveness for our youth and members of the LGBTQ+ community, but also in a broader realm toward racial and ethnic diversity. How does our congregation wish to proceed as the body of Christ in the midst of denominational “mayhem?” Doing nothing, staying full speed ahead, charting a familiar, non- controversial safe course is certainly a plan. However, it may prove hurtful, offensive and damaging to gay members and their families who are looking for an intentional and affirming response. There are many viable options available, but I ask myself where is the unified congregational vision? What are your ideas Chestnut members? What direction do you want to go Church Council? What might be your vision or thoughts, lest I be the one known for promoting an agenda that will not work, or being remembered as one of those pastors who created big problems for everyone, not to mention my making a “big deal” of it all.

Last week a church member brought a sense of dis-ease to a staff member and volunteer, coming into the church office unannounced saying: “As a member of this church, I do not appreciate those flags on church property and want them removed.” They describe his demeanor and attitude as quite “strong,” “angry” and “bellicose.” They were both shocked by the tone of his voice and were left “feeling uncomfortable and uneasy.” Whereas the flag technically flies on church property, this is also our home, temporary as it is. Elaine has a right and a constitutionally guaranteed freedom to raise a flag. And again, last Sunday, March 17, Elaine was shocked, caught off guard when a church member was impetuous toward her, hostile and caustic, in the narthex in the presence of others before the 11:15 worship service. Such behavior in both circumstances is not only offensive and abrasive, but intolerable regardless of the place or subject matter, let alone in a church standing behind a mission statement of: “Reaching out in love, Rooted in faith.”

Demonstrations and expressions rooted in offensiveness, hatred and violence as witnessed at General Conference are some of the reasons why United Methodist congregations are raising flags all over the country. To the beloved who think I am bringing an agenda of dissonance to this matter of civil rights and religious freedom, wanting to place blame, our denominational flag of the cross and flame says it all. Beyond 1024 Harpersville Road, it is flying all over the world. And certainly, it is tattered, frayed and torn in the United States, by the action taken in St. Louis. What happened in the “Gateway to the West” affects all of us, even though you may not think it does. Indeed, it is a very big deal.


Photos (C) by Robert M. Chapman, II