Monday, July 21, 2008

Religious Rebels

Here in 2008 it's old news that mainline Protestant denominations are struggling internally over homosexuality. But the big gay news item of the year, the California Supreme Court's decision to overturn a ban on same-sex marriage, has ratcheted up the conflict within at least one denomination.

The United Methodist Church is lately looking more untied than united.

A story in the Los Angeles Times described how "scores" of Methodist ministers in California have conducted or plan to conduct same-sex weddings, in open disregard of church rules.

In other words, Methodist ministers are making matrimonial mischief. Miscreants are misbehaving by marrying members, making a mockery of Methodist mandates. Mercy.

The denomination's Book of Discipline lives up to its austere name, at least where gayness is concerned. It maintains that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. So "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

However, the book also says "certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons."

We won't marry you. But we will support your right to breathe oxygen.

While the United Methodist Church's international governing body reaffirmed the book's language on gayness last spring, soon afterwards California's two governing bodies took a different view, declaring support for the state Supreme Court's ruling.

The Southern California Methodist leaders officially recognized the need for clergy and congregations to make marriage available to everybody. Hold on to your hymnal, Bertha, it's a Methodist mutiny!

The Northern Californians praised 82 retired pastors who signed a resolution offering to perform gay weddings on behalf of ministers who fear doing it themselves.

"We are willing to put our professions on the line because this is so central to our ministry," said retired minister Don Fado, 74. He might lose financial benefits and his clerical credentials, but his conscience will be spick-and-span.

The active ministers performing gay marriage ceremonies risk losing their jobs and clerical credentials. All so their church will live up to its slogan: "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors."

It's a surprising slogan, given the Methodist view of gayness. At present a more accurate one would be "Open hearts with cardiovascular issues. Open minds between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Open doors with a bouncer lurking behind them."

"I'm tired of being part of a church that lacks integrity," said the Rev. Janet Gollery McKeithen, who plans to perform gay weddings in the months ahead. "I love my church, and I don't want to leave it. But I can't be part of a church that is willing to portray a God that is so hateful. I would rather be forced out."

We'll see if she is, along with all the pastors rebelling against church rules. We'll also see whether the change in California state law hastens a change in church law. And whether other mainline denominations find themselves in the same dilemma, or will it be just the Methodists in California who don boardshorts and surf a wave of defiance?

Then there's the sort of compromise approach recently taken by the Rev. Sharon Rhodes-Wickett of Claremont United Methodist Church. Two men, together 40 years, had been members of her congregation for 22 years. She didn't want them to go elsewhere to marry.

She and a retired deacon co-officiated the ceremony, held at a complex for retired clergy so as not to break the rule about gay unions in churches. Rhodes-Wickett led the Lord's Prayer and provided the homily, but didn't pronounce the men married, in order to avoid discipline. The deacon did that, and signed the marriage license.

Completely understandable. But gymnastics are for young people.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Future of Jesse Helms

It's a popular notion that, after we die, we get what we deserve. So let's assume that's precisely what's happening to Jesse Helms, the longtime U.S. senator from North Carolina who expired on July 4.

As I picture things, after Helms died he immediately passed into a spiritual realm. He found himself in front of gates, where a man in a flowing robe was in charge.

Helms smiled broadly. "St. Peter, I'm glad to see you!"

The man responded, "I'm not St. Peter. I'm Ralph. And this isn't heaven. The Big Guy hasn't decided what to do with you yet, Helms. He's well aware that conservatives believe you should be in heaven, and liberals think you belong in hell. He'll make up his own mind, eventually. Go through the gates and sit on the bench. We've arranged for a few visitors."

Helms proceeded to the bench. After a minute Richard Nixon joined him. "Jesse, I knew you'd get here eventually. Remember how, when I went to Beijing, you accused me of 'appeasing Red China?' I just want to say, up yours with a pair of splintery chopsticks."

Before Helms could gather himself to reply, Nixon vanished, replaced by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Helms smirked. "I'm not surprised you're here in limbo," he said to the civil rights leader.

"Actually, I'm here just to see you. Lord knows I wasn't perfect, but he's seen fit to give me a place upstairs. Deal with it."

King continued, "Now Jesse, in life you relied on race-baiting to get elected. You found low-down ways to scare all those white people into voting for you. Remember 1990?"

"Ah," cackled Helms, "we pulled that one out of the fire."

"You were losing to the black candidate, until the famous ad showing a white man's hands crumpling a job application, with the voiceover, 'You needed that job . . . But they had to give it to a minority.'"

Helms looked King square in the face. "You're just mad because I was the only senator to vote against your holiday, you communist."

"I'm glad you brought that up. The 16-day filibuster you staged against me caught the attention of The Big Kahuna, who said that if you can delay that long, you'll have no trouble being patient while he decides what to do with you. I think we're looking at more than 40 days and 40 nights here."

Helms groaned. He groaned again as Robert Mapplethorpe replaced King.

"You may not be pleased to see me, Jesse, but it could be worse. It was a toss-up between me and some victims of the El Salvadoran death squads you supported."

Mapplethorpe threw his arm around the former senator. "Jesse, sweetie, let's remember the good old days. When you fought to keep gays and lesbians out of appointed positions in government. When you stood firm against federal aid for AIDS research and treatment. Was that when you called gays 'weak, morally sick wretches?'"

"Can't remember," grumbled Helms.

Mapplethorpe continued, "And who could forget your battle with the NEA for subsidizing my photos? You made me a household name, honey. By the by, I won't tell you where I landed afterlife-wise, but for tonight, we're roommates."

As Helms gagged, Ralph the gatekeeper replaced Mapplethorpe. "Oh Helms," mused Ralph, "where should a demagogue go? You get credit for loving your country. Trouble was, that country was the Confederacy. You were dedicated to public service—but you cared only for a portion of the public."

Ralph shrugged. "I think you're going to be with us a long while. If you want company, I can put in a request that Mapplethorpe remain for the duration."