After the opening of the UMC General Conference (GC2012) yesterday, the plenary today begins with the traditional “episcopal” address. This is a collective message from the bishops to the church, with a designee to deliver the address. Seldom is the process controversial, but it was back at the General Conference in 1980. At that time, the episcopal address included affirmation of the “incompatibility” clause from General Conference 1972—which has undergirded Methodist policy toward gays ever since.
We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching.
The episcopal address of 1980 became controversial when Bishop Melvin Wheatley of Denver objected, vigorously and vociferously, to the affirmation of the policy and the language.
I will not accept [this statement]. It states as an absolute fact what is an insufficiently documented opinion: that gay persons can’t be Christians … I personally know not one, but at least 50 gay men and lesbians who are Christians…I take Jesus Christ very seriously in making judgments, and the more seriously I take him the stronger is my feeling that this statement is an inadequate representation of Christianity.
In the next several years, Bishop Wheatley came under fire from conservatives. Charges were filed against him, but they were dismissed. His actions included ordination of an open lesbian in 1982. So far as I can tell, this remains the only ordination of an out gay person in the UMC. He also assisted an ordained pastor who had been outed and fired by his congregation (see below).
At the next General Conference in 1984, the UMC enacted a resolution that stated unequivocally that gays could not be ordained. Many left the ministry at that time and other candidates were dissuaded. An anonymous Methodist seminarian spoke to the chilling effect of GC 1984’s overt rejection of gay clergy on his own career plan as well as others.
There were all kinds of possibilities until 1984 when the church said, “We don’t want you.” It was then when I began to reconsider whether I would seek appointment to a local church … It also affected other people who had to decide to keep in the fight or to look in other directions; and it affected, I think, whether a lot of gay/lesbian folks considered going into ordained ministry or not and said, “It’s just not worth the fight. (quoted by Gary David Comstock, Unrepentant, Self-Affirming, Practicing: Lesbian/Bisexual/Gay People within Organized Religion)
The gay pastor befriended and assisted by Bishop Wheatley in the early eighties was Julian Rush. His story has been told in Julian Rush–Facing the Music a Gay Methodist Minister’s Story by Lee Hart Merrick. Before his ouster, Pastor Rush had great success as a youth leader. His youth groups often performed religious musicals written and directed by Rush. Often, they took their show on the road with great success. The following are lyrics from one of Pastor Rush’s musicals.
Being down is like down on the ground
With nobody, no place to go;
When the big creatures push you around,
And they make you feel … Oh, I don’t know,
It’s a feeling that’s more like a pain in your heart,
And you feel like … you feel like … a worm.
Now an ant is an ant
And a worm is a worm
But an ant has to crawl
And a worm has to squirm,
So an ant shouldn’t bother
Befriending a worm
Since a worm cannot crawl
And an ant cannot squirm
We’re different and different we’ll stay,
It’s just God’s will.
It’s just God’s way.
From The Resurrection Thing by Julian Rush