Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Courage to Be: Conferencing and the Kingdom of God
While United Methodists spend a great deal of time, money, and energy attempting to shape potential outcomes of the specially called 2019 General Conference in St. Louis, it is quite possible that the conference most potently rocking the Kingdom of God already took place in St. Louis over the summer.
The fate of the United Methodist denomination is not unimportant; but perhaps neither is it as vital as we sometimes think; after all, the connection is only about 50 years old and is only one expression of global Wesleyan Methodism. No, the fate of the universal church does not hang on the continued existence of the United Methodist Church, as I’ve written elsewhere. And on this website, we feature contributors from a variety of Wesleyan Methodist denominations. Certainly, the UMC has value – I mean ecclesial value, not just net worth, which bears pointing out in days when talks of formal separation are occurring.
But the Kingdom of God is far more expansive than any one denomination or tradition.
And one might well wonder if a modest St. Louis conference last July is the first ripple of an expansive, if demanding, movement. The leadership of the Revoice Conference represented several Christian traditions, Protestant and Catholic, Episcopalian. Over 400 people were present, and thankfully, Revoice leaders made plenary and pre-conference sessions available – for free, and thank you for that, conference organizers – on YouTube.
As the official website states, “The annual Revoice Conference is a gathering designed to encourage and support gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other gender or sexual minority Christians who adhere to traditional Christian teaching about gender, marriage, and sexuality. General sessions offer opportunities to worship together with other likeminded Christians, and workshops cover a variety of topics, aiming to encourage and support gender and sexual minorities in their efforts to live faithfully before God. We also offer workshops for straight family members, friends, pastors, and other faith leaders, helping them to understand the challenges that gender and sexual minority Christians face in their faith communities and society at large and equipping them to respond with gospel-centered compassion.”
In our current cultural moment, reaction was swift from all different directions; critiques were levied at organizers, either because they were promoting celibacy, or because they chose to use phrases like “gay Christian.” In this sense, rhetorically they couldn’t win. In another sense, when one watches the plenary sessions, it’s clear that in a deep, profound, cosmic sense, they couldn’t lose. Such is the nature of chosen sacrifice. At the time, Twitter went into overdrive, and allies cropped up in figures like Southern Baptist professor and writer Karen Swallow Prior, who, despite having recently been hit by a bus – by a bus – took to the organizers’ defense.
After watching the three general sessions, here’s what I came away with:
Humility. The sweet spirit and bold courage of each presenter was evident. Each had the courage to be…well, to be. To be themselves, in their own skin, with their own stories, in the context of a great and loving God of transformation. I was humbled, watching these siblings in Christ who knew critics of all stripes were ready and waiting to dismantle their very personal testimonies and communal convictions.
Deep sadness. The conference was organized wisely around three hubs: praise, lament, and hope. This ordering makes sense, I think, for participants. For viewers who are straight, I think I’d recommend watching in the order of hope, praise, and lament: we need to sit a while with lament and not hurry through it. I was grieved, and I think you will be too, as I listened to testimony of lament – and it is powerful testimony.
Hope. Not everyone will agree with the theological beliefs that ground this conference. But I was encouraged to see that in a cultural moment where so much seems defined by polar opposition, here something grows that is unique, different, and beautiful. It does not particularly fit one mold, because it seeks to follow Christ as best it knows how, and following Christ means you simply can’t be pigeonholed.
Much of the work of this conference is based on the thinking and writing of New Testament scholar and Anglican celibate gay Christian Dr. Wesley Hill, who has authored a couple of books on the subject and has a website here. His excellent discussion topics frequently have the sting of intellectually honest analysis; he has a high view of scripture; he believes in the great tradition of the church; he has experienced mistreatment from within the church. There is a great deal here that will strike to the heart either of progressive or conservative readers.
The Spiritual Friendship website, which features multiple contributors, gives space for ongoing discussion about Christian community, friendship that is robust or even as I would describe it (I don’t know if he would) covenantal, service, and hospitality. Because as unique as this venture may sound to 21st century Western ears, in fact, there is a rich tradition of Christians choosing to live celibate lives and to serve others and the church through that. So too are there meaningful examples throughout Scripture and church history of deep friendships that sustain us in our need for human relationship.
What the Revoice Conference has given us, in part, is a potent call to receive the leadership of this ecumenical group of Christians who are wrestling through theology, philosophy, Scripture, and tradition as they exercise the courage to be. For a long time, straight Christians have spoken to topics of human sexuality. We are not in the wrong to do so. However, through gatherings like Revoice, the Holy Spirit is asking us if we are ready to listen and learn from the spiritual depth of our Christian siblings who are leading intentional, deliberate, and sacrificial lives.
Note from the Editor: The featured image is part of a work of art entitled, “A Friend of Solitary Trees” by Shitao, dated 1698.