Letter from a gay Christian classmate

This is a letter from a guy named Chase Bannister who went to school with my wife Cheryl and me at Duke Divinity School. Chase is gay. That’s why he left the United Methodist Church. Cheryl and I have other friends and seminary classmates like Chase who are beautiful people with amazing gifts that have left the Methodist church because they’re gay. I’m sharing this letter because Chase is a person, not an issue. And because he said in his letter, “Remember me,” like the thief said to Jesus. Those words condemned me because I’ve often tried to forget friends like Chase, since my life as a Methodist pastor would be easier if I had never known them. In any case, whatever you believe about this issue, I hope that you’re willing to listen to a person whose life is directly impacted.

Hi all!

Though a few of you have the honor of putting up with my tedium on regular occasion, many of you to whom I write today I haven’t seen in too many moons. The vast majority of the twenty or so of you I’m writing today I have known through Duke Divinity School, and are out and about doing work within the context of the United Methodist Church.  Some of you have taken your holy orders as elders or probationary elders, and some of you are fastidious in your work of social justice and societal welfare.  Thank you for your work; goodness knows the missional life is under appreciated.  For my part, I understand that the daily work in ecclesial setting is taxing to say the least; your expressions of the holiness-of-the-ordinary have my endless gratitude.

Most of you, I believe, are aware that I formally renounced my membership in the United Methodist Church a few years ago, saddened by the denomination’s double-speak on “prophetic voice” vs. “long-term dialogue and holy conferencing” as part of its hospitality-free polity barring LGBT persons from particular-sacramental work. It was a dichotomous decision for me–both tremendously difficult to per force leave behind a people and institution that formed me into who I am and yet concomitantly a decision of great ease—wheresoever I (and my fellow LGBT persons) are banned from formal ecclesiastical work, I cannot remain.  For me, it was and has been a decision of personal ethics, turning away from an endlessly abusive system which calls congregants and those who tend them to abide by a book which disparages beautiful identities as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Incompatible. What a horrifying, bitter word.

Imagine what it must be like to be called ‘incompatible’ with all of Christian teaching. Incompatible in relationship to the polity of the church. Incompatible, implicitly noted, with one’s relationship with God and neighbor.

Though incompatible and far-too-broken to break the bread for those gathered for eucharist, we are of “sacred worth.”  You’ll forgive me, I hope, as I call this double-speak just what it is – bullshit.

I watched as the General Conference of the United Methodist Church made a mockery of authentic engagement, saddened to witness the further detriment of this denomination; emancipated, as it were, from the emotional violence, I still (and always will) have a strangely-warm place in my heart for the people of the UMC and the parishes and institutions they comprise.  Oddly enough, it was the UMC (once considered a progressive denomination among protestants) which helped me escape literalism and hold on to confounding concept that God could change God’s mind, as God did with the people of Nineveh (yes, believe it or not, I still have a copy of the canon somewhere about, though I’m still peeved that it is a closed-canon).

Some of you are working tirelessly and to speak truth to power, flying right in the face of the discipline (as your retired bishops did).  And for that, I thank you.

I cannot speak to what others of you are doing amid this onslaught of ecclesial fratricide, so I include you in this bold request.  When next you don your stole and liturgical vestments, when next you hold out your hands over the bread and wine, when next you speak on behalf of your denomination in word, order, sacrament, when next you remember the mighty acts, when you next lecture to a class or lead a faculty meeting—-please also remember me.  Remember how much power you have, however neophyte you might feel in the context of your career.  Remember the connections we shared over time, and whether in the context of those connections, you found me worthy to be with you, as we together would proclaim our unworthiness.

Whether out of fear, vows, anxieties, belief systems – I confess that I hold bitterness with some of you, particularly those of you I met and loved through our theological education.  I’ve been desperate to see your signs of protest, your willingness to speak honestly, your willingness to stand up for me and ‘my people’–who are also your people, as many of you continue to baptize LGBT persons into the methodist flock.  I’ve been desperate to see your willingness to stand trial – with my commitment to be present with you should such bureaucratic devilry come to you.

I suppose my request could be framed a bit more directly, so here goes—– Would you stand trial for me?  If you are empowered in any way whatsoever and believe injustice is afoot, would you stand trial on my behalf–in the service or my ordination (and one day, my marriage)?

For many of you, I imagine this hasn’t been much of a personal issue, and I wish to have it be so, as I hope our connection and friendship would make it personal for you.  Would you speak so boldly that you’re censured, dismissed, or defrocked?   Until so many of you go that far will the church begin to listen.  Would this have been about the status and role of women in the clergy or (may it never again be so) divisions in the ranks about the rights of persons of all ethnicities and races, I would have gone to the mat for you.   Would you do likewise for my kindred?  So much violence and abuse has been done by your church against my identity that it seems unlikely I would return to your denomination – but I care too much about the good that is left within your fractured body (and the young persons in your congregations struggling with sexual orientation hearing what their pastors say…and do not say).  Your silence can be rather deafening.

A few of you on this list are deans, tenured faculty, retired faculty at Duke (and a few other spots).  With no apologies for directness, you–most empowered of all–seem to have done very little.  I’ve been watching and listening – hoping, even, for you to say publicly what you’ve said to me privately.  I expect more from you, and live with a disappointment grounded in hurt for your inaction. Please turn your whispered support into something substantial. Maybe even reconsider and recall words of moral vision that (while once fully well-intentioned) now carves the heart out of the ontological joy concomitant with being grafted into–rather than intentionally anathematized of–the kingdom of God and ordained service to it.

Of all of us, you have the most power, backed by tenure, institutional equity councils, centers for ethics, and the ability–nay, responsibility–within the academy to engage students, alumni, faculty, and the wider community of theological schools (particularly those with ties to the UMC).   If you live in fear there, why do you still live there?  And what can I do to help you overcome such a burden?  I will show up in every circumstance I can, as I have for Sam Wells anytime he came calling for panel discussions at the divinity school on issues of disenfranchisement and hetero-normativity of the church.

Be patient, we’ve been told.  Dialogue.  Holy conference.  Empty words, masking an unwillingness to really do anything; mortician’s rouge spread thickly upon approaches meant to pacify, never really to empower.

Would you stand trial for me?  Saint Peter Storey once gave us all a stern reckoning from the pulpit of Duke Chapel in his 2006 baccalaureate address in, as he prepared to make his way out of a toxic environment into another:

“Resist with all your might the temptation to play “church” while the world bleeds. Until you lead your congregation to engage with that real world, your pastoring will be mere pampering, your proclamation will be a religious form of talking to yourself. Jesus wants to lead us past our self–absorption into the only place where it costs something to be the Church – the world. God invites us to join Jesus there declaring the good news that God’s heart breaks in love for that world… that God’s arms are nailed wide open in welcome to all, especially those broken by poverty and bigotry, and shackled by injustice.”

Would you stand trial for me and my kindred?  If you will, I will get on a plane and support you, wherever you may be. Will you risk being slapped by your District Superintendant or Bishop or Dean or President?  If you will, I resolve to be with you and stand to take the hit with you.  I’m used to it, and the callouses protect me (at least partially) from the sting.

Am I asking a lot?  You can bet on Balaam’s !@#$%^&* I am.  If these years of emotional vitriol haven’t been personal to you yet, I hope they are now, else I have earnestly misplaced my trust and hope.  I am asking you to set aside your quiet whispers for a potent disquietude; I’m asking you to turn over a few tables in the temple; I’m asking you to upbraid the violent language of your church; I’m asking you to openly speak truth to power, as one you said you would; I’m asking you to do risk crucifixion within your order; I’m asking for your civil disobedience – refuse to marry anyone in your congregations until you could wed me to one who would be my betrothed;  I’m asking you to take the floor at your annual conferences until so ruled out of order and carried out in shackles that it makes the front page of the local paper; I’m asking you to do what true friends would do for one another.  I’ve sung with you, traveled with you, lived with you, laughed and cried with you, studied with you, argued with you healthily in the midst of academic intrigue, apologized for you, and now respect you enough to ask you directly to do more.

I’ve asked it of you; so you can ask it of me.  If you need me to come and speak to your parish or board or be beside you as you walk into an office of power, ask it of me.  Please.

I’m certain I’ve failed to stand up for some of you in some way; in the ways in which I have, please help me come to reconciliation with you, and help me learn to speak boldly on your behalf.  So long as you’re willing to let on un-Methodist come to your aid, you needn’t carry your cross alone.

There’s always a place for you in Durham, NC, should you ever need a visit to this wondrous city, by the way.  Alongside two brave and brilliant clinical social workers, I’ve dreamt, planned, raised capital for, and opened a specialty behavioral health hospital for young people & center of excellence for the treatment of eating disorders, right across the street from Duke (so good luck getting rid of me!).  Here, I am privileged to serve as Vice-President & Chief Clinical Officer.  I like to say that it is a place that’s been ‘loved into being,’ and I am proud to have such an incredible, expert staff.  If I can ever help with your congregant families (either in getting specialist connections for outpatient care near you or care at our hospital), let me know.

There can be a temptation to say at this point, “but look – you found a different calling about which you are incredibly passionate.”  Resist this temptation, please.  I love my work with a fiery passion, and am most glad to have fallen in love with what I get to do in this world.  Resist the urge to pacify and look back to a larger issue of the institutional invalidation of identity.  Because you are a part of the people called Methodist, you find yourself squarely in the center of a political, bureaucratic maelstrom which wounds, disenfranchises, and leaves your church impoverished from the gifts of service, leadership, and care LGBT persons have to offer–just like you.

It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t lend you a song – so here’s to you, Fred Rogers, for understanding that being different is beautiful, something to be proud of, and (despite what one might see) is only truly handicapping if the community decides it so.

It’s you I like,


13 thoughts on “Letter from a gay Christian classmate

  1. Pingback: Links for 2012-06-19 [Uncertain Principles] « Random Information

  2. Only a terrible friend would encourage or condone sinful behavior. Real friends will uphold Gods will for your life and homosexual behavior is not it.

    • Thank you for sharing your feedback, Frank. I have posted elsewhere why I don’t believe homosexuality to be sinful, but I know that I’m not going to change your mind on that. God bless.

      • Hey Morgan thanks for letting me post. I have seen the usual arguments that have been attempted but they all fail theologically. Can you back up scripturally that God condones or blesses homosexual behavior? Without that kind of scriptural backing we are only left with an extremely fallible human opinion.

        If we love someone we should always err on the side of caution even if we believe there might be a possibility. There is nothing loving about encouraging sinful behavior, in fact that’s hate so unless we have Gods word to tell us differently we should do the locking thing by not affirming sinful behavior. We do not have to raise certain sins above others of course, we should treat all sin the same, but we shouldn’t lie to people either.

        • I don’t expect to be able to convince you because I imagine you read the Bible as consisting in discrete “Thou shalt” statements that can be plucked from their context without losing their meaning. I think we have to do more work in interpreting the Bible than just flipping open to a page and expecting a sentence taken out of context to tell us what to do.

          When I read Leviticus 18, I see a series of sexual boundaries established to keep vulnerable people safe from rape in the context of a patriarchal order. Male on male sex would undermine the role men were supposed to play as the sexual gatekeepers of their home. The complementarians believe that patriarchy is God’s permanent will for humanity. I believe it was a way to organize society and keep women and children safe from gangs of horny men (Gen 19, Judges 19) in the transition from familial tribal culture to ancient city-states. Now that centuries of civilization have made the world safer for women and children, patriarchy is obsolete which changes how we need to view Leviticus 18.

          When I read Paul, I see him promoting a pragmatic asceticism regarding sexuality. For Paul, the danger of sex hetero or homo is that it can cause people to worship creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25). Paul is very clear that celibacy is the best way to avoid this danger. He describes marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 as a “concession not a command.” Every reference Paul makes to homosexuality occurs in the context of describing the decadent orgy lifestyle of the Roman upper class or temple prostitution. Paul was also wrestling through how Jewish his Gentile converts needed to become. He defies the Jerusalem council’s admonition to avoid pagan sacrificial meat (Acts 15:20, cf Romans 14) but compensates for this by affirming Levitican sexuality though not as a rigid covenantal boundary but as a moral exhortation.

          Nothing like the monogamous homosexuality we have today existed in Paul’s context or in the time that Leviticus was written. I’m not sure Paul wouldn’t say “Better to marry than to burn” to homosexuals today. He wanted the purer intimacy with God that comes from celibacy but he recognized that few people could follow that call.

          Bottom line is I believe that the sins the Bible describes are sinful because they harm other people or corrupt our souls. All the law and the prophets hang on the two commands to love God and neighbor. There are no arbitrary “because I said so” rules; they all have a purpose. Not everything we should do or avoid doing is spelled out explicitly in the Bible. Much of our understanding of sin and holiness has to come from studying the character of Jesus and applying His way into circumstances that didn’t exist in 1st century Palestine.

      • Morgan I cannot help you when you practice exegesis. And at least you admit you can in any way scripturally show that God condones or blesses homosexual relationships.

        One glaring factual error you posted is that homosexual relationships are different now so Paul is not talking about committed monogamous SS couples. Same sex marriage existed in ancient Rome and in ancient middle east. So yes Paul knew exactly what he was talking about.

  3. Chase has written from his heart and challenged his friends and colleagues to stand up for what he believes to be an injustice. I do not doubt his sincerity, but neither do I doubt the sincerity of those of us who stand firm on Biblical teaching. It is extremely unfair for anyone to expect another to give up his belief simply to support a belief that is antithetical to them. I do believe that everyone is of sacred worth, I do believe that Christ died for all people, I also believe that He has provided guidelines for us to follow in order to be accepted into the family of God. Unrepentant gossips, unrepentant liars, unrepentant maligners, unrepentant sexual affairs, unrepentant sexual predators, unrepentant murderers, any unrepentant of sexual sins…which according to scripture…includes homosexuality will be judged accordingly. So…with all of her mistakes of the past the United Methodist Church…according to article IV–The Holy Bible, “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” My heart breaks for Chase and the many people like him who desperately desire for full acceptance into the church, especially in areas of ministry and yet don’t want to accept the Scriptures statements on continuing in sin. My heart breaks for the Church as many attempt to stand firm on the Scripture as the authoritative Word of God and are continually criticized by those who use various strawman means of debunking Gods word for their own justification. All of the church must love all people as God loves, but don’t be fooled into thinking that God’s love is a waiver from being judged for your particular sin.

    • Dr. Abbott, I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who are committed to the authority of scripture. I have a different interpretation of Leviticus, Romans 1, 1 Cor 6, etc, which I’ve shared on this blog. Both Paul (1 Cor 7) and Jesus (Matt 19) were sexual ascetics who considered celibacy to be the ideal and chastity to be a pragmatic concession. I really think that Paul would say, “Better to marry than to burn,” if he were confronted by the question as it presents itself today rather than in the context of ancient pagan rituals and lifestyles.

  4. God bless you Morgan for sharing this and God bless you Chase for your openness. I for one will not be quiet. Our denomination, or should I say our governing boards are wrong. Not once did Jesus say that the LGBT community was not loved or accepted by Him. We are all children of God who need to love and respect each other, accept our faults and failures, and to follow Christ in one community.
    My heart goes out to you and all those who have been treated so unfairly. Every day I pray for the unjustices of this world to be changed. That we could all live in peace and harmony together. Unrealistic dream? I don’t think so. It’s exactly what Jesus wanted.
    Peace to you my brother, and I will always call you my brother through my last breath.
    We have a new, strong youth coming up in this denomination and it is my duty, as a pastor and as a child of God, to teach them the truth and the truth it shall be!

  5. My heart goes out to your friend and all LGBT Christians. I was once part of the Duke Divinity School community…first as a seminary wife, and then the wife of a Ph.D. student. I served as a leader in the United Methodist Church for over 15 years before I, too, recently left. I refuse to be part of a church community that allows it’s pastors to have affairs and continue to be in the pulpit and teach at seminaries, but then refuse LGBT Christians in committed marriages (I live in Iowa) serve as pastors. The hypocrisy in the United Methodist Church is just too much for me to take with it’s “Open Hearts, Open Doors,” and it’s push to get young people into the church. I’m afraid the United Methodist Church (along with many other mainline churches) is crumbling and will soon die out. It’s not just the “gay issue,” but the refusal of the UMC to hold it’s leaders accountable to living lives that are truly surrendered to Jesus.

    • As a bishop in an independent catholic church and jurisdiction, we are seeing this all over…people leaving the church of their birth or their choice over the disappointing dissonance between words and actions. Many of those people find their ways to our churches and ministries. If Christ truly was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, then His admonition to “love one another as I have loved you” is not just the eleventh commandment, it is a prescription for liberation that supersedes all of the rest of the testamentary witness. This is a radical call to relationship with God that only the brave will follow. As Independent Catholics who value this teaching, we embrace all people no matter who they are. At God’s table, all are welcome, all are fed. Those churches who continue to deny full membership in the body of Christ to people based upon their fears and biblical literalism may find comfort in their beliefs, but they have not yet embraced the call to true discipleship.

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