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Topics In the News
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors?
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 10/23/11
Last updated on: 10/24/11
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In 2001, intent on reversing years of declining membership and countering a perception of conservative religious denominations as close-minded and intolerant, the United Methodist Church launched an advertising campaign, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." The campaign was intended to suggest that Methodists welcomed a diverse membership, including glbtq people. For a while, the campaign was very successful, but when in a highly publicized case a gay man was denied membership in the denomination because of his homosexuality, many people came to regard the denomination's slogan as laughable. It was even mocked by an ad for another, more truly accepting denomination, the United Church of Christ.

The contradictions in the policies of the United Methodist Church toward homosexuality reveal a level of uncertainty and inconsistency (if not hypocrisy) that reflects the divisions within the denomination as it wrestles with the question of human sexuality.

The denomination repeatedly says that it welcomes all into fellowship, yet in 2005 at the height of the "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign, a minister in Virginia denied membership to a gay man who had been invited to join the church choir. When others in the church protested the minister's decision, the denomination's Judicial Council upheld the minister's right to deny membership on the basis of the man's sexuality.

Following this highly publicized and embarrassing incident, the denomination's Council of Bishops issued a pastoral letter stating that "homosexuality is not a barrier" to membership. This pastoral letter, however, did nothing to reverse the minister's decision to deny membership to the gay man.

Similarly, the denomination's website contains a number of resolutions passed by its various committees and conferences, some of which extend welcome to all people and affirm their sacred worth. The denomination has even passed resolutions opposing homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Those resolutions, however, do not seem to apply to the denomination itself. The church's "Book of Discipline," for example, pointedly declares, "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

The church also forbids the ordination of practicing homosexuals: "While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."

In addition, the "Book of Discipline" declares that "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Moreover, the denomination forbids the use of United Methodist funds "to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

The denomination has in recent years been roiled by church trials of openly gay ministers and of ministers who have officiated at same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies.

The United Methodist Church will probably eventually follow the lead of other mainline Christian denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church and revise its doctrines to be truly welcoming of gay people to participate at all levels of the church community. It might even reach the level of enlightenment of the United Church of Canada, which affirms homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality in dignity and worth.

However, until that happens, the UMC is in a curious position where its doctrines contradict its message. Perhaps nothing is more illustrative of this uncomfortable position than the reaction in the comments section at Advocate.com to a recent video posted on the site.

The video,"Beyond Inclusion: Sexual Diversity at Claremont School of Theology," compiled by television producer Brenda Bos, features school faculty and students talking about the inclusion of queer people into activities at CST, which is a United Methodist Church seminary.

Beyond Inclusion: Sexual Diversity and Claremont School of Theology from Claremont on Vimeo.

Several commenters at Advocate.com simply expressed their dislike of religion itself, but others were particularly skeptical of any message from an organization associated with the United Methodist Church, some referencing the church's doctrinal positions in regard to homosexuality and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

One commenter thought the video should have been more specific about the denomination's ban on ordaining gay clergy for it might mislead potential theology "students who may dream of a career as a minister with the UMC . . . into wasting a lot of time and money attending a seminary only to discover that they are barred from the ministry."

Some of the professors at Claremont School of Theology who are featured in the video responded to the concerns expressed by the commenters.

Professor Carleen Mandolfo, for example, pointed out that Claremont has a history of welcoming queer students and that "many seminaries, ours included, educate people for a variety of reasons--to become teachers/professors, to work in non-profit capacities, for simple personal enrichment, etc. . . . Only some of our students want to become ministers."

Still, the suspicion with which the video was greeted may indicate that the United Methodist Church's "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign has not met with universal success, primarily because the public relations message is contradicted by the reality of the church's positions on homosexuality.

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