Bill Brownson was perfect on paper. He fit all the qualifications to be the chief financial officer for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Brownson attended King Avenue United Methodist Church, worked at JP Morgan for 20 years and served on several financial boards and councils in the church. His interviewers overwhelmingly agreed he was the best candidate for the position.
But, when his nomination was announced, it seems most people only read one clause in the nine-paragraph letter: "... lives in Columbus with his life partner of 20 years, Myron Phillips."
And so began the arguing. The conservative caucus, Evangelical Fellowship of West Ohio, wrote this in its letter to sway people against Brownson's nomination: "Our concern is that this nomination seemingly affirms a lifestyle that the United Methodist Church has consistently said is 'incompatible with Christian teaching.' (¶ 161F of The 2008 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church)."
It is true that the Book of Discipline condemns "self-avowed practicing homosexuality." In fact, some pastors have lost their orders for coming out of the closet. Brownson, however, is a lay person — a leader in the church — but is not ordained, meaning outside of the rules that apply to ordained people. So, the conference was left to decide for itself how to vote on the matter.
To me, it boils down to semantics. There's a difference between the words "think" and "believe." Most people don't distinguish between the two in casual conversation anymore. You think Columbia is great. You believe in dharma. Your friend thinks the SWAT team was wrong to shoot a dog. Your mom believes all dogs go to heaven. The difference lies in how deeply an idea resonates with you. Like faith, belief requires something more intrinsic than thought.
It is in that intersection of think and believe that I have found my faith, currently. I think the institution of church, even the modern church, oppresses women, racial and ethnic minorities and LGBT people. I think organized religion is part of the patriarchal structure of America and the globalized world. I believe, though, in love — the kind Jesus displayed and the kind untouched by popular culture — above all else.
As a self-avowed practicing woman, feminist and ally, I've found that the heart of my faith is really reconciliation: reconciliation of my life to God, reconciliation of my faith to the institution of church, reconciliation of my thoughts to my beliefs. Because, frankly, as a member of an oppressed group, it does take effort to reconcile faith to an institution that professes its love while condemning me.
As a gay man, Brownson is forced to reconcile if he wants to serve. His name no longer applies to his unique set of personal characteristics but to an issue. It has been organized religion's legacy to continue oppression instead of fight it. Since Christianity became the norm instead of the fringe, it has left a path of blood — often as much from the church's lack of humanity as of Jesus' concern for humanity. At some point, every marginalized group has been forced to reconcile its faith and the church. Opponents were willing to overlook every other qualifying characteristic about Brownson because of their fear one aspect of his life will harm the whole institution of church.
Bruce Ough, bishop of the West Ohio Conference, wrote in his letter supporting Brownson's nomination: "Not all who profess Christ as Lord and Savior see the issue of homosexuality in the same way. I do, however, know that Jesus welcomes and loves all with the same love."
It's problematic to think LGBT people are bad for the church but believe God loves everyone equally. It's alienating to know people think you are bad for the church but believe God loves everyone equally.
Only 54 years ago, the United Methodist Church voted to give full clergy rights to women. Out of 1,868 voting pastors and lay people, Brownson won the appointment by 28 votes. I believe, as the United Methodist Church does, that faith is meant to be practiced in community. Yet, for oppressed groups to truly engage in that community, there will need to be a change in how the church thinks.
Molly Harbarger is an assistant city editor at the Missourian.