For over 10 years I’ve been a member of Palma Ceia United Methodist Church here in Tampa. I started attending an older adult Sunday School class because of my interest in the topics. I wound up doing some substitute teaching, and starting a little over two years ago, I wound up teaching full-time, and now have the help of another person.
Recently, as is the custom with Methodist churches, we got a new pastor, Bruce Toms. I was glad for the change, hoped for the best, and could have been a champion for the guy, but that’s not to be. I’d been told that he was bit conservative, but the previous pastor, Kevin James, was certainly no bleeding heart liberal. Toms has taken it to new heights though.
In August of 2008 I opened a discussion with the Administrative Council of Palma Ceia United Methodist Church about the adoption of an inclusive statement of welcome and non-discrimination. It was “A Resolution for Justice.” In 2008, frankly, I was met with a tremendous amount of ugliness from the likes of Kevin James, the Pastor at the time, and then head of the Personnel Committee, Bill Josey, who actually physically pushed Phil Waters, the presiding officer aside, and took over the meeting.
I spent the intervening three years advancing the conversation within the church body itself, and returned to the Administrative Council in August of 2011. This time, a large contingent of people supportive of such a resolution attended. There was a passionate discussion, and the Council heard personal stories of the harm that the messages often conveyed under the guise of religion can cause to young lesbian and gay people, and how they are often driven away from the Church because of a lack of real welcome. There was spirited debate, both sides arrived at a compromise, and a consensus was reached. Shortly after that, a statement of welcome and non-discrimination, completely and fully compliant with the language of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church was adopted. As planned, it was published to the Church website, and despite the concerns of only one or two, no one left this Church as a result.
The statement reads simply:
“We affirm that worship and membership at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church is open to all who seek to know Christ and share His love, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or economic status, and we welcome and respect all members of our community without regard to these characteristics.”
During an early personal conversation with Toms, he indicated he wanted the statement off the site. About a month ago, the site was redesigned, and the statement was left off. This started a downward spiral in my relationship to Palma Ceia United Methodist Church, The Methodist Church writ large, Bruce Toms, and even the Chair of the Administrative Council, Marty Peate.
I consider the issue of whether this Church has a welcoming statement to be a settled issue. Apparently the current Pastor does not share that view. He has usurped the authority of the Administrative Council, a duly elected body of the Church, and has made various claims as to his reasoning. The primary one being the statement of welcome violates the Discipline, and he has vowed to uphold the order and discipline of the church as part of his ordination. I’ll discuss the various arguments he has proffered below, and address each in turn.
It’s important to note that he admits to having not consulted the Administrative Council in advance of this unilateral action. He finally addressed the issue with them only once I pressed the issue (discussed below), but he has advanced a broad range of explanations and justifications for his action as this process has played out. This has included everything from, “a Church Council never gets involved in the details of what’s on a website;” to, “it violates the Discipline of the Church;” to, “it violates Judicial Council Rulings.” All of these are discussed below, but my usual experience is that when a person keeps changing their story, and advancing new and different arguments for their action, you are rarely hearing the real reasons.
First let me offer some background on why me and others feel that such a statement we important. I’d like to quote a passage from a 2009 study by the Institute for Welcoming Resources that says it better than I ever could:
Religious congregations stand at an important moment in history. The public conversation in the United States around LGBT persons is at a crossroads. Will churches be the leaders in articulating God’s justice and ministry of inclusion and hospitality or will they be the barrier to that welcome? This is a very concrete and practical question. But it is also deeply theological and Biblical.
At the core of the Hebrew Scriptures, at the center of Jesus’ ministry, and at the forefront of the early Church’s formation was the same question: exclusivity or hospitality? In Aliens in the Household of God,1 the editors argue that Jesus’ ministry directly engaged the societal and religious structures of his day…As a Jew who was rooted in the Jewish Prophetic tradition, Jesus’ ministry was dedicated to breaking them down. He touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch. He ate with people he wasn’t supposed to eat with. He healed people he wasn’t supposed to heal, and he healed at times he wasn’t supposed to be healing.2
The resolution makes a public statement that PCUMC will not discriminate against anyone, but especially notes those classes identified by the Methodist Church in the Church Discipline as having been historically discriminated against. Yes, the Discipline and Social Principles say this, but few Methodist even read and are aware of the Church’s official position and certainly even fewer non-Methodist take the time to read and understand our Discipline. So this is a clear and direct statement to the community of who we are, and that we are a community of people, who, as lived out by Jesus, are open and welcoming to all.
Item 1-A Marketing Concern
Shortly after Reverend Toms started here, at a Wednesday evening dinner, he talked about the need for the congregation to get involved with creating programs. One of the teachers of the JOY Class took that to heart, and saved some time one Sunday, and led a brain-storming session. I was handed the list of ideas to discuss with the Pastor.
Within a few days, we had a pleasant enough meeting to discuss those ideas, and at one point, the topic of the welcoming statement came up. Toms indicated he didn’t want it there. I explained it had been discussed, debated, and voted on by the Administrative Council.
During this meeting, he expressed concern that it might cause a prospective member to not come here. I explained that I believed this area was generally progressive on social issues, that we were not aware of anyone leaving the church as a result, nor were we aware of any adverse effects from it being there. I pointed out that over the previous few years, a number of Palma Ceia members had moved to Hyde Park United Methodist, which is in the process of going even further than Palma Ceia and becoming a reconciling church, so it didn’t seem to be an issue.
Toms was clearly unmoved, but I felt the issue was simply left open.
On or about June 3, 2013, a Facebook posting on the Church’s Facebook page indicated a redesigned website had been published. On visiting the site, I saw the statement missing, and contacted the office to alert them to this. I received an email from Rev. Toms which indicated he would meet with me to discuss the matter, and we did meet.
Several explanations for his unilateral action were proffered at this meeting. I’ll address each in turn, but at a point he inquired as to how many people had come to PCUMC because we had the statement, and specifically how many gay people had started coming. I explained that I didn’t interview new or prospective members, but I put the question back to him, and asked how many people had not come, or had left. He would not answer, and responded that no one was coming because of it.
I suggest that it may not be on the top of many people’s list, but more and more people see it as a check-box item, and will expect to see it. Further, since we can’t cite anyone who’s left, or declined joining because of it, it seems to a neutral, “do no harm” situation.