Tuesday, on the opening day of General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon, Love Prevails coordinated an unofficial ordination service for Sue Laurie, who has been denied entry into the candidacy process for 20 years by her annual conference because she is a self-avowed, practicing lesbian.
A statement published by Love Prevails tells of what followed the ordination: “After her ordination, the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated. As an act of radical hospitality, we offer to the General Conference the bread and cup consecrated at that service.”
Under signs that read “Remember Me,” the bread and cup from the ordination service were offered simultaneously with the bread and cup consecrated at the altar at which Bishop Bruce Ough presided during the opening worship service of General Conference.
In doing this, Love Prevails has divided the table of the UMC, providing alternative elements with which to commune with Christ around an alternative table they described as “Queer Communion.” It is difficult to see how this is anything other than a division of the church.
It does not seem that this was their intent. Their stated intent was to draw attention to the LGBTQ+ people who are already serving in the UMC and to bring attention to the ways in which LGBTQ+ people do not always experience the UMC as a safe place. For Love Prevails, the offer of an unofficial communion service and alternate table reflects deeply held convictions about justice for and the call of LGBTQ+ people. They intended, so it seems, to provoke change within a communion with which they find their relationship impaired.
But though Love Prevails’ intent was not schism, its effect was. Separate ordinations and separate tables are exactly the things that constitute a separate church.
At the end of their statement, Love Prevails says, “We encourage you to take communion at the ‘Remember Me’ stations as an act of resistance to our church’s ongoing discrimination of God’s LGBTQ people and to work for the day when Love Prevails.” But this act of resistance against the church’s discrimination, as Love Prevails sees it, in fact created resistance to the church itself in its oneness gathered around the table. For Paul, the oneness of the bread and body is essential to the church’s gathered participation in Christ:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17 ESV)
It is insufficient to say that this was to serve as a sign-act of the brokenness already present in our communion, for communion is not only a sign of what we are, but a participation in what we are to become. In a sermon addressed to catechumens on Pentecost, Augustine provides some commentary on Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 10, saying,
“One bread,” [Paul] says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. (Emphasis added.)
Augustine goes on to speak of the cup as well, explaining how the individual grapes in the bunch are all mingled to form one wine. One bread and one cup, these are the source and the sign of our communion. At the table, we are not called to try to signify our present brokenness. We have already done that and sought peace in the midst of that through confession and reconciliation.
When we offer different breads—that is bread that has been blessed at a different table and offered as an alternative to that which is offered by the one presiding with the gathered body—we are no longer operating as one body that has been united by the water and the Spirit. The sign-act offered by Love Prevails communicates this. To have two different tables is to have two different ekklesia, to have two different communions, to have variant offerings of Christ.
This separate communion is made all the more troublesome by the fact that the UMC has no bar on members of the LGBTQ+ community receiving or serving communion. In our theology and liturgy, we confess that all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another are welcome at the table. And though our church has failed in manifold ways to be faithful to this call in practice, to create a separate “queer communion” entrenches a division that need not be maintained.
With banners that read “Remember Me,” Love Prevails called upon the conference to “remember the people who have been lost to our denomination as a result of the church’s categorical discrimination against queer people,” to “remember all who have been marginalized and violated by the church’s many acts of oppression,” and to “commit to Re-Membering the Body of Christ—to making whole that which has been broken and torn apart.” But we can only remember and rightly see each other in communion if first we remember Christ himself. Jesus’ call to “remember me” is about Jesus himself, who in giving himself for us offers us reconciliation and enables us to see the image of God in each other. Love Prevails’ “queer communion,” however, substitutes LGBTQ+ people for Jesus as the antecedent of “me” and, therefore, as the object of our memories. We ought to remember all of God’s church, LGBTQ people included, when we gather to be reconciled at the table, but we can only do so by rememberingJesus himself. By offering a separate communion and undermining the primacy of Jesus in our memory, Love Prevails has further dismembered, rather than re-membered, the body of Christ.
If we are to be one body—if we together are to be transformed by the love of Christ—if we are to be reconciled to each other—then the place where we experience that possibility is when we gather around the Lord’s table, in which we participate as one body with one bread and one cup.
“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” May we as Christ’s church share in one loaf even when we share so little else.
- This post is not, in itself, a criticism of all of the work of Love Prevails or all work towards more faithful inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. It is a criticism of these two activities.
- The writers of this article do not take issue with LGBTQ+ persons serving the elements or for any persons authorized by their Board of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conference presiding at the table in the UMC. The objection here is to the fact of alternate offerings, not the people who are offering or receiving.
- On Wednesday, during the Episcopal Address, Bishop Palmer said, “[O]ur relationships are so superficial, especially in the church, that we won’t even risk saying something that we might later have to apologize for.” This is our attempt to speak boldly, trusting that we can speak the truth in love in the UMC. We humbly acknowledge that we may be wrong in our assessment of these actions, and want this to be a beginning of conversation, not an end.
This article was written by Chad Bowen and Smith Lilley, pastors in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference. We can be reached on Twitter at @chad_bowen and @fel_jr respectively.