Finishing the Journey: A United Methodist Church Tackles a Thorny Issue

A new online book tackling the thorny question of homosexuality and Christianity is literally a dream come true. Alicia Dean, Education Minister of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, was the one who had the dream.

“In September 99, Alicia came to me and said, `I had a dream. I saw a book and on the cover it said “Coming Out as Clergy” and it had our names on the cover. You want to do something about this dream?’ I said, `Yeah,'” Senior Pastor John Thornburg remembered.

What they did was brainstorm with a writer and editor of the Dallas Morning News, and returned to the church with a brand new idea … a short book in a question and answer format designed specifically for delegates the UMC General Conference.

“We reasoned that the radical middle of Methodism would more likely be defensive about a book filled with stories of personal pain which was Alicia’s original idea,” Rev. Thornburg told Whosoever. “The audience we are attempting to reach is that undecided, moderate core of Methodism, folks who know this is huge and are somewhere in the great `don’t ask, don’t tell’ world.”

“We knew that we wanted to make a witness of some impact at General Conference,” Rev. Thornburg continued. “We also knew there are some witnesses that make no impact. Letters delegates receive are often not carefully read. To be responsible to our calling as a reconciling congregation we needed to do something of substance.”

That something of substance is entitled Finishing the Journey: Questions and Answers From United Methodists of Conviction. A collection of 15 United Methodists, most of whom are ministers and theologians, wrote the book. Among the core questions they address:

  • Is homosexuality a sin?
  • What does the Bible say about homosexuality?
  • What does the Bible call us, as Christians, to do on this issue?
  • What effect does church doctrine have on the gay men and lesbians who belong to Methodist churches?
  • Why should the church allow ordination of gay men and lesbians?
  • Why should the church allow same-sex marriage?
  • How can the church heal on this issue?

One of those who contributed is Bishop Richard Wilkie, a retired bishop who served for 12 years in Arkansas and is now bishop-in-residence at Southwestern College, a United Methodist institution in Winfield, Kansas.

“Getting him to write was huge because he’s not known as flaming liberal,” Rev. Thornburg explained.

Bishop Wilkie writes powerfully in answering the question, “What does the Bible call us, as Christians, to do on this issue?”

When I see two men or two women kneeling together to take the holy communion, working diligently for human betterment, and caring for each other across the years, I must pause and believe there is room for them in the household of God. As Fanny Crosby says in her hymn, “There is room at the foot of the cross.”

That’s the bottom line the book tries to express. Not everyone has agreed with that view, however.

“We’ve had four books returned from people who said they are not willing to read it,” Rev. Thornburg said. “We wrote them all back and told them `You have exercised an act of conscience by returning this but it would be helpful to us as we continue this conversation to know why you did.’ All four of them wrote back! None of them have been vitriolic but it reminds us of what the typical sentiment is of those whose anxiety is high.”

Rev. Thornburg hopes those who do take time to read the book will come away with a better understanding of the issue facing the church and why homosexuals should be welcomed. His immediate vision, however, is more specific.

“I want someone to hold it up on the floor of General Conference and say `this helps me know how to talk because the tone of this invites me to think instead of telling me what to think.’ My great hope is that over the next year we’ll get orders from other churches that need study materials for responsible study of this issue.”

That will be Rev. Thornburg’s dream come true.