Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Methodists and Catholics: As Steeples Fall, What About the People?”

An hour-long teleconference with

M Barclay and Mary E. Hunt

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

1 PM – 2 PM ET

Diann L. Neu Introduction: Rev. M Barclay is a provisional deacon in The United Methodist Church, a leader in the Robert Wood Johnson Culture of Health Fellowship Program, and the Co-founder and Director of Enfleshed. Their primary work is oriented around curating resources, conversations, and worship materials that bring what matters back to the Gospel for justice, liberation, and delight with a priority focus on LGBTQIA people. At WATER we say M’s real claim to fame is that they were a WATER Intern in 2011! And look at you now! Thanks for making us proud.

Mary E. Hunt is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. A Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to social justice concerns. She has been at this work for over 35 years and has been very busy lately. She is beloved at WATER.

So, M and Mary, please share with us your thoughts about our topic today. “Methodists and Catholics: As Steeple Fall, What About the People?”

M Barclay: For those who aren’t familiar with the United Methodists most recent gathering, we met in St. Louis February 23 – 26, 2019. This was the first time the church has done a global gathering outside of the four-year scheduled meetings since the 1960s. The whole purpose of this Special Session of the General Conference was to basically decide whether or not the church is going to continue to discriminate by the policy against LGBTQIA people.

The movement for LGBTQ justice in the church has been building with great momentum over the last ten years. By 2016, the various forms of the movement had created a source of anxiety in the institution such that moderates and conservatives decided that they can’t keep doing what they are doing. They were seeing it as a barrier to their own work, which makes me feel very proud. That resulted in moderates saying that there is so much tension here that we want the bishops to make a decision about the future of the church.

That led to a three-year gathering of thirty people including bishops, lay people, and clergy though only three people were either gay or lesbian-identified which means that the entirety of the LGBTQ community was not represented. This group of people planned what would be considered at this special gathering in February.

Those who have been in the movement for a long time knew it would be an “about us queer people” but “without us queer people,” conversation. They did not take our stories, lived experiences, or faith seriously in the conversations about the future of the church. There has been such momentum within the country and a growing movement of resistance in the Methodist Church that I think it is challenging to not expect positive change. Certainly, we see a lot of problems with that in the election of 2016. I have been thinking about how we have to interrupt the given narrative that ‘time equal progress’. That leads so many of us to be complicit with systems that are gaining power.

In February, we gathered together as a denomination. The work of the commission (that body of thirty people) was considered as well as 72 other petitions. The only one that I was remotely able to imagine accepting with any integrity was the “simple plan” which would have removed discrimination against LGBTQ people from the policies of the church. It would not have brought anything positive, and would not necessarily change anybody’s behavior, but the policy would have been removed.

Of course, the bishops in the church had a heavy hand in the work of the commission and their effort is grounded in the desire to maintain the institution of the United Methodist Church. This clearly was to be the primary goal of February’s gathering, rather than considering the well-being of LGBTQ people in the church or to make an impact in any positive way on the world through ending discrimination. Instead, it was about how to keep this institutional body together while some people think that tightening restrictions against LGBTQ people is the most important thing and others want justice.

The solution which came from the bishops and was then turned into policy is called the “one church plan” which would basically contextualize (unfortunate use of the word) ministry. If you are in a region where you believe that the most faithful thing is to keep LGBTQ people from being ministers, then that was your contextual right. Long story short, the “one church plan” did not pass. What passed was the “traditional plan,” making restrictions in the church even tighter. The unstated goal of the plan is to purge LGBTQ people from the denomination as much as possible and to gain as much power as possible for the conservative takeover which has been in the works for a long time in this denomination. The outcome was painful and leaves a lot of questions about the future. This month we will hear from the judicial council, on which part of the “traditional plan” will be deemed constitutional. Anything that is deemed constitutional will take place in January of next year. We are all bracing ourselves to see what the impact of that will be.

Of course, we know that the Methodist Church which is a 13-million-member global denomination which reinforces hatred and spiritual violence will certainly have an impact on society in shaping culture and moral norms. My biggest concern is not the damage that will be done within the church, but the ways in which trans women of color, queer people at the border, and others who are facing layers of violence and discrimination will end up having a tougher time.

We are left with more questions than answers right now but there is a small group of us (as always) who are working really hard to make this moment a catalyst for those who are ready to really center on queer, trans, or voices of color. Whether that is in the church, in a liminal space (one foot in and one foot out), or building something new that is still rooted in Methodism but disaffiliating with the current state of it.

Mary E. Hunt: My tendency is to cast these things in theo-political terms, thinking about how it all happens, how history is unfolding, etc. but today I want to take a decidedly pastoral turn as I ask the questions we agreed on for these stage-setting remarks. I note that lives still unfold no matter what churches do—folks get sick, children die, people lose their jobs, young people face crises of meaning and purpose, all of the things that ministers pay attention to and religious communities unite around. Today I want to focus on the real-world consequences of church-propelled events, what happens to real people in real time and let that be the lens of analysis lest we get too abstract or ideological in the face of this difficult situation. So, let me say something about what has happened with Catholics and then comment on what I think people are feeling about that.

For Catholics, this has been a tough time. Clergy sexual abuse and its coverup by bishops continue to unfold:

  • Spotlight era—when abuse of children came to light. Click here for more information about Spotlight.
  • Now the abuse of vulnerable adults a la Theodore McCarrick with massive cover-up (the church had paid off two of his alleged victims in NJ before he got to DC).
  • Abuse of women, especially women religious in developing countries (India) just unfolding with Bishop of Kerala finally taken in for questioning of a nun he is alleged to have raped 4 times. This is not just a question of priests abusing young boys; this shows that abuse really is across the board.
  • Abuse is costing huge amounts of money. For example, one settlement was for two victims in NY for upwards of $20 million. A Pennsylvania Grand Jury report claimed that in Pennsylvania alone (minus Philadelphia) there were 1000+ victims and 300+ priest perpetrators. We still have 49 states to report. This is a very significant church shattering problem for Catholics both in its hideous activity and in the cover-up of it.
  • A recent summit in Rome took place with virtually no conclusions. They brought the wrong people together, in the wrong place, to ask the wrong questions. They brought the heads of the national Bishops conferences around the world to talk about what is going on. They explained to them something about the abuse but didn’t bring in any abuse survivors. Virtually nothing came out of this summit.
  • Meanwhile, George Pell, Cardinal in Sydney, Australia is in prison with an appeal pending; the Cardinal of Lyon France has been found guilty and his case is now on appeal. He tendered his resignation but Pope Francis will wait in both cases outcomes of the appeals before defrocking—meaning that AT WORST, these cardinals will become who we lay people are, to begin with, namely, laity.
  • All of this while women are marginalized from decision making/LGBTIQ people dissed, the Catholic brand is in tatters, and market share is in the basement. If your financial advisor suggested buying stock in it, I would hope you get a new financial advisor.

Looking locally in Washington, DC where the Vatican has named the first African American Archbishop (Wilton Gregory) it’s just one more example where people of color are called in to clean up after white people. Yet in a city like Washington, DC, it has taken generations to have an African American bishop. It is a difficult situation. While we welcome a person of color, I think it is a terrible indictment of the prevailing racism that a person of color has to clean up after white people.

How are people feeling? From reports and my anecdotal evidence taken together indicate that people are: deeply disillusioned, confused, angry, feeling deceived, not sure what to do next, even asking odd questions about whether sacraments they received from now defrocked priests are valid; not to mention the loss of trust, the feelings of being at sea when the only faith community may have known is now seen to be untrustworthy.

Drop in church attendance (usual measure): The latest statistics I have seen are from April 2018, so they don’t even represent the worst of this.

  • Fewer than four out of ten U.S. Catholics attended church in any given week
  • S. Catholic church attendance is down six percent over the last decade

What comes next?

I think that the primary issue is pastoral well-being. We are in a pastoral emergency for which Catholics need help from ministers of other traditions to deal day to day with baptisms, funerals, weddings, pastoral counseling which they no longer want/trust from their own ministers. I think that the future of Catholicism will reflect many resources and not simply those that are Catholic.

We need to bring a multiracial and multiethnic set of resources to bear. To be actively anti-racist means to leave aside hegemonic Euro-centric Catholicism that many of us grew up in. Adding Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, Santeria, etc. resources to the mix and yes, Virginia, it is still Catholic.

A third thing to do is to recognize the many and varied local expressions of the church already in existence. There is a wonderful piece which will be publishing shortly from Marianne Duddy-Burke who is executive director of Dignity on the church which people want is already in existence. This is existence presents itself if you look at Dignity chapters, the women-church groups, or at the way Catholics are worshipping with others. I spent Christmas with the Mennonites at Cindy Lapp’s church (Hyattsville Mennonite) and I think those are the kinds of things that will help us (those of us who are Catholic) to live in the meantime. And it is a “mean time,” there is no question about that. The same thing will be true with the question of education for children. They will be taught a very different kind of Catholicism.

Let me simply conclude these remarks about long-term consequences before we get into the discussion. First, at the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I think this is a terrific time to be religious. Despite the pain and evil of abuse (despite what the Methodists have done), it has made us confront the demons and be honest about how old, stale, and untenable Catholicism has become for most people. To join hands and develop some new ways of being religious is not something everybody can do. For those of us who do this as our life’s work, we can develop a far more mature and thoughtful common faith and I think that is what is emerging.

Secondly, I while it’s all well and good for the strong and hearty folks, the most important thing is to deal pastorally and strategically for those who are vulnerable due to age (young or old), ability, etc. It is completely unfair and even cavalier to say what I said at the outset, namely, that this is a great time to be religious. Hence, my concern is for the vulnerable who deserve better, who has the human right to be religious, even Catholic if they wish, with a high quality of ministry. That is why I do this work.

M Barclay: I am struck by the similarities. Of course, there is so much difference between the Catholic and Methodists subject matter-wise. I am struck by the way that power works so similarly even though these structures are formatted differently. Especially and most painfully, I am struck by the way that these folks meet together to talk about people whom they have done so much harm to but never have to come face to face with those people. As conversations are unfolding and as decisions are being made. I think in all places of the church for that to be conceived in any way of a launching pad for something positive going forward is such an incredible tragedy and evil.


Q: Mary you used the term ‘church-propelled events’ and M you talked about the possibility of a purge. I am struck by the drama around all of these events. The drama distracts from the work that Christianity demands. How do we take seriously the specific issues being raised up without losing sight of the bigger work?

MB: The first thing that comes to mind is the importance of those of us who have a particular relationship to the structures who are creating the drama. I think that rupturing the walls of that conversation that makes it seem strictly internal is important. In my context, all of this energy being focused on inward conversations about the quality and future of the church it is important to point to how this impacts those outside the church. That binary of the question is this an inside conversation with an inside impact, or, is this about the world at large? These can never be separated from each other and bringing that into the conversation to me matters. Doing this kind of work influences and interrupts those assertions and some power is taken away from any effort to avert the impact of the wider world. I keep imagining the churches internal conversation as a circle and our job is to break that circle so that there is not a perceived barrier of impact.

MH: I have a three-part response. 1. As a Catholic woman, I often feel distant from anything that goes on that is Catholic. Women at the most recent summit and meetings within the last year at the Vatican still have no vote. There are some women observers and there was a move to have women religious (nuns) be observers at a recent meeting because brothers who are of the same lay rank as nuns were able to be there and vote. There is a move to get women religious accepted as people who can vote in certain things. It is all very distant for me as a Catholic. 2. Being part of the Women-Church Convergence and the Women-Church Movement, we have always put the needs of the world and not the failings of the church as the priority as we set our agenda. We respond to the needs of the world. 3. How we try to be Catholic and what that looks like. I try to do that by saying that Catholic looks like a white, antiracist, lesbian, pro-reproductive justice person engaged in a struggle on a variety of fronts. That is going to have to be enough in a way because Catholics don’t have places to go vote and put pressure. That said, of course, writing, speaking, and all the things we do here at WATER help but I am trying to push hard on how we can keep being church while these things are going on. Otherwise, the people who want to get married, those who die, people who get sick, the children who need education get left aside and that to me is even a bigger problem.

Q: I would like to ask about a generational divide. I have noticed that women religious and feminist Catholic theologians are an aging population. It seems to me that feminist theology in the Catholic church is aging. I have noticed that the same movement among the United Methodist Church tends to be much younger.

MH: I think it is hard for Catholic women to prepare for ministry and finish their degrees and not be able to get a job because they aren’t men. That said, there are many ways that women can and do engage in the work of the church that is the work of faith communities focused on justice. I see lots of young people looking at these questions. They are not going to be Catholic in the way that their grandmothers were, but they are also going to find that their faith is going to be interdenominational and their communities are going to be interracial. That is very exciting. I think about the women who have left and I say, “God bless them” because they understand that there are things that they cannot tolerate in Catholicism and don’t want to spend their time in such a community. But I don’t consider them any less Catholic. I think lots of them are finding new ways to be religious.

MB: I think that it is interesting to hear you say that you are seeing younger people leading the work in the Methodist Church. When I think of our movement, I don’t think of it as being young people led; we are losing young people’s interest very quickly. The generational aspect of our movement may be most intriguing, deceiving, and painful. After the last twenty years of the targeting of LGBTQ people in the church with many people being fired, targeted, stories known and unknown that those who are older, many have either been removed from the church or have worked so hard and been treated so badly that they have been burnt out or have left for other denominations. People who are in seminary are trying to fight for themselves to have a future in the denomination and have some fresh energy to bring to the movement. It is the only way we have sustained resistance for the past 45 years– that cycle of people who have new insights, energy, and creative tools to join in the movement. The movement currently is pretty generationally vast and that is one of our strengths.

Q: What struck me most was the mention of liminal space by M. My comment is that liminal space can be really exhausting and it is not meant to be a permanent space. For people like me who are exhausted and don’t have access to the kinds of resources that might be sustaining, what are ways we can find the spiritual food that we need to continue on in this journey?

MB: I resonate so much with that struggle. I find something important in liminal space as permanent and not necessarily being a transition to something else. Making a home in liminal space is probably learned from queerness and being trans that these in-between spaces can be both always changing and permanent. That has helped me to create what I need with people who share some of those similarities together, turning towards resources of other traditions and reaching outside of what has traditionally been considered spiritual resources. Looking towards other traditions and looking towards other fields and bodies of work and find out what resonates and claim that.

MH: I think that you put your finger on the issue. The human right to be religious is what is violated by the things M and I are talking about. My heart breaks for the people who have no such access or any idea they have a right to it. To not just nurture ourselves but to know that if we feel remote from the kinds of sustainable communities that we need, imagine how most people feel. That is very sobering for me. What most people want from religion are a community, ministry, and meaning in that order.

It is why we at WATER try to do this sort of thing, not just for people who have access and privilege but to help others spiritually. I think that technology will be important, for example sharing materials online; it will be used a lot in the future. One of the critical issues of this work is to do the educational piece which helps people understand that religion comes in many packages. We are teaching people to know that what they feel and experience is their human right and that religion is a volunteer activity after all, that they can choose to be or not be religious.

WATER thanks M Barclay and Mary E. Hunt for this profound conversation.