Touching the Third Rail
[Author’s note: this article is about the specific denominational troubles inside the UMC – which is a fairly niche topic. I realize it may not be interesting to all]
“Touching the third rail” is an old expression I’ve used all my life – but I was talking to some folks recently and they had no idea what I meant by that. So I did some research, and apparently back in the early 1900’s when they first invented the electric train, there were two normal tracks that the wheels of the train ran on. There was also a third rail, and it was the rail that supplied electricity to the train. The third rail was exposed and supplied a high voltage of power – which was incredibly dangerous. If you touched the third rail – you would be horribly injured, or most likely killed.
The phrase is used most commonly in politics to talk about a topic nobody wants to address. For example: Social Security. No politician EVER wants to talk about social security. Talking about social security is like touching the third rail of the electric train. I think it’s because everyone acknowledges that there IS a problem – we can’t keep going the way we are going, but at the same time all the solutions are horrible. If a politician tries to propose a solution to social security (like raising the retirement age, or reducing benefits or ANYTHING) – their career is going to get a nasty shock and might just short circuit. Across all sides of the spectrum – touching the third rail hurts and everyone loses.
What I want to propose today is that the dialogue around LGBTQ inclusion is the third rail of the United Methodist Church. It’s an important conversation, but it hurts everyone involved. Most church’s that make this conversation the highlight of their church life experience a net loss. They bring up the policies, they dialogue -perhaps the conservatives “win” or perhaps the progressives take the day – but the reality is that everyone loses. If 100 churches vote on the policy of LGBTQ inclusion, and you tally up the churches after the dust has settled – no matter how many churches you find on each “side”, the number will be less than 100 churches. A few churches will close, or simply disaffiliate in order to walk away from the conversation. The simple truth here is that the process of HAVING the conversation is killing us.
Problem is, the United Methodist Church is not “touching” the third rail. They have grabbed on and refuse to let go – and it is frying our local churches! Please don’t misunderstand me – this conversation about policies concerning sexual ethics is VERY important. I want to call on ALL churches, from across the theological spectrum, to have these conversations and find ways to love LGBTQ individuals with the love of God known and shown through his son Jesus Christ. It’s okay for us to dialogue and even have disagreements. But when you make the ongoing disagreement the centerpiece of your church relationship – it is no wonder people are finding other places to grow closer to God. I had a member of my church, who holds a progressive view of LGBTQ inclusion, remark one time “It’s like this conversation is taking up all the air in the room. It’s the ONLY thing we ever talk about our denomination doing.” I dream of the days when General Conference was setting lofty goals, like eliminating Malaria, and then calling all the church’s to work together to make the world a better place. But instead it seems that practically every communication we receive is tied in some way to the divisions brought on by those who disagree with the policies of sexual ethics in the church. Even when the cause is a worthy one, a state of perpetual fighting simply cannot be sustained. We need to let go of the third rail and move the train on down the line.
I do not envy the denominational leadership of the United Methodist Church. They are stuck in an impossible situation, walking a VERY narrow tightrope. On the one hand, they must appeal to the progressive voices who are calling for full inclusion of LGBTQ sexual ethics with promises that change IS coming if they can just hang in there a little longer. Yet at the same time they have to find a way to placate the traditionalists with promises that nobody will be forced to perform marriages they disagree with. There’s an enormous amount of promotional material going around right now highlighting that the UMC is a place for ALL perspectives. If you’re a traditionalist – you will be welcome. If you’re a progressive – you will be welcome. The UMC has a big tent, and a very long table. It’s a wonderful metaphor that conjures up in the imagination a folksy, rural picture of a giant canopy tent out on the front lawn for a church potluck, bursting with tables and volunteers rushing to set up extra chairs because everyone is welcome and so everyone is there. It’s a beautiful picture, and I wish it was the truth.
The reality is that by promising a big tent with a long table – they are promising that the United Methodist Church will continue to grab onto the third rail. Basically what the leadership is proposing is more of what we have been doing for the last few years. They are guaranteeing that the constant fighting and disagreements will continue indefinitely. And with the trust clause still in full effect the metaphor is not a canopy tent for a church potluck, but rather the iron bars of a caged wrestling match – where we are trapped to continue fighting one another forever until the audience gets bored and changes the channel (and make no mistake, they ARE changing the channel). The appeal of a big tent SOUNDS wonderful, but the experiment of theological pluralism has failed. Decades of fighting amongst ourselves has left many of us baffled at even HOW to do church any other way.
Here’s my point with all this. The division we face is not between those who are against LGBTQ inclusion and those who are for it. It is between those who are ready to stop fighting and those who want to continue the argument. I have no interest in joining the “anti-gay” church. And by every metric and experience I have had – that is not what the Global Methodist Church is. The GMC is the church that wishes to let go of the third rail. We have had the conversation. We have had the dialogues and even had the votes. We would like to get back to the work of the church. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of one of the Global Methodist Church’s first initiatives – and you know what? It’s not about hating gay people or enforcing strict sexual ethics at all! It’s about planting new churches. My hope and my prayer for the United Methodist Church is that eventually they too can let go of the third rail. My fear is that by the time the progressives have the regionalization they desire or the book of discipline language they approve – there will be nothing left of their identity outside of fighting and arguing for their “side”. The world does not need the “anti gay” church or even a “pro-gay” church. The world need a church that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits the sick and tells everyone about God’s love as shown in Jesus Christ. Please friends, let’s let go of the third rail and get back to work.