How I Changed my Mind
If I were to give a one sentence answer to the question it
would be: "I changed my mind when I changed my heart." But since I'm
expected to speak longer than this, let me spell out what I mean by
that and how it happened.
It's February 1983, a little over 20 years ago. I am meeting
in an airport in Albuquerque with two other United Methodist bishops
and an executive of the Division of Ordained Ministry out of
Nashville. We are doing preliminary work on legislation for the
1984 General Conference our subject matter was ordained ministry. We
worked on many aspects of the subject. But a particular concern being
raised was: "How do we screen out homosexual persons from becoming
ordained ministers?" I proposed a seven-word addition to the list
of things to which candidates for ministry must commit: "Fidelity in
marriage and celibacy in singleness."
The phrase had the advantage of not singling out homosexual
persons, but being generic applying to all candidates regardless of
sexual orientation. It was accepted by all. That little phrase made
its way and was acted upon by the Division of Ordained Ministry, the
BHEM, a General Conference legislative committee, the General
Conference, and was then printed in The Book of Discipline where it
remains to this day. This is by way of confession.
Now why did we do that? You would think that on as important
a matter as that we might look to Wesley's guidelines of discernment:
that is, scripture, tradition, experience and reason. But I'm here
to tell you that we did not look at the scriptures; we never
mentioned tradition; we did not refer to experience, and reason. It
was almost absent from our discussion. Instead of those four classic
words guiding our conversation, we were unconsciously guided by two
other words: institutional protection. In other words, this issue was
raising controversy and problems within our connection the placid sea
of United Methodism was being roiled so we would cut it off at the
Which leads us to a deeper question . . . what was there in
the minds of all of us to be fearful and act as we did? Because I
cannot enter the minds of other people and determine why they acted
as they did, I can only examine myself and so this gets more
personal. I cannot remember being aware that there was any such
thing as homosexuality until I was in junior high school. Even then,
this came in derogatory comments made by one boy about another boy.
I never heard a sermon that mentioned it or was in a class where it
was discussed. In the service in WWII, living in a barracks, any
references took the form of derogatory jokes or stories.
Coming back from the war I entered law school, and discovered
that in the laws of the state of Washington the title heading of the
law against homosexual practice was: "The Crime Against Nature." The
taboo was so powerful they didn't want the forbidden words even in
the law's title.
But I was well into my adult life before I came face to face
with an acknowledged homosexual person. I was about 28 years old I
was serving a small church prior to going to seminary, and also
served as part-time chaplain at the Washington State Reformatory
nearby. Two 19 year-old inmates who had just been sentenced there
came to "see the chaplain." They were there for some kind of
burglary offense. They proceeded to tell me they were gay and went
into a long and rather convoluted defense of that, going back to
David and Jonathan in the Old Testament. Needless to say, they didn't
impress me very much, and probably confirmed vague doubts and fears I
already had about such persons.
In the next 20 years I was serving as a pastor and a DS, and
though I had persons in congregations who sort of "seemed" to be
homosexual, I was not directly confronted with homosexuality in
counseling or other pastoral situations.
After I was elected bishop (this was in 1972, the first year
the word "homosexuality" appeared in The Book of Discipline), I had
responsibility in a few personnel situations. The first was in the
Portland Area in the 70's when a gay clergyman came out of the
closet, and I had to deal with it. After I was appointed to Los
Angeles in 1980, Pacific Homes rather consumed my first two years.
But I dealt with another gay clergy and his appointment we sort of
sparred around for awhile, then came to a kind of truce in which I
agreed to appoint him to a non-church-related special appointment.
Implicit in this was the understanding that if he were to seek a
pastoral appointment, I would not have agreed.
In addition to these two clergy situations, I ministered at
the bedside of two men dying of AIDS. One was a layman from this
Conference--the other a clergy member of another annual conference
who was living in the Los Angeles area. But when I was officially
retired from active episcopacy on September 1, 1992, my basic
institutional mindset was unchanged.
What is it that makes this mindset so powerful that it can
last most of a lifetime? Two things: First, at the gut level of the
perhaps 90% of the population who are of heterosexual orientation,
just the idea of homosexuality produces an almost instinctive
negative reaction, coming from who-knows-what subliminal sources. Add
to this the pervasive cultural taboo against homosexuality all around
us and the way this taboo is built into our institutions. The result
in individuals is often an inchoate, unarticulated, yet quite
powerful sense that there is something wrong about homosexuality and
those of that orientation.
The second reason this mindset stays on is that to think of
changing it is to invite conflict and even turmoil. Neither
individuals nor institutions like conflict or turmoil. To put it
another way, both individual inertia and institutional inertia are
powerful forces to retain the status quo. I am personally convinced
that it is this which motivates the votes of a majority of the
So is it a hopeless case?
Is there nothing which can change the minds of individuals
Thank God there is. After I retired, we were enjoying life
on Whidbey Island. We were in the Coupeville UMC, a marvelous
congregation which right now is celebrating 150 years of service.
Among the pillars of that church for several generations was a farm
family. The matriarch of this clan was a great lady, Dorothy.
Dorothy had borne a number of sons, some of whom ran the farms in
Coupeville, but one son, Jim, was a gay man.
Jim lived in Seattle, but would visit his mother regularly and
always come to church with her. Dorothy loved her son Jim, and was
profoundly hurt that her church, of which she had been a lifelong
member, in effect, rejected him. And I will never forget a moment at
a coffee hour shortly after I had returned from the 1996 General
Conference, when Dorothy asked me, "Did the General Conference take
any action to change its position on homosexuality?" I can recall
how uncomfortable I felt as I looked into this beautiful United
Methodist woman's hopeful face and had to reply: "No, Dorothy, they
didn't." The look of infinite sadness on her face was almost more
than I could bear.
In 1998 we moved to Wesley Homes and renewed friendships with
old friends who were clergy and spouses of the Pacific Northwest
Conference. And while I had been aware that some of them had
children who were gay or lesbian, our closer association now evoked
from them stories of the pain, the anguish, and the struggle of these
families. Most of their gay and lesbian children were now estranged
from the UMC, having said to their parents more in sorrow than in
anger, "I guess we're not good enough to be in the UMC."
Perhaps the culminating experience leading me to change my mind took
place in March of 1999 when I presided over the trial of Rev. Gregory
Dell, pastor of the Broadway UMC in Chicago.
Greg Dell was a 25-year veteran of pastoral ministry in the
Northern Illinois Conference, having served faithfully and well in a
number of appointments. A few years before the trial, he had been
appointed pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church, a church in
which an estimated 30-40% of the congregation was of homosexual
orientation, reflecting a community of similar orientation. In the
summer of 1998, two of his active laymen who were partners came to
Dell and asked if he would conduct a service of "holy union" for
them. After some thorough discussion and counseling, Dell agreed and
the service took place in September of 1998 at the Broadway Church.
As result, Dell was charged with "disobedience to the order
and discipline of the UMC." At the trial, Dell freely acknowledged
that he had conducted the service, but felt he was simply carrying
out his vows of ordination to minister to the people he was sent to
serve. He felt he was being obedient, not disobedient. The two-day
trial was full of testimony, including that of the two men in the
holy union service, of the pastoral faithfulness of Gregory Dell.
But the 13 elders of the Trial Court, not surprisingly, found him
guilty and suspended him from the exercise of ministerial functions
for one year.
The trial had a profound impact on me. It showed how we
could send a faithful pastor (Greg Dell didn't choose to go to
Broadway, he was sent there) to a community with orders to minister
to the people and when he did just that, we would punish him and
suspend him from the ministry he loved. It revealed the destructive
nature of the anti-homosexual bias reflected in the actions of the
So, it was with memories of the trial still fresh, and with
keen awareness of the deep pain of friends whose gay and lesbian
children felt rejected by their church, that I was asked in January
of 2000 to preach in the pastor's absence on February 20th. I
agreed, but literally had no idea of what I might preach about. So I
turned to the lectionary for that day, and read over the passages.
Suddenly, it jumped out at me: Isaiah 43:19: "Behold, I am about to
do a new thing!" And it occurred to me: surely if God can do a new
thing, so can I! So I sat down and wrote a sermon on that text which
I preached on February 20th. In the sermon, subtitled "The UMC and
Homosexuality," I stated flatly that I was wrong, and called on the
Church to prayerfully seek a new inclusiveness. I was 76 years old.
What conclusions can I draw from this journey through which I
have come? We UM's like to use Wesley's "quadrilateral." That is,
testing truth by scripture, tradition, experience and reason. This is
a very helpful thing. But what I have come to believe is that
experience trumps all the rest in questions like this.
For I don't come to the scriptures with a "tabula rasa" (a
blank slate). I come with some kind of experience either positive or
negative, which colors my reading of scripture and is likely to
predetermine the outcome. My experience causes me to look for an
interpretation of the scriptures which satisfies and confirms how I
feel as a result of my experience. And the same is true of tradition
and reason I can find traditional and rational grounds to back up
whatever conclusion I have arrived at based on my experience. To put
it another way, no one who has a gut feeling that homosexuality is
wrong is likely to be convinced otherwise by scripture, tradition,
reason or any combination thereof.
A classic example is this. John Wesley was a brilliant young
clergyman; he knew the scripture, he was familiar with the church
fathers in terms of tradition, and he could write ten point logical
sermons with the best of them. But he was miserable. He tried going
off to the colony of Georgia as a missionary to the Indians but, he
suffered a string of outright failures: the Indians weren't
interested; he fell in love with Sophie Hopkey, but was rebuffed by
her, and in a classic example of inexcusable behavior, he refused to
serve her the sacraments. Sophie's intended got out a warrant for
John's arrest, and John fled to the coast in ignominy and disgrace.
On a ship back to England, this beaten-down and demoralized clergyman
wrote in his journal, "I went to America to convert the Indians; but
O! Who shall convert me?"
It was out of the background of all these powerful and
traumatic experiences in his own life, that a few months after
returning to England he went to a little meeting in Aldersgate
Street, and there, as he wrote that night in his Journal for May
24th, "About a quarter before nine, [while listening to the leader
reading from Martin Luther's preface to the Book of Romans]. . . I
felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, in
Christ alone for salvation [and that he had] saved me from the law of
sin and death."
What changed John Wesley from a thoroughly defeated clergyman
into a man who would in some measure change the world?
I'm convinced that it was not further reading of scripture,
nor of the church fathers, nor through the power of reason. Rather,
it was his own life experience, particularly the disastrous two years
in America, that came together that night to transform and empower
So what are we to do if we are to change the mind of the UMC
to make it more inclusive to all of God's children? We change its
heart. We help all of our people to experience the hurt, the pain,
the trauma, the rejection which our present policy inflicts on good
and faithful Christians. Oh, we don't neglect dealing with scripture
and tradition and reason, because all of these can be enlisted in the
struggle for inclusiveness. But we understand on an issue such as
this that changing the heart is a prerequisite to changing the mind.
At least, that's how it was for me.
This document is available in Word format on the Reconciling
Ministries' Web site.
Bishop Tuell delivered this speech May 18, 2003 on the occasion of Clarement
United Methodist Church's celebration of its 10th anniversary of becoming a Reconciling
Congregation. He has given permission for his address to be shared
with any audience who may benefit from his journey from exclusive
understanding to inclusive.
Copyright © 2004 by the author
All Rights Reserved
Back to the Table of Contents