2012 General Conference
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Part 1: Forty Years is Long Enough
I’ve been thinking about the number 40. It appears on buttons that many people are wearing here at General Conference in Tampa. The buttons are given out by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, which was created at General Conference in 1972 – forty years ago. GCSROW celebrates that anniversary in a year when the General Conference may very well abolish it as a General Commission and fold its responsibilities into some other kind of structure.
1972 is also the year that the first legislation to put restrictive language about homosexuality into the Book of Discipline was passed. For 40 years, gay and lesbian United Methodist Christians and their families have been forced to remain silent, or to face judgmental attitudes. Many men and women called to ministry have been denied ordination, despite clear evidence that they are called and gifted for the work of ministry. The landscape of our denomination is littered with gifted pastors who cannot serve in local churches because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In spite of this second class status that GLBT persons have faced, such persons are everywhere here serving the church. They lead subcommittees to move legislation; they appear on the stage of the General Conference to deliver laity addresses. Gay and Lesbian, and increasingly, as the culture has changed, transgendered persons continue to remain in the denomination, serving faithfully and advocating for their place. The vitality that I find in the church I find in this community. These are people who know what it means to rely on God and each other for their very lives. Their faith inspires me, and calls me to accountability for my privilege.
The advocacy of the community has taken various forms across the years– demonstrations, witnesses, speeches, press conferences – all have been used to draw attention to the institutional bias that has labeled, excluded and discriminated against GLBT persons in the United Methodist Church.
It has been 40 years. Two generations. There is something biblical about the number 40. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and finally reached the Promised Land. Jesus stayed in the wilderness for 40 days, and the angels ministered to him. God led and guided and provided for the Israelites, and God has provided for the community that has come to be known as the “Reconciling” movement in the UMC. God continues to provide – but 40 years is long enough.
It is time for this community to be redeemed, included, welcomed, celebrated by the church which has been blessed by, and benefited from the contributions of GLBT people across the generations. People are weary of this wilderness. And now, this year especially, there is a new generation. Many, many young people have joined the movement this year, and they are not going to stay with us on this journey if the wilderness time does not end. Ultimately, this is not about the GLBT community. It is about the whole church. We are a broken community. We wonder why we are in decline. We wonder why we are so divided. We are broken so long as a part of the body remains excluded. We are without vitality, because the Spirit is moving us toward drawing the circle wide, and we are fearful of including those who are not like us. 40. Years. Is. Enough.
Part 2: I Want My Church Back (Early in the Second Week)
“I want my church back.” That is a sentiment you hear expressed time and time again among persons in the progressive coalition with which I have been spending time at the 2012 General Conference. There is a sense that the church that many of us remember, the church that formed our faith and our worldview has been lost. There was evidence of that today, when we debated on the floor of our General Conference whether or not to insert a statement into the preamble to the United Methodist Social Principles expressing that God’s love and grace are available to all people.
John Wesley’s doctrine of Prevenient grace, a foundational Methodist doctrine, holds exactly that. Even those who sin and “violate biblical principles” are not outside God’s grace. But only 53% of our delegates voted in favor of that doctrine. This is mostly because we are fighting about whether to allow a particular group of people to have full access to the life of the church, and we have had to name them as outside of God’s love and grace to defend our continued exclusion of them.
In one of our legislative committees we debated whether to retain, as our sources for theological reflection, the beloved Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, reason, tradition, experience. There are those who want us to rely on scripture alone as our source of reflection for how we understand God, humanity, and the relationship between the Divine and the world. There are those who want to move us toward a literal reading of scriptures, which jettisoning the other three parts of the quadrilateral would help accomplish.
I miss my church. I want the church that values intellectual rigor and that holds faith and works together and Christian action and right belief in tension. I want a church that cares about world peace, and the global community and isn’t invested in capitalism at the expense of the poor everywhere.
We have become so legalistic about reproductive rights that many of our ministries around the globe that help women manage their reproductive health, space their children appropriately for best health, and have safe births and healthy babies are at risk.
My church used to stand for justice. We had pastors and churches that fought for civil rights. We had pastors and leaders who fought for women. We had pastors and congregations that marched for peace, and witnessed against nuclear proliferation. We worked hard to include every geographic region and every people group in our leadership structure at every level of the church. Now any effort at justice is thwarted in the name of “vitality.” We want “vital congregations.” But we will never be vital as the Body of Christ if we sell our soul to the idol of “success” and call it “vitality.”
We are reorganizing and restructuring because “we are in trouble.” And the new structure will likely be based on “proportional” representation. That means that the more church members you have, the more people you get to place in leadership. That may seem “fair” by worldly standards, but it is not just. It will leave people out. It will diminish the voice of minority people groups and geographic regions. It will strengthen the voice of those who want the church to be more conservative; more interested in saving souls than in saving the world as partners with God.
It is much more complex than I can express here – but we are in a battle for the soul of our church. Our doctrine, our polity and our practices are being stripped of their unique Wesleyan power. There is much political maneuvering making this happen – shameless grabs for power and influence. I participate in it to resist it – but I hate it. I want my church back, and I fear that it is already lost.
Part 3: Reflections on General Conference (The Day After)
The reality of General Conference is that it moves quickly, and the days are full, and there is little time to communicate with the outside world in an ongoing way and still be present to the work that you are doing there.
A bit about my work. Though I have sought election as a delegate, my Annual Conference has not elected me. But the work that the delegates do is not the only work that gets done at GC. I met volunteers from West Ohio Annual Conference who were running television cameras, staffing the prayer room, working as pages in the plenary sessions, monitoring legislation and supporting delegates. I volunteered this year for the Common Witness Coalition. This was a group comprised of The Methodist Federation for Social Action, Affirmation United Methodists, The Reconciling Ministries Network, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, and the Native American Caucus of the UMC. What a marvelously diverse group we were! Our GC campaign was called the “Love Your Neighbor” campaign. The website link is www.gc12.org and there are some great videos posted there.
We worked from a giant tent, which we called The Tabernacle, that was pitched across the street from the Tampa Convention Center. The ugly chain link fence around it was adorned with colorful prayer flags (pictured on my profile). Each day, the Parents Reconciling Ministries network volunteers (UMC parents of GLBT persons) hosted us for breakfast and lunch. Each day at lunch we had a speaker who shared with us about justice work. Each morning we handed out a newspaper to delegates as they entered the convention center. Each night we met to plan the next day’s activities.
Many of our progressive bishops made their way to the Tabernacle to witness with us, to eat lunch with us and to be present with us as we did the work of witnessing for justice at GC. It was great to see them there!
The first week of Conference, we had teams building relationships with progressive delegates and monitoring legislation as it went through each of the legislative committees of the General Conference. The second week, we were involved with strategy as legislation moved to the plenary floor. We also were anxiously planning for the plenary discussions of the UMC restructure plan, the stance of our church on homosexuality, and our support for women’s reproductive choice.
The witness part of our work was hugely driven by the presence of many, many young adults. There was a flash mob – a fun way of expressing that the young progressive leaders of the church are here, in the church dancing and singing to “The Beat Goes On.” There was silent witness as people wearing our trademark “rainbow” stoles (gifts from the Reconciling Parents) stood in the hallway and around the bar of the conference floor in prayers. There was a “die-in” where same-gender couples laid down together, side by side, holding hands, around the convention center space- inside and outside. The most powerful witness came on the day of the homosexuality vote- and I will write about it separately.
It was an absolute joy to work with the members and leaders of the coalition. I met so many amazing people, and was impressed time and again by the organization, the quality of the leadership, the devotion to the work and the hours and hours that went into keeping our witness and our work moving at the pace of General Conference.
A few impressions before I end this note and begin others on specific topics:
1. Social media made this GC vastly different than 4 years ago. I joined Twitter because it was really the only way to follow what was going on in nearly real time. When the plenary sessions were going on, people all over the country were watching the live feed and tweeting- it was a powerful way to be in conversation as GC unfolded. Tweeting and texting helped connect people in a radically different way. You could be voting on the floor and talking to people a thousand miles away or a few feet away. ( I won’t be tweeting regularly except at events, etc., but if you want, you can follow me at @UMPastorDebS)
2. The quality of the young adults who are being called into ministry and leadership in our church is stellar. Many of these young people are GLBT or have friends that are. They are not going to be patient with a church that officially judges and excludes them, and I am worried that they will leave if our church doesn’t change.
3. The current leadership of the church is trying to restructure us for vitality, but they have used a wrongheaded process and failed us all with their poor leadership (more about that later).
4. Related to the above – even without restructuring, there is a shift in authority away from those in formal leadership and that is changing us, even if we don’t legislate the change.
5. The global nature of the UMC is truly emerging – and it is a messy emergence. How we will negotiate what it means to be a global church in a post-colonial work is going to be interesting and I pray we can do it in a way that preserves the best of our connectional structure without compromising our witness.
6. We remain deeply divided politically. The American conservative evangelical camp has done a very good job of aligning themselves with the delegates from the African Central Conferences and have the votes to defeat almost all progressive agenda at GC. Our cumbersome parliamentary procedure and rules saved us from several critical changes in the church that would have gutted our social principles, altered how we understand the quadrilateral and ended independent monitoring by COSROW and GCORR.
7. Many GC delegates have been going as delegates for decades and a few powerful people have a stranglehold on a large, organized conservative coalition. Moving from representative composition at GC to proportional representation dramatically altered our UM identity as conservatives gained the majority of the votes. We must elect younger delegates who are not invested in the status quo and the 3 Northern US Jurisdictions need to work together to do this.
8. Vitality can never be created by what we do at GC. At GC, we order our connectional life. Our true vitality resides in the lives of our congregations. And I will be happy to be back with mine tomorrow morning!
The Last Word: Taking Back the Church
I wrote while at General Conference about how I wanted my church back. It is hard to put into words how quickly things changed, and how, by the end of the time of General Conference, it felt as though the church I love had somehow survived an assault on its theology, its structure, and its social justice agenda. Sadly, the damaging language about homosexuality did not get removed from our Book of Discipline, but something did happen – something shifted radically in the life of the church.
It began with the vote on Thursday morning around 11 a.m. The “incompatible with Christian Teaching” language was affirmed. It was heartbreaking. Again. And we were ready. Unlike demonstrations at previous General Conferences, we had not asked permission. We had not negotiated terms. The Bishops did not know we were coming. Instead of standing in tears, we immediately walked boldly out of our seats and across the bar and onto the plenary floor while the General Conference was in session. Persons from the “Love Your Neighbor” campaign — GLBT persons and their many, many allies, occupied the communion table at the center of the room. While the presiding Bishop demanded order, bread was broken, the cup was lifted, and persons began circulating among us with bread and cup, offering Holy Communion. Singing began. “What does the Lord require of you… do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.”
The singing, hugging, crying, communing continued as the Bishop demanded order. After a few brief efforts, he recessed the conference for lunch. The occupation continued for three hours, and was still occurring when Conference was reconvened at 2 p.m. Persons sang until they lost their voice. While people came and went during the lunch recess, some stayed for the entire time. The floor was continuously occupied. People considered whether to risk arrest or not by remaining after Conference reconvened and defying the order to leave.
My life and my ministry changed on Thursday. It was a small moment – but as I reflect upon it, it has huge significance. As I walked out onto the floor, the Marshal, an older woman who had volunteered for the job of checking credentials as persons entered the plenary floor spoke to me. “You can’t go out there,” she said. “I know,” I said, and I just kept walking. Church was happening out there. With their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness, people who love God and the United Methodist Church were worshiping at The Lord’s Table. That dear woman, with her effort to remind me of where I could and could not be gave me the opportunity to choose between two things: Restrictive, unjust rules that bar people from full participation in the church or a fearless love that follows the Holy Spirit in crossing borders and boundaries to be where the Body of Christ is being broken and remembered.
I have not been one to break the rules much in my life, and in general, I respect the ministry of ordering the life of the church. But I chose on Thursday, May 3, 2012 to break a rule, cross a boundary and defy the authority of a Bishop and a Church. I have felt, since then, a marvelous sense of liberation. I have, in a very real sense, been set free by the gospel. I would like to apologize to the dear lady who articulated the rule to me. I am sorry I defied her. But I am not sorry that I kept on walking.
I left the floor for a bit, and when I went back before we reconvened at 2 p.m., I had my driver’s license and a credit card in my name tag pouch, in case I was taken from the floor with only what I was wearing on my person. I was prepared to be arrested. But at 2 p.m., when the Conference reconvened, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner (Germany), the new President of the Council of Bishops read a statement. We stood on the floor, listening to her speak words of apology for the hurt and pain that has been caused to LGBT people by the United Methodist Church. We were led in prayer by an openly gay pastor.
In no other year, at no other General Conference, had the pain and the brokenness of our church been acknowledged by a Bishop speaking from the platform of the General Conference. We were heard, acknowledged, apologized to. At the end of the prayer, we left the floor.
But we stayed at General Conference. We were there, standing in silent prayer Friday morning. We were there when the Holy Spirit that had blown into the room took over and gave a new kind of life back to the United Methodist Church at about 4:15 Friday evening. That is when it was announced that Plan UMC, the proposal to restructure the church, had been ruled “unconstitutional” by the Judicial Council, who characterized it in their decision as “unsalvageable.” The much talked about “Restructuring” was dead on the floor of General Conference. Holy Chaos!
In the ensuing parliamentary chaos, as the body worked to adopt structural changes that would enable us to live with the already adopted budget for the next 4 years, several key things that threatened the church did not reach the plenary floor and could not be acted upon. We therefore retain the membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an important Ecumenical organization that advocates for Women’s reproductive health world wide. We did not (at least as I currently understand it) act on language that would have altered our understanding of Wesley’s quadrilateral. No additional legislation involving the topic of human sexuality came to the floor, so no more harm could be done. The Book of Discipline essentially stays the same on that topic. Not where it needs to be–but no worse than before.
Divine creation loves holy chaos. There was a Spirit of freedom in the room, and when efforts were made to resurrect the failed “Plan UMC,” they did not succeed. The body went to work and working with already submitted legislation, ordered the life of the church, using, of all things, parliamentary procedure. It was not a complete restructure, but it keeps us going for 4 years and significantly downsized our Boards and Agencies. Many of our coalition group were in the room until late, when General Conference officially adjourned. We were there to witness the Body do the work of ordering the life of the church using, of all things, parliamentary procedure. Here are some observations:
• The body has taken authority and the reformation of our structure will be driven by vitality at the congregational level that is contextual and incarnational. Vital congregations cannot be legislated, or mandated, or created by statistical reporting. The Spirit has begun to empower the people.
• The attempt of a few people to write a plan for the whole denomination from their social location of power and privilege has been soundly refuted. We are a connectional church, and our connectional structure worked at a very critical moment in our life.
• A great deal of time and money was wasted over the past 4 years by people preparing a plan that placed too much power in the hands of too few people. There was an arrogance on behalf of those who prepared this plan, and their efforts to exclude the voices of the less powerful did not prevail.
• Those who support a church that fully affirms and includes GLBT persons will begin to live in disobedience to the formal authority of the church. 40 years is long enough to wait for permission to do the right thing. The pledge many of us made to uphold The Discipline while disagreeing with it will be refuted. It is time for organized, thoughtful, sacred disobedience.
• There are young leaders in this church who have a better idea for restructuring and reformation. They’re already planning to meet on Twitter, (a radically open forum) and you can expect some enabling legislation from them at the 2016 G. C. Closed door deals between powerful people will not shape the church of the future.
It is a good time to be a United Methodist. I do not think it will be an easy time. The backlash will be fierce. But I do believe that the Spirit of God, free and radical and creative, might have captured again the heart of the people called United Methodist. I pray that many will join in “occupying” the church with risk taking, bar crossing, rule breaking ministry that brings the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ to many, many new people.
What should have been heartbreak has ended up leaving me not hopeless and broken, but free and empowered. On Wednesday, I lamented that my church had died. On Friday, I witnessed resurrection. God has not forgotten the people called Methodists. Thank you, God, for giving me back a church that I can live in. But know this: I won’t be following all the rules anymore.