(January 6, 2013) In any given injustice or imbalance, one must always trace the power dynamic. Who has power? Who is being dis-empowered? Who is afraid of losing power? Who willingly relinquishes it? Jesus’ life is filled with the questions, and he calls us to think of true power very differently… (Matthew 2:1-12)
On July 23, DreamUMC hosted a Twitter Chat to reflect on the recent Jurisdictional Conferences of the United Methodist Church. In my opinion, this was one of our most exciting and fruitful conversations so far.
We began by asking people in Question 1 to name the highs and lows from their Jurisdictional gatherings, or from watching those gatherings from afar. Because I was moderating, I did not respond, but have written a separate blog post about what I saw as the highs and lows of the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference. Overall, I could summarize my hope for “more” in the words of one chat participant, who wrote, “I wanted to reflect that following jurisdictional conference via twitter and news outlets made it feel like a lot of regional navel gazing… I was hoping for jurisdictions to do something more missional rather than focus on the internal business of the UMC for itself.”
Despite this frustration with relative “stuck-ness” in the conferencing sessions, many participants celebrated moments of fun and joy in the midst of the conferences: singing, dancing and worship were lifted up, bishops elected and assigned, and several people rejoiced at prophetic legislation by the Western Jurisdiction (and a similarly-themed resolution in the Northeast Jurisdiction), calling for faithful ministry with persons who identify as GLBTQ, regardless of any prohibitions in the Book of Discipline.
Still, there were moments of pain and distrust, especially in the South Central Jurisdiction, where many grieved the situation surrounding the involuntary retirement of a sitting Bishop.
Some frustration revolved around a lack of diversity among nominees for both episcopal offices and for boards and agencies, and persons chosen/elected for those roles. One person reported that the Western Jurisdiction nominating report came back 80% white. Question 2 invited the twitter participants to engage the question: how did/does your Jurisdiction lift up gender/ethnic/age/sexuality/etc diversity (or have room to improve)? While many people celebrated the diversity of episcopal nominees across the country, and some historic elections, the deeper conversation pointed to a need for diversity beyond tokenism. One person tweeted, “diversity more than electing ‘firsts’. Must push ourselves to truly embrace diversity, not just check off a box.” Another reported that the Northeast Jurisdiction “filled retired bishop slots w/ same demographics of newly elected bishops (white female, white male, african american male).” Others raised observations about the wider church: “I am weary of diversity being an issue in elections of bishops. We should be looking at diversity in the LOCAL church,” and “diversity is also new people vs. folks who have served for years on boards, delegations. We should b more inclusive there 2.” One person reminded us that diversity and privilege can intersect but not necessarily cancel each other out: “White men can be the voice of diversity, too. It’s in their works and policies, not their skin color.” Preach.
For Question 3, we invited people to imagine the best ways to continue the conversation and where we might go from here, in the wake of the big-church gatherings. Many participants immediately spoke to the importance of focusing on the local level. “To the local churches and to the streets. Enough conferencing it’s time for action!” one person wrote. Authentic spirituality and deep faith at the local level are what matters, and from there, the movement builds from the grassroots up. Another participant pointed out, “we have to continue to raise concerns in church gatherings at the local level – starts with who we send to AC every year.”
Many, many voices spoke to the desire to continue the DreamUMC conversation, which we certainly intend, and to build upon it with local gatherings r networking/workshop type events. Using technology is essential to strengthen these efforts, including streaming events and gatherings, connecting across denominational lines, and building more comprehensive online interaction for people to engage beyond facebook and twitter.
Long range, participants hoped to keep up the good work. One wrote: “continue dreaming, include more people in the discussion, write legislation for #gc2016, mission.” Another person got others talking with the suggestion: “Continue by working to make #dreamumc an approved caucus for JC/episcopal endorsement purposes.” This generated conversation around what a DreamUMC caucus would look like and how to move beyond the perception of just being about one or two issues: “But we r so diverse that I worry this being labeled ‘what the younger people think’ #ifwewereacaucus.” A reply: “Feel u; 1 of my concerns all along re: #dreamumc Need for relevancy & structural change not just young thing #ifwewereacaucus” (my new favorite hashtag, by the way).
Finally, with Question 4, we focused on one way in which the conversation continues, forming work groups. Right now, we are still in the process of organizing people and the topics of interest they named, but the list of group is on facebook (which, I realize, doesn’t work for everyone– another aspect of what we are working on). We are looking into options for a website, google hangouts, and other technology fixes, while also hoping to have some face to face gatherings where those are possible.
I’ve been home from the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church for a little over a week and a half, and I’m still mentally unpacking (although I actually did unpack my suitcase after almost a week).
As I wrote earlier, I did have some hopes and dreams for NEJ.
From my perspective, the highs of the NEJ gathering centered on one event: the election as bishop of my colleague, Rev. Martin McLee. Martin– ah, Bishop McLee– is a passionate and compassionate preacher-prophet, and his voice as leader of the New York Annual Conference and as a member of the Council of Bishops will benefit the church as a whole. Martin’s words following his election were prayerful and inspiring, and in the following break, Methodist music rock star Mark Miller took over the piano and the conference enjoyed an impromptu hymn sing. At the service of consecration for Bishops McLee, Webb, and Steiner-Ball, I wept copious and happy tears.
The lows of the conference for me had a lot to do with the lack of fulfillment of those dreams I had named. I did not find the worship and bible study time to be spiritually nourishing, and left the room nearly every time we sang, because the hymns were so loaded with noninclusive language and poor theology. I was jarred by the bible studies, particularly the one the last morning, which featured a couple of images that were triggers for me (pregnancy/child loss and weapons, not things that put me in a very worshipful mood).
More importantly, I failed to see us use our time for holy conferencing. While we passed one piece of legislation affirming ministry with GLBTQ persons and allies in the northeast, we did not have any fruitful conversation on that or any other topic, in my opinion. I had hoped in that earlier blog post that the discernment around episcopal nominees would allow us to “spend huge amounts of time asking ourselves: what are the needs of the United Methodist Church in our region as we seek to live out God’s calling for us, and what sort of leaders and leadership can help us get there?” I didn’t see or hear that conversation anywhere. I know we had a lot to do, with 19 candidates to interview all in one day. But the conference is made up of less than 300 delegates (277 to be precise, a number burned in my brain by our 30+ ballots…). There should be time over meals or in and around legislative sessions to be intentional about gathering outside of our annual conferences, to connect with others in our region, and dialogue about what we might be looking for in episcopal leaders or people to serve on boards and agencies (without campaigning!), or to discuss the particulars of being United Methodists in ministry in the northeast. I’d love to see us use our time very intentionally, to create connection that can break down barriers and ease some of the distrust that many people lifted up coming out of the conferencing session.
I’m not sure how Jurisdictional Conference sessions are put together, but I am interested in creating greater space for conversation and connection in 2016. Thoughts?
Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.
I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further. A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.
So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.
Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?
One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.
Is the Table Open?
“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.
My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”
Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.
We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.
Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?
Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.
In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?
I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.
There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.
It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.
Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.
At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”
Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.
But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”
Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”
Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.
Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?
This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.
Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.
Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?
So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.
That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of God that is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.
Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?
And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.
Reflections on Romero
A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.
Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.
In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”, William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”
Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.
Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.
That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.
May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.
(May 13, 2012) Reflecting on the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, much of it seemed to me to be a lesson in how God works outside of our plans, expectations, and categories. In the face of a wily and wild Holy Spirit, who refuses to be contained by little things like place of origin or status as delegate, who is willing to withhold the grace of God from those upon whom the Spirit has been poured? (Acts 10:44-48)
powerfully present in spirit with me today were the people who had been with me in the moment, and/or who had helped me with some sermon crafting details. Most especially: Gregory (for lifting the cup), Leigh, Steve, JoAnn and Annie (for weeping with me– on camera), Jeremy S, Karen O and Laura Y (for information now as then), my NE delegation and UNY “step” delegation and volunteers (for being you), Kristen, Justin, and Chett (for laughter through tears), and Sean (for friendship that doesn’t fit inside parentheses).
I used a handful of photos on screen during the sermon, illustrating the chaos, brokenness, and tears of General Conference.
And that’s a choice.
I’m a Taurus (in fact– shameless plug for well wishes– my birthday is tomorrow). If you believe anything at all about astrology, that should tell you that I am stubborn. Perhaps my decision yet again to remain United Methodist in the wake of the past two weeks is simply a manifestation of my inner bullish nature.
I hope it’s more than that.
I wrote a while back about why I’ve remained United Methodist so far, and most of those reasons remain. However, of the four points I listed, two were challenged: our understanding of grace came up for a vote and passed by a measly 53%, and our use of interpretive lenses (the “quadrilateral”) was scheduled for a vote and never made it to the floor. A third point has been significantly diminished: by removing guaranteed appointment, the church eliminates a safeguard that has protected women and persons of color in ministry for years.
The theology I love about United Methodism remains, for now. Prevenient grace. Unconditional love. Personal and social holiness. The structure that allows for our ministry remains, for now. General Boards and Agencies that equip local churches. Democratic organization. Lifting many voices.
But what also remains, and can never fully be expunged, is the tremendous harm the UMC does to people at the margins, most especially in this time and place, to persons in the GLBTQ community. This isn’t a political conversation or an issue to debate. These are my friends, people as close to me as family. These are names and faces, arms that hold me when I weep broken-hearted onto their shoulders and laps when it’s really them who deserve to be weeping. Tears I have shared and dried when they let the safety walls down for a minute. Hands I have held, sweaty-palmed, while votes were cast. Laughter and hope I have shared in small miracles, or as a way to chase away the shadows of sorrow.
At some point, one wonders, when does my continued engagement in a body that can be so abusive signal my complicity with that abuse?
Some of you are bold enough to ask me that (and know that I can hear it and love you and trust in your love for me, still). Some of you haven’t asked but wonder, maybe, if I think it. I do.
So why am I still here?
Not theologically, but personally.
I could be UCC. I’ve got a lot of friends in that denomination, and I bet they’d help me get in. I’d even get some control over how often I move. I could join the voices calling for churches, or conferences, or jurisdictions to declare themselves independent. We could be the United Methodist Church of New England. Or the Northern Methodist Church.
But I’m still here.
I’m giving it one more try, in part because of the hope I named. There are two reasons:
1. Because I can. That’s not meant to be flip; I’m deadly serious. For many of my friends, remaining is not an option. When the abuse is lobbed at you personally, it comes to the point when it may be time to go. But since it’s not me, I can stay and fight for inclusion. And because I can, I kind of feel that I should.
2. I’m not leaving anyone behind if I can help it. If I get out, my church, my conference, my jurisdiction, where does that leave my congregants, my colleagues around the connection, my friends in the Southeast Jurisdiction? As one aforementioned tear-bedecked dear one reminded me, I’m staying around to be there for the GLBT babies straight Methodists keep having, to baptize them, teach them, serve them communion, and doggone it marry them.
If we can find a way to stay connected, to be the church I love, to find and articulate those thing that are essential, where we seek unity, maybe we can all give each other the freedom to live and serve as one diverse body. And that’s better for everybody, I hope.
So maybe this one last time, I’m giving my all for a church that practices the grace we say we believe in, and that orders itself with love and compassion around Wesley’s rule to do no harm and do all the good we can, and I hope we can someday live into his invitation: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
I received a comment on my last post (and have received several mentions on Twitter) decrying my efforts with my colleagues as overly political, pushing an agenda, and even Machiavellian or Orwellian. My commenter wrote: “The only totalitarianism is the ‘progressive’ caucus forcing their will on the rest of the church. Disgraceful.”
Let me be clear: this was indeed a wild, crazy, political, how-the-sausage-gets-made, messy jumble. But if you’re looking for the “some are more equal than others” agenda, you are barking up the wrong side of the barn, my friends.
Make no mistake: the progressives were not the only ones caucusing, strategizing, and trying to make sure their “agenda” made it to the floor. We were not the only ones who huddled at the 4:15 break or the dinner hour. We were not the only ones who had been working for ten days to try to mold the United Methodist Church into the vision to which we believe God has called it.
We may be the only ones willing to blog about it, however.
I will not accuse my colleagues from differing theological perspectives of nasty politics. I will say however, that they had meetings out on the floor and behind closed doors. They were organized. They had powerful people and blocks of voters on their sides. They were, for nine and a half days, unstoppable. Their agenda– an agenda of silencing dissent, whitewashing minority voices, consolidating oversight (which we have learned is patently unconstitutional) and solidifying power in conservative demographics– was very clear and very much in force.
Let me share with you my agenda, particularly in the final evening, but really throughout the General Conference. I can only speak for myself, but I believe it was and is shared by many:
1. Provide for the ministries of the United Methodist Church to function well for the next 4 years. This includes equipping the general boards and agencies or whatever their successor bodies are with the resources and people they need to continue to be a vital voice and resource for our church.
2. Protect the voices of women, persons of color, the GLBTQ community (such voice as it has), and any others pushed to the margins. This includes advocating for a strong and thriving GCORR and COSROW.
3. Propose legislation that does no harm or mitigates harm. Oppose and try to prevent legislation that does harm.
4. Maintain a space in the United Methodist Church for social justice and prophetic preaching.
5. Whenever and however possible, cultivate space for all voices in the conversations, so that people are engaged in the process and the shaping of the future of their church. This includes a commitment to transparency and the honesty with which I blog about our process.
6. Stay within the proposed, smaller quadrennial budget, so as not to harm local churches in their ability to do ministry. Because…
7. In all things, remember that what GC does and how the UMC is formed matters only in so far as it equips local churches for the vital, transformational, contextual ministry they do. We have to help and not hinder churches in reaching more and more diverse people, lifting up principled and equipped leaders, being in ministry across socioeconomic, political, ethnic, gender, etc divides, and reaching out in mission to meet the needs of our global family. Or, you know, make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the church and the world.
Friends, you heard my pain, frustration, brokenness and even some anger in my last post. The people I care about and the issues and petitions that mattered to us took terrible hits over the first nine and a half days of General Conference. Yes, we failed to change the UMC’s policy on homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching, but there was so much more. We’d voted on God’s grace. We’d chipped away at Methodism at its very heart.
The last day of General Conference 2012 found me very discouraged.
We had already approved Plan UMC, which was a hastily reworked version of the Call to Action IOT restructure plan and the Plan B restructure plan (but not the MFSA version of the plan), all of which sought to increase efficiency and reduce cost for the denomination by consolidating the boards and agencies. But it did so in a plan that was put together in way that was non representational and left voices disenfranchised, and it would keep on doing that.
In part, the plan that was passed was so nasty in my opinion because it consolidated representative power for the more conservative parts of our country and our globe—and they really weren’t needing any help! It also eliminated all of the Boards and Agencies of our church, including some of my favorite parts of the church—the General Board of Church and Society, the General Board of Global Ministries, the General Board of Discipleship, merging different actions of them into one board. It eliminated the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) and the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR), two independent bodies that monitor our denomination for fairness and inclusiveness, and separately work for the needs of the people they represent. This plan merged them into a less powerful Committee on Inclusiveness, making them report to the very groups they would be trying to monitor rather than serve as independent auditors and advocates.
We’d tried two Hail Mary passes to undo the damage of Plan UMC: I had asked to wait on a final vote until we heard back the financial implications—this was supposed to be something to save us money, but I doubted it made a difference—and we had asked for Judicial Council to decide if the Plan could be implemented with a simple majority, or if such elimination of aspects of the work of our church were in fact unconstitutional.
In the mean time, we tried to fix the elimination of COSROW and GCORR and move to restore the two commissions in a lively and ultimately fruitless debate that left several of my fellow delegates in tears of frustration and anger and grief. Women, persons of color, and particularly women of color (who better than anyone understand that the effects of racism and the effects of sexism are not the same) felt entirely silenced.
By that point the church, in my mind, was dead.
We were passing through budget legislation piece by piece, and I had actually begun to simply vote no on everything. It was the only voice I had left. I was in a spirit of negativity, and I felt like nothing we decided mattered. My full intention was to go home and figure out how to get myself and my family out of the United Methodist Church as soon as possible. If I could take my church, my Annual Conference, or my entire Jurisdiction with me, so much the better. If not, it didn’t matter. This was no longer my church.
We’d voted that God’s love was extended to all by a 3% margin. We’d stepped away from our historic commitments to social justice. We’d eliminated guaranteed appointment without allowing debate. We’d silenced and marginalized the voices of women, people of color, GLBTQ persons and their allies, young people, clergy who differ theologically from the majority view in their conferences, clergy nearing retirement age, and pretty much anyone I could think of who wasn’t a middle to older age Caucasian male moderate or conservative. We had a vote coming up to alter our “quadrilateral,” radically changing the way we view the bible and all but eliminating the important dialog we hold with our tradition, reason, and experience when we interpret and apply scripture. Remember when I blogged about the reasons I wanted to remain Methodist? We’d chipped away at all of them.
We had a little victory that a lot of people didn’t recognize: the body voted to change the statement that the church was in ministry to help people in their marriages and families to say that we are in ministry with all people who are single, and in families in their various configurations. This had largely to do with how Rev. Brad Laurvick, who is now one of my favorite people on the planet, and someone with whom I am so blessed to be in ministry, framed the conversation, highlighting the importance of single persons, and family units comprised of grandparents, adoptive parents, and so on, never once mentioning family configurations that feature gay or lesbian couples. It was as if we had to trick people into being loving and grace-filled. When Brad got off the stage, I planted the world’s happiest kiss on his cheek.
Other than that, it was time to submit to the fact that the worst had happened and would continue to happen for the rest of the night. It was over. We’d been outnumbered and outgunned. We were going to lose everything. And I could hardly muster the energy to care.
At about 4:15, the Judicial Council ruling on Plan UMC came down, and in many ways, the history of the United Methodist Church changed forever. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. At least, it’s definitely what it felt like at the time. Hmm. Nope. Still feels that way.
The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled that Plan UMC was unconstitutional on at least four grounds, having to do with the distribution of power and oversight. The scathing ruling, which you can read here, stated that the Plan (and by extension the others from which it was drawn) was irreconcilably flawed and could not be salvaged into something constitutional. It was therefore struck down.
The room burst into murmurs, and a request for a recess was called. Groups hurried to huddle and try to get their heads around what this might mean. A large group of progressive delegates from various committees, but all of whom had worked tirelessly against Plan UMC, descended upon the communion table in the center of the room, where many of us had demonstrated a little over 24 hours earlier. What now? How would boards and agencies, suddenly reinstated, function? How many pieces of previously passed legislation were now in conflict? What were the most important pieces to pass now to restore some order?
The Holy Spirit had arrived in all Her glorious wily beauty.
But we all know how the Holy Spirit sees the opening of Chaos.
(to be continued)
Earlier this week I tweeted: just because it’s expected doesn’t make it hurt any less.
We– whoever “we” are– did not expect to win any ground on the church’s position about homosexuality this quadrennium. But I’m a believer in the resurrection promise. That sometimes means that I every so often and ever so naively hold on to hope.
I was hopeful because Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter had come to the place where they could not only support but speak for, advocate for, even write, legislation that simply said our church could not agree about sexuality. I was hopeful because I had heard delegates from Africa say that, while they could never vote for full inclusivity for persons who are GLBTQ, they did not want to stand in the way of us doing ministry with all people in the United States.
Like I said. I can be overly optimistic sometimes.
It didn’t happen that way.
And when it didn’t happen that way, when the body rejected first Adam’s petition (by about 53/47%) and then an amendment to the Global Young People’s petition (53/47), and then debated with hateful words, equating loving and faithful same gender relationships with illness, perversion, and bestiality with only mild rebuke from the chair, and then defeated all changes by over 60/40%, when that happened, we did the only thing we could do.
We set the communion table in the center of the room. We welcomed the visitors and supporters from outside the voting bar and delegates from the floor. We blessed bread and cup. I was the elder closest to the bread, and I lifted it in the air, breaking it as we are broken. I looked across the table and through my tears I saw my new friend and fellow laborer for justice, Gregory Gross, holding the cup.
We sent servers with (gluten free) wafers and cups of juice to serve those around the room. Some bystanders received communion with from those with whom they disagree, and some refused. I served those around me, offering them the Body of Christ as we all wept.
We stayed at the table when the session attempted to reconvene. Unable to get the delegates back to their seats and the visitors off the floor– indeed unable to even to get people to stop singing, the Bishop had no choice but to call for an early lunch.
We were told that the police were called. They never came.
For the next three hours we sat, stood, prayed, sang (okay, I didn’t), and waited. I stayed on the floor, without any intent of getting arrested, but with the full intent of protecting my friends as a human shield if need be, and with the intent that if one or two particular friends were arrested, they would not be going anywhere without me. We also had conversation with the bishops and it was decided that no further votes on human sexuality would be taken that day, in an effort to do no harm. Hey! Protest making legislative change! Awesome.
An agreement reached to shuffle human sexuality legislation to the end of the calendar and hopefully therefore do no further harm, the protestors took our seats on and off the floor, and legislation resumed. The topic was pension; an important topic, but I couldn’t focus. I called in a reserve and left the floor intending to return, but ended up seeking food and drink and long, healing conversation with a friend, and going to sleep.
I’m actually in an okay place about the vote on this legislation. We didn’t really expect improvement on the church’s policy here. I felt good that the response in protest was an act of love and faith rather than anger coming from the deep pain we all felt.
What is so discouraging to me is that this vote was only a symptom of the entire General Conference’s pattern, moving away from the Wesleyan principles of prevenient grace, social holiness, and commitment to hearing and honoring the voices on the margin. We are becoming more totalitarian, more Calvinist in our theology, and more exclusive of voices and people who disagree from the majority– a majority that has been using its power to assure that they will have a super-majority in four years.
That will be the subject of many a blog post to come.
Today, we wrap up business, and then Saturday I will return home to my family and to rest. Monday morning, we live into a new quadrennium, and begin building a new church.
We have built strong coalitions and allies here, people who can come together across the continent and the world, across theological and sociopolitical divides, united in our love of Christ and the Wesleyan heritage of the UMC. I told you I’m naive, but I have hope once more.
When Bishop Weaver gave his episcopal address a few days ago, he concluded by inviting us to share in the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, which contains the phrase “let me be full; let me be empty…”
The past two days have been both full and empty.You’ll note that I don’t distinguish between the two days or what we did which day; I honestly can’t tell them apart.
The daytime hours have been filled with subcommittee and committee work (in rooms empty of even cell signal…). From the very beginning, it was clear that my subcommittee, dealing with issues of reproductive rights, was going to be a very conservatively-tipped body. Most of the votes, when we came to voting, split 14 to 9 in favor of conservative positions. However, we worked an entire day in a very collaborative way, rewriting the Book of Discipline‘s paragraph on abortion. At the end of the day, we had crafted something of which I am proud– and it needed only two changes to keep it from being a decided step back for women’s rights. Both amendments were made in the full committee, and in my opinion the petition we are supporting is an improvement to the current language in the BOD. I was filled with a sense of achievement for what we did together.
But on the issues related to GLBT inclusion and rights, we took major losses. Despite passing the most progressive legislation through sub-committee, the main committee of Church and Society B voted down any and all changes to the denomination’s stance that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. We will bring the fight to the plenary floor as well, so it’s not officially over yet, but at the lunch break after the vote, I sobbed uncontrollably in the arms of Will Green, as he sobbed in mine, and then I did the whole thing again with Annie Britton. My dear, dear friends and colleagues in ministry, two of the most clearly gifted pastors I have ever encountered.
Someone put food in front of me and I ate it, but I have no memory of what it was. In fact, I’ve eaten so little and walked so much this week that I have dropped 3 pounds. My body feels empty.
At one point in my committee work, I was so filled with rage I could barely speak; (presumably) straight white male delegates called for a vote by standing– as opposed to paper ballots or raised hands, “to expedite our voting.” This request was raised for the first time when we read the first piece of legislation that contained the word “transgender.” One old white man said “I vote my conscience and it doesn’t matter who is watching; it’s a matter of integrity.” Easy for you to say since the system is built to serve and protect you, (insert colorful descriptor here). The chair overruled the request eventually, and after the paper ballot was taken and the legislation protecting transgendered persons from violence was passed, I called for a moment of person privilege and laid the smack down from the mic. I said that the transgender community has suffered more harassment, humiliation, and violence at the hands of the church and the wider community than any other, and that calling for a standing vote on so vulnerable an issue was not about expediency, but bullying and intimidation of the highest order. I ended by saying that a vote won by intimidating others into silence would not be progress toward any end but an evil one.
Finally, as I could have predicted, the full committee voted to withdraw the united Methodist Church from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (which, when you think about it, is ironic, since withdrawal is no guarantee…). What was most frustrating about this vote is that a conservative delegate presented “research” she had done off the internet, and it was
factually inaccurate complete and utter lies. She said the RCRC opposed any restrictions on late term abortion (they, like the UMC, support them only if the mother’s life is in danger), had made no changes in the policy and focus of being solely pro-abortion (they have, after much conversation with the UMC, shifted focus to maternal and fetal health, contraception, education, and advocacy for access to safe, legal abortions when they are needed), and that they support the work of pagan witch doctors (yeah, I dunno). But when we tried to bring a person who actually worked with the RCRC to speak, they would not let the “witness” if you will give testimony. Lies and dirty tricks, and women around the world– particularly those without health care and family support– will pay the price.
That was the last action of the day, and after all of that, my overwhelming feeling was emptiness. Shock. Numbness. Emptiness.
I left it all on the field, every ounce of energy, creativity, hope, and connection. We will live to resurrect some legislation for another day, and make our case on the plenary floor for full inclusion and the protection of women’s rights. But in that moment, there was nothing.
Later, again out with friends, I was filled with laughter, and the smallest glimmer of hope.
Today, we stand in recess for the Sabbath. Church continues, sermons are preached, justice marches onward, if not always in places we can see.