An Invitation from the New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church

Here is the full text of the motion I made, as amended and adopted by the 2014 session of the New England Annual Conference:

An Invitation

The New England Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church strives to be an inclusive conference that celebrates, develops, and affirms God-given gifts for lay and ordained ministry. We commend our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry in their work of discerning wisely, fairly, and prayerfully the readiness and effectiveness of those seeking to be accepted as candidates, commissioned as provisional members, and ordained as deacon or elder.

Whereas, we oppose all forms of personal bias and discrimination, including institutionalized discrimination written into our Book of Discipline, as criteria in evaluating potential clergy members, even as we confess our complicity in systems of exclusion;

Therefore, be it resolved, that the New England Annual Conference affirms the following statement:

We believe God calls all persons to lay, and sometimes LLP, Associate Member and ordained ministry. We grieve instances of systemic discrimination, prejudice, and unjust practices that cloud the discernment of this call within The United Methodist Church. The New England Annual Conference extends our invitation to people who wish to explore if their call to ministry might be affirmed and/or lived out in the New England Annual Conference.

While we do not promise to accept such persons into candidacy or membership, we do promise to discern in the Spirit with justice, fairness, and consistent standards to the best of our ability, and we entrust our District Committees on Ordained Ministry and Board of Ordained Ministry to act accordingly.

Be it further resolved, that the New England Annual Conference encourages its churches, Board of Ordained Ministry, and/or District Committees on Ordained Ministry, upon request from a candidate/potential member, or an individual inquiring on their behalf, to extend a written invitation to individual ordination candidates or potential members, inviting them to apply for membership in the New England Annual Conference, in accordance with Disciplinary and Annual Conference requirements.

In the 18+ hours since this motion was adopted, I have already been moved and amazed by the statements of relief, thanksgiving, and joy from those who have been marginalized and harmed by The United Methodist Church. I’m thankful to have been part of this action of the Conference, and hope and pray that this might be the beginning of a new chapter for New England, for those living at the margins, and for The United Methodist Church. Justice and joy, friends!  – Becca

 

What’s Next?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOne of my favorite parts of the tv show “The West Wing” that seems realistic to me is the refrain “what’s next?” Used to change the subject, to close a conversation, to carry on with work, to recommit to tasks at hand, these two words return again and again in the script as the characters move from one seemingly completed hurdle to the next one already bearing down on them.

That’s my question today: what’s next?

Much of the progressive and moderate United Methodist Church world rejoiced today as the New York Annual Conference took a bold step. Before them: the matter of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree, the scholar, theologian, elder, and father who officiated at the wedding of his son and son-in-law. In this case, however, although the matter was referred to trial, it was sent back to the counsels for the church and for Ogletree (Revs. Tim Riss and Scott Campbell, respectively), for a just resolution. That resolution was announced this morning.

In summary, as part of the resolution, Rev. Dr. Ogletree has relinquished his right to a trial by his peers, and New York Annual Conference Bishop McLee has made a statement calling for the cessation of trials. Bishop McLee will convene a forum on human sexuality, and Rev. Dr. Ogletree will attend, his health permitting. From the resolution, and as I blogged at NewWineskins (a project I’m working on with many others in the New England Conference of The UMC– you should check it out!), they said:

“As the Bishop of the New York Annual Conference, in consideration of my responsibility to provide spiritual, pastoral and temporal oversight for those committed to my care, I call for and commit to a cessation of church trials for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-gender wedding ceremonies and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation.” -Bishop McLee

“In recognition of Bishop Martin McLee’s publicly stated intention to approach the matter of marriage equality in a non-juridical manner, but instead to offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical reflection, I hereby relinquish my right to a trial on the charge that has been brought against me for officiating at a same gender wedding ceremony. I further agree to make myself available, health permitting, to participate in the above-mentioned Forum that Bishop McLee will convene.” -Rev. Dr. Ogletree

And there was much rejoicing.

Or was there?

As with any compromise, everyone gets a little of what they don’t want. For traditionalists, the lack of trial seems like a weak slap on the wrist or lack thereof; there will be no punitive consequences for Rev. Dr. Ogletree, and he is asked to share his opinion and expertise. For progressives, queer United Methodists and allies, and those hoping to see the church’s language overturned, this stops short of such action and returns us to the rhetoric of conversation, which has been the painful status quo for the past 40 years in the church.

And so it is a mixed bag today. A huge step forward. Charges dismissed. Relationship valued over legalism. An active Bishop joining the ranks of those calling to stop the trials. That Bishop now bound by this agreement to find just resolutions moving forward.

But. Sometimes trials push an issue that needs to be addressed. Many feel the time for talking is long gone. And the discriminatory language of the Book of Discipline remains, and with it the prohibition not only against ministry to LGBTQ persons, but the ministry of those persons. There is so much work to be done.

Until the love and ministry of all persons is recognized on an equal basis, until the Discipline does not call people sacred in one breath and incompatible in another, perhaps even until no more bodies of lesbian couples are found by dumpsters, no more teen boys take their lives for fear of embracing an identity, and a transgender person can have a life expectancy equal their cisgender peers, we have work to do.

So let me be clear: yes, charges have been dismissed against Rev. Dr. Ogletree in favor of a resolution involving more conversation. It’s a huge day in the UMC, and a big step forward. AND there is still work to be done. Conversation about 40 years of discrimination is not enough; stopping trials for people who officiate (while trials are pending for people accused of being homosexual) is not enough; maintaining discriminatory and dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline is not acceptable. There is joy, and there is work to be done.

Alleluia. And, what’s next?

Let the penalty fix the “crime”

shame hands face coveredHere we go again…

A month after the Board of Ordained Ministry in Pennsylvania stripped Rev. Frank Schaefer of his ordination credentials for officiating at his son’s wedding and refusing to state he would follow the entirety of the Book of Discipline in the future, the United Methodist Church is back at it again.

The New York Annual Conference announced the date of March 10 as the beginning of the trial of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree. Like Rev. Schaefer, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is an ordained United Methodist Elder. Like Schaefer, he has a son who is gay. Like Schaefer, he officiated at his son’s wedding. In addition, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is a former professor and Dean at a Divinity School in Connecticut, oh, right, Yale, and before that Drew. Where he taught such irrelevant courses as theological ethics and Christian social ethics. And literally wrote the book in the church’s witness to the world– Oh, just read about him here.

At least one friend has compared the coming trial to that time that the Ministry of Magic tried to interrogate Professor Dumbledore. Not a bad comparison.

I don’t want to get in to all that right now.

These trials have a sort of fatalistic nature to them. We all assume that the persons on trial will be found guilty. I’m not sure this should be the case– after all, the church says we can’t officiate at same-sex weddings, but does not take time to define sex, or explain how, in the absence of legal background checks, medical screenings and examinations, hormonal and chromosomal lab results and so on, a pastor is supposed to determine such. But I digress.

Let’s assume for a moment that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is found guilty of violating the unjust law as laid out in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Where the real interest lies is in the sentencing.

Some clergy members who have been found guilty of such violations have their credentials revoked, as was the case with Rev. Schaefer (legal or not). But in 2011, the jury in the Wisconsin Annual Conference sentenced Rev. Amy DeLong (found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of officiating a same-sex wedding) with a twenty day suspension, and then charged her to research and write a paper addressing the nature of the clergy covenant, how it has been harmed and how it might be healed.

The old saying goes, let the punishment fit the crime. But DeLong’s “punishment” seemed more intended to fix or at least address the root problems in the alleged “crime.”

What if the jury in Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s trial took that approach? What if they used this opportunity not to punish Ogletree or scare others into compliance with laws they find unjust (how’s that working for ya?), but to address root problems in this issue?

Specifically, I would like to see the jury, should they find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty of a violation of unjust church law, instruct him to create or propose a system for dealing with charges that persons are self-avowed practicing homosexuals or have officiated at same-sex weddings, in ways other than trials. Church trials are a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength. They show the watching world that The United Methodist Church is divided and broken, and no better able to live together in difference and brokenness than middle schoolers on the playground. Yes, they highlight the injustices in the system and as such become a force for eventual change, but I fear there won’t be much of a church left by the time they’ve accomplished that work. If only we had a former Dean of a theological school, a professor of Christian ethics, an author who has researched the church’s witness to the world on social issues, and a pastor and parent with life experience to reflect with us on these things!

So that’s my modest proposal for the jury in the Ogletree trial: Find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty if you must (although try to see if you can get your terms and concepts around sex and sexuality and gender and gender identity somewhat consistent if you can). But then consider the injustice of the letter of the law. Consider the pain to the whole church and the whole world for as long as the world is still listening to anything remotely called “church.” Consider the resource and gift of the person in front of you.

Seek the Middle Way. Remain in connection. Work for justice and for healing.

Let the punishment at least try to start fixing the crime.

The courage of couples

wedding rings 1Tim Schaefer takes the stand today.

Tim’s father, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was found guilty yesterday in a United Methodist Church trial for officiating at Tim’s wedding to his similarly-gendered partner six years ago. An inactive member of Schaefer’s church, angry because his mother and Schaefer had a disagreement which led to her being fired from her position as organist by the church’s personnel committee (SPRC, for Methopeeps), hunted down the marriage license and filed a complaint against Pastor Frank, just after his mother’s termination and just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Today, the jury will hear testimony to decide a sentence for Rev. Schaefer, which could range from a reprimand to being stripped of his credentials as a United Methodist clergy person.

Much has been made about Pastor Frank’s love for his son, which motivated him to officiate at the wedding. While this is beautiful and true, I rather think that all clergy should be motivated by their love of other people’s children as well. Nevertheless, Pastor Frank’s action is rightly heralded as heroic, courageous, and loving.

But what about Tim and his partner? What about the couple dragged into the spotlight for doing what couples everywhere long to do when they are in love and want to spend their lives together?

The sad fact is that when a United Methodist clergy person officiates at a wedding for persons who are of similar genders, that clergy person takes a risk with her or his livelihood. But the couple getting married takes a risk as well. Their names get printed online and flashed across TV screens. Their pictures are plastered on newspaper articles and church websites. Their marriage, relationship, sexuality, and very personhood are dissected, debated, shamed, and stigmatized. The counsel for the church yesterday used his closing argument to rant, not about a violation of church policy, but about the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality.

It takes a special sort of couple to be willing to subject themselves to such a spectacle, centered around what should be a celebration of their love and commitment before God and their loved ones.

I think this is why we see so many trials and cases in mediation involving pastors officiating for their children: Frank Schaefer, Tom Ogletree, Steve Heiss. The couple married have to agree to journey with their officiant into the dark pit of church policy, hateful rhetoric, and punitive judgements. It takes a trust that perhaps these children share with their parents. It takes courage on the part of the couples, to become the faces of the pain inflicted by the church’s injustice.

I have talked with similarly-gendered couples contemplating getting married, and we have discussed together (something I’ve never had to discuss with a heterosexual couple!) whether or not they are willing to be part of this frenzy, whether they want to take and disclose an action that could make their wedding day a political hot topic. Across the board, they have said that they did not want to be subjected to such public scrutiny, and I affirm their choices to maintain privacy and sacredness for themselves. The outcomes of those conversations are not mine to disclose; they belong to the couples themselves.

And so today I give thanks and I pray for the courageous couples who are so willing, who allow their love for one another to also be a call for justice, who invite the world to come barging into their relationships, so that God’s justice might one day barge into our church.

Today I give thanks for Tim.

Sermon Manuscript: On the Other Side

shame hands face covered“On the Other Side”

rough manuscript, by Rev. Becca Girrell Clark – 7/21/13

A child was walking along the road from the convenience store to the suburb, when he was set upon by a man who wanted to be a hero. The man stalked him, engaged him– we do not know for sure how the child responded. And the man shot him, dead.

Neighbors heard the altercation outside, but they did not want to get involved and so the neighbors passed by on the other side. Police arrived on the scene, but the man with the gun said he’d been afraid for his own life, and so they did not book him, or take him into custody, or press charges against him, and the police passed by on the other side. The law of Florida retained that a person (although maybe not a black person and maybe not a female person, but a person) could carry and use a weapon, could use deadly force when they believed their life was in danger, and so the law of Florida passed by on the other side. A jury of this man’s peers, not the victim’s peers, not the boy dead beside the road’s peers, but the gunman’s peers, listened to the evidence, tried to determine if the boy had posed a threat to the man with the gun, and they determined the man with the gun was not guilty of murder or of manslaughter, and the jurors passed by on the other side (one of them stopping a day later to sign a book deal). Good Samaritans and Good Samaritans wannabees wept and wore hoodies and mailed empty packets of skittles from the comfort of their quiet neighborhoods and their safe roadways, and, grieving yet alive, passed by on the other side.

Martin Luther King, Jr said once that Sunday morning at 11 o’clock (or in our case 10 o’clock) was the most segregated hour in American Christianity, with people worshipping almost exclusively along racial lines. We give thanks that our congregation is blessed by each member, and that we are growing in diversity in many ways—racially, socioeconomically, politically, theologically, in terms of orientation and age and place of origin, and we give thanks especially for our children, who lead us in song and prayer and life together, regardless of the things adults might see as differences.

Even so, we recognize the comparative lack of diversity of our church, our community, our state. In 2012, Vermont was ranked as the second-whitest state in the country, falling just behind Maine and just ahead of New Hampshire, with more than 96 % of our population identified as white. This is not a criticism, or at least not one from which I can stand apart—I grew up here too. I’ve lived a life of such white privilege that I often don’t recognize racist jokes or slurs, and that I commit racist actions, on occasion without recognizing what I’m doing. It’s taken me years to come to see and understand white privilege, to acknowledge and see how my life is different because of the color of my skin, and how people make assumptions about me—almost always favorable—based on their perception of my ethnicity.

(example, ABC’s show “what would you do”- actors “stealing” a bike. The white actor is confronted once; the black actor by a crowd almost immediately. A pretty woman is assisted… Video from YouTube)

Steeped in privilege as so many of us are—the privilege of being white, or middle class, or from a loving home, and the list goes on—steeped in privilege as we so often are, it is our responsibility to recognize when and where we have privilege and power, and are therefore called to give it away.

That makes us turn to Jesus’ apparent motivation in telling this parable. We are familiar with the story, and we so often focus on the compassion and charity of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes we look beyond to the greater justice issue, standing yet again in the legacy of MLK when he said in “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church, “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” In fact, in saving this text until after our guest preacher, this was what I had initially planned to preach about.

But that’s not what Jesus is saying to the lawyer who asks him this question about what it means to be a neighbor. That is not the point of the story. Not today.

We are not the Good Samaritan.  We want to be. We strive to be. We name our homeless shelter—that we keep in another town so we don’t have to look at it—after the Good Samaritan, but that is not us. And this isn’t a parable about how to be the Good Samaritan, or how to cultivate charity in our hearts.

We are not the robbers, whose situation we don’t know, what deprivation and fear they faced in their lives. We are not George Zimmerman. We are not, today, in this story, reflecting on the violence we do in our lives. That’s a powerful and important reflection, but it is not the point of the parable.

We are not the man on the road, the child walking back from the convenience store, robbed and beaten and left to die, stalked and shot and dead on the ground at 17. We are not Trayvon Martin.  In the days after his death, and again after the Zimmerman verdict, some people began posting pictures of themselves in hoodies and captioning or hashtagging “I am Trayvon Martin.” But then someone else began a tumblr—a site to share pictures and thoughts on a single theme or idea—entitled “We Are NOT Trayvon Martin.” People there post their recognition that none of us are actually this young man, and many non-black folks reflect on the privilege and safety they and their children enjoy, which the Martin family does not. It becomes an opportunity to confront the white privilege I mentioned earlier, and to reflect on the disparity and brokenness of our society. None of us, not even those of us of color, are Trayvon Martin. Some of us could be, or our loved ones could be. Be we are here and whole and alive. And so we cannot appropriate his experience or his family’s loss. Jesus is not talking to Trayvon Martin, to the boy on the sidewalk, the man on the road to Jericho.

Jesus’ caution to us, to us all, to all his listeners, to the lawyer that asked him the question, is that we are the priests. We are the judges, the police, the mild mannered citizens, the members of the jury, the neighbors failing to be neighborly, the travelers on the road, who see the man bleeding out on the pavement, and pass by on the other side.

Because we are busy. Because we are afraid. Because we are complacent. Because we have seen it too often. Because we have seen it not enough. Because we benefit from the privilege we have, we swim and breathe in it as a sponge in the ocean. And we don’t need to concern ourselves with children lying in pools of blood. We pass by on the other side.

We live and work and flourish in a system that is flawed and unfair and broken. A system that defends itself, protects itself. A system that last week did not fail. It worked. It worked to protect George Zimmerman, and the Stand Your Ground Law and the status quo and the culture of fear and violence and its very self.

It failed the Martin family but it’s not meant for them.

Anymore than it’s meant for Marissa Alexander, age 31, convicted in May 2012, three months after Trayvon Martin was shot, and about the time when Zimmerman’s plea of not-guilty was accepted at his arraignment, Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, when she fired a warning shot into the ceiling, in an attempt to get her abusive estranged husband to leave her home. Like Trayvon Martin, she is black. Like George Zimmerman, she pled not guilty and her defense argued that she “stood her ground” in a life threatening situation. Like neither, she will see her next birthday—and, unless there is a successful appeal, about 19 more of them—in prison.

(seen on facebook; missing citation)

(seen on facebook; missing citation)

Whole systems pass people by on the other side. Is there any wonder that children hold signs like these at vigils in remembrance of Martin? “Black Life Matters.”

And yet.

There is something I notice about the parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus doesn’t give us any detail about the person on the road to Jericho, except to say that he is male, I suppose. We do not know the color of their skin, or what they were wearing, or whether or not the robbers felt the person was “a threat.” Jesus does not pause to make a case that the person beaten by the roadside is of sacred worth. It is presumed, as a given, that all people are sacred, that all people should not be passed by. This needs no argument. Not for Jesus. And for those who would live as his body in the world, not for us.

Black Life Matters. Life of all colors and ages and orientations and economic statuses and faiths and abilities matters. Jesus is asked to clarify what it means to be a neighbor—and there the distinctions matter, come into play. There it matters that the Samaritan, with very little privilege or power, gives what he has to the aid of a person in need, while the privileged, powerful, pious elite pass by on the other side. But when it comes to who the people in trouble are, who the people whom we must not pass by ARE, it does not matter. They are people, and that is all we need to know. Need is indifferent to color and status and privilege. The call to act is not. Those who have the greatest power and privilege are called to give it up on behalf of… on behalf of anyone. No distinctions, no exceptions.

Who do we see and value? Who do we rush to help? Who can we not leave on the roadside? Jesus assumes we already know the answer, and I think deep down we do. Everyone. In Christ’s eyes, in God’s eyes, we are all of sacred and profound worth, and we are called to see that in one another.

We, Jesus warns, are the ones with the power. The power to protect ourselves and our culture of fear and violence and the status quo. Or the power to lay down what we have for any single person in need, any creature suffering. The story, the reminder, is for us. There is no excuse. May we open our eyes, and never, or to the best of our ability never again, pass by on the other side.

Sermon: On the Other Side

shame hands face covered“On the Other Side”

(July 21, 2013) We are not Trayvon Martin, and we are not the person set upon by robbers on the road to Jericho, but the parable of the Good Samaritan has a powerful message and warning for us. For those with power or privilege– which, racially speaking, is more than 96% of Vermont– have the responsibility to take notice, and not pass by on the other side. (Luke 10:25-37)

In the sermon, I make reference to this tumblr.

Sermon: The Power of Power

hand fist power“The Power of Power”

(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)

Jurisdictional Dreams

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.

Diary of a Delegate: Northeast Jurisdiction recap

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?

Fragments for the Fragmented

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

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?

This is not a protest. This is a sacrament. photo by UMNS

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.

Cavanaugh continues:

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.

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