UMC, this is the moment.

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Committee of the Whole chairperson John Blackadar presents the recommendation, while Will Green, presenter of the resolution “Action of Non-Conformity…” stands ready (my photo).

I try not to be too dramatic. Okay, maybe I try not to be needlessly dramatic. But I’m convinced that with hindsight it will be clear: This is the moment that a new structure for an existing denomination– or an entirely new denomination– will begin its birth pangs. I hope it’s that first thing, hear me. In any case, this is the beginning of the re-formation of The United Methodist Church.

In my previous post, I laid out how we got to this place, the in-breaking of the Spirit and the reclaiming of relationships as foundational to who we are as United Methodists ministering in Christ’s example and image.

And here is where we are: The New England Annual (regional) Conference has voted by a supermajority to take an “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.” You can read an article about that here, which also includes a link to the text of the resolution, or check out the one from the denominational news source.

This is not an act of schism. It is what it says it is: an action of non-conformity. It is a principled, self-differentiated stance. It is a position being taken that says We are United Methodists, and we wish to remain United Methodists. We wish to follow Jesus and the Wesleyan heritage, theology, polity, and connection of The United Methodist Church, but we will not agree to harm or discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity while we do so. However, because it was taken as an Annual Conference as a whole, it has massive implications for the global system of The United Methodist Church. Here’s why.

The Annual Conference is the basic body of The United Methodist Church (Discipline para. 33, Article II of the UMC Constitution). It is the body that holds in trust the property and assets of The UMC within its bounds (Discipline para. 2501). So, while the New England Conference has said it will not conform to the discrimination enacted by the General Conference of The UMC, and while we fully expect this (the first item of it, at least) to be ruled against the Discipline by both the Bishop and the Judicial Council, what power is there to make this body come into alignment with The UMC denomination? The latter “is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office, or location.”  (Discipline para. 141). Who does? The Annual Conference.

I pray that the New England Annual Conference remains steadfast in this self-differentiated position, saying simply that this is how we must act if we are to do the ministry of Christ in our region. We are excited about living faithfully in this place as United Methodists. We do not wish to leave the denominational body of The United Methodist Church. Our process- and resolution-drafting team considered actions that would directly lead to that, and rejected them. However, if other parts of the body decide that there is no room for our principled dissent within The UMC, then we could be forced to leave, taking every. single. asset. with us. Every church building (even those whose congregations might disagree, unfortunately, because their buildings and assets are held by the Conference). Every investment. Every warm, beautiful, breathing body who will have us.

And I’ll bet a nice, juicy, Big Apple that the New York Annual Conference would vote to do the same. Maybe Baltimore-Washington, too. Maybe others in the Northeastern Jurisdiction (bigger regional body). And this leaves the Northeastern Jurisdiction in an entirely unsustainable place. We need one another to be functional, to be whole.

Therefore, it is in the best interest of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, which will have its once-every-four-years meeting in July, to consider taking a similar principled stance together. I will advocate for the Northeastern Jurisdiction to commit to similar non-conformity with the Book of Discipline‘s discriminatory paragraphs if it can. And I advocate that we definitely send to the Commission being formed by the Council of Bishops a clear proposal for structural change in The UMC– change that allows Jurisdictions to adapt the Discipline to better equip regional, contextual ministry. In the context of the Northeast, that means no longer being complicit in the harm The UMC inflicts upon people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. This proposal needs to communicate that without such structural change, the Northeastern Jurisdiction can no longer function because it could lose two or more Annual Conferences in their entirety.

And I’ll bet a nice, crunchy bunch of farm-fresh kale that the Western Jurisdiction will send a similar statement, especially since two Annual Conferences there have already passed resolutions akin to the one in New England. Maybe some or all of the North Central Jurisdiction is in the same place. And this leaves the denomination in the United States– no, actually, the entire global connection of The United Methodist Church– in an unstable place. We need one another to be whole.

We need one another spiritually, as well as logistically. All those assets, all those people, all those apportionment dollars and mission dollars. In one quadrennium, how much time, talent, gifts, service, and witness do the Northeastern and Western Jurisdictions, and a handful of North Central conferences contribute to the administrative support of The UMC? To missions and disaster relief? To communications, and publications, and seminaries, and general agencies, and all the ministry of the denomination? Are we, the denomination, willing to sacrifice that collective strength and witness and work so that we can control who gets to sign marriage licenses for whom, whether or not a church can have a ministry that “promotes the acceptance of homosexuality,” and how an Annual Conference upholds the high standards it places on its candidates for ordination?

In this moment, I think we have a powerful opportunity as a church and as a movement. Jurisdictional Conferences have not yet met. My hope is that many Annual Conferences, and their Jurisdictions, will take a powerful, principled stance. Let us join together in saying We are United Methodists. We wish to remain United Methodists. We seek to follow Christ in our ministry in every time and place. And we will not be complicit in inflicting harm or discrimination upon LGBTQIA people as we do so. There must be room for this principled witness within The UMC, and we implore the church to find a way to make it so. Because we need one another to be whole.  

It is my sincere hope that this moment is not the beginning of a new denomination, but the beginning of a more nimble one, with enough contextual flexibility to allow conferences like New England to be self-differentiated and principled in our rejection of discrimination. Whether or not this is the case, it will play out over the next five years. Will the Bishops’ Commission return a proposal for missional, contextual structure realignment for the world-wide denomination? Will that proposal pass a special session of the General Conference? A full session? The process of being ratified in all the Annual Conferences? If it does, then a newly-formed United Methodist Church is already being created. If it does not, then there is a new denomination gestating in this moment, waiting to begin its birthing.

How did we get here?

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Beloved friends and colleagues (Jamie Michaels and Cynthia Good) gift me with sackcloth and ashes in an act of repentance Thursday morning. Photo by Beth DiCoco, NEAC Communications

The New England Annual (regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church experienced a watershed moment this week– so many watershed moments that it’s clear this is not a moment, but a movement. I speak not only of the passage of an Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of our denomination, but of the whole way of doing Conference. Our agenda took significant hits, with some important presentations and actions cut and some significantly restricted and rushed, but this was because we took time to listen to one another, to tell stories and hold pain.

Most of the time at Conference was spent in out-of-order witnessing and truth-telling, circle process conversations about our identity as Methodists (and for some of us, about ways forward we could imagine for the church), discussion as a Committee of the Whole* without the pressure of a binding vote, and many instances before session was called to order, in clergy session, and in the full session, where people stood at the microphone surrounded by allies and voiced pain and hope and called the church to greater justice.

It’s beautiful and powerful, and I feel like I’m part of a real Conference body again, one that puts relationships over power, and process over outcome. But how did we get here?

Like so many watershed moments, this moment arises out of deep pain. The devastation that progressive Methodists felt and feel in the wake of General Conference cannot be ignored. Some held out, waiting to see if this GC would be different (and it was; it was worse). Some have slender hope in the Bishops’ Commission bringing a proposal that will structurally allow flexibility (in a minimum of two years). But for most, May 21 found us with aching hearts and spirits, wondering if there was a place, with integrity, for us in a denomination where delegates advocated for abusing children for the disobedience of being gay, used false information from the podium to withdraw from protecting women’s access to comprehensive health care, committed to making sure the denomination followed the Bible alone (a profound rejection of Wesleyan lenses of tradition, reason, and experience mediating the scripture), and proposed that the church endorse curriculum that only teaches creationism.

But that pain and confusion paled in comparison to the agony for queer and/or Latina/o/x Methodists the morning of June 12. And like many religious bodies, The UMC was forced to admit that there is a connection, a direct correlation, between institutions like ours that dehumanize queer people and people of color, that call homosexuality “incompatible” with Christian teaching, that have legacies of segregation and oppression of people of color… and the festering hatred that would motivate the shooter in the Pulse nightclub. With the blood of fifty people (that we know about, because there are so many more) on our hands as the Conference session began, we could not even repent, because we had not begun to stop the harm we ourselves create.

So we interrupted it. And that broke something open. And it can’t be the same anymore.

Once broken open, relationships, listening, love took over, and like toothpaste from the proverbial tube, couldn’t be put back away. Not only was the harm to LGBTQIA persons named, and the Conference asked to hold that pain and take action to stop that harm, but likewise the harm to people of color, to specific groups and caucuses and bodies like the Asian Commission, to women, to people based on age, to folks in the theological minority, to individuals. It was a sacred gathering, and a prophetic one.

On the specifically pro-inclusion actions of the Annual Conference: 

For almost two full hours Thursday morning, before the session could be called to order, LGBTQ Methodists and allies held the floor and poured out grief and agony and anger, and listened to one another, and came out fearfully and yet to thundering applause, and wept, and demanded of one another action. Later that same day, a time for circle-process conversation, which had been previously planned, allowed space for a group to form outside the main hall and have another conversation. That group also followed the circle process, passing a cross as a talking stick, naming what we were feeling and listening to one another. And then we discussed what we could offer to the Conference. The whole body was crying out for action, but what action could we take? We discussed actions that would equate to schism, and decided not to propose those actions. Instead, offered an opportunity to share with the Bishop and Conference leadership our way forward, we focused on four points:

  1. non-conformity with the specific sections of The United Methodist Book of Discipline that discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity
  2. refusal to hold or participate in church judicial procedures related to the above
  3. insisting that all clergy and employee couples/families receive the medical/retirement benefits for which they are eligible, regardless of the sexes or genders of the partners
  4. committing funds away from the discrimination named in 1 and 2 and into cultural competency training and advocacy to dismantle racism and homophobia

A small group met with the Bishop and named these four points, and came up with the process of using the Roberts Rules Easter Egg, “Committee of the Whole” to proceed. This particular process was proposed by my partner, Sean, and he shared some fascinating ways it had been used, including in the old New Hampshire Conference, to facilitate the discussion and eventual passage of a resolution for abolition. Meanwhile, another small group drafted language for the resolution itself, which I, ever the secretary to the revolution, wrote out in a shared document, and then other fast-acting folks arranged to have copied for the plenary.

The process allowed us to discuss the resulting resolution without the pressure of a binding vote on Thursday night, where it was overwhelmingly recommended back to the Annual Conference. Friday morning and into the afternoon it was debated and amended before its final passage.

What comes next is that this watershed moment has impact across The United Methodist connection. It’s not just those here in New England who will never be the same.

With the caveat that I can’t remember everyone ad don’t want to offend, I’ll try to give shout out to the vast team that worked on these pieces (let me know if i left you out):
Thursday morning action: Lindsay F, Johnathan R-C, Steve D, and countless speakers like Allen, Sara, Justin, Cherlyn, Val…, with special props to Vicki W, Casey C, Rachael F, Sean D, and others for their truth-telling. Cynthia G, Kim K and others for the burlap stoles.
Circle process team: Dodie S and gasp i can’t remember facilitating, about 15-20 people participating.
Process planning with conference leadership: Will G, Sean D, Kevin N, Julie T, Vicki W.
Resolution writing team: me, Kathryn J, Kevin N, Stuart L.

* Asked on Facebook why we used the Committee of the Whole process, my friend Will Green explained it well:

We could have done this in session. We could have immediately suspended the rules and gone for it right away. I’ll share a few reasons I thought the approach we took was a good idea… Becoming a Committee of the Whole allowed us to 1) protect the Bishop from having to preside over our Conference discussing whether or not to follow the Discipline (instead he was presiding over debate on the recommendation of a committee) 2) have a discussion during which people could not amend the resolution, thus creating space for a cleaner conversation 3) have conversation prior to having a binding vote 4) take the closest thing to a straw poll that Robert’s Rules will allow 5) keep us from having to limit the number of speeches (which again could have been done with suspension of rules), 6) on a symbolic level, make a tribute to our forebears in the New Hampshire Annual Conference who used this same procedure to find a way to debate the abolition of slavery when a Bishop would not allow it (not that OUR Bishop was saying this, but there is precedent for past Bishops blocking us from acting on resolutions that they feel go against the Discipline)… That was my general thinking anyway, but there were many other ways we could have handled this.

Only Love Can Do That

FullSizeRenderSaturday night, I had an experience that I can only describe as something between a conversion and an affirmation, while sitting (briefly) on the floor of the Church & Society 2 legislative committee. Grace at General Conference? I know.

I came in as a substitute for my friend and a member of our delegation, LaTrelle, who had given her all as the chair of the most challenging sub-committee at General Conference (no exaggeration). After presenting all of her committee’s legislation with all she had, she tagged out, and as a reserve who has spent months and months studying the legislation of this committee, I was able to step in for the last 40 minutes of the session.

I knew there was a chance that the committee would address a proposed resolution that utilized very bad theology to enforce extreme gender binaries and diminish the identity and humanity of transgender persons who transgress those binaries. I had done some research to help prepare others to speak to it, and really hoped it wouldn’t come up. But sure enough, it came to the committee floor with the recommendation of the subcommittee, and with not a lot of hope that it would be turned down. My hand shot up immediately, and I carried my notes to the mic. My speech was not recorded, but this is my best re-creation:

My name is Becca Girrell, and I am a clergy reserve delegate from the New England Annual Conference. I paused, a long, deep sigh of a breath. Something shifted inside me. 

I urge you to vote against this appalling resolution. Petition 60845 is harmful, unloving, and unchristian.

I have come prepared. I could tell you all about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to what we say about gender in the Social Principles; there we say that no gender is superior to or inferior to another. I could tell you about how this resolution stands in direct contrast to the message of Jesus, how by inserting hurtful language specifically directed at an already oppressed and marginalized group of people, we are standing in exactly the opposite place as where Jesus stands, which is always for, and more importantly with, the marginalized. I have come prepared with statistics about suicide rates and violence and the murder of transgender people, statistics meant to shock you and sway you, and I can tell you all about the brutality inflicted on transgender persons.

But I’m not going to tell you about any of that. I sighed again, breath. I put my notes down and held the mic even closer. I smiled, and the smile lingered on my lips. 

Instead, I want to tell you about my family.

I want to tell you about all the fun and all the love my family shares. I want to tell you about my two children from my previous marriage. And I want to tell you about my husband, my best friend, the love of my life, my friend of more than a decade. He’s an adult convert to Christianity and to Methodism. He is gifted and called. And I know I am biased, but he is the most gentle, loving, unassuming, grace-filled, spirit-led, passionately-Methodist, magnificent person I have ever known.

He is also transgender. Silence. 

I am not confused about that. My children are not confused about that. And I assure you, my husband is not confused about that. He knows who he is. He knows, through and through, that he is created in God’s own image, as we all are. He knows and has claimed– and here I do need my notes, because this is a direct quote from paragraph 161 E of the Social Principles– the right every person must have, to the opportunities and freedom for ethical self-determination. I looked up as I put down my notes again. I could see the observation section, the silent, rainbow-clad people on their feet, and Sean seated in the front row, his hand lifted in the simple sign for ‘I love you.’ 

Language like this resolution denies the humanity of people like my husband. It inflicts harm on people like him, and on families like mine, by suggesting confusion and inferiority where there is none. I urge you to vote no on this dangerous, divisive, and harmful petition.

I returned to my seat in the silent room, my eyes dry, my breath calm. No one spoke. The chair called for the vote. Petition defeated, by seven votes.

There are many, many times– maybe even most times– at General Conference, when I am tempted to lead with the righteous anger or the indignant confusion, or the cold, brutal statistics that I think should sway people. There is a tightness in the chest then, and tears of anguish or rage or all of the above. But this time, I led with something else. I breathed into a fathomless Breath that Pentecost-Eve. And I breathed out love.

Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing less than the endless, unconditional, mutual love that my partner and I share. Nothing less than the raw, open vulnerability of my own humanness, my own belovedness. Nothing less than a call to the heart, my heart, their hearts. Nothing less than the plea to see one single beautiful transgender person through the eyes of their loved one.

Maybe it was only this one time. Maybe it’s dangerous to believe that it works. But no one seemed to expect the vote to go the way it did. Everything similar was about a ten vote margin in the other direction. For three minutes, one Pentecost-Eve, love won.

And if I can choose to lead from love that one time, however subconsciously, however unintentionally, if I can risk my own vulnerability enough and be wide-open enough that all I show is love, if I can trust that love will be the only force that can break through and transform and leave me dry-eyed and calm in the midst of a storm of ignorance and fear… then I could choose that again. And again. And again.

Something whispers, you know this. This is what the Gospel is. This is what is sacred. This is the only path, the only Way. Only love. 

Hate cannot drive out hate, Dr, King says. And maybe it can’t sway votes, either– nor can anger or statistics or the righteous indignation of my own denied humanity. Only love can do that. Only love.

Sermon: Standing in the River

Slide2 copy“Standing in the River”

(September 27, 2015) In a message inspired by and based upon the Bible studies of Rev. Grace Imathiu at RMN/MFSA’s Convocation “Gather at the River,” we remember and commit to the need to hold space for one another. We will stand in the river and wait with love, until all people can enter into the promise of Beloved Community. (Joshua 3:9-17)


“Beloved Community: How the People of God Create Community” is an original sermon series. The topics are:

Sermon: All Means All

Slide2 copy“All Means All”

(September 13, 2015) We begin a sermon series on the Beloved Community, examining the marking of the people of God, being formed into community. The first aspect of this community is that all of us are welcome. That means all of us– every person, and also all of us– our whole selves. (Galatians 3:23-29)


“Beloved Community: How the People of God Create Community” is an original sermon series. The topics are:

Sermon: What’s to Stop Me?

wall broken“What’s to Stop Me?”

(May 3, 2015) While we tend to see so many labels and categories, fragmenting humanity into different boxes, Jesus and his early followers broke down these barriers and eliminated the separations between people in creating a new beloved community. As Phillip and the traveler on the road to Gaza discover, there is nothing that can prevent someone from coming into the presence of God. (Acts 8:26-40)

wherein a certain Ethiopian eunuch is discussed in ways that have nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity…

The White Echo-Chamber

I’m offering these reflections honestly, as part of my own thinking and growing, and to share what I see. I’m claiming no special awareness or insight, and I really don’t want to compare how enlightened I am to anyone else. Spoiler: not very. You probably have more non-white friends than I do, and that’s cool. My self-reflection is about what I can learn about myself, and how I can do better.  

hands children black whiteAs part of my preparation for the Board of Ordained Ministry meeting next week, I read this article, which in turn references this study, and states “in a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one black friend.”

This made me curious. I used my Facebook friends list, which inflates my friends in both number and diversity, by including people who would otherwise be separated by geography. Still, it’s a sample set I could easily identify. I know it’s not a perfect or scientific exercise, but it’s a place to start.

I have about 840 friends (excluding duplicate accounts, people’s pets, and group pages)
35 people– 4%– are people who are black. An additional 41 people are non-white members of other ethnicities (5%). In total, 76 of my Facebook friends (9%) are not white.

As I reflect on this, several things come to mind.

1. My shelter and privilege– and loss– as someone who has lived primarily in 95%+ white communities. I grew up in a town of less than 1000 people. In seminary, I looked back at some demographic information from the 2000 census in the larger town nearby, the place where I went to high school. There were listed on that census “African American: 6.” Six people. In the whole town. I knew the names of all six. I don’t think that’s a good thing; homogeneous communities don’t help individuals learn about much beyond their own experiences. And while I did learn a little from the experiences of at least three of those six people– black men as close as family– nothing can undo the whiteness of my childhood. It’s not bad, per se. It just is. Compared to my friends who have lived in more populated and diverse areas, I start farther back on the line when it comes to seeing, owning, and dismantling my privilege and racism inherent in homogeneity. 

2. The tremendous gift of friends who have shared their experiences with me so I can see beyond the blinders of my social location. I’m embarrassed, looking back, by the ignorance of my questions and lack of understanding when I did venture into the wider world. In college and then again in seminary in the Boston area– my first and only daily contact with an actual city– I was a well-intentioned but largely naive white girl. I know that no one was under any obligation to be patient or loving with me as I blundered my way through that early awareness. And yet, time and time again, I’ve been met with people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds who have been patient, kind, long-suffering, and honest, people who have let me make mistakes and called me out gently but clearly. That’s not the responsibility of people of color, to educate and pull along their friends and classmates and peers. Each time, it is a vulnerable, unmerited gift. Thank you.

3. Where I see color, and where I don’t, and what that might mean. This is not something I’m proud of by any means, but it’s something I observed. Fascinatingly, as I was going through my friend list, person by person, looking at profile pictures and calling to mind friends by name, I noticed that there are some people whose ethnicity I instantly think of, while others I only was able to identify as non-white after thinking intentionally about it. Family members topped the list, followed by friends who are bi/multi-racial, and then followed by Facebook friends who I know in a particular role or function. What does this say about the times I “forget” the ethnicity of persons in my circle? That the role of family or of function is the primary category for my brain while skin color is secondary? That bi/multi-ethnic persons suffer the same erasure in my consciousness that these friends have also reported in their lived world experience? No conclusions here, but a hard thing to look at for me.

4. The choices I have made and can still make about where and how I make and keep friendships that shatter my echo chamber. Living outside Boston in a duplex instead of as a single person in an apartment downtown, trying to make friends “as a couple” with my first spouse, being immersed in the dominant cultures of the towns in which I’ve lived: these have increased the number of friends I have who look (and think and act) like me. Intentionally staying in touch with people I’ve met on travels, getting out on my own, looking for the people on the margins of my communities with whom I might actually have more in common: these are choices that have increased the diversity of my friendships in every way when and where I’ve made them. And the good news is, I get to pick how I approach the world, so I can continue to do the latter.

But number five is the beauty. 

5. The church is the place where I have broken out of my echo chamber. I realize that for some, the church is a homogenous, white, straight, middle class institution. Certainly for some, the church is less diverse than the rest of their lives. But for me, the church, The United Methodist Church, is a place where I have come in contact with and relationship with more people unlike me in every way, including ethnicity. When I look at those 76 people who are not white, nearly all of them are people I know through church— mission trips, the worldwide UMC connection, local connections and friendships that bring me into places and into the lives of people where I might not otherwise go. The church has made my life richer and fuller, given me colleagues and friends that I would not otherwise I have met, and opened to me a world of connection and grace that would never have been possible for me without it.

For all its faults, the church has given me the extraordinary gift of a life that is broader than my own context. It’s incomplete, but that’s a beautiful kin-dom.