A Year Ago…

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.

A year ago, grace again was shortchanged, voices again were silenced, division again went unnamed.

A year ago, hearts broken and sealed and scarred over were broken again in places familiar and new.

A year ago, the Body of Christ was broken.

And so I broke a loaf of bread.

I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t my action.

It was the action of a body, a community, a family, a Christ. Wounded and hopeful, hurting and despairing, fragmented and one.

A year ago, as we always are, we were broken.

And we broke bread together.

And I was broken open.

Somehow, some way, this breaking of bread– something I do at least once a month, something I  participated in thousands of times– somehow this changed me.

I found, in the breaking and sharing of bread, in the reflection on the chaos and frustration and agony and fragile hope of General Conference, a deeper sense of my calling.

A year ago, I was broken open. A year ago, I was called anew.

I set my feet on another path. A path running parallel, or nearly so. A path to someplace deeper.

I found a depth of passion I didn’t know I had. I renewed a sense of vision and purpose that had dried up and hardened, like our scarred-over yet fragile hearts.

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

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

From that place of brokenness, or broke-open-ness, life could never be, entirely, the same.

Seeping up from the cracks was a need to advocate for deeper justice, to live with deeper conviction, to delve more fully into faith an ministry and compassion and peace.

I spoke out when injustice happened. In my denomination. In my church. In my home.

I spoke my true heart. I said the hard things. I let myself feel what I was feeling.

A year ago, Someone broke down my defenses, demolished my protections and stumbling blocks (and made it harder to tell which were which).

And in the past year I have watched a new movement grow. I have witnessed the elation of church doing it right and the crushing betrayal of getting it so wrong. I have relived the pain of the past and envisioned hope and purpose for tomorrow. I have been a better pastor, and Methodist, and person of faith. I have struggled more deeply and trusted more fully, or really, really tried to.

In the past year, I have found my truer self, uncovered pain and vulnerability I didn’t know I had and tapped a depth of strength I didn’t know existed. I have seen my children grieve, and let them surprise me with their resilience. I have mourned the loss of love. I have celebrated it in new and beautiful places. I have seen cruelty in ways I never imagined, and received compassion from unexpected sources. I’ve made friends who changed my life. I’ve lost friends who had touched it deeply. I have shattered all my understandings, and learned from life what grows out of that rubble.

All because of a loaf of bread.

A year ago, Christ’s Body was broken.

And when we take hold of that reality, it takes hold of us. When we lift up the pieces of the bread, the body, the world, broken and wounded, we are lifting up parts of ourselves. When we live into the broken places, we find ourselves in them, seeking transformation and new birth and needed healing.

A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.

A year ago, I didn’t know how broken I was, or how broken open I could be.

A year ago, I broke the Body of Christ. And Christ broke me open too.

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.

Sermon: Tell God Your Plans (GC2012)

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

“Tell God Your Plans”

(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.

Non-delegates just outside the bar. Photo by UMNS

The progressive ad hoc caucus huddles at the communion table (picture from afar by Laura Young)

Steve and Leigh Dry do the only thing one can do in the face of such brokenness. Photo by UMNS

JoAnn, Annie, and I share communion in the midst of the Body’s brokenness. Photo from the UMNS.

I’m still here

(I know, a pig the other day, and bulls now…)

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.”

Diary of a Delegate: rebuttal – Some More Equal than Others

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.

Diary of a Delegate: She Moves in Mysterious Ways

(continued from previous post)

The progressive ad hoc caucus huddles at the communion table. I’m in black, just in front of the person in yellow (picture from afar by Laura Young)

When Judicial Ruling 1210 was handed down at about 4:15 pm on Friday (with the General Conference scheduled to recess at 5 and then return for a two-hour legislative session before adjournment), creative chaos ensued. One of my fellow Church and Society B committee members called for a five minute recess, and a flock of progressives (it’s like a pod of whales) surrounded the communion table. One thing was clear: we had very little time to get a structure in place that would let the church function within the budget that had already been passed, eliminate inconsistencies, and keep any form of the constitutionally unsalvageable and now defunct Plan UMC from resurfacing.

After the five minute recess, the secretary announced that we would recess early for dinner, returning at 7:30, so that the calendar and agenda committee, the Council of Bishops, and other groups could figure out what needed to happen to conclude enough business that the church could move forward.

That’s when we went to work.

Our unofficial caucus group met in a large room. We did not bar the door; all were welcome. We knew other meetings were taking place, and we tried to have conversation with folks that weren’t in the room. We tried to invite representatives from all over the world, although only one international delegation ended up joining us.

Everyone spoke who wanted to. We hashed our possibilities: we couldn’t come up with a constitutionally sound plan to reorder the structure of our global denomination in two hours; there really wasn’t a way to resurrect Plan UMC and amend it into something that we could find palatable (including reinstating COSROW and GCORR); we didn’t want to simply refer Plan UMC because it had already been ruled unconstitutional and would eat up massive resources for study and amendment of a plan that we felt was fundamentally flawed (and we suspected this is what the group supporting Plan UMC would do). This left us with two options: revert to the 2008 denominational structure and somehow try to make it work in the reduced budget that had already passed, or approve the plans that the boards and agencies themselves had made to streamline and come into harmony with the initial findings of the Call to Action reports, and then save further restructure for the four years ahead. By consensus, the group decided this last was the best option.

To make that happen, several legislative things had to happen in very quick succession. The body had already approved a handful of legislation that allowed for some boards to function properly, but now had to bring up, bundle together, and approve several more pieces of legislation from the boards and agencies to enable the rest of them to have streamlined functioning, and then reconcile a few pieces that had inconsistencies.

The larger group disbanded and about ten of us wrote out the plan. I had been taking notes and began typing out an order of approach and talking points. We had an hour.

We wrote the motions for bringing up the legislation and the talking points for why it was important to do it this way: approval of the boards/agencies own plans for independent restructure allows for immediate streamlining while maintaining the functions of each body to do ministries, and leading the denomination into the necessary adaptive change that can take us through the next quadrennium with clear and thoughtful focus rather than hurried scrambling.

We anticipated that there would be a motion to bring up and refer Plan UMC. We strongly objected to this option and wrote talking points anticipating this motion: Referral would delay the option to lighten the burden on local churches because it would continue the structure at the current costs. Further, it would divert the attention, resources and energy of our boards, agencies, and governing bodies from their vital work. Basically, we could hash and study Plan UMC for four years at tremendous cost, or we could get busy making and nurturing disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We were assured by the committee on calendar and agenda that they agreed, and that the first motion brought to the body would be a motion to consider the plans of the boards and agencies for their own restructure. We were assured this as late as 7:15, when Brad Laurvick took my laptop from my sweaty hands and ran to print and copy our motions and talking points.

Curiously, for whatever reason, that is not how it went down.

When the session reconvened at 7:30, there were people *on the stage and at the podium* who brought a motion to refer Plan UMC. I’d like to think this was a miscommunication. It felt like more than that, but we were deep in politics at that point, so I’m going to err on the side of grace and say we must have had some wires crossed.

Undeterred, our folks jumped down in the talking points and argued against referral of Plan UMC on the basis of its unconstitutionality and the numerous points that we had lifted. And we ran down the clock debating, asking questions, amending and amending. The plan was flawed and unconstitutional. It didn’t in actuality even exist as it had been struck down entirely. It could not be referred. I myself made an amendment that I thought might have helped me feel better about it: that the resulting plan be released prior to all Annual Conferences in 2015, so that those bodies would have time to look at the plan, study it, and offer amendment and suggestion. I felt this would address one of the central problems with the entire process: the lack of grassroots voices and engagement in the future of our church.

Eddie Fox (black shirt, khaki pants) huddles with others during the final recess, just before he would come and caution me against further motions. Mr. Fox later contacted me to add that this was a prayerful gathering, and many of those in the circle are bishops from the UMC worldwide.

But finally it was clear that Plan UMC could not be referred or even dealt with. The presiding bishop was forced to rule that indeed a delegate from the Western Jurisdiction was right: it was unsalvageable and the attempt to refer legislation that didn’t exist was out of order.

We got to the mics. We made our motions. We approved the plans of the boards and agencies and reconciled the inconsistencies. We recessed.

Just before reconvening, I was approached by an older delegate with whom I’d served on committee, and with whom I had frequently—okay always—disagreed, Eddie Fox. Eddie is a man who I’m told had previously seemed to pride himself on using the parliamentary process to advance legislation he supports and kill legislation he does not. He was not in a good mood. Smiling but appearing pretty miffed, he wagged a finger in my face and said something like, Now young lady, I don’t want to see you making any more amendments or speeches tonight. “Why Eddie,” I said, “I want to ensure that we approve the best plan for the future of our church, and that takes time and work, and room for the Holy Spirit. And She moves in mysterious ways.” Smiling tightly and pumping my hand, he wished me safe travels and said he’d enjoyed sharing this wild ride with me (Mr. Fox contacted me in writing, and does not share this recollection of our conversation or of his demeanor or actions. As with all things published on my blog, this is my perception of what I experienced).

We reconvened, heard announcements, and suffered one last attempt to pull a petition to the floor that would have tried to make the UMC withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. I scrambled for my speech, but the motion not only failed to receive the 2/3 that it needed, but it didn’t even win a majority.

Joey Lopez, who had been an outspoken voice for inclusion, especially of young people’s voices, had the honor of making a motion to adjourn.

The Coalition worships in the tabernacle after GC closes, drawing the circle wide.

The Coalition met in the tabernacle one last time for communion, prayer, and celebration. Of next General Conference, one leaders said “In Portland [Oregon], we’re going to need a bigger tent!”

Then out to celebrate together with dancing and refreshments. We made a good choice of an establishment, since they were playing Heather Small’s “Proud” (what have you done today to make you feel proud? oh, so so much!) and later some Lady Gaga, and because the delightful human being behind the bar asked to see my ID. Once again, there seems to be a fear that people under the age of 21 are into buying top shelf scotch. I think we need to refer that to a committee for study. I tweeted: “Best. Day. Ever. Defeat totalitarianism. Protect uteri. Outfox Fox. Get carded in bar. #Winning.”

We celebrated together late into the night, side by side with people I have named as heroes and role models and Methodist celebrities, and with friends I didn’t know or barely knew two weeks ago.The outcome felt miraculous. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was. We’d done everything we could, but I honestly believe the Spirit pulled us through. I was just along for the ride.

Later, I summed up what I felt was accomplished to a group of friends via text message:

1. Ministry with families of all configurations
2. Almost exactly what the General Board of Church and Society (hey it still exists!) wanted to say about abortion
3. Kept the UMC in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
4. Avoided a totalitarian power structure
5. Provided basic structure for the church and its agencies to stay in mission
6. Held the line– didn’t get any worse!– on incompatibility and sexuality in the face of the most conservative General Conference ever
7. Met an amazing group of lay and clergy ministers who believe in grace, justice, and a contextually authentic church
Alleluia!

What happens next? Where do we go from here? What does God have in store for the United Methodist Church?

I have some thoughts in the weeks ahead, but the door is wide open. It’s up to the wily Spirit, and up to us to follow where She leads us.

Diary of a Delegate: Yeah, so that happened

JoAnn, Annie, and I share communion in the midst of the Body’s brokenness. Photo from the UMNS.

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.

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

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.

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

I later tweeted- Becca Clark@pastorbecca: You cannot legislate love. Grace is never out of order. The communion table has no bar. #GC12love #gc2012 #nowalls

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.

Steve and Leigh Dry do the only thing one can do in the face of such brokenness. Photo by UMNS

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.

Becca Clark@pastorbecca: Also, let the record show that @RevAdamHamilton & I hugged it out. He’s a man of integrity, & was bold to try for inclusion today. #gc2012

This is the day

This is the day that the Holy One has made.

This is the day that we vote about homosexuality again, and grace again, and fear and violence again, and learn what will prevail in the eyes of the broken church.

But it’s just a day. Tomorrow is another. We are the church. Broken, limping, maimed.

Here.

Every warm thought, every loving whisper, every prayer in whatever way you pray, may you lift it for the people called Methodist.

And for me.

Diary of a Delegate: Dude, where’s my church?

Twitter topic cloud from @andrewconard

Sisters and brothers, I don’t even know what day it is.

I think about 3 days of legislation have passed since last I posted. They weren’t good days for me and the people I care about. It seems that progressives make up about 40% of the voting body on just about anything. Other people have been reporting votes and issues. I’ve titled this a diary because it’s really about the experience.

The experience has sucked.

I’ve been exhausted, discouraged, and wrung out dry. We’ve lost votes on everything so far– actually not true.

Let me share my one victory: my subcommittee’s paragraph on abortion, which is an improvement over the current Book of Discipline, and which we hashed out in a respectful, holy way, passed the full body without incident. As the recording secretary for that subcommittee, I have officially written a section of the Book of Discipline.

The rest is a mess. A day ago, clergy lost guaranteed appointment, a policy that has provided for and protected the fair appointment of clergy without respect to gender or ethnicity or theological stance, but has also, it can be argued, prevented cabinets from removing ineffective clergy. The result was not actually the tough part– what was worse was that there was a glitch and then an attempt to correct the glitch. The full body would have to vote to even allow discussion on this very important matter for clergy and churches. They did not. So lots of people lost their job security if not yet their jobs, and their pastor’s confidence in her or his prophetic voice if not their pastor, without even a blink.

Today it’s been conversations about restructuring the church– I’m not even sure what we passed on to the finance committee, but I’m pretty sure it’s out of order, and I said so. That’s right. I came here to advocate for justice and instead I stood and the mic and read from the rule book. Yikes.

Even advocating for justice has been hard. We are not all of one mind as to what that justice might look like and how it is best accomplished (surprising, right?), and so those of us “on the same team” are sometimes disagreeing with one another. It gets messy. That’s relationship. Today I was speaking passionately with 3 other people, and realized that I was disagreeing with Mark Miller. The Mark Miller. I said that, in fact. “I’m yelling at Mark Freaking Miller!”

We’re all just in shock. What is clear is that this is not the UMC we all thought we knew. Yesterday, we debated the preamble to our social principles, a seemingly benign paragraph of the Discipline that some felt needed a greater expression of grace. There was a proposal that we add “We affirm that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” a direct quote from Romans 8. We debated whether or not we would affirm this statement of prevenient grace, *the* essential Wesleyan/Methodist tenant. 53% of delegates believed in God’s unconditional love. Only 53%.

This is not my church.

My fellow progressives and my delegation from New England (powerhouse people!) are all walking around like zombies, shocky and stunned and confused. What happened to the denomination that taught hope? love? grace? compassion? Gone. Copoted. Outvoted.

We’ve got a hail mary pass tomorrow, but mostly it will probably be another day of voting on things that matter deeply– how much we are willing to wound our GLBTQ members of the body. I expect the votes will go 60/40. I expect it will hurt like hell.

There aren’t words for the feeling tonight. It’s prayerful, but there aren’t words. Sighs too deep for words. I ache.

Diary of a Delegate: Days Four and Five- Let me be full, let me be empty

Twitter topic cloud for Friday 4/27 from @andrewconard

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.

Twitter topic cloud for Saturday 4/28 from @andrewconard

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 944 other followers