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.

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.

Reasons I Stay…

friends, hug, b+wDays like today, I think about the denomination of The United Methodist Church, and why I’m a part of it. Days that follow trials and verdicts, personal vendetta turned to personhood- and livelihood- stripping arguments and actions make it hard to remember.

There’s beautiful theology, and a structure that is imperfect but has room for movement (hey I used to be Roman Catholic, so I’ll take it!). There are great big denomination-wide programs that do amazing work all over the world, like the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

And there are people. Oh, Love Divine, the people. I love those people called Methodist. I love the vast network of Methodist(s) Federat(ed) for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries.

But the people, nearly all of the Methodist people I love, are hurting on days like today, and wondering why we stay “United,” and why any one of us stays in the denomination.

And so days like today, I have to stop thinking about my denomination, and start thinking about my local church. Amid rumors of schism or individuals leaving, what would happen in my local congregation?

There are two men in my church I think of in particular. Let’s call them James and John.  The one I’m calling James is an openly gay man, leader of some of our strongest mission programs, voice for inclusivity and justice, and occasional participant in things like Pride, and is actively saving all his extra cash for the next Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation. John, on the other hand, is chair of a couple of important committees, the go-to cheerleader for church revitalization and transformation, and has been known to give speeches at annual conference stating that he believes that the Bible says homosexuality is clearly a sin.

James and John have each said things that the other finds hurtful, or offensive, or wrong. They would, in isolation from one another, appear to be on opposite sides of a debate. Should each United Methodist have to choose to be Reconciling or Good News (a traditionalist group that believes homosexuality is sinful and wrong), they would most likely land in different camps. If our congregation voted tomorrow on whether or not to schism, James and John would raise their hands at different times, and the whole congregation would grieve the division between members held so closely to the heart of this local church.

Because, you see, James and John love each other.

James and John love each other more than they love agendas and arguments and “issues.” In fact, they love each other more than they love denominations and schisms and their understandings of what is right and just.

And Trinity United Methodist Church, at least for now, is the place where they grow in love for God and for one another, in their differences. It is the place where they love each other, and find out that love is more important than rules or ideals.

James. John. The love they have for one another as siblings in Christ, in a local congregation of The United Methodist Church.

They are a reason I stay.

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.

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.