The United Methodist General Convention 2012

The United Methodist Quadrennial General Convention began on April 24 and ended May 4.

The Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition, Methodists all, were hard at work to overturn policies first officially articulated in 1972, now embodied in the Methodist Book of Discipline as six harsh words: “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” despite the evidence of eyes and ears that ten million fellow Protestant Christians now live, work and worship from within denominations that have no barriers to either membership in the church or serving as ministers leading exemplary lives, witnessing to the truth of God’s promises and the redemption of Christ to our salvation, LGBT and heterosexual.

The Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition is comprised of Affirmation Methodists for LGBTQ Concerns, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Methodist Federation for Social Action, National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, Native American International Caucus, Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities.

The time for what was supposed to be “holy conversation” in small groups (6-8 people around a table, 60 people to a room) on the subject of human sexuality on April 25 was reduced from its scheduled 55 minutes (of a total of more than 110 hours in the convention, excluding worship!) because preceding agenda items ran overtime.  The time allotted did not comport with the enormity of the issues and the diametric disparity of feelings, positions and thoughts.  In some of the rooms for these conversations, brutal, hurtful, and disrespectful things were reported to have been said at tables.  This was serious enough for the bishop presiding over the next day’s meeting to grant personal privilege to address the convention to an openly gay delegate to the convention, Mark Miller.

Mark said the following:  “As an elected, credentialed member of this General Conference, I am offering my voice to say that the attempt at Holy Conversation about Human Sexuality yesterday was incomplete. The process failed because of a lack of leadership and oversight. It failed because there wasn’t any careful preparation that really respects people and takes this work seriously.
    “So we are standing as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender delegates. Yesterday the United Methodist Church did us harm. When we are harmed, the church is harmed. We serve at every level of the church though no one will admit it. We were bullied, emotionally, spiritually and physically. And no one did anything. We were harmed by the lack of leadership by the bishops. We abide by Wesley’s rule of Do No Harm and that rule was broken.
     “We are standing because we’re not going to wait for broken promises to fix themselves. We’ve learned that in this church waiting doesn’t work. So now we’re being proactive. It’s time for this church to live our resurrection faith. And I know that there are others delegates who are GLBT and delegates who have family members and colleagues who are GLBT.  We invite you to stand with us at this moment. All means all. Stand. Stand, because we can do a lot better.”

The bishop presiding ruled the witness-by-standing out of order but acknowledged that things could have gone better with the “holy conversations.”  The bishop who delivered the sermon in the worship that evening said he wanted “the church to include all, whomever they love.”  Following the worship, advocates for full inclusion lined the spaces outside the doors of the worship space in silence, so that the delegates walked through a silent protest.

The UMC News Service story on this is worth a read:

On Wednesday, May 2, members of the coalition moved from the Visitors area to the floor of the convention and held a MIC CHECK demonstration, now so effective as a means of amplifying a message without electronic means.  Their message:  “The General Conference has broken Wesley’s general rule by doing harm to young adults, people of color, gay and lesbian people, women, and others. Confusion has taken the place of holy conferencing. Legalism has obscured love. Fear has silenced faith.
    “But even though the action of General Conference and the inaction of our other leadership has done great harm, we will always be a part of God’s Church. We are done waiting.
    “By waiting, more harm is done. We are centered in the gospel. We are grounded in the gospel, we are joyful in the gospel, we are people committed to following Jesus Christ to embody God’s love and justice through The United Methodist Church.
    “We will work passionately for racial justice. We will embody full inclusiveness for people of all sexual orientations. We will celebrate people of all gender identities. We are global, connectional, and repentant of colonialism. We will be a people of peace. We will proclaim the stewardship of creation joyfully. We will strive for economic justice.
    “This is what it means to be United Methodist.
    “We are here, we will remain in this church as long as we can preach the gospel and faithfully make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of us all.”

On May 3, during the debate, Bishop Minerva Carcano, finding the debate “painful,” moved from her position on the dais with the other bishops to outside the bar separating the visitors from the delegates to join the demonstrators.  She said, “The language was cruel, the language was unchristian, the spirit was unholy. It is time, it is truly time for The United Methodist Church to be an inclusive church, it is time for us to leave behind our power struggles, our limitations, the limitation of not being able to see the fullness of God’s children and God’s community, the fullness of the body of Jesus Christ. It is
time to be about ministry.”

After debate, the Convention voted 61% to retain the current stance on homosexuality in the Book of Discipline, the “incompatibility with Christian teaching” stance.  By a similar margin the Convention voted to reject a resolution that offered a compromise wording saying Methodists could live together as a church despite their disagreements on the subject of homosexuality, a concept similar to the resolution passed at our 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

Following these votes, activists from the coalition gathered in the hall, sang, and began distributing communion.  The bishop presiding cancelled the rest of that morning’s plenary session, dismissed the delegates to lunch and closed the convention hall to visitors – referring to the demonstrators as a “security concern” and a source of confusion.  The bishop presiding said, when asked from the floor, that the decision to close the hall to all but delegates had come from the Conference Secretary.  After the delegates had left, the lights in the room were shut off.  The activists stayed in the darkened room, singing. Subsequently, it was announced that all further legislation was postponed and would be referred to the Agenda and Calendar group.  Leaders of the demonstrations were told that the legislation was postponed to prevent further harm to LGBT people and their friends.

The General Convention ended with no further legislation on human sexuality being considered.

Was this all doom and defeat?  No.  As we know, every time you witness you reach new people, change some of them.  You gain, until finally the righteousness of this cause, the rectitude of equality, the realization of the harm to Christ’s message and the body of Christ becomes apparent to sufficient numbers of people to change the policies of oppression.

There are positive aspects to what happened in Tampa.  The witness of so many, hundreds, was truly the work of the Spirit.  And in the end, they are unbowed and undaunted by the events of this Convention.

Anticipated efforts to bar transgender people from membership in the UMC did not even make it out of committee and were never presented on the floor of the convention.

The sight of UMC Bishop Melvin Talbert and Rev. Bruce Robbins, together with 13 other UMC bishops and hundreds of pro-equality Methodists from the coalition and allies, publically calling for biblical obedience which may necessitate ecclesiastical disobedience, is a wonderful sign of the strength of the Spirit’s influence to right a wrong and put the UMC on the path to full inclusion.  This call to action will surely reverberate across the four years to the next General Convention.

The Love Your Neighbor Coalition said in a statement that it “continues to see signs of progress, even in the midst of the disappointment of this General Conference. The conversation about the faith of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and allies has gone deeper and broader than ever before.”  They said they will begin preparations for the 2016 General Convention.

We continue our prayers and well-wishes for the success of the continued struggle of our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church.

Phil Soucy
Director Communications LC/NA