"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Archive for April, 2012

Being a Global Church is Hard Work

After finally adopting rules of order to govern the proceedings of General Conference (as they were proposed by the rules committee), committee work began this afternoon. I will be serving as a resource person from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women for the Independent Commissions committee. This committee deals with petitions and resolutions related to the UMC’s commissions (GCSRW, Religion and Race, Archives and History, Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, Communications, and UM Men), as well as ecumenical concerns.

Today’s business involved electing officers. Once it got underway, the process went relatively smoothly. However, it was abundantly evident at the start that how we function as a global church is still a growing edge.

It’s hard enough to keep up with parliamentary procedures for English speakers. It must be extraordinarily difficult for those who follow translations transmitted through headsets, especially when people speak quickly and move swiftly from one action to another.

I don’t think there was any willful exclusion, but the bishop presiding over the elections nearly pressed on despite the fact that headsets were not working for delegates who needed translation. Of course, when you ask, “Does everyone who needs translation have translation?” those who would answer the question have not actually understood it. It also took time to recognize that some delegates could not complete their first ballot because they didn’t know how to spell in English the name of the person for whom they wanted to vote; the names had been written on a sheet of paper in the front of the room, too small to see from the back. Again, the bishop nearly closed the first ballot despite the fact that more time had been requested to address this issue.

I’m not sharing this to indict the presiding bishop. Who it was doesn’t matter. I describe the scene because we in the United States must be reminded that the United Methodist Church is a worldwide connection. We are used to conducting business in English among English speakers. But when we gather together with our sisters and brothers from around the world, patience and sensitivity must be exercised to the extreme.

I also share because I was moved by the efforts of a woman who is a board member of GCSRW and Women’s Division, along with a few volunteers from the Common Witness Coalition, who called attention to the needs of the African delegates. My fellow GCSRW board member said to me, “I know we’re not supposed to say anything from the gallery, but somebody has to make sure these delegates can participate!” By getting the attention of the pages and other voting delegates, eventually the issues were raised and the proceedings paused until the challenges could be addressed and all votes counted.

As the elections proceeded, it occurred to me what a beautiful thing it was that no one who spoke up for fair process hesitated to think about how those delegates might vote, to think about whether or not they’re “on our side.” The only issue that mattered was that all people be brought fully into the conversation and all voices be heard. Making room at the table was the first and only priority!

As Methodists, we are part of a tradition rooted in the idea that the right methods practiced over and over again, perfected through mutual accountability, will cultivate right attitudes and relationships. Being a global church is incredibly hard work! Therefore, may we practice inclusion again and again until our table is properly set and inviting for all.

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Silenced Voices

After yesterday’s joint orientation and women’s briefing, at least one delegate raised her voice to answer a question that had been asked throughout the morning: whose stories are not being told? In review of the presentations and conversations, this woman expressed that as a lesbian she felt invisible.

And this is a problem. Current policies that call homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” (Book of Discipline ¶ 161.F) and prohibit any groups that “promote the acceptance of homosexuality” from receiving United Methodist funds (BoD ¶ 806.9) have created a culture of fear and both intentional and unintended exclusion within the institutional church. Yet, the UMC also says, “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (BoD ¶ 162.F).

These tensions produce an environment in which conversations on intersectionality might freely include discussion of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other markers of identity, but adding sexual orientation immediately raises suspicion and confrontation. Is it “promoting acceptance of homosexuality” to acknowledge the very real pain that church policies and politics have caused? But how can we commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons without creating an inviting, open, and safe space that does not begin in condemnation but with faithful listening?

Last night, as delegates began to vote on the rules of order that will govern this General Conference, an amendment was proposed that would prohibit presiding officers from calling for a recess for the purpose of allowing any kind of demonstration or protest. This comes in response to an authorized witness in 2008 by advocates for the full and equal inclusion of LGBTQ persons (parts of which can be seen here and here). (The amendment will be voted on after a recommendation from the rules committee.)

I’m sure such moments of witness are uncomfortable for delegates who vote to maintain the current policies. For many, their votes are based on faithfully held convictions. But exclusion is more than uncomfortable, and that hurt likewise arises out of the conflict of knowing God’s love in a way that is rejected by the church.

A proposal to bar all demonstrations is a refusal to hear particular voices. It is a refusal to recognize the deep distress brought by church actions.

It is one thing to disagree in good faith. It is another to silence those who make us uncomfortable.

After all, the Bible itself holds contradictions in creative tension. Scriptural Christianity, then, is not characterized by unanimity but by diverse opinions and experiences of God.

Whose voices are heard? Whose are not? And how might we listen for and hold one another’s stories in loving care?

Whose Stories are Told?

Significant time at General Conference today was spent in preparation for the work ahead through orientations and various legislative briefings. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, General Commission on Religion and Race, Division on Ministries with Young People, and Women’s Division (United Methodist Women) hosted a joint orientation this morning with the theme of intersectionality.

As individuals, we are characterized by intersecting identities that shape our experiences of the world. We are never our gender alone or our age or race or ethnicity or class, etc., but the fullness of our selves is brought into dynamic interplay with complex others. How then do we honor the vibrant intricacies that constitute our being, affirming the whole humanity of all persons as each has been created by God? This is one of the significant challenges that faces the church in any age.

In this age, we encounter a society that is increasingly young, female, ethnically diverse, and in which more languages are spoken. But the United Methodist Church largely does not reflect this shift. The joint orientation posed to delegates what might be the defining question for a church in transition: how will we prepare now to be the church of the future, a church that makes space for and values the rich intersections of diversity?

Following worship and some thought-provoking presentations on this theme, delegates were given time to meet with others who will be serving on the same legislative committees so as to begin making connections and forming circles of support.

Afterward, the four sponsoring organizations separated for their own legislative briefings. In the women’s briefing hosted by GCSRW and Women’s Division, delegates again met in groups according to legislative committees. Significant time was given to discuss how it is that officers are selected to lead committees and who among those present might be interested in being nominated and serving as officers. The fact of the matter is that, as much as we want to be “good church folk,” this is a political process, and doing effective work requires effective strategy. The real value of this time together was to have honest conversation about how the committee process functions and to begin collaborating so as to foster support for policies and practices that will empower women throughout the church and world.

As an observer, it was heartening and inspiring to recognize a spirit of support and encouragement. I did not get the sense that these women were hoping to manipulate the process toward their ends, nor was there expectation that all would agree on everything. Rather, the gathered women delegates shared their questions and wisdom in order that they might do their work together faithfully and with confidence.

And this is what GCSRW and Women’s Division do: they work to equip women (and men too) to serve fully in the church and world. They do not force opinions but instead encourage critical thinking that starts by asking questions to identify the issues and areas of need. Whose voices are heard? Whose are not? And how do we create space for the sharing of stories yet untold?

GCSRW and Women’s Division truly model for the whole church–not just delegates at General Conference but all persons and congregations–how to ask the questions that will unveil unmet needs and can then lead to transformative action that serves, equips, and empowers all.

Hope for General Conference

As I wait in the airport for my flight to Tampa for 11 days of engaging in conversation, song, prayer, worship, and the quadrennial business of the church with United Methodists from around the world, I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on my hopes for General Conference 2012. There may very well be a spirit of change in the air as the UMC confronts questions and issues that have long been central to the church at the same time that delegates have the immense responsibility of weighing new proposals aimed at institutional restructuring.

Both concerns and affirmations, at least of the idea of some kind of change, abound. I do not wish to engage the finer points of the debate right now. Honestly, I have no particular, detailed vision for what I would hope the church structure and its functions look like at the end of this General Conference. I can truly say I am open to a range of possibilities.

But–and this is the ‘but’ that takes me to Tampa–there are commitments that I earnestly hope the church maintains and even strengthens. I am going to General Conference primarily as a legislative advocate for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (though I am also a reserve delegate for the Iowa delegation). My role will be to answer questions and offer guidance, when invited, on GCSRW legislation, as well as other petitions that might impact women.

Since 1972, the UMC has been encouraged, supported, and challenged by GCSRW to include women fully and equally at all levels of the church. GCSRW has been asking, “Where are women? Where aren’t women? And why?” and proposing structural, policy, and programmatic changes to bring the church closer to its vision of gender equity.

As we consider restructuring the institutional church, I do not automatically discount any proposal that would merge GCSRW with another agency. There are legitimate arguments that the current structure may have served us well decades ago but is not adequate to equip the church for vital ministry in 2012. The agility and potential for increased collaboration within a new configuration might also better serve the global church (something the UMC is still struggling to figure out how to do well). I am open to considering the possibilities.

Yet, I would lament a church that does not continue its intentional commitment to the full and equal participation of United Methodist women throughout the world. Programmatic agencies directed toward nurturing “vital congregations” and “effective ministries” might be sexy; indeed, they might even empower a widespread witness to the gospel (may it be so!). But asking questions like, “Where are women? Where aren’t women? And why?” is just as essential to ensuring that the transformative power of faith is able to be lived out as the Spirit moves and calls through many kinds of bodies, regardless of gender.

And so I go to Tampa with hope that the essential ministries of GCSRW which have been empowering women throughout the UMC for 40 years (Happy Anniversary, GCSRW!!) will be carried forward in an intentional commitment to continue monitoring and advocating for the full participation of women at all levels of the global United Methodist Church.

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