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

Posts tagged ‘general conference’

God Will Delight…

Last Sunday morning, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women celebrated its 40th anniversary in worship. The service was uplifting and inspiring as witnesses gave thanks for the work faithful United Methodists have been carrying out toward the empowerment of women in the church and world, at the same time that they raised challenges and urged the church to press onward still toward the vision of gender justice.

I led the reading of the day’s psalm and so was up on the platform throughout the service. From there, I watched as the gathered community streamed through the lines to receive communion. My eyes welled up as I watched friends and fellow sojourners pass through, some of whom I have gotten to know through our work together on the board of GCSRW these past four years, some new friends, and some old. I gave thanks that we journey together, sharing gifts and offering grace as we learn in connection what it means to be the fullness of the Body of Christ.

I cannot quite explain the tears, for they fell with more than gratitude. I am not sure what it means yet to say this, but I felt also that this was a sort of good-bye. After 40 years, it appeared the General Conference was poised to close down GCSRW, combining it with the General Commission on Religion and Race and reducing its status to that of a committee (which indeed came to pass on Wednesday, May 2).

But also, I felt some sense of farewell with respect to the whole church. I do not mean that I intend personally to leave. Rather, The United Methodist Church I have known is no more.

This General Conference has been marked by a fear of the future, by fear that there will be no future without changing course. Imagining a new path forward has largely centered around institutional restructuring and the development of new practices aimed at equipping local churches for vital ministry to transform the world.

There is another shift, however, that may very well change the culture of The United Methodist Church. We have known deep divisions on many issues throughout our Methodist tradition, and perhaps the defining debate at this moment is around sexuality. This is not new. But what has begun clearly to develop is the opportunity for those opposed to any change of the status quo to consolidate power as the number of African delegates, who tend to be socially conservative, increases with the growth of The UMC in Africa.

At this General Conference, efforts not just to maintain present policies but to make them even more restrictive have been finding success. Quite surely there are those who believe that this will allow the church to be more faithful biblically and theologically. And for such persons, this General Conference may seem good news, perhaps even a building block to growing the church once again.

But there are many faithful United Methodists who know God’s love and grace in and through the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. We know from scripture that the work of true disciples will bear good fruit, and so we recognize as holy the goodness that is evidenced through the lives and ministry of LGBT Christians.

Though the General Conference has once again refused officially to acknowledge our division on this issue, the disagreement is undeniable. Thus, seeking greater constraints of the full and equal participation of LGBT persons in The United Methodist Church seems an effort to wield the power of majority votes in order to dominate others and silence dissent.

In this way, I sense the spiritual death of the church, not just because people do not agree with me but because our differences are effaced. If we are organized not so as to live in the richness of our diversity but in order to enforce “unanimity,” if we seek further to alienate our LGBT neighbors and friends, if we cannot commit significant resources to the work of gender and racial justice, if we cannot engage one another theologically but talk past each other with the knowledge that we do or do not “have the votes,” then we have failed to be the Body of Christ. And we have ceased to live biblically insofar as we find modeled in the bible the holding together of disparate ideas and practices.

This feeling emerged most palpably for me during one of the communion hymns at the GCSRW worship service: “For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table.” The refrain declares with unshakable hope, “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion, and peace. Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy.”

I could not sing through the sobs that these words brought. Gathered in that place were so many who have struggled and continue to strive to bring justice and joy into the world. However, in this context, at a conference marked by the consolidation of power and domination, I wonder if The UMC can be a church doing work in which God will delight. I wonder if The UMC will have room at the table that I might sit with those who read this and are not of one mind with me, who are satisfied with the actions of this General Conference. I do not wish for a place in which our differences would be erased but in which they would be honored and through which we might know more fully the vibrant, dynamic diversity of creation.

And so I mourn for a church that feels to me like it has lost its soul…

Yet still, as Christians we believe in a God who brings new life out of death. If the death of The UMC is what we fear, perhaps it is time to expect resurrection.

At the end of the day, Church happens in community. Real life happens, not in a political conference, but in the interactions of neighbors, in the ways we find both joy and pain, encouragement and struggle, hope and despair as we work out what it means to live in relationship with God and with one another.

The policies enacted by the General Conference will have formative and constraining effects on the lives of individuals, churches, and organizations, and this matters greatly. But as always, what matters will be the ways we engage one another in our daily lives when it is not winning a vote that is at stake but coexistence. It will be away from General Conference where we will or will not make choices to form bonds of mutuality, care, and understanding.

The real soul of the movement of people called Methodists will always be known in and through justice and joy when they are made manifest. And in these moments, God will surely delight.

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Who is Being Compromised?

Coming into the 2012 General Conference, delegates had before themselves various plans to restructure the institutional church so as to most “effectively” create and sustain “vital congregations.” (I use quotes because I begin to lose the sense that such words have any meaning as they become cliché. Nevertheless, the issue of restructuring to meet the needs of the 21st-century church is truly important work.)

The legislative committee charged with making a recommendation rejected every single plan (some in the last fifteen minutes before the enforced conclusion of committee work). They rejected compromise proposals. So this week, around 1,000 delegates will start at nearly the same place the smaller committee began.

If I seem to be lacking faith in the process, my sentiments are being read correctly. The fact of the matter is that now back-room deals have been made to come up with compromises that delegates might approve.

But who is at the table? And who is being compromised? I will wait to see the names associated with the proposal, but the answer as to who has been engaged in this process will probably not satisfy those who are committed to inclusion and justice.

The compromise proposal that was submitted this afternoon so that delegates can read the petition tomorrow and vote on Wednesday combines the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race and essentially strips all of their functions except monitoring. That is, this new “Committee on Inclusivity.”

But there are compelling, significant reasons not to compromise GCSRW and its work.

First of all, reducing GCSRW to a “committee” undercuts its ability actually to monitor the church effectively. A small office, lodged under a larger Center, cannot speak truth to power at the highest levels of the church and hold the churchwide structures accountable (especially not the Center overseeing it).

Secondly, the compromise proposal fails to deal adequately with the need for the church to enact comprehensive sexual ethics policies and practices in order to prevent and address the problem of sexual misconduct. GCSRW has been facilitating this work now for years and has become a trusted partner of bishops, district superintendents, local churches, and, importantly, victim-survivors. No other agency of the church is equipped to seek fair process for both victim-survivors and the accused since other entities are primarily invested in protecting the clergy or church assets. When people feel that they have been treated fairly, they are less likely to sue the church. And with a current budget of less than $1 million per year, if only one lawsuit is prevented, GCSRW has paid for itself. Reducing GCSRW will save the church little and could cost it significantly.

Third, GCSRW was formed 40 years ago because the UMC committed itself to the idea that gender justice is not just women’s work but the work of the whole church. Addressing gender discrimination and institutional sexism is not nearly complete, especially as the UMC grows in places of the world where women are not always permitted to participate as full and equal members. If we are to be a global church, we have a responsibility to continue and even expand efforts to empower women worldwide.

When considering this structural compromise, the UMC ought to be prepared to answer, “Who is being compromised?” and then to respond out of a Gospel commitment to be in ministry with and for all, especially the most vulnerable.

Rest assured that the staff of GCSRW is working hard with delegates to maintain the Commission as a free-standing, independent monitoring and advocacy agency.

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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.

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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