Saturday, May 21, 2016

Thinking Out Loud About the UMC General Conference...

Thinking out loud about the UMC General Conference… The decision at the UMC General Conference to defer the conversation on human sexuality to a Special Commission to be appointed by the Council of Bishops has been embraced in a multitude of ways. There are those who are grateful for the decision for the Council of Bishops to lead the way forward in discerning the UMC position on human sexuality generally and the question of LGBTQ clergy and members. And there are those who are deeply disappointed. And there is a wide range in the middle. Here are some of my thoughts. There were many who were hopeful that the decisions of this General Conference would give direction to those who continue to wait for some definitive decision. There are thousands of LGBTQ individuals, both clergy and lay church members, whose lives are completely restricted under the weight of the current policy and who yearned for some decision out of this General Conference. Many were waiting for an answer from the church, so they could have some finality on the church’s position and thus they could make informed decisions about their next steps: stay or leave. For many this waiting is filled with anxiety, shame, secrecy with their congregations by remaining in the closet and having to suffer in silence, to name only a few of the issues. One can sense from this laundry list of hurt, the personal and emotional injury that continues as they hang in limbo, until a decision is made. There are now those 100+ clergy that came out to the General Conference as LGBTQ. Their future is in the balance until a decision is made and they are now vulnerable to being defrocked and wounded even more by their exposure. I am sure this list includes clergy who were not “out” before this letter was public, and because of their courage are at greater risk in their congregations and conferences. While the statement from the Council of Bishops states that they will work at “ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm” there are no words that guarantee complaints, trials and harm will not continue to arise at this point. There is a concern that I have around the over-arching goal of the Council of Bishops, which is to allow “for a variety of expressions to co-exist in one church…to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other rather than separation from one another.” Of course unity is a goal, but not at the expense of truth and justice. No matter how much we wish that unity could be our ultimate goal, there are times when the need for justice outranks the call for unity. For example, the UMC declared in 1968 that women would be ordained in the UMC. That decision was the just decision and thus the UMC lived more truthfully into the call to be a Christ-like community. Thus, to be a UMC congregation, you must be a congregation that allows women to be clergy. There are many denominations that still do not allow women to be ordained, but they cannot be United Methodist congregations. We do not live in “unity” at the expense of that justice decision. It should be the same with LGBTQ people. Justice and liberation for LGBTQ people and their allies should outrank our need for “unity.” If unity continues to oppress, dis-affirm and damage those marginalized by the church’s policy, our Christ-likeness is a fraud. A further concern is that the vote was very close by the assembly to even invite the Council of Bishops into this conversation and to defer to their leadership. There is no guarantee that once the Special Commission of Council of Bishops makes a recommendation, it will be approved by some future General Conference. So while the Special Commission does its work, other factions will be doing theirs, garnering power, votes and alliances. These actions are very destructive and wounding to body politic. Finally, what voices will be allowed to engage the process of the Council of Bishop’s Special Commission. Will the Special Commission appointed by the Council of Bishops be diverse, including a full representation of the LGBTQ community? Will recommendation of the Commission be open to hearing the stories, hurt, pain, and dreams of the marginal? Any conversation that does not engage the marginalized voices seriously is very problematic and smacks of patronization of those impacted most deeply. And unless the ground rules ensure that the conversation is safe for all to participate, and that those pastors and members who speak honestly about their sexuality will not face negative repercussions then the Commission’s work will be severely compromised. I have more concerns, but these are the first that emerge. A somber thought, while this conversation continues, the Church, including all churches and denominations, becomes more and more a folly to the world, preventing many even considering being a part of it. And with that, the liberating, human-enhancing message the church could offer on its best day looses its capacity to transform our world toward wholeness. John

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