On bishops, choices, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit

By Dr. Dorothee Benz

I spent the first part of last week in St. Simons Island, Georgia, crashing the UMC Council of Bishops meeting. I was there as Methodists in New Directions’ national representative at the invitation of Love Prevails along with five members of Love Prevails.

It was a uniquely infuriating experience, a combination of being ignored and erased while being told “you are not forgotten”; listening to pious words about things like “principled Christian leadership” from people who have regularly prosecuted those that actually are principled Christian leaders; and being told that queer people need to “trust the process” – after 44 years in which we’ve been shut out of and betrayed by every process that has decided our fate in the church.

But it is our bishops’ propensity to declare themselves powerless bystanders in a church that they actually govern that most drives me bonkers.

In his president’s address to the Council, Bishop Ough told a story meant to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit makes possible change that our entrenched church bodies and politics seem to make impossible. In the story, a person in the back of a room counters the question “What gives you any hope that we will now or ever change?” with a shouted answer: “THE HOLY SPIRIT!” Bishop Ough concluded his story by saying, “Let us resolve today that this Council of Bishops will be that person in the back of the room of this denomination that rises up in the face of fatalism and despair and pre-determined outcomes and cries out, ‘THE HOLY SPIRIT!’”

I’d be overjoyed if the Council of Bishops ever acted this way, but the evidence that it almost certainly won’t is found in the very imagery of this exhortation: The Council of Bishops is not “in the back of the room of this denomination.” It is the front of the room. Individually, our bishops are the chief executives of the church’s annual conferences, the primary units through which the UMC is organized; collectively, they are the elected leadership body of the church.

If they wanted to, our bishops could change the composition of the euphemistically named  Commission on the Way Forward. They determined its parameters and its members, and they can alter them. Given that the commission’s mandate from the General Conference is (in the bishops’ own words) “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality” and that they have chosen to appoint only two identified LGBTQI people (out of 32) to the commission, such a change is urgently necessary for the commission to have any legitimacy.

The reconstitution of the commission was the demand Love Prevails and Methodists in New Directions made of the Council of Bishops at the outset and throughout their meeting last week. It was clear from every interaction with them that they weren’t remotely willing to consider that. So be it, but let us be clear that this was a choice, and certainly not one that anyone could characterize as a defiance of “predetermined outcomes.”

Every single bishop in the United Methodist connection has the power to stop further prosecutions of LGBTQI people and those who dare to minister to us. It is the resident bishop, after all, who receives complaints and either dismisses them or refers them to counsel for the church to draw up charges. It will not do to protest that they have “no choice” because of the Book of Discipline. They have moral agency, as do we all, and could announce, “I will dismiss all complaints filed based on requirements to discriminate.”

I can hear the cries of incredulity about how that would divide the church. Perhaps. But let us be clear that the choice to enforce requirements to discriminate abandons LGBTQI Methodists while siding with the majority that condemns us. And if that’s the choice you’re going to make, then don’t talk to us about “ris[ing] up in the face of fatalism and despair” while you deepen the despair of the minority you’re throwing under the bus in the name of church “unity.”

And what are we to make of the Council’s near-pathological habit of never acknowledging LGBQTI people by name or honestly identifying the source of division in our denomination: not “human sexuality” but the codified discrimination against people of one particular sexuality? Erasing queer people from mention, like denying us a meaningful voice in the commission, is a choice.

Our episcopal leaders have enormous powers of legitimation. Were they to name us, were they to state plainly that the church discriminates, were they to declare that such discrimination is contrary to the example of Jesus, were they to urge a cessation of threats and complaints against us, it would offer comfort and hope to the oppressed and moral clarity to all. Note that none of this requires action or consent from any other church body; it is all fully in the control of the Council.

If the Council of Bishops wants to enable the Holy Spirit to help the UMC overcome “fatalism and despair and predetermined outcomes,” this would be an excellent place to start. But only hours after Bishop Ough said “let us resolve” to play that role, he dismissed the Council’s afternoon meeting rather than opening it up to the participation of five queer United Methodists (and one straight ally) who were there to talk about the need for the church, after 44 years of legislating about us, to finally talk with us.

Here’s a different anecdote that’s relevant to the Council’s aspiration to let the Spirit move it. It’s about the woman sitting on her roof as the flood waters all around her are rising. She prayed to God to save her. Pretty soon a row boat came by, but she refused to get in, saying, “God will save me.” Then a helicopter dropped a rope ladder down and urged her to climb up off the roof. Again she refused, saying, “God will save me.” The flood waters continued to rise, and she drowned.

When she arrived at the Pearly Gates, she asked God why God hadn’t saved her. And God said, “Well, I sent the row boat… I sent the helicopter…”

Having sat in that Council meeting, having later met with bishops serving on the commission, and finally having jumped up on a chair with a bullhorn to denounce the Council’s intransigence, all without any discernible effect on their actions, I can only conclude that the Council of Bishops would not recognize the prompting of the Holy Spirit if it bit them in the rear.

I have never more fervently hoped to be wrong.

Dorothee Benz is a lifelong Methodist and was a delegate to the 2016 General Conference. She is a founding member of Methodists in New Directions and serves as its national representative. Follow her on Twitter @DrBenz3.

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Love Prevails and MIND disrupt Council of Bishops on November 1

benz-disruptingHere is the statement shared by Dr. Dorothee Benz this morning as the Council of Bishops meeting was again disrupted by members of Love Prevails and MIND. To watch the video, click here.

We feel it is impt to report back on the conversation we had last night with Bishop Ough, members of the commission as currently constituted, and a few others whom we invited to join us:

We began and ended by reiterating the demand, the urgent need for the COB to act with grace and admit its grievous mistake in how it has constituted this commission and to re-constitute it to include 50% LGBTQI people, whereby those people must represent the full, diverse spectrum of our communities, specifically, including people of color and women.

We asked for a response to this demand by 8am. We did not even receive the courtesy of a “no.”

That is why we are here, again, now.

The commission you have formed was mandated by the General Conference – and here I am quoting directly from this council’s statement that was adopted by the GC — “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”

Yet you have excluded LGBTQI people from having a meaningful voice on this commission that will examine the raft of discriminatory rules against us. There are two identified LGBTQI people, out of 32, on the commission, both white cisgender men.

For 44 years, this church has legislated about us, issued judicial rulings curtailing our rights, put us on trial, and studied us nearly to death in three prior commissions, always talking about us, never talking to us, with us.

And now this.

We are told this is not the time or the way to protest.

Well, when is?

Every institutional channel of change in the United Methodist Church is closed to us. At General Conference, there’s an airtight majority that refuses to recognize our humanity. Our Judicial Council rules steadfastly to enforce the rules of discrimination. Our trial courts forbid any defense based on the Gospel call of radical hospitality. Our annual conferences are forbidden to pass resolutions barring discrimination, and are overturned if they do.

This commission was the last chance for LGBTQI people to finally sit at the table and negotiate with those in power about our lives.

And now you have refused that as well.

You talk about doing no harm, yet refuse to use the power you have to stop the harm that is done on a daily basis to LGBTQI people by the system of codified discrimination in the UMC.

You talk about the need for unity, as though authentic unity could ever be built on a foundation denying the rights of queer people, sacrificing us for the goal of institutional preservation, and refusing to even name us in discussions about our very lives because somehow saying queer people exist in the UMC is controversial.

Unity without justice is a false god, and we will not have our lives sacrificed on that altar.

You want to know why the United Methodist Church is in crisis? Look in the mirror.