by Rev. Will Green
This year my Annual Conference featured a panel of five bishops who took questions about The Commission on the Way Forward, the special session of General Conference and the future of our denomination. With no disrespect to the bishops, the whole thing was pointless. For the most part, they just weren’t that well informed about the decades long movement for justice for LGBTQ people, about the process of the last few years leading into the special session, or about what the implications of “unity” will mean going forward. To add to the frustration, because this event was taking place in New England, these were all liberal bishops and the audience applauded every time someone said the word “inclusive”. It was typical. There was little to distinguish this panel from any of the others just like it that have taken place over the last 25 years.
At about 9:00pm, I got to ask the last question. Instead of just addressing the panel, I said that I had some questions for all of us in the room. I also thought these were good questions to end the evening, because they are the type of questions that we need to think about, to sleep on, to pray about…
Here are the four questions. Now they are for you. I think you’ll see how they build on each other.
How do you know when you have been compromised?
What moral principles, if any, do you value more than church unity?
What personal risks are you afraid to take?
How would you act if you were free?
I’ll admit that the first question about compromise might sting a little. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Honestly, I was trying to shake the bishops on the panel somewhat and shift the tone from questions like “Do you think the One Church model will pass?” to actual self-reflection. Furthermore, if the panel really believed the platitudes about ‘justice’ and ‘inclusion’ they kept repeating, how could they possibly not know that their values and beliefs have been compromised by their commitment to this institution and their role as bishops? This first question presents such a low level threshold of basic self-awareness that I can’t imagine starting anywhere else.
But more important than asking someone else on a panel to answer such questions, is asking myself. What United Methodist hasn’t honestly wondered, “Can I be true to what I believe and be a member of this church?” But when do we ever have time and space to explore our own responses and all that this sort of discernment brings up for us?
The point of this question is not to bash the church or dump on bishops! Neither is the point to get defensive about our commitments nor to jump to anxiety about leaving. (I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve tried to ask questions like this and I instantly get smothered with people saying things like “Are you LEAVING? Will you join the UCC?”) We spend so much time trying to be savvy and strong and win votes and defend our existence that we just don’t know how to go deep with one another or ourselves.
It seems to me, and I could of course be wrong, that there is no reason to believe the special session of General Conference will turn out any differently than any of the other General Conferences in my lifetime. This means we need to ask ourselves what we are doing, how we are living, and why.
These questions, and other new questions we ask ourselves, might show us a new way.
I’ll leave you with these questions one more time. Please take them seriously.
How do you know when you have been compromised?
What moral principles, if any, do you value more than church unity?
What personal risks are you afraid to take?
How would you act if you were free?
Amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church intended to affirm and protect women and girls narrowly failed. A variety of explanations have surfaced and voting patterns also raise questions about voting processes.
Pained, yet resolute, responses have come forth from female bishops and organizations such as the Commission on the Role and Status of Women, United Methodist Women, and even United Methodist Men. At question is how the equality of women, given the ever increasing leadership of women, could have been missed yet one more time in 2018. Another question that begs an answer is why the entire Council of Bishops did not issue its own episcopal response to this failure to affirm the equality of people who identify as women.
We received important information about why the amendment failed when the United Methodist News Service interviewed Rev. Randy Burbank, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Alabama (a U.S. conference that defeated the first amendment). “On the surface it seems innocuous, but without a traditional explanation of those terms it would have opened the door to acceptance of people’s sexual orientation as a means of identifying gender.” This was further seen in the UMNS article when Rev. Taylor Walters Denyer, an ordained elder in the North Katanga Conference (a central conference that defeated the motion) agreed, “some no votes came because people feared that they were a legal trick for opening a door to full LGBTQ inclusion.”
Here we see with clarity that the reason why the amendment on the equality of women failed relates to why LGBTQ equality perpetually fails to be affirmed. The reason is patriarchy and the affirmation of the hierarchical superiority of gendered maleness that lies at the heart of Christian tradition. The reason is sexism. The reason is misogyny. The reason is trans/homophobia. The reason is Christian theology where God is male, and where God is the head of man, and man the head of woman, gender-complementarity, and so on. THIS formulation is what is at stake for the right-wing forces of our denomination and why the “women’s equality” amendment failed.
Rev. Dr. Tiffany Steinwert of the New England Conference commented, “It is all indicative of a hegemonic, heteropatriarchy. If God is male, then the male is God. These ideas are connected and dependent one on the other.” She went on to note, “I am disappointed in the responses of many in the church that, after the failure of the amendment, only highlighted equity for women. The reality is that this amendment was defeated because of concerns this would also include queer folks. To highlight equality for women and not name the (not-very-hidden) disdain, disregard, and marginalization of the queer community undermines every call for justice.”
Beyond this latest insult to people who identify as women by General and Annual Conference leaders, there lies a whole web of leadership unable to name harms that are being done and to stand in solidarity with every individual and group of people marginalized by the violence of patriarchy and its attendant sexism, transphobia and heterosexism/homophobia. Those leaders, particularly bishops, who are risk-averse to naming harm have boxed themselves and the whole denomination into a cage of their own constructing that will allow pockets of one discrimination or another to continue infecting the whole body and failing to name the intersections.
Without constitutional affirmation, women and girls will continue to be at risk if they are in a pocket of discrimination within a currently proposed One Church model. The likelihood is that any context that will discriminate against women will also be discriminating against LGBTQ+ persons.
Love Prevails acknowledges the affirmation “She Prevails” as attempting to right the wrongs of sexism. Nonetheless we are committed to the even more fundamental affirmation that gender differences are of no account in the eyes of God. We affirm the gendered body and the a-gendered, non-binary, Queer body and spirit. We call for an expansive and expanding understanding and appreciation of the wideness of an Image of God. While a re-vote may be in order, a first act of necessary affirmation is the very simple removal of “incompatibility” from The United Methodist Book of Discipline with no provisos for a local option to discriminate.
Press releases are by nature an act of propaganda. What follows is a reflection by Wesley White on the press release of the United Methodist Bishops after their decision of what they will send on to General Conference 2019.
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CHICAGO – United Methodist bishops, meeting in Chicago, engaged in a prayerful process to discern a way forward. At the conclusion of the discernment process, the Council of Bishops strongly approved the following motion and rationale:
While prayer may have been a component of the process intensions of United Methodist bishops, the over-riding issue is the reality of political differences within the Council of Bishops. With this in question it is difficult to assess what weight to give to “strongly approved”.
Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes:
The work of the Commission resulted from the process it followed from insufficient presence of LGBTQ+ persons to too many bishops. It was a creature of the bishops and returned an expected result from its design.
All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council.
Three plans represents a failure of leadership by the bishops who were given permission to lead. This leaves everything in the hands of a General Conference historically unable to deal with such competing choices.
The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan.
This will test the claim that the “church” will likely follow the bishop’s recommendation that lets the bishops off the hook and places any blame squarely on Gen. Conf.
An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.
This is one place still available for the bishops to show leadership. Unfortunately their track record through secrecy and stacking the process leaves much to be desired.
Rationale: In order to invite the church to go deeper into the journey the Council and Commission have been on, the Council will make all the information considered by the Commission and the Council of Bishops available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges there is support for each of the three plans within the Council. The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans. The majority of the Council recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for The United Methodist Church.
Given the secret nature of the process to this point, there is no telling what information will be left out or selectively left in. Support for all three plans is likely present. At question is what that support looks like and whether it will be noted in the information given. While there is undoubtedly some value in each of the three plans and others not noted, a recommendation by a majority (with no numbers) is not reflected in putting all three forward. The unspoken details that kept this from a single recommendation will be magnified in General Conference political maneuvering.
Guided by the mission, vision and scope document, the bishops agreed to recommend the One Church Plan. This plan provides conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context while retaining the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.
The “mission, vision, scope” document has numerous assumption difficulties. When faced with the pressures of decision-making by a body that is not already unified in “mission, vision, scope” we will be facing a test between context and connection resulting in the worst of both left standing.
This plan also encourages a generous unity by giving United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions. The One Church Plan removes the restrictive language of the Book of Discipline and adds assurances to pastors and Conferences who due to their theological convictions cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
A connectional church requires flexibility in its parameters of unity or it freezes in time and becomes irrelevant. This however only protects those who will continue discriminatory behavior on church members, ordinands, and pastors. It puts at risk both children and adults in those contexts and fails to recognize that children will be born into those settings only to be later kicked out.
The Council’s discernment process was guided by the over-arching desire to strategically help the General Conference do its work and to honor the General Conference’s request for the Council to help the church find a way forward.
This is false on the face of it. General Conference is never aided by the addition of minority reports that we have historically put in an advantageous position over majority vision. The bishops have failed the test they were given.
“With convicted humility, bishops want to be pastors and shepherds of the whole church in order to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible and with as much contextual differentiation as possible,” said newly installed Council of Bishops President Ken Carter.
“Convicted humility” is one of those god-speak phrases pulled out to cover the bishops as they fall back into their old mantra of, “We don’t have any power to affect change.” This is a failure of a vision of an expansive unity that recognizes change has already happened and we are still trying to protect those who do harm. This is our “pedophilia” scandal—not protecting LGBTQ+ children and youth.
The bishops expressed deep appreciation for the diligent work that the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward did in formulating the three plans: the Traditionalist Plan, the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.
The Commission on a Way Forward has, as intended, provided cover for the bishops to come up with the worst of all possible recommendations—everything is on the table, particularly the lives of LGBTQ+ persons.
While the bishops recommended the One Church Plan, they affirmed that the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditionalist Plan held values that are important to the life and work of the church and will be included in the final report to the Special Session of General Conference that the bishops have called for Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA.
It would be helpful to know what values are seen in the Traditionalist Plan other than a restriction on God’s ability to distribute gifts for ministry wherever God desires, which only keeps pockets of discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons alive and well. In such contexts both present and future harm is being done to individuals and to the church as a connectional body.
Bishop Carter, who served as one of the moderators of the Commission, said the bishops are adopting a spirit of collaboration with the Commission, and an attitude of respect for the delegations who will take up this work on behalf of the whole church.
It is the interlocking directorate of moderating the Commission and becoming president of the Council that keeps this from a partnership with those persons at risk. Once again LGBTQ+ persons are on the menu, but not at the table. This “respects” current power, not help for the hurting.
“The Council’s prayerful deliberation reflected the diversity of the global denomination on the matter of homosexuality and many other matters. The Council affirms the strength of this diversity and our commitment to maintain the unity of the church,” Bishop Carter said.
“Prayerful deliberation” is another code word for status quo. If prayer has no noticeable effect on turning harm to good, it is an illusion pretending closed eyes can see the pain of a neighbor. Instead, bowed heads are ready to weep over those killed by their policies, but never stand for justice.
Full details of the plans and accompanying legislative proposals will be released as soon as final editing of the entire report is completed and translated into the official languages of the General Conference. It is estimated this will be no later than July 8.
This is what makes Press Releases like this so frustrating. Anything can be projected here and never make a difference because the real stuff will come months later. It is no estimate to be finished by July 8 because that is required by the church’s own rules. This sort of false data calls all the other speculation into question.
In a video recorded after the meeting, Bishop Ough explains the Council of Bishops’ decision to recommend the One Church Plan as a way forward for The United Methodist Church. Watch the video here.
The gist of the video explaining the One Church Plan basically says that we ended up where we began, trying to talk ourselves into being one body with a major single-issue difference. What has been released so far gives no confidence that the heresy of “incompatibility” will be actually be removed nor that a standard of differing gifts will be honored.
Members of Love Prevails are present at the Council of Bishops meeting this week in Chicago. Support their work here.
Opening worship at the Council of Bishop’s meeting where the secret of the Way Forward will be finalized, but probably not yet revealed until July, opened with a call for “respect”. The first hymn included the words, “where color, scorn or wealth divide”. Here the biggie is “scorn” covered by the great politeness of privilege.
The text for the service as Mark 10:35-52. James and John, “disciples” both, asked for a shortcut to sit at Jesus’ right and left. Bartimaeus, beggar, asked for mercy even while being told to shush. The over-riding question was never explicitly asked—Who is asking for mercy and who is saying, “Shut up!”? This question would go a long way to clarifying the choice before the bishops, but was left unasked. Presumably good leaders would hear it under the load of all the sermonic words.
Of course that poses a problem as President of the Council, Bruce, was clear that the Council is a “group of leaders” based on their own local electability and tribal experience and that this week’s goal is to develop into “a leadership group” (because he expected that the UMC would follow where they led). This seems like a large leap.
Among the disappointing soundbites was that the work of the week was to not attend to “one issue” but the “one way” (as though the LGBTQ+ “issue” is outside the Jesus way). There was also the expectation that the church and world were watching what the bishops come up with. Things have been so secretive that there is a great question about whether the bishops have become as invisible as the Emperor’s Clothes.
As Love Prevails is present in the hallways and for the 15 minutes of “devotion” during the next week, we would appreciate your support for the expenses we are incurring. You can go to the Donate page at LovePrevailsUMC.com. Thank you.
April 17, 2018
Dear Bishop Ough,
It came to my attention that you hadn’t received a copy of my recently published monograph Nothing About Us Without Us: LGBTQ Liberation and The United Methodist Church. I wrote this article upon an invitation to participate in the most recent GBHEM Colloquy on Missio Dei and the future of the United Methodist Church. I have included a copy of the book with a hard copy of this letter.
To prepare for writing this essay, I looked over every communication Love Prevails had with the Connectional Table (CT) and the Council of Bishops (COB) from 2012-2016. I reviewed every event documented by video during that same period. As I mined that documentation for information, I relived a lot of those events. This re-visitation caused me to realize how constant your presence has been in Love Prevails’ journey. Your presence and reactions were an underlying thread linking the progression of Love Prevails’ work as we attempted to disrupt the narrative and practice of LGBTQ exclusion at the heart of our denomination’s life.
I remembered that I wrote a personal, handwritten letter to you after the first time Love Prevails disrupted the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table meetings in November of 2013. I came across a photocopy. In it, I described my experience of singing the names of LGBTQ leaders who had been lost to the denomination over a CT leadership report that was being read. You intervened to get the members of the CT to stand and collectively shout the report over my singing. Which didn’t work. Eventually, Ms. Cythia Kent intervened to stop the meeting, and the group ended up having some fairly substantive conversations that day.
In my handwritten letter to you following that meeting, I shared:
What I really want to say to you is, in the midst of all that disruption and conversation, I really felt like you were trying. You were trying to be open, you were trying to let the Spirit do something, you were trying to give many people voice. I appreciated the way you articulated not to blame Love Prevails for bringing a conversation to the table that, you admitted, was being avoided. I appreciate you were doing your best to listen, to be flexible, respectful. I hope that you feel, like I did, that the Spirit really was present there moving us to something new, deeper.
I do think that Spirit-moment was fairly fleeting, however. It didn’t take long for the group to return to institutional equilibrium and institutional speech. But the moments remained the moments, and perhaps they will have an effect going forward. Perhaps not.
I also liked your sermon. PRAY. RISK. BREATHE. I’m afraid I do not see or experience too much of the second one from church leaders, particularly from bishops. I hope one day, Bishop Ough, on this matter of heterosexism and LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC, that I will see you RISK. I don’t know what that would look like for you, but I hope to know it when it happens.
It is remarkable how accurately that letter portrays the trajectory of my experience as a member of Love Prevails. While our actions are regarded as controversial and we may have acted imperfectly, I testify to the presence of the Spirit in many of our Disruptive moments, which activated the possibility of changing The Book of Discipline into the reality we are currently living as a denomination. Because you have also been there at all of those moments I believe you know that I am telling the truth.
In every case of the spirit sparking change, the return to institutional equilibrium, institutional speech and institutional processes inevitably came. I contend to you the following. You, as the primary leader interacting with us over time, recognized the unpredictability of our actions and the potential of the Spirit, through Love Prevails, to break through and break down the institutionalization of oppression that is anathema to the Spirit’s being. At some point, you and others decided that institutional leadership and processes could no longer tolerate those Disruptions. So you decided to militarize your meetings beginning at the Council of Bishops’ meetings in Oklahoma City in 2014 and going forward. This is now the standard practice for all Commission on the Way Forward (CWF) meetings.
For a while you tolerated us. For a few meetings you actually welcomed us. But that could only last so long because our presence forced the institution to deal with its hatred and homophobia too forcefully and too quickly. Dealing with us was, despite your stated consistency over time in asking others to do take risks, too risky. Institutionally, you became unable to respond with anything other than force and the exclusion of executive sessions. I am truly sorry that you could not consider how to be in relationship with Love Prevails more creatively, despite our many overtures and invitations. I suspect you think that these invitations felt too much like demands for your liking. My own experience of them was more like cries and songs.
Sadly, what I have felt from you since those early days, in relation to Love Prevails, is a hardening and building of walls rather than a loosening of bonds. I feel quite certain that you personally believe that all of the language that discriminates against LGBTQ people should be removed from the Book of Discipline and that exclusion and discrimination should end. Yet you have not led in such a way to state unequivocally and prophetically your belief and lead the church in this direction. You are not alone in this. The simple majority of bishops who also hold the same personal views about LGBTQ inclusion and changing the Discipline are all walking around with some intense moral injury, as you sometimes silently and sometimes actively perpetrate viscous forms of the harm that you hypocritically say you decry. You may respond that I do not know what goes on behind closed doors. Which is the nature of the problem itself, and a failure of transparency that the bishops promised, which fell from your lips, upon the creation of an offering of a way forward.
Currently much of our episcopal leadership bears witness to your episcopal vows to unify the church while it simultaneously bears false witness against the LGBTQ people you know full well to be fully equal children of God. I feel sorry that you are bound to uphold the laws which burden you with the maintenance of a church literally hell-bent on the retaining the vestiges of “homosexuality as sin” when you know the truth to be otherwise. I don’t accuse you alone of this false witness. I collectively accuse you episcopal leaders who refuse to bear up your collective courage to turn this ship towards an unequivocally clear statement of equality for LGBTQ people in this denomination, and to end the categorical discrimination. If you wanted to, you actually could do this together. If this does not happen, it is a collective failure of your moral and political will.
I hear rumors that the bishops’ proposal for unity may unite around the complete removal of the incompatibility language in our Book of Discipline. In the end, if the currently circulating CWF/COB proposals refuse to uphold in practice the theological commitments we make at our membership vows in and the promises we make to every human we baptize to “resist oppression in whatever form it presents itself,” the entire church enterprise shows up as a morally bankrupt witness within its own walls and beyond. Everyone knows this.
This upcoming Council of Bishops meeting to formalize a proposal to General Conference 2019 is historic. This is your opportunity, Bruce Ough, to lead in condemning oppression towards LGBTQ persons in the strongest of terms. Since all of your substantive meetings are behind closed doors, your leadership may never be known to us, but it will be known to you. I hope you will RISK. I hope I will see and know it when it happens. I am nonetheless sadly cynical that you, or most of our episcopal leaders, will lead in ways that lead to the end of formal discrimination towards LGBTQ people in the UMC and towards equality. I sincerely invite you and all other bishops to prove me completely wrong. I truly mean this.
This is a personal letter to you that I will make public. I do not except your response, though I invite it. If you do respond, know that I am likely to make it public.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
Rev. Dr. Julie Todd, the John Wesley Senior Adjunct Lecturer in Justice and Peace Studies at the Iliff School of Theology and a Love Prevails member, was invited to write a paper for a colloquy on Missio Dei and The United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness. This colloquy on mission was related to the Commission on The Way Forward and its work regarding human sexuality and unity of the church. More than 30 papers from seminary professors and bishops were presented and discussed.
Julie presented her paper, Nothing About Us Without Us: LGBTQ Liberation and The United Methodist Church, in Group 2 that also included four other professors and Bishops Scott Jones and Hope Morgan Ward. When the time came for the groups to report to the whole colloquy, Julie’s paper was highlighted (see Group 2 Summary below).
Five additional members of Love Prevails were present as observers and had their own impact.
You can have a signed paperback version of Julie’s paper by donating generously to Love Prevails https://loveprevailsumc.com/donate/ (click “Comment” and add your address) or purchase your own regular copy at https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-About-Without-Liberation-Methodist/dp/0991100557/.
Group 2 – main points or questions:
- Julie Todd’s paper, and the pain associated with it, served as a catalyst for a deeper authentic, and honest conversation.
- Do our conversations regarding the transformative restructuring of this denomination, or the forces that are seeking to diminish our community of social justice, lead to an increased feeling of despair or death? So, is this denomination fundamentally afraid of death? If so, do we no longer believe in resurrection or new life? In our struggle for life, who are we willing to sacrifice? What are the signs of life in our midst and what does being alive look like?
- How do we keep the value of the “connection” without a hierarchical structure.
- What is the nature of the table? Who is present at the table? Who gets to determine who is at the table? Why have the voices of the LGBTQ community not been included in the framing of this colloquy, the work of the Commission, and the larger UMC community? Breaking the rules of the colloquy led to the kind of conversation that emerged in this group, an in-breaking of the kindom.
- We have to recognize that the process of the colloquy and the Commission is a system of intentional disempowerment of the LGBTQ community and the conversation itself. How can we talk about or act upon about a UMC Missio Dei without first acting upon this unjust reality in our system?
- A malformed theology leads us to exclusion, but a well-formed generous theology of abundant love can lead us to a just welcome.
- We have not articulated what the transformation of the world really means, what does it look like? How do we distinguish between colonial, violent, exclusionary forms of transformation from life-giving, loving, grace and Spirit-filled transformation?