The following letter was sent to the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward in late April 2017. Below the text, a PDF copy of the letter sent is available.
Lost in the Local Option: An Open Letter
In April 2014, due to the efforts of Love Prevails, the Connectional Table began a process to formulate General Conference legislation that would call for the complete removal of all discriminatory language against LGBTQI people in The Book of Discipline. That attempt, however, was internally thwarted and The Connectional Table came to General Conference 2016 with a proposal called the Third Way. Now widely referred to as “The Local Option”, this approach enshrines the geographical discrimination of Queer people in our polity and sets up the highly destructive scenario whereby our very being will be debated and voted on in annual conferences and in our congregations. Such objectification damages the hearts and souls of Queer United Methodists throughout the Connection.
Love Prevails has always opposed The Local Option because it is predicated on the notion that it is morally and theologically defensible to allow continued discrimination within certain geographic locations within our church; thus ecclesially sanctioning the spiritual abuse that accompanies this discrimination.
There are some “progressives” within our denomination who believe that The Local Option is a good and helpful step that with time will eventually and inevitably lead to full inclusion for LGBTQI people. Love Prevails strenuously objects to this kind of thinking. This matter is far too urgent. “More time” translates as more lives lost. We believe that creating pockets of injustice is an intolerable solution which lacks the full force of gospel integrity that will ultimately delay justice for all, rather than hasten it. We see The Local Option as a seductive temptation that will lead to self-satisfaction and complacency.
By now it is quite obvious that the Commission on The Way Forward is the very expensive method by which The Third Way, or The Local Option, will be repackaged. The processes by which The Commission seeks to “listen” to voices across the connection are nothing more than resilience-building sessions for General Conference delegates and annual conferences to desensitize themselves to regionally sanctioned discrimination, the United Methodist’s new normal.
It seems clear that our United Methodist bishops are now moving to more fully support a Local Option because of political, not theological, reasons. Their priority is not justice, but institutional preservation, peddled as “unity.” Their desire to avoid a split and “save the denomination” comes on someone’s back—this time at the expense of Queer United Methodists.
Love Prevails objects to institutional preservation over justice. When we object, it is not only because The Local Option will leave some Queer people dangerously vulnerable; it is not only because there will still be babies rocking in the cradles of anti-queer annual conferences who will grow to discover they are Queer and not want to relocate in order to find a church where they will be welcomed; it is because souls will be lost in The Local Option. Permissive and categorical discrimination kills the souls of LGBTQI people as well as the soul of the church. A church of Jesus Christ cannot survive or thrive with bigotry and intolerance in its heart – and the maintenance of such a church turns the proclamations of Belovedness made at our baptisms into propagandist lies.
Love Prevails is neither for a church split nor against it. We do not advocate for it, but we also do not oppose the possibility. We persistently maintain that the only way forward is to remove all of the discriminatory language from The Book of Discipline. While full inclusion and justice will not happen immediately upon the removal of the language, there is no possibility for imagining real, comprehensive, intersectional justice or any notion of unity without first removing discriminatory language.
Laci Lee Adams
Mary Anne Balmer
Rev. Amy DeLong
Rev. Will Green
Rev. Sue Laurie
Dr. Mary Lou Taylor
Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
Rev. Wesley White
Love Prevails went to Atlanta to observe the first face-to-face meeting of The Commission on (Not) A Way Forward. When we arrived, we were told that the Commission meeting was a closed meeting. In addition, we were informed that we were not allowed to even be in the building. Not even to go to the bathroom.
Hired security prevented any persons not on a pre-approved list of visitors from entering the General Board of Global Ministries Building, where the meeting is being held. Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of the Board of Global Ministries informed members of Love Prevails that in order for leaders of The Commission to approve of holding the meeting at GBGM, GBGM had to promise to put a tight security plan in place to prevent unwanted guests from entering the premises.
United Methodists were denied entrance into a building paid for by United Methodist apportionment dollars.
Pursuant to The United Methodist Book of Discipline, Love Prevails questioned the legality of The Commission being closed. Love Prevails sees this Commission as authorized by General Conference and thus required to be open. We sent a communication to Bishop Ken Carter, one of the co-chairs of The Commission, asking him to clarify the process and justification by which this meeting was closed to public observation.
Bishop Carter sent Love Prevails the following response, which makes reference to a Judicial Council footnote as its justification.
It is dangerous that the Council of Bishops has claimed authority over the entire process of this Commission.
We decry the Council of Bishops for their utter lack of transparency and commitment to maintain the institution over the pursuit of justice and love. The Commission is a farce.
From Bishop Ken Carter:
Dear Leaders of Love Prevails,
Thank you for your inquiry about the January meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward. Attendance at the meeting was limited to members and staff in the interest of building trust and relationships among the membership.
The Commission on a Way Forward reports to the Council of Bishops, which is governed by the rules of procedure according to paragraph 722. Judicial Council decision 869, which relates to paragraph 722, draws a distinction between the Council of Bishops and agencies, and between administrative order and the nature of superintendency.
We will be reporting on the work of the Commission to the church. We plan to design future opportunities to hear from constituents across the church, in a variety of ways. We hope you will participate in one of these opportunities.
The Peace of the Lord,
Moderators: Bishops David Yemba, Sandra Steiner Ball and Ken Carter
By PASTOR JONATHAN E. RODRÍGUEZ-CINTRÓN
I am a United Methodist Candidate for Ministry serving as a pastor of a mostly white congregation. As part of my ministerial work with the church and world, I am involved in other spaces within the church that seek justice for all. I am currently working with the Hispanic National Caucus of the UMC M.A.R.C.H.A. as part of the Executive Committee. I am also a member of Love Prevails, a direct-action group whose goal is to abolish the policies in The Book of Discipline which categorically discriminate against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Christians. Love Prevails has been known in the UMC as a more radical group and is often criticized for our methods and demonstrations, or what we call Disruption.
I am true believer of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” I seek to expose in the church our tendency to avoid, table or ignore the evident tension our church is confronting and the harm we constantly do against all the minorities that are part of our connection and beyond. No unity is possible within the church while we ignore the injustices going on in our country and within the UMC.
The experience I had at the November Council of Bishops’ meeting convinces me that the tension we are experiencing as the UMC does not comes from our theological differences but from the level of insidious institutionalism and lack of leadership in our church. My mom would say: “Mijo, one cannot be okay with God and the Devil at the same time.”
I chose to be part of Love Prevails instead of other organizations that seek for the full inclusion of the LGBTIQ people in the UMC, because I found myself tired of playing politics and trying to not disturb people in power. Being apologetic about what I believe and who I am is no longer an option for me.
And so, as part of Love Prevails’ work we went to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia to attend the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting. We went to bear witness to the faithfulness not only of LGBTIQ Methodist but also Latinxs, Black and Asian Methodists. We went to negotiate with them about the make-up of The Commission On A Way Forward, which failed to include adequate representation of all of these groups.
As we entered the retreat center where our Bishops were meeting, it was really interesting to see how most of them made “you-again” faces. Some of them were welcoming, repeating like a mantra the pastoral cliché “I am so glad to see you” or “Thank you for coming.” As a pastor I know we don’t always means those words. Others expressed from the beginning their concerns about us being there, saying: “Are you planning on disrupting the meeting?”
During these meetings the Bishops have what they call “Executive Sessions.” This means that only the Bishops can be present during those meetings, so it is closed to the common people. When the Executive Session came where the COB intended to discuss the matter of the Commission, we disrupted it by staying in the room and refusing to leave. Our demands were for the COB to reconsider and reconstitute the queer and people of color representation on the Commission. They offered us a meeting with the eight Bishops that would be part of the Commission. We had the meeting and got nothing out of it, just more political responses or no response at all. We asked the President of the COB, Bruce Ough, to give an answer to our demands by 8:00a.m. the following day. We never got a response; not even the courtesy of a no.
We decided to disrupt their business again, but this time by taking the microphone. The President immediately dismissed the meeting and called everyone to put on their robes and go outside for the official episcopal group-picture. This was clearly a planned response. So while we were literally speaking our truth, the Bishops started to leave the room. Just a few of them decided to stay and listen. It was extremely disappointing to see that even some of our so-called “allies” also walked out on us.
After we expressed our demands and concerns about the Commission and called them to do something more, some of those “allies” expressed to us how damaging doing this kind of demonstration is to our cause. How we should be treating Bishops with some special respect just because they are Bishops. How we should be more patient because things are really changing. Some of them actually told us how they have been working within the Council for some changes in our favor, but this disruption or demonstration was so disrespectful that it will damage the “amazing progress” they achieved in 44 years. Others came to tell me personally: “You are not forgotten, I know your name”.
Still crying because of my anger, frustration and disappointment, watching all of them laughing and smiling while taking their pictures, the only words I could express to describe what I was witnessing was: “The level of hypocrisy and institutionalism is apocalyptic.”
People like me have to work twice as hard as any other seminarian. We have to prove ourselves and prove our call to this church twice as much, and after everything you don’t know if in fact you will get ordained. And if you do, you will always have to work twice as hard to prove you are worthy. However, we are the ones called the “issue” of the church. We are told what we are what is dividing our church. The Bishops are so worried and so focused on the schism of the church, that they have forgotten our identity as Methodists; how for us doing justice is more important that the establishment or the institution. They preach about justice. They preach about letting the Spirit work among us. But it seems that every time the Spirit breaks in, The Book of Discipline is right there to say: “No, no, sorry, Holy Spirit, but you are acting against what is typed in here”.
The level of institutionalism and the politics within the UMC is what is deeply damaging the church, not us (LGBTIQA people). That institutionalism is what moved Methodist and other clergy to write a letter to Martin Luther King in the past, to tell him his demonstrations were damaging his cause and the amazing job they as allies were doing among the white congregations. That level of institutionalism is what Jesus criticizes in the parable of the Persistent Widow, in which a judge forgets his duty as an official to always look out for the widows and the orphans as it is stated in the Law. That institutionalism and hypocrisy is what moved the Protestant Reformation into being. Because of that same institutionalism the people Wesley ministered to couldn’t find a place within the Anglican Church and created the Methodist movement. That institutionalism is a god. We have forgotten who we are as people who are moved by the Spirit.
These events followed by the racist acts against United Methodist Latinx Youth that took place in North Carolina, and the lack of action from our leadership once more has me wondering: How long am I willing to endure this?
I believe God has called me to the ministry of reconciliation and healing, but this church is so soul-sucking. Why should I keep fighting or trying so hard to create spaces in a place where evidently I am not accepted or welcome as a gay person, but also as a Latinx? My body is constantly patronized, tokenized, or demonized, whether by The Book of Discipline or by the silence of those who otherwise come to whisper in my ears: “you are not forgotten, I know your name.”
If I would like to play politics, I would’ve take the path of law school and then gone into the world of politicians not pastors. They are playing politics while our lives and careers are at stake. They hide the bigotry, the hatred, the homophobia, the racism all of these sins against our bodies behind “theological differences,” but we are the ones called incompatible with Christians teaching and sinners. Although I still believe the Spirit will break in through the persistence of the widows, and God will see we get justice and quickly (Luke 18:8); right now I am not convinced I want to be the persistent one, for the sake of my own soul.
 Martin Luther King. Letter From Birmingham Jail. https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf
Dear Love Prevails supporter,
Through the disruption of business as usual at the church’s highest levels, during the last four years Love Prevails assisted The United Methodist Church in its gospel task of removing all of the anti-LGBTQ legislation from its Book of Discipline. Although dissatisfied with the outcomes of General Conference 2016, Love Prevails is proud of its work. We see our advocacy and disruption as the prime reasons for the system attempting to make any adjustments at all. The impact of our work is many-fold:
Love Prevails created a critical counter-narrative exposing the illegitimacy of our denomination’s anti-queer policies and the leaders who uphold them. Love Prevails is the only organization in our movement to clearly define that 1) the systemic justice issue is heterosexism and homophobia, and 2) the practical issue is hypocrisy. LGBTQ lives cannot be sacrificed on the altar of church unity. The primary task for church leaders at every level is to name and claim that homophobia is wrong, that The Book of Discipline must change and to act in accordance with these convictions.
Love Prevails demonstrated that the practice of Disruption is a necessary and effective means of change in our shared struggle for LGBTQ inclusion. After General Conference 2012, the language of Disruption was anathema to our movement. From 2012-2016, Love Prevails’ willingness to show up, disrupt and communicate our counter-narrative and actions with clarity and transparency made the power of Disruption clear.
Love Prevails’ willingness to confront power and shake up business as usual gave people hope, courage and the inspiration to act. By our own unflinching commitment to raise up the dignity and faithfulness of LGBTQ people within the context of the direct oppression and injustice of the church hierarchy, we inspire others to embrace their own sacred worth and ability to act in their own context.
We are buoyed by your responses to our work. You encourage us to keep acting in ways that you may not be able to because of context, circumstance, trauma, repression and internalized oppression. Because you cannot always show up in the ways that we can, we are asking you to support our work in 2017 and beyond as we continue to show up and disrupt business as usual.
Please consider supporting our work by giving an end-of-year donation. If it is possible, we would love for you to help sustain our work for the quadrennium through a regular monthly contribution. Please make your financial donation through PayPal at https://loveprevailsumc.com/donate/ or make a check payable to Kairos CoMotion in care of Mr. Steven Webster, P.O. Box 45234, Madison, WI 53744-5234.
In justice and in love,
On behalf of the Love Prevails Team
Ms. Anne Packard, Director
Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum
P.O. Box 20481
100 Arthur J. Moore Drive
St. Simons Island, GA 31522
November 30, 2016
Dear Ms. Packard and Members of the Southeast Jurisdiction College of Bishops:
Every member of Love Prevails is a long-time, if not life-long, student of Methodist history, tradition, and theology. Subsequently, we seek to inform ourselves of our denomination’s rootedness in the various places we visit and to keep our awareness sharp toward various forms of oppression we encounter in the course of our active struggle for LGBTQ justice within our denomination.
Our recent visit to Epworth-By-The-Sea at St. Simons Island, Georgia for the Council of Bishops meeting afforded many of us our first opportunity to visit the site of Charles and John Wesley’s first landing in the British colonies. To assist our learning about the history of Methodism in this geographic area, we were glad to discover the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum and Library on the site of the retreat center.
A meaningful outcome of the last quadrennium of Love Prevails’ disruption of the Council of Bishops’ meetings has been the opportunities to meet indigenous leaders in our denomination and to understand their struggles better. We have been able to both learn about and participate in the Acts of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples that were a hallmark of our church’s collective life over the last four years.
So in traveling to St. Simons Island, we were particularly interested in learning the ways in which the Methodist movement in the South was entangled in the violence and oppression of genocide in the early decades of the Wesleys’ and the Methodist’s presence on this continent.
We were horrified, then, when upon entrance to the Moore Museum, we encountered the following diorama and this small accompanying sign:
Additionally, next to the diorama is this doll and corresponding “information”:
We acknowledge that in a different section of the museum, there are two small signs in a reproduction of Charles Wesley’s camp, which mention the Guale people, the original indigenous inhabitants of St. Simons Island, and their decimation by Spanish and English colonizers.
However, regardless of these other minor references, the central placement of a diorama that depicts natives in a fictitious encounter with John Wesley is culturally offensive and highly inappropriate. The diorama leaves a visual impression (especially to children who may not look far above their eye-level to read the small disclaimer) that Wesley was a much needed and warmly welcomed white savior and that the indigenous people were eager recipients of his brand of religion. Neither could be farther from the truth.
Additionally, the simplified description of Mary Musgrove as an “interpreter for the colonists” reduces her complex and complicated life story to the singular role of assisting her colonizers. Also, there is no such thing as an “Indian Princess” and to impose this monarchical, colonial title erases the possibility for understanding the role of this woman and her leadership within her own indigenous culture and cross-culturally.
Members of Love Prevails were also stunned when they sat down to watch a nine-minute informational video about the history of St. Simons Island through the lens of Methodism. In one section, the film holds on screen an image of a cannon while the narrator says, “The ruins [at Fort Frederica] show us how the founders of the Methodist Church reached out to a new land to provide for the spiritual needs of the people. Through the still air, one can almost hear the sounds of musket shots and the bells and the beat of the drum apprising the settlers of the hour of prayer.”
This whitewashed glorification of domination and violence, especially within the justifying context of meeting spiritual needs, is wholly unacceptable.
The museum shares the site with the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and houses the archives of the entire Southeast Jurisdiction. During the past four years of Acts of Repentance throughout the entire denomination, has not one United Methodist leader noticed these insults or sought to address them?
These acts of omission and commission require repentance and redress. We call upon the museum, Epworth-By-The-Sea, the College of Bishops of the Southeast Jurisdiction to remove the diorama, to stop playing the informational video until it is properly edited, and to design a plan by which the history of indigenous peoples in relation to Methodism might be truthfully brought to light.
In his message during the Act of Repentance at General Conference 2012, Dr. Tink Tinker said we must deal directly and honestly with our history of oppression against indigenous people. Furthermore, repentance is an action that we must take again and again. On this small but important matter, we await your response and action.
The Members of Love Prevails,
Laci Lee Adams
Mary Anne Balmer
Rev. Amy DeLong
Rev. Will Green
Rev. Jonathan Rodríguez-Cintrón
Dr. Mary Lou Taylor
Rev. Dr. Julie Todd
Rev. Wesley White
Rev. Chebon Kernell, Executive Secretary of Native American and Indigenous Ministries
Mr. Joel Willis, President & CEO, Epworth-By-The-Sea
Rev. Alfred Day, General Secretary, General Commission on Archives & History
Bishop Bruce Ough, President, Council of Bishops
Bishop Lawson Bryan, South Georgia Area
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Raleigh Area
Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, Birmingham Area
Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, Holston Area
Bishop James Swanson, Mississippi Area
Bishop Bill McAlilly, Nashville Area
Bishop Sharma Louis, Richmond Area
Bishop Paul Leeland, Charlotte Area
Bishop Jonathan Holston, Columbia Area
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, North Georgia Area
Bishop David Graves, Alabama-West Florida Area
Bishop Leonard Fairley, Louisville Area
Bishop Ken Carter, Florida Area
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.