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In 1988, I wrote an article on the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which began,
“What was the No. 1 issue at the recent meeting of the 994 United Methodist delegates, who meet once every four years and represent 9.5 million members? The issue was not nuclear disarmament, apartheid, the low-intensity wars in Central America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza strip, hunger and homelessness in America and beyond, drug traffic and AIDS, whether a black person can be elected president, or the threat of democracy here and abroad revealed by the Iran-Contra affair. It was homosexuality.” Which involved The Church’s Book of Discipline’s position that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and thus “self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained ministers.” Which also meant that the denomination’s ministers were not to perform same-sex marriages, and church trials for ministers who perform them would continue. The delegates voted to have their General Council on Ministries study homosexuality over the next four years, while overwhelmingly maintaining their discriminatory doctrines toward LGBTQ persons. (“Theological double-talk on homosexuality,” The Boston Globe, July 25, 1988)
Twenty-eight years later, what was the No. 1 issue facing the 864 elected delegates at their recent May 10-20 General Conference in Portland, Oregon? It was not the blatant killings of black persons by police in various U.S. cities, fueling racial tensions—the tip of the iceberg of America’s white-controlled hierarchy’s access to political, economic and legal power.
An overriding issue for the 2016 General Conference delegates was not the current presidential campaign, and the grave threat the preemptive Republican presidential nominee poses to U.S. unity and safety — with his intent to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and sending out dog whistles to anti-black and nativist groups. Many delegates and their bishops were preoccupied with their Church’s own unity – which was being threatened by a different and compelling issue. So never mind the delusional, insecure, narcissistic, disingenuous, authoritarian presidential nominee, who already has whipped up violence toward Mexicans and Muslims in the U.S., and, with presidential power, would trigger terrible turmoil here and chaos abroad.
Nor did United Methodism’s highest legislative body concern itself with the criminality of our government’s so-called “global war on terrorism.” That issue would have required the General Conference delegates and their bishops to deal with two of their own: former president George W. Bush and his vice president henchman Dick Cheney. Death, destruction, a failed Iraqi state and the rise of ISIS lie in the wake of Bush’s unnecessary, weapons of mass destruction-hyped, falsely based, pre-emptive 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. United Methodists were among the faith groups that early on strongly protested the U.S.’s preparation for war against Iraq.
But in the end, unity was more important than continuing to speak reality and moral truth to presidential power. As The United Methodist News Service reported in 2005, five United Methodist bishops, led by Council of Bishops president Peter D. Weaver, paid a “pastoral visit” to President Bush at the White House. They “presented Bush, a fellow United Methodist, with a Bible signed by the Council of Bishops, and they shared a moment of prayer with him.” The story continues: “The United Methodist bishops’ ‘pastoral visit’ also included them telling the president they are praying for him, that they share his commitment to building a better world, and that they are committed to work together on common concerns.” (italics added) Afterwards, “Weaver also reported that Bush ‘was interested in things we were doing in the United Methodist Church. At one point he [Bush] said, ‘I’m proud to be a Methodist.’” (United Methodist bishops meet with president, open door to future,” by Tim Tanton, May 3, 2005) The “things” the bishops were doing that interested Bush?
Actually Bishop Weaver and a number of other bishops were apparently proud of their United Methodist president. Never mind that he is the worst war criminal of the 21st Century. Never mind also that United Methodism’s Book of Discipline states that “war is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In spite of some moral opposition within the denomination, United Methodist leaders proceeded to erect a monument to their president on the campus of Southern Methodist University: The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. All the while, certain bishops continued to hold church trials for and punish ministers who performed same-sex marriages – maintaining the “integrity” of the Book of Discipline’s stated doctrine that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In fact, some six months before the bishops met with President Bush, Bishop Weaver himself brought a “chargeable offense” against Rev. Elizabeth Stroud. She faced a church trial and was defrocked for disclosing she was living in a committed and loving relationship with a woman. Evidently a loving same-sex relationship is more “incompatible with Christian teaching” than the rape of a country.
Our Government’s drone warfare was not an issue for the 2016 General Conference delegates and their leaders. Even though America’s weaponized drones violate the national sovereignty of other countries, fill their skies with dread, kill countless innocent children, women and men in our name, create even more enemies, trigger blowback violence against us Americans and our allies. And, accompanying the American empire’s drone warfare, is our president’s “kill list” of designated enemies, including Americans, who are denied due process and splat like a bug. A global war on terrorism that creates endless enemies, and thus endless war, guaranteeing endless profit for the military/industrial/energy/intelligence complex.
The General Conference delegates seem to be meeting in a different universe. While United Methodism – with some 7 million members here and 5 million in Africa and Asia – prides itself in being a “global church,” the pervasive militarism and capitalistic greed driving our government’s global war on terrorism did not make it to the General Conference floor. Militarism and warmongering are rampant in America, in the service of the politically influential wealthiest, at the expense of the economic security and pursuit of happiness of those citizens who make up the bottom and middle part of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to political, economic, legal and religious power.
The number 1 issue of the 2016 General Conference was “human sexuality.” As reported, the 864 delegates were faced with ruling on more than 100 petitions on human sexuality. Some petitions called for the “full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in every aspect of church life and worship.” Other petitions “want[ed] the church to uphold biblical guidance on whether homosexuality is a sin or not.” (‘GENERAL CONFERENCE HISTORY WITH LGBTQ,’ by Kathy L. Gilbert, www.umc.org, Apr. 27, 2016)
At stake for the delegates was removing, maintaining or modifying their Book of Discipline’s 44-year doctrines on homosexuality: that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and “therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or approved to serve in the United Methodist Church.” That “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our church.” And that, “We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2004, paragraphs 304, 341, 161).
“Human sexuality” proved, again, to be a hot button issue for General Conference delegates. Their struggle was seen in a measure called “Rule 44,” which, if passed, would have allowed them to discuss contentious issues like human sexuality in small groups – to hopefully clarify and possibly resolve or mitigate stances – before human sexuality petitions were brought before the whole legislative body. After three days of heated debate, Rule 44 was rejected by a vote of 477 to 355. (“GC 2016 delegates say no to Rule 44,” By Heather Hahn, www.umc.org, Mat 12, 2016)
Actually, Rule 44 was reported to have come “at the request of the 2012 General Conference, which sought an alternative process to Roberts Rules of Order for dealing with particularly complicated and contentious legislation.” (Ibid) In 2012, the overriding issue of the General Conference delegates was, again, homosexuality. By that time, the demand of LGBTQ persons and their supporters for full inclusion in The Church had grown much stronger, with the threat of schism more real. In advance of the 2012 General Conference, the Council of Bishops expressed the gravity of the issue in a letter to all United Methodists. They wrote, “One of the deep disagreements and divisions within the church is over the practice of homosexuality, recently highlighted by a group of clergy who have declared that they will perform holy unions in opposition to the Book of Discipline.” The bishops’ bottom line: “As bishops chosen, consecrated and assigned by the church . . . we will uphold the Book of Discipline as established by the General Conference. (“Letter from the Council of Bishops,” UM Catalyst News Notes, Nov. 10, 2011)
The aim of most 2012 General Conference delegates was to maintain The Book of Discipline’s discriminatory doctrines on “human sexuality” (See “Methodists Keep Stricture on Homosexuality,” By Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, May 3, 2012) That General Conference also kicked the can of full inclusion further down the road, by voting to have the denomination’s General Council on Ministries study homosexuality over the next four years – as long as the study was not in violation of Methodism’s funding restriction, which states that “no board, agency, committee, commission or council shall give United Methodist funds . . . to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
The movement for real inclusion of LGBTQ persons has grown even more powerful – with added momentum from the U. S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. A number of Annual Conferences have rejected The Church’s Book of Discipline’s discriminatory position on homosexuality. The growing movement for full inclusion is seen in a 2012 report that, “Three conferences in the North Central Jurisdiction – Illinois Great Rivers, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan – expressed sadness at the actions of the 2012 General Conference.” And Five Annual Conferences in the Western Jurisdiction (California-Pacific, California-Nevada, Rocky Mountain, Desert Southwest and Oregon-Idaho) “recommitted to their ’We will not be silent resolution,’ adopted in 2000 and again in 2004.” (“Conferences reject church’s stance on gays,” Kathy L. Gilbert, news media contact, www.umc.org)
The struggle for full inclusion accelerated, and strongly knocked on the 2016 General Conference door. A reported “more than 100 pastors, deacons, elders and candidates for ministry in the United Methodist Church released a letter publicly coming out as LGBT just one day before the church’s top policy working body convenes in Portland to consider roughly 1000 legislative petitions.” (“More Than 100 United Methodist Clergy Come Out As LGBT,” by Antonia Blumberg, Association Religion Editor, The Huffington Post, May 9, 2016)
Reported also, “The Pacific Northwest board of ordained ministry voted May 5 to affirm that ‘people of all sexual orientations and gender identities’ can meet the high standards for ‘fitness, readiness, and effectiveness in ministry’ . . . joining with the Baltimore-Washington and the New York boards of ordained ministry in stating they will no longer inquire about the sexual orientation of their ministry candidates.” (“Pacific Northwest board joins in removing LGBT bar, By Kathy L. Gilbert, www.umc.org, May 9, 2016) And as reported, “More than 1500 United Methodist clergy have signed a letter stating they would refuse to fill the pulpit of a LGBTQ pastor who was removed ‘for God’s given sexual orientation or gender identity.’” (“Clergy offer support to LGBQT pastors despite GC2016 action,” By Kathy L. Gilbert, www.umc.org, May 16, 2016)
Faced with the pressing moral demand for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, the 2016 General Conference delegates turned to their Council of Bishops for guidance. After a night of deliberation, the bishops responded by “offering a way forward.” Their “way forward’s” bottom line: “We recommend that the General Conference defer all votes on human sexuality and refer this entire subject to a special Commission, named by the Council of Bishops, to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.” And, should those selected to form the Commission “complete their work in time for a called General Conference, then we will call a two-to three-day gathering before the 2020 General Conference.” (“Council on Bishops statement to the 2016 General Conference,” By UM Reporter, unitedmethodistreporter.com, May 18, 2016) Eliciting considerable debate among the delegates,, the bishops’ “way forward” was narrowly voted down, and on the second try narrowly prevailed by a vote of 428 to 405.
There is real concern about the role of the bishops, the Commission they will select and what they will propose. As has been documented herein, the bishops’ “way forward” often leads them to uphold the past — by kicking the can of real inclusion down the road.
The bishops’ lack of prophetic leadership is revealed in an “open letter” to them, written by Rev. Pamela R. Lightsey, Ph.D. and Dorothee E. Benz, Ph.D., both United Methodist leaders. Lightsey and Benz spoke reality and moral truth to the bishops: “We long to hear a prophetic call to action from you, our leaders, regarding the current anti-Muslim rhetoric.” They referred to “Donald Trump, the leading candidate in the Republican primary for the highest office in the land,” who “called for a blanket exclusion of Muslims from entering the United States,” and also cited his “suggestion to close down Muslim houses of worship.” They wrote that such anti-Muslim proposals contribute to threats, harassment, vandalism, and violence against Muslim Americans,” which “are increasing at an alarming rate and are a daily reality for Muslim siblings. Yet,” they stated, “the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church has not said a word to condemn them.”
Drs. Lightsey and Benz’s “open letter” also addressed the exclusion of LGBTQI persons. “When it comes to reinforcing The UMC’s prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQI people, our bishops have been quick to cite the Book of Discipline and solemnly intone the imperative of following it to the letter.” They then remind the bishops’ that The Book of Discipline “also asserts ‘the right of all religions and their adherents to freedom from legal, economic, and social discrimination.’ (Para. 162B)” Furthermore, they said, “General Conference resolutions, which queer people and their allies are so often reminded are binding upon the church, have called for UMS ‘members and its leaders: [t]o oppose demagoguery, manipulation, and image making that seeks to label Arabs and Muslims in a negative way.” And they reminded the bishops that The Discipline states that such negativity is to be “publicly denounce[d] through statements from the Council of Bishops.”
Drs. Lightsey and Benz’s final words to the Council of Bishops:
Indeed, it pains us to say, but the Council has abdicated its role of a body of Christian leaders again and again. Where are the words of protest against the police killings of of our Black children? Where is the outrage against the lethal epidemic of violence against transgender women of color? Where is the call to welcome Syrian refugees? Where is the defense of Latino and other immigrants? Where is the outcry against human rights abuses of Palestinians?
We implore the Council of Bishops belatedly to speak out and stand with those whom Jesus stands with. (“An open letter to The UMC Council of Bishops,” Reconciling Ministries Network, Dec., 15, 2015; reprinted in the Dec. 18, 2015 issue of United Methodist Insight)
Drs. Lightsey and Benz document the extent to which United Methodist bishops can act as guardians of the status quo. Hierarchical church leaders often corrupt the consciences of their clergy by rewarding with advancement those who don’t rock the boat and punishing those who get out of line. That is how many bishops themselves got to where they are. Sadly, the cardinal doctrine dictating the behavior of many clergy is not faith in the grace of God, but fear of falling out of the good graces of those who have power over them. A number of such United Methodist ministers – and bishops – are to be found in the so-called “middle” and “conservative” positions in the denomination.
But the movement toward real inclusion in United Methodism is on the right side of history, and is ever growing, and will prevail. More and more bishops and Annual Conference boards of ordained ministry are judging the content of a ministerial candidate’s character, not the constitution of his or her sexual make-up.
Still, Dr. Lightsey issues a timely post- 2016 General Conference statement about the Council of Bishops and its Commission’s “way forward.” She recognizes that “some may think the bishops’ proposal, An Offering for a Way Forward, is nothing more than distraction,” and says that “is possible.” But she “prefer[s] to be hopeful and remain vigilant.” And, being “vigilant” means “we must not only pray but watch and continue to work diligently against this oppressive system to ensure it provides a just and righteous outcome for LGBTQ persons and their allies.” Lightsey also perceptively notes, “But if you think General Conference was only about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons you are mistaken. It was filled,” she states, “with efforts to keep the United Methodist Church uninvolved in many of the major issues of our time.” (“Our responsibility to dig out injustice together did not end at General Conference, Reconciling Ministries Network, May 22, 2016)
The 2016 General Conference offers a final lesson on how critical justice issues can be redefined and thus neutralized. The threat of schism facing the Conference was interpreted by some delegates as being caused by unyielding “liberals,” who are bent on the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, and adamant “conservatives,” who demand that The United Methodist Church adhere to The Book of Discipline’s stated position on homosexuality, which is rooted in the Bible and can never be changed. Two “extremes,” with a “moderate middle.” Here, magically the moral issue of right and wrong disappears and is redefined as an issue of “left” and “right.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement were judged as being “extreme” by those Christians whose ancestors used the Bible (Ephesians 6: 5-9) to justify slavery. A woman being ordained to speak out in a church as a minister was considered to be “extreme” – by those who believed every word in the Bible was true, including Paul the Apostle’s admonition: “I permit no woman to lead or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1st Timothy 2: 12)
Jesus especially was charged with being “extreme” – with his teachings, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies.” Yet his words lead to the empathy needed to experience and honor each other’s likeness: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12)