Good morning. I wish I could see you all, I wish I were there with you. I tried, believe me. I had planned to be at Convocation yesterday. My day job prevented me from coming earlier, but my wife Carol and I got up at 3am to get to a flight in order to be in St. Louis by 9:30 in the morning.
It’s been a number of years since I was at Convocation, but I wanted to be there this time because we are in a unique moment in the church, and we have an opportunity to make history at the special called General Conference in February.
I wanted to be there to ask and discuss the Big Questions: How did we get here? And what do we do from here? If we don’t understand the answer to the first question, the answer to second will be built on a false foundation and cannot possibly guide us in the most effective way.
We have to make the most of this moment, and so I wanted to be there to talk and strategize and plan with all of you.
Alas, United Airlines had other ideas.
They cancelled our 6am flight, and after spending 45 minutes waiting in line for customer service and 30 minutes watching a super competent worker check every possible flight combination between New York City and St. Louis and finding no seats on any of them, we checked Amtrak. But that didn’t work either. Then we took a shuttle bus tour of LaGuardia Airport’s various car rental vendors to see if we could drive the 14 hours to St. Louis, but none of them had anything. Back home, we called through five car rental places to see if we could rent a car from anywhere in or near New York City. No dice.
This dead-end adventure failed to get me to St. Louis, but it did It remind me of the 46-year journey we as queer folk have been on in the United Methodist Church since the church decided to label us as “incompatible with Christian teaching” in 1972.
No matter how hard we tried, no matter what we tried, how many times we organized for General Conference, how many different creative ways we found to tell our stories, whether prayed or protested or got arrested – the institutional church continued and continues to define us as deviants and enforce a whole system of codified discrimination against us.
Let me say a word here about the larger context in which this battle over the status of our lives in the church takes place. The people in the UMC who have worked for decades to strip LGBTQI people of our rights and dignity so that they can push us back into the closet are the same people who came for COSROW and GCORR in the 2012 Plan UMC that was declared unconstitutional at that year’s General Conference.
Queer folks long ago became the preferred bait in the right’s play to undermine the social justice traditions of mainline denominations, and while this upcoming special General Conference is about our status in the church, it is also about a much larger vision of what and who the church is and what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus. The interests of people of color and women in our church are tied to the interests of LGBTQI people – we are connected in that “single garment of destiny” that MLK talked about – and to be effective, we must have an intersectional understanding of the interlocking systems of oppression that affect us, and we must be actively and intentionally anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-sexist, and anti-heterosexist in all of our work.
Let me say a further word about the right’s longstanding cynical exploitation of the cultural differences in the global church. They have stoked the narrative that “the Africans” are opposed to lifting the systemic barriers to queer inclusion in the church. First of all, Africa is a whole continent, not a monolithic Other, with 54 countries, in which the UMC has three central conferences and 26 annual conference in 14 countries. Moreover, the political rights of LGBTQI people in those countries range between total criminalization and protection in the constitution.
I do not want to minimize the African delegations’ past support for conservative anti-queer legislation at General Conference, but I do very much want to point out that the problem originates here in the U.S., with white conservative evangelicals. Among the hundreds and hundreds of pages of legislation submitted to the 2016 General Conference, not a single piece of anti-LGBTQI legislation originated outside the U.S. Let me repeat that: Every repressive petition came from our homegrown anti-queer extremists, none of it from “the Africans.”
We white folks – white queer people and white progressive allies – have to do a better job than we have in the past in understanding and articulating these truths, building relationships across identities and cultures, and putting skin in the game for a truly inclusive, anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist church.
Until we do, queer folks of all colors, races, and nationalities will continue to get thrown under the church bus in the name of a “unity” that is little more than code for the status quo.
Bishops and other institutional leaders invoke “unity” as an almost idolatrous mantra that defines those of us seeking justice in our own church as a problem to be solved, rather than as siblings in Christ who belong in the church, who are the church, who are of “sacred worth.”
And when we protest – as we are wont to do – that they are perpetuating oppression by enforcing unjust discriminatory rules, they say they have “no choice” but to obey the Book of Discipline.
Honestly, sometimes I wonder if these people have even met Jesus.
Or at least the Jesus I know. Because the Jesus I know values relationships over rules and people over policies.
Of course they have a choice. We all have the choice to obey or disobey unjust laws; we all have moral agency.
For the last decade, we in the reconciling movement have made a different choice than the one our institutional leaders continue to make. We have decided to stop following unjust rules, to organize collectively to defy the UMC’s codified system of discrimination, and to embody the Kin-dom of God here on earth, in the church of all crazy places! “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth [and in church] as it is in heaven…”
In 2010, in the New York Annual Conference, Methodists in New Directions (MIND) organized We Do: Methodists Living Marriage Equality, a network of now 1,200+ clergy, laity, and congregations pledged to minister to all their parishioners equally. In 2011, some 15 annual conferences organized similar networks, and in 2012, Bishop Talbert added his blessing to this “altar for all” initiative by exhorting clergy to marry gay couples in the name of “biblical obedience.”
In 2016, a few weeks before General Conference, a group of 15 clergy and candidates in New York came out together, and in response 111 clergy nationally came out together on the day before General Conference started. That group, as most of the people in this room know, is what became the Queer Clergy Caucus and has continued to grow. I can’t see you, but I know many of you are in the room!
After General Conference, the rebellion spread to the annual conference level. The New England Annual Conference that year began by suspending all business and talking about the crisis of the church, and then crafted a resolution that declared the conference to be in “non-conformity” with unjust laws. Other conferences followed.
The boards of ordained ministry in several conferences, meanwhile, have passed policies that state explicitly that sexual orientation and gender identity are not factors in their evaluation of candidates.
We have de facto liberated parts of the United Methodist Church from its discriminatory requirements; we have done this by choosing the Gospel over the Discipline where these are in contradiction.
The word I want to emphasize in that last sentence is “we.” None of this happened because institutional church leaders said, “we need to address the crisis of LGBTQ people in the UMC, we need to find a way to stop denying them ministry and denying their call from God. We need to address the spiritual crisis our clergy face on a daily basis as a result of the church’s requirement to discriminate.” Are you kidding? If we had not done it, it would not have happened.
Conservatives are apoplectic that we have found a way to survive and to free ourselves from the sin of exclusion, and institutionalists are chagrined. The former rail against us for violating “the covenant” while the latter grouse that there would be chaos if we all just followed our conscience instead of following the rules. But they cannot stop us.
Here’s the thing – we did not have other options. The church’s institutional channels of change have up to now been completely closed to us.
At General Conferences, we faced a solid majority of conservatives who were never going to decriminalize our existence in the church. By law, our annual conferences are not allowed to pass legislation that contradicts the Discipline, and when they do anyway, the Judicial Council comes along and nullifies it. Trial courts have consistently barred any meaningful defense, and thus precluded liberating outcomes. And the executive branch of our church – our bishops – have steadfastly refused to step outside this closed system. So no matter where we looked, however often we worked as hard as humanly possible to do the things they said we needed to do to change the church, there was always just a closed door at the end of our efforts.
So our choice to refuse further complicity with unjust laws, our choice to risk prosecution and retaliation, was the only actual way forward to address the injustice that confronts us. Had we continued to just submit petitions to General Conference, organized progressive votes, told our stories one more time, we would not be here now. We have no power to change the system within its prescribed rules and procedures.
But we do have the power of our moral agency and what we did was choose to exercise that power.
And THAT, my friends, is how we got here.
Neither the conservatives nor the institutionalists could stop us from coming out, from offering ministry to everybody, from living the Gospel. Nor could they keep us from protesting on the floor of General Conference in 2016. And so what happened there was that the consideration of all further anti-queer legislation was suspended and the Commission on the Way Forward was created.
Now I have plenty of critical things to say about the commission, but I want to underscore that what happened in 2016 is that although we did not have the votes to stop additional repressive legislation, we nonetheless stopped it.
We did that. Not the bishops. Not the General Conference. Us. Queer people and our allies.
That is the good news.
The bad news, of course, is that the institutionalists then effed up the commission and the result is exactly what we’d expect.
They made a big deal about the geographic diversity on the commission, and the theological diversity on the commission… and somehow didn’t feel it necessary to have meaningful LGBTQI representation. My hat’s off to the three queer folks who served and tried against all odds to wring justice out of the process, but needless to say, this was one more institutional channel that did not bring us justice.
None of the plans coming out of the commission are just. All of them perpetuate anti-LGBTQI discrimination. And there is nothing the least bit surprising about this given the commission’s complete domination by cis-het officials.
The lesson here is as obvious as it is unwelcome – you cannot right an injustice without the people who are being oppressed. You cannot build an inclusive church if all you do is talk about, legislate about, and debate about queer folks. All you can do that way is, yet again, create a colonial church.
The rectifying of a half century of anti-LGBTQI social principles and policy can only happen with us.
With not about.
Say it with me: #WithNotAbout!
OK, the “One Church Plan.”
You all have been there for four days, and I know the One Church Plan has been extensively discussed. So in the interest of not repeating what’s already been said, I will limit myself to a few no doubt unoriginal observations on the good, the bad, and the ugly about the plan.
The good: It gets rid of the foundational lie, that our lives are “incompatible with Christian teaching,” a lie whose inclusion in our governing document has been an act of ongoing theological and spiritual violence for half a century. The plan also strips out the prohibitions against queer clergy and queer marriages, and gets rid of the chargeable offenses.
These are not meaningless or trivial changes – they are necessary first steps for any possibility of justice.
And at the risk of repeating myself, I want to stress again that the fact that these changes have any greater-than-zero chance of passing is the result of the work that we all have done in bringing the church to this moment.
The bad: The One Church Plan leaves the funding ban in place, requires pastors to get their congregations’ approval to do queer weddings but not straight ones, and allows annual conferences to continue to deny ordination to queer people called by God to ministry.
And the ugly: The One Church Plan goes out of its way to reassure those who deny our full humanity that they don’t have to treat us equally if they really don’t want to. At the very moment when we might finally have a Book of Discipline free from explicit bias, this plan reinscribes discrimination into the Discipline with this gratuitous reassurance.
In contrast, the Simple Plan – conceived and written by actual queer people, and submitted by the Queer Clergy Caucus – as the name suggests, simply gets rid of the bad language. It deletes every piece of anti-queer discrimination, and adds no additional language. While stopping short of affirmatively recognizing the gift of God’s diversity in human sexuality and gender identity, it does no new harm.
So here we are. Where do we go from here?
I’m going to conveniently sidestep the question of how passable the One Church Plan might be, or how unpassable the Simple Plan might be, as well as the question about whether the One Church Plan is something any queer person could even stomach actively lobbying for.
What I want to say instead are two things.
One: Whatever can be won at the 2019 General Conference will be won in the same way we got to this moment.
For sure, the folks who are delegates should and will work hard to use the tools of parliamentary procedure and politicking to work for the best legislative outcome possible (unfortunately, I am one of them). But that work will be for naught without the continuing pressure of a sustained movement committed to living into the Gospel call to radically welcome all and unwilling to submit itself to unjust laws.
It would be a mistake to think that now that we have won some greater-than-zero chance of a small piece of legislative reform, we should abandon the strategy that got us to this moment.
Secondly, I want to return to the assertion that the church cannot right this injustice so long as the process is about us rather than with us.
Ends are predetermined in means, and justice will not come to the UMC until LGBTQI people are recognized by church leaders as human beings with whom the future as a church must be forged together.
Since the General Conference itself – the only body that will actually decide by vote our fate in the church – has only a tiny handful of LGBTQI delegates, we are de facto excluded from decisions about our status. And any meaningful effort for delegates to even talk with and not just about queer folks necessarily involves LGBTQI people who are not GC delegates.
In other words, YOU.
Which is why all of you, but particularly the queer folks in the room, really need to be back there in St. Louis next February. You, and many more throughout the connection who are not with us this weekend.
But we also cannot wait until February to start that work.
Queer folks, find your delegates and talk to them. Organize with others to reach critical “persuadable conservative” delegates in other conferences. Tell them what 46 years of official ostracization feels like to you. Tell them what it feels like to be defined as a problem splitting the church. Tell them how offended you are by the One Church Plan, and/or how you want them to work to pass it anyway. Tell them what you think of the Simple Plan. Above all, tell them what it is like to be in your queer Methodist skin and insist that that truth is as relevant as any other to what happens at General Conference.
Allies, follow the lead of LGBTQI people. Prioritize their voices in conversations about their fate, ask them what they need to do this difficult work, whether it’s helping organize a meeting or making the coffee or offering the childcare at the meeting.
We have fought for half a century to be included in our own church, to have our sacred worth truly acknowledged and our humanity fully affirmed. We have a historic opportunity in the next seven months to – maybe – take the first steps towards dismantling the codified system of discrimination. Whatever we can realize from this moment won’t come from retreating to parliamentary maneuvers or leaving it to cis-het delegates to decide. And we won’t get it without a lot of hard work.
But that work is the work of being the church.
It is the work of trying to be faithful to Jesus’s call, a fearless and honest effort to follow the Gospel wherever that may lead us. The church is not an institution; it is the people of God doing God’s work in the world. We are living in a larger moment of great political, economic, and spiritual violence – a moment we are called to step into to fight resurgent racism, to defend the human rights of women, to harbor our immigrant neighbors, to lay our bodies on the line to abolish ICE and abolish child concentration camps, to fight the rollback of LGBTQI civil rights.
THIS is what church is. And it is the way forward.
Latest posts by Dr. Dorothee Benz (see all)
- How Did We Get Here? Where Do We Go from Here? - August 23, 2018
- On bishops, choices, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit - November 8, 2016
- Statement read to the Council of Bishops - November 1, 2016