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 would be overjoyed if the Council of Bishops ever acted this way, but the evidence that it almost certainly will not 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 is the choice you are going to make, then do not talk to us about “ris[ing] up in the face of fatalism and despair” while you deepen the despair of the minority you are 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.