Monday, May 16, 2016

Taking Care of Business

[This post reports on proceedings from Friday, May 13. I apologize for the delay in posting, but the days have been so full that it's hard to carve out time to summarize properly!]

This morning's work began at 7:15 a.m, as our delegation met to share information we gleaned from legislative committees yesterday. Eventually, many of these petitions will come to the floor of Conference to be voted upon by all of the delegates, so it is important for the voting members of our delegation to be briefed on what issues are being faced in each committee.
Why do donuts taste different in Portland?
Opening worship featured a brief but powerful sermon by Bishop Sally Dyck (Chicago). She challenged the church on naming only one thing as "incompatible with Christian teaching." (This is the language used in our Social Principles to describe the practice of homosexuality.) Shining the spotlight on racism, Bishop Dyck asked why this was not also declared incompatible with Christian teaching. Using the text of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, (Matthew 9:9-13) Bishop Dyck called out the church for excluding only one type of humanity and urged us to seek mercy.
Bishop Sally Dyck: "Why is racism not declared
'incompatible with Christian teaching?'"
Photo Credit: New York Annual Conference
Today, we continued the committee work begun yesterday. For those new to General Conference, it might help to understand this part of the process as the middle part of an hourglass. We move from a broad perspective - all of the petitions that have been submitted - to a narrow, focused perspective. 12 committees meet to vote - in sub-committee, then full committee - on petitions that have been assigned to that area of ministry. Committees work through as many petitions as they can in the time they are given. Those that aren't voted on by committee, and those that are voted down by the committee, can still make it to the floor through a separate petition process. But when the time is up on Saturday evening, the sifting of the hourglass ceases: whatever made it through to the bottom portion will, if time allows, be voted upon on the floor. All others are rejected, unless an effort is made to resurrect them through a petition process.

Getting space inside the room of the Judicial Administration Committee is proving to be a great challenge! I was shut out of the first committee plenary, and had to jockey for position to have a seat in the sub-committee room. In all, our committee/sub-committee moved rooms five times today. I was only able to sit in on two of those sessions, which is a huge disappointment. As a Reserve Delegate, I am the only member of my delegation covering this committee. My job is to report back to the delegation, a job I cannot fulfill if I am not in the room to hear the proceedings. If I were shadowing a voting delegate, I would need to be ready to sub in if the voting delegate was unable to complete the day. I feel strongly that Reserve Delegates should be given priority seating in the committee galleries. But, we have been told that this will require a change in The Rules. (Enough said.) I am hopeful that this will be a new rule in 2020.

Fortunately, I was able to be in a session of sub-committee B to witness a careful and holy conversation among committee members regarding Petition #60762. This petition was submitted by six Annual Conferences of the UMC, and calls to amend P2702.1, which deals with chargeable offenses. Among the offenses for which a clergy person can be charged are:
  • Immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage
  • Practices declared by the UMC to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same sex wedding ceremonies
The petition seeks to remove the language indicated by the strikethroughs. This would mean that it would not be a chargeable offense for a clergyperson to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, to be in a same-sex marriage, or to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Before discussion began, Amy Lippoldt, committee sub-chair, reminded everyone to remain in a spirit of Christian conferencing and to be respectful of each other in their speech. Here are some of the comments I heard:
  • I am not in favor of removing the language; this would not be scriptural.
  • I am not ready to change this language.
  • I am in favor of changing this language; it decriminalizes this.
  • If we remove this language, we could end up with a Bishop who is homosexual. The Bishops are paid through apportionments. This will bring more conflict.
  • There is no mechanism for Africa if we support this broad solution to a Western-centric problem.
  • This is a matter of conscience: the current language is biblical.
  • The language still says immorality; it still says celibacy in singleness; it does not force a pastor to do this. Let us offer grace. None of us 'don't believe' the Bible; we interpret the Bible differently.
  • Bishop Scott Jones did a study which shows negative financial implications, similar to PCUSA, including a decline in membership. 
  • I believe we have to begin the change somewhere. This does not address the biblical issue; other places do this. This allows people to act according to their conscience.
  • We have to separate what is God and what is the church. Any church, any clergy should rely on God and the Bible. If not, the church will not have the Holy Spirit. It will not be the church. 
  • The Bible was written by God. There are no other interpretations, no other commentaries.
  • To make a decision of this magnitude based on money is not faithful to God. When the church merged in 1968, we lost people and money. Anthropomorphically speaking, God did not write the Bible with His hand. He gave inspiration to the men who did.
  • My faith now does not allow me to practice any kind of exclusion. My contribution: I am convinced all of us here present, we love each other in Christ. And I am convinced that no one in their conviction has the authority to exclude someone else. I invite you to profound reflection. It has been a long time, at General Conference, when at this point, our spirits begin to fight. We need to think differently. I know we are smart. When we speak from extremes, we separate into camps. Why not give a little on both sides? I invite you to a deeper reflection. (This from a delegate from the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
  • When clergy are ordained, we submit to a yoke of obedience, a clergy covenant.
  • We talk of covenant, but what about the covenant among the baptized? The covenant between a pastor and a congregation?
  • We need to find a middle way that keeps us bound to one another around the world, but does not close the door on a group of people.
  • Sexual misconduct includes when one sexuality abuses another.
  • My church has many who would embrace this. But it is still a sin. This is what it comes down to. I cannot find a middle ground. Why is the church growing in Africa? Because everything is about evangelism.
  • I have searched for middle ground. We have had homosexuals on this planet since the beginning of time. It is time to recognize that.
  • Christ reminded disciples to be as one. Christ met a woman who was a prostitute. Because she was brought to Christ, because Christ is our protector, this woman, who was a sinner, was not kicked out. Christ said, "I do not condemn you; but go, and sin no more." We are the church, we are sisters and brothers. We cannot exclude anybody who is under this tree. We need to say to them, "Go, and sin no more."
  • This cannot be seen as a financial issue.
  • This is going to be against our country, because we do not follow the laws of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Let the only thing between us be Christ. I have to go the way of love, not judgment; of grace, not condemnation.
  • We've been trying to settle this since 1972. 
23 committee members voted on this petition. 14 of them spoke in the conversation that preceded the vote. The final vote was: 9 for, 14 against. The petition did not pass.

This is a difficult issue for our church, no doubt. Since the inception of the UMC, we have struggled with and against one another to define our denomination's faithful response. I am deeply appreciative of the respect that committee members showed for one another during this discussion. There is a sincere call by some for people to move from extreme positions; but we have no clarity on how, practically, to do this.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to witness this conversation. Not bound by Roberts Rules of Order, we were able to allow all who desired to have an opportunity to speak. Respect was shown to all, and time was taken to ensure that we did not rush this decision. Once this goes to full committee, we will be back to "three speeches for, three against." Any discussion of this topic on the floor will be the same. I pray that other sub-committees were able to allow time for such careful conversation.
So great to have lunch at Pine State Biscuits with my friend Clay!

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