Thursday, May 3, 2012


Yeah, that's a dramatic title. It did not go well today. Before I get into what “it” is I should go back and describe my yesterday. It won't take long.

Shortly after breakfast Jill, the head of MFSA, asked if I was busy. I wasn't. So she gave me the task to help assemble packets to give to the delegates. Yeah, there are almost a thousand delegates. The packet included a prayer calendar, an MFSA bookmark, a letter calling for divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli settlements, and a brightly colored heart-shaped prayer labyrinth made out of felt. About 200 were assembled when I started, so the first step was to count what we had. Though I had help, it took most of the rest of the day, which is why I didn't have time to post last night.

That task had one big interruption. The Common Witness Coalition organized an action. After instructions at 2:00 we went over to the plenary session. Our action was to come close to the end of the session at about 3:30, so we waited for a cue. The session was all about divestment of companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and of clearing lands for Israeli settlements. The break wasn't called until 4:00 and I agree the time for our action didn't seem right. Another part of the divestment debate raged after the break and at 5:00 the presiding bishop called the dinner break. There is a picture of this action on the first page of today's Neighbor News.

As he did so I could see the forces gathering at the back and I joined them. We entered the plenary floor (which is off-limits to visitors) singing. We gathered around the central communion table and did an Occupy-style mic-check saying we were harmed by church actions, the church was not following the teachings of Jesus or John Wesley, and we were not going away. We were warned the bishop might call us out of order. Instead, he introduced us as a message that needed to be presented to the conference. I was towards the middle so I don't know the hundreds (as reported in the *Neighbor News*) who were involved. I heard lots of delegates joined us.

I heard later that the more than two hour delay was a good thing. The leader got lots of messages from other coalition partners asking to give their members time to get there to join the action. It was also good for us to hear about an issue important to other parts of our coalition.

The last step in assembling those delegate packets was to put an address tag and return address tag on each one of them. We're not allowed to distribute stuff directly and pages are not allowed to distribute something without a delegate's name and the name of a person (not organization) sending it. Rules about such things seem to change daily, leaving us scrambling to stay current. We tried to keep together packets for delegates in the same region to keep from annoying the pages too much.

It was as we were finishing up I realized the letter about to go to the delegates was on a subject that was discussed and voted on that afternoon.

At the evening wrapup we were told the morning session would be about sexuality and we should be ready at 8:15 when morning prayers ended.

Now on to today.

A good number of us were stationed outside the delegate area to stand and pray for the conference and delegates. It took about an hour to get to the clause about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching, the phrase that is the foundation for the other gay restrictions and the most important one to eliminate. There was a conciliatory substitute petition (“We disagree that...”) that was defeated. The gay side provided passionate affirmation. The anti-gay side talked about needing “certainty” and “clarity.” Some talked about how conservative churches were growing. It didn't take long for someone to say there are welcoming churches that are also growing.

On to the main motion. A reserve delegate stood near me and, at my request, brought up the text of the petition on her smart phone. I wondered whether it was good or bad until she explained it replaced the whole section containing the “incompatibility” clause, essentially removing it. More passionate debate, including a couple African representatives speaking against it. One quite passionate African speaker declared that being gay was a choice because God doesn't make anything bad. At one point a few of our observers blew a whistle on him because he included hate-speech. The bishop admonished him, reminding all speakers about rules for holy conversation.

At one point a delegate asked about the limits of where he could be and still have his vote count. The bishop said he could be anywhere on the floor within the pipes-and-drapes that surrounded the delegate floor. We who were praying were just outside. All he had to do was take his voting device with him. He said he was feeling marginalized and wanted to stand with the fringes. As he came to stand with us he invited other delegates to do the same. I soon had a few delegates from the Philippines just in front of me.

On to the vote. It failed with the “no” side above 60%. That means there was a 20 point separation, considerably worse than the 4% separation from four years ago. This was a giant step backwards.

We again entered the floor and surrounded the central communion table as we sang. Some delegates joined us. Bread, wafers, and grape juice were produced and shared amidst the tears. After a while I recognized a friend right up against the table and went to her. Looking around I saw others looking determined, so asked my friend if the were occupying the communion table. She said, “It's my table too.” I stayed with her. We continued to sing.

The presiding bishop called a break. Afterward, the bishop restarted the session as many continued to sing. A presenter (one who talked about recognizing white privilege, essentially on our side) carried on gamely in spite of us. In that large space our singing was no match for the microphones. Even so, the bishop declared an early lunch. I stayed a few moments longer, but my legs were aching from several hours of standing and I left to go to the Tabernacle for lunch.

While there I heard the whole plenary hall was closed to visitors, then reopened. Several of the occupiers negotiated to the bishops and (apparently) agreed the rest of the sexuality issues would not be brought to the floor to avoid doing even more harm. Leaders also talked about the cost of arrest and that Tampa would not be a friendly place to be arrested.

I heard the Filipino delegation is so annoyed the incompatibility clause is still there they want to separate from the denomination, becoming only an associate church.

One quirk of the UMC is that the non-USA areas (Europe, Africa, the Philippines) may meet on their own and choose to decide that some provisions in the Book of Discipline (voted on by the global church) don't apply to them. At these area gatherings they can also enact provisions that apply only to them. However, all USA business is voted on by the global church and there is no way for provisions to be declared as not appropriate for American churches. Four years ago there was a petition to make USA an area like the others with USA only provisions. That failed. This time the committee that saw that provision didn't bother to act on it. That means Africa's homophobia sets USA policy and will continue to do so at least until 2016.

I hear later that all those packets I assembled yesterday were delivered during the lunch break.

At 1:45 some of us, including me, put “Crime Scene” tape near the entrances to the delegate floor (though carefully not blocking the entrances). When the session resumed at 2:00 the head bishop offered words of reconciliation and prayers. Only then did the occupiers leave the floor.

Not much of interest to me happened during the rest of the afternoon.

A bit more on yesterday. There was a petition to change the preamble of the Social Principles part of the Book of Discipline. I believe it was proposed to make other gay-related changes easier, though on its own said nothing about gays. The text read, “We stand united in declaring our faith that God's grace is available to all – that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” The second clause is lifted straight out of Romans, Chapter 8. The debate boggled the mind – some, many African, insisting that if you don't believe in God, God does not love you. This is a profound misinterpretation of the basic message of the Bible. Amazingly, the petition passed with only 56%. That prompted dark humor about “We are the 56%,” and signs outside buildings proclaiming “56% Grace United Methodist Church.”

We were told the bishops specifically invited us – the gay people – to the communion service this evening as a token of reconciliation. I even heard the delegate floor would be open to us and we would have communion with everyone else. But for me it wasn't what the bishops had in mind.

There was one song that was quite good. It was about continuing to serve until all are fed. I was able to get a copy for my own church. The sermon was also quite good, given by the bishop of the Dakotas. She used the scene of Jesus asking Peter to “Feed my sheep,” to say General Conference is important, but it doesn't actually feed any sheep and all the new programs GC comes up with doesn't change the lack of sheep feeding,

Then came communion. Leading up to that point I felt I had to enter the delegate floor and put my hand on the communion table again. The leader said communion would be served through “holy chaos” – we would serve each other. As they felt led some would pick up the buns and take them to others and start a conversation. A delegate did offer me a piece, but didn't start to talk. I touched the communion table and went back to near my seat and found everyone already in circles of conversation. The feeling of exclusion and the pain of the day bubbled out. At one point the bishop of Chicago saw me and offered more bread and talked with me, thanking me for being a part of the day's witness. I still felt alone.

We had a wrapup at the Tabernacle to discuss tomorrow's events. Instead of rejoicing in victory we are now fighting rear-guard action. The goal of tomorrow is to prevent more harm, to keep the hole from getting deeper. That includes transgender issues and minimum punishments for performing same-sex weddings. The deal with the bishops was that the sexuality issues would be put so far down the legislative calendar they wouldn't be acted on before the end of GC. We'll find out in the morning if the calendar committee honored that request. If not, our protests to slow down GC will resume. The other possibility is that our opponents will move that all items on the calendar not acted upon would be bundled together for a vote. It would pass. Our delegates will be watching for such a move and will try to circumvent it. Our opponents have tasted blood and are out for more. I came to GC to celebrate and found I'm being beat up.

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