Much is being said about this General Conference on social media and in the news. There are many things to consider, but let me start with a basic truth. The truth is that the struggle for justice for LGBTQ persons is far from over … in some ways, when many people think this was the last word, I would say that this was anything but the last word.
Here are my observations about this General Conference (albeit articulated with a weary mind):
While what has been known as the Traditional Plan has seemingly prevailed, it has proven time and again to be plagued with constitutional challenges. The United Methodist Church has a constitution that has largely stood the test of time. And while the General Conference has full legislative authority, our Judicial Council (think Supreme Court) can declare any portion of that legislation unconstitutional, which will then render it null and void.
The Traditional Plan was again referred to the Judicial Council, and it is expected that much of it will not stand the constitutional test.
I have never known anyone who really thought they were winning the war to plan a retreat or an exit strategy at the while, at the same time, declaring victory. Yet that has happened here in St. Louis. More moderate to progressive delegates finally began speaking plainly about what was happening and called out those who were working so diligently to craft a “disaffiliation plan” that provides a framework by which churches may leave the denomination and subvert what is commonly known as the “trust clause” and keep their property while moving to be either independent or join or create a new denomination.
While making every effort at decorum, it is no secret that the group that calls itself the Wesley Covenant Association has been working to create a new Wesleyan denomination that would no longer be part of the United Methodist Church. The Reverend Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection, called out the group for that very thing in an impassioned speech.
The struggle by the WCA to keep the exit strategy in place affirms that there is much more to this story than meets the eye.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, addresses direct action in the wake of broken promises and continued prejudice and oppression of African American people. In that letter, he writes:
As in so many experiences in the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.
Today, I watched it unfolding. As the traditional plan was approved a group of queer clergy and laity and their supporters began a direct action that laid out the case “before the conscience of the local and national community.” Delegates gathered in the middle of the bar of the conference and observers made their way to the front of the stands directly beside me and elsewhere in the stands. I watched as three of the people in the group near me (who were obviously from the same conference) yelled to their bishop as she walked by, begging her to come to stand with them … in front of them on the floor level of the arena. She offered them a sign of peace, but would not come toward them. She slowly walked away as they begged her to recognize them … to stand with them.
My heart was breaking at watching the rejection. My heart was breaking for them. A layperson from our conference seated near me also saw it, and she began to cry. She immediately walked toward them, and I was right behind her standing with them … in solidarity … wanting justice for them … wanting this nightmare to end.
As I moved back toward my seat, it occurred to me. This wasn’t the first time the church had been on the wrong side of justice. Dr. King’s letter from the Birminham Jail was written in response to an open letter to Dr. King from the “Alabama Clergymen,” and among the signers of that letter were Methodist bishops Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin.
In that letter, they challenged Dr. King to refrain from protests and wait for justice to come through civil dialogue. It was in his response that Dr. King wrote: “We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
I am saddened, but not without hope. We have seen and will see various news articles that are making declarations that this is a final decision of the church. There are many who will give up and walk away. Here it is enough to quote a tweet by Bishop Karen Oliveto, the only openly lesbian bishop in the UMC, who herself quotes Richard Smallwood’s Hold On, Don’t Let Go:
I know so many hurt right now. From my GC play list:
“Hold on, don’t let go, even though your heart hurts you so; He’ll never let go of your hand”
I’m not going to let go of you, dear ones who are hurting so right now. Let’s hold us all tight. (words spelled out from Twitter)
My friends, the wisdom from Bishop Oliveto is spot on. We are holding onto hope.