Katy Kiser is a longtime United Methodist and freelance writer from Texas.
Disclose, Divest, Disrupt. This slogan, worn on the shirts of many at the Gather at the River conference sponsored by Reconciling Ministries Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action in San Antonio, Texas, perhaps summarizes what can be expected from progressives at the United Methodist General Conference 2016. It is easy to dismiss such blustering as empty rhetoric only meant to galvanize the progressive United Methodist base. But can it continue to be written off as such, especially considering their past performance at General Conference and the rhetoric and clear messages propagated from Gather at the River?
Speakers at the gathering demanded immediate changes to church doctrine and “full inclusion” in the United Methodist Church. Bishop Minerva Carcaño declared it was time for the church to catch up with society, our sister mainline churches, and God. One presenter defined inclusion as “all who are NOT white, NOT straight, and NOT over 45,” which indicates that exclusivity is the basis for their understanding of “inclusivity.”
Rev. Peter Storey, a (non-UMC) Methodist pastor from South Africa and former chaplain to Nelson Mandela was especially judgmental of those in the church who hold a traditional biblical view of sexuality: “The Holy Spirit knows the prejudices of the devout, no matter how respectable or carefully mapped in dogma, are the most dangerous prejudices there are. The Spirit is showing us what once was revered as ancient truth has become uncouth and untenable. Time makes ancient truth uncouth.”
Nevertheless, Storey assured the conference their future was secure, saying, “Welcome to the future of the UMC where none will be excluded.” But for all his assurance, he reminded the gathering that they must rise above their fear and have a willingness to die. In calling for bold and courageous action, he asked, “What or who is there to fear? Can a bishop water-board you?”
In a plenary, Amy DeLong of Love Prevails made it clear that progressive expectations should be low. “If you are hopeful, I am here to rid you of that burden. We get trounced.” She acknowledged the reality that the votes were simply not there to change the UMC’s governing Book of Discipline and remove restrictions against homosexual practice. She told the crowd that democratic change was closed to them; they had nothing to lose, and called for “new and disruptive tactics.”
Delong declared that the liberal United Church of Christ denomination is not designed to be a refugee camp for exiled United Methodists. She promised they would work for change in new and different ways, and claimed they would be 100 percent successful. Success was defined as showing up. She told the conference, “We are the embodiment of justice. We are the incarnation and incarnation is meaningless if we don’t make an appearance.” Among some of her more incendiary comments was her suggestion to bring “gallons and gallons and gallons of piss and vinegar,” adding “just think of the trouble we can cause.”
Both Amy Delong and Julie Todd also of Love Prevails have not waited for General Conference 2016 to begin their campaign to Disclose, Divest, Disrupt. Bishop Carcaño acknowledged that they have been allowed to influence meetings of the Commission on General Conference (COGC) and the Connectional Table (CT), even if unofficially from the margins. Carcaño announced that very little would have happened with the Connectional Table if it were not for Julie Todd.
Todd had taken to the microphone at a CT meeting, after they had hosted a panel discussion on homosexuality, and basically asked, as the bishop summarized her, “Is this all you are going to do? Do you realize you’re dealing with my life?” Carcaño credited Todd for being the voice of the Holy Spirit and profoundly influencing the CT to formally committing itself to the LGBTQ liberationist agenda (as John Lomperis reported on here) and ultimately petitioning this upcoming General Conference. The CT is recommending changing the UMC’s effective definition of marriage, allowing pastors to preside at same-sex weddings and giving annual conferences the right to ordain openly homosexually active clergy.
Amy DeLong and her allies successfully shut down General Conference 2012 when the LGTBQ agenda was not adopted. Carcaño applauded DeLong for asking the COGC if disruptive LGBTQ protesters like herself would be safe at General Conference 2024 in Zimbabwe. As a result, the commission changed the location to the Philippines. “Isn’t this the important question?” Carcaño asked, “Will General Conference be safe for all God’s children or a life-threatening one?” General Conference 2028 will be held in Zimbabwe only if it is determined it will be safe for all LGBTQ persons.
Carcaño reported that the COGC has proposed taking all legislation concerning LGTBQ matters out of the normal committee process and to deal with them in the entire body of delegates at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. She also reported that she was hopeful that the commission’s recommendation to suspend Robert’s Rules of Order would allow the General Conference to have “a Holy Spirit moment” as they take up these important issues with “holy conferencing.” These proposals will have to be approved by General Conference delegates to go forward.
Although not calling for disruption but just as disrespectful of General Conference were the remarks of Rev. Kathryn Johnson, Program Director for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC). She told the gathering, “What happens at General Conference stays at General Conference!”
Johnson acknowledged RCRC will be under scrutiny in Portland, but said that was not the important thing. She said, “We know we won’t have to have approval of the General Conference to do the work we need to do.” She displayed disregard for the fairly decided and democratically expressed will of the majority of our denomination. Johnson made clear RCRC will not moderate its work even if more of its values and commitments come in conflict with the UMC’s official stance.
In committee, the General Conference 2012 held in Tampa voted to end the church’s formal affiliation with RCRC. But this and many other committee-approved petitions, never came to the floor of the full conference for a vote, so the UMC-RCRC affiliation was not severed. It is well documented that RCRC has continued to use our church’s name to directly oppose any mild legal restriction or moral opposition to any abortion. This next General Conference will consider petitions to move our denomination’s official Social Principles in a more pro-life direction. It will also consider petitions to for the UMC to join other denominations who have already ended their relationship with RCRC.
Johnson went on to say no matter what the church decides, “We will not be defeated; we will not be stopped. Our work will go on.” Johnson ended her remarks with the claim that RCRC is the leading religious, sacred, Christian voice for reproductive health and justice.
Specific plans to disrupt General Conference were not discussed at Gather at the River plenary sessions. The event organizers did invite Love Prevails to lead two breakout workshops, entitled “Disruption 101” and “Disruption 201,” both led by Amy DeLong and Julie Todd. Out of respect for the attendee’s privacy, the conference organizers did not allow press to observe these or any of the other workshops. In any case, the progressive coalition is emboldened and ready to take whatever action is necessary to accomplish their goals. The impression was given that they will disrupt before votes are taken, possibly during the committee process, and are ready for a sustained effort.
One thing is clear, if the progressives have their way, General Conference 2016 will not be business as usual. This gathering made it painfully obvious that changing how sexuality is discussed or allowing “the voices in the middle” opportunity to speak in small groups will not satisfy the progressives or resolve the profound differences that exist. The Gather at the River conference focused attention on just how wide the divide is and how determined the progressive caucuses are to pressure the church into not only full inclusion but celebration of LGBTQ sexuality, even if it takes “new disruptive tactics.” We saw a taste of this in 2012 but are we ready for the train wreck they are planning?