This morning in Portland at United Methodist General Conference pro-LGBTQ protesters briefly interrupted the proceedings, many of them with tape over their mouths, demanding the convention apologize for supposedly silencing an LGBTQ delegate, who actually is one of the most frequent at the microphone. The apology not extracted, the protesters left. Such episodes are almost routine.
Upon returning from my first General Conference in 1992 I showed a friend all the colorful literature I had received there in Louisville from countless political advocacy groups. A Catholic, she laughed that my church was clearly a brewing Babel of competing caucuses and interests. Very true. And very exhausting, though at times entertaining. Not every moment at United Methodist General Conference is controversial or unpleasant.
At the dreadful hour of 6:30 a.m. this morning a ballroom full of delegates assembled for a breakfast hosted by Good News and the Renewal and Reform Coalition, of which my IRD/UMAction is a member. Many old friends, some dating to 1992, were there, still studiously serving their church. Good News has led the evangelical cause within United Methodism since the 1960s. Bishop Peter Torio of the Philippines, who brought a table full of his delegates, gave us encouragement. An update on the legislative committees, a possibly record number of which are chaired by evangelical delegates this time, was shared, much of it positive. But as at all General Conferences, most of the very contentious issues will be debated vigorously in plenary.
With so many “nonviolent” demonstrations at General Conference threatened this time, security at the convention center is greater than ever before. Police cars sit outside, and security personnel wand each visitor at the door. The exhibition hall inside includes a smorgasbord of Methodist causes and bric-à-brac. The United States Army has a table seeking chaplains, which left me wondering if there are any pacifist objections. A table for Sabeel, which lobbies for divestment against Israel, was abutting a booth for messianic Jews that includes an Israeli flag. An LGBTQ caucus is located across from IRD and two other evangelical groups.
In the Cokesbury section there are John Wesley bobble heads, Francis Asbury greeting cards, and various paraphernalia with the United Methodist logo. Walking among the books there was retired Bishop Will Willimon, now back to teaching at Duke Divinity School. Years ago we feuded some by email when I criticized him in a newsletter and he responded in Christian Century. Since then we’ve met several times and become friends. He’s always enjoyably chatty, is planning his next book, and will soon speak again at a church near my home, where I look forward to seeing him. Afterwards I had informative conversation with someone at the United Methodist Commission on History and Archives, who told me his favorite John Wesley bio and commiserated with me on the lack of adequate recognition for the 200th anniversary of Asbury’s death.
A delightful delegate from Texas approached to say she hopes I write a sequel to my 2008 book Taking Back the United Methodist Church. She said she re-reads it regularly! Flattered, I said maybe I would in time for 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. When I first wrote it I had smilingly wondered to myself if I shouldn’t regularly update it, like John Calvin did to his Institutes. We both agreed the worship this year has been better compared to four years ago, when an eccentric California worship leader incorporated driftwood and seashells into liturgy, prompting some overseas delegates to murmur about paganism.
Walking around the convention hall several times I saw a prominent LGBTQ activist. She was unofficially ordained in the convention hallway Tuesday, and at an earlier General Conference staged outside her own public wedding to another woman. During the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh she approached my table in a restaurant one evening and asked if I’d leave the room to give her peace, which I declined. This week she approached our IRD exhibit table and asked our young intern why he hated her. He assured her he did not, but she was undeterred. She’s been, I think, to every General Conference I’ve attended, protesting daily. Her presence is oddly comfortable in its predictability. Likely she won’t be happy with the results of this General Conference, like all the others. But may she eventually find peace.