This is Part 3 of my remarks on the United Methodist Church and abortion, delivered earlier this year at the official invitation of the UMC’s Western Pennsylvania Conference.
Part 1 explored the questions of what difference the UMC’s public witness on abortion really makes, and what hope there could be for such a denomination. Part 2 shared the intertwined stories of myself and my denomination coming to more fully embrace God’s love for unborn children.
Part 4 explores where we may go from here and for those eager to reduce abortions, outlines the Nine Steps to Being a Pro-Life Congregation.
[The United Methodist Church’s formal affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which describes all abortions as “holy” and has claimed to represent all United Methodists in lobbying Congress against even mild restrictions on abortion, was the main focus of abortion debates at the 2008 and 2012 General Conferences.
As we began the 2016 General Conference, the UMC was the largest religious body formally affiliated with RCRC. Two official UMC agencies, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) and United Methodist Women, were enthusiastic RCRC “member organizations.” At that time our denomination also had an official resolution on record called “Responsible Parenthood,” which we had had on the books since 1976. While there had been a few tweaks since then, the bottom line was that this resolution very strongly and broadly defended abortions in any circumstance, for any reason, and does not have the key, life-affirming nuances of our Social Principles.]
Over several years before the 2008 conference, a bunch of us worked hard to raise awareness about the problems with RCRC. In my work with UM Action, I made sure we wrote articles on our website and in newsletters being mailed to hundreds of thousands of United Methodist homes. We informed people who had probably never heard of RCRC that we had this problem. I also put together some model resolutions that I promoted for people to submit to their annual conference sessions about RCRC.
We saw at the annual conference level a lot of the sad things we would see at earlier and later General Conferences. We saw very heavy-handed parliamentary tactics and abuses of power used to try to silence pro-life United Methodists from getting to speak and to have these concerns quickly brushed aside without opportunity for real discussion. We saw people try to change the subject to ad hominem attacks on those of us raising concerns about RCRC. And we saw RCRC supporters blatantly misrepresent the truth, even about very clear facts that could be easily confirmed with quick Google searches, and then harshly accuse people telling the truth of being “liars.” All of that was very discouraging. But we did not give up.
By the 2008 General Conference, several annual conferences had called for our church to break up with RCRC.
Meanwhile, there were greater forces at work. In the wider society, public debates over partial-birth abortion, and the now-routine experience of seeing ultrasounds of our children and grandchildren really helped spread pro-life sentiment. Meanwhile God had been moving several bishops and other prominent United Methodist leaders to come out publicly as pro-life.
For the 2008 General Conference, I helped Lifewatch organize a collection of short statements by prominent United Methodist leaders saying it was time to pull out of RCRC. And it was mailed to every delegate.
But this time, RCRC and its supporters were really prepared. They sent mailings and even made live telephone calls to delegates urging them to support RCRC. A prominent retired bishop named Melvin Talbert was recruited to write an essay urging delegates to support RCRC and abortion more generally. At General Conference, they had a team of people, including a senior staffer who greeted delegates as they came in with this big banner basically saying that the UMC and RCRC have already been together for 35 years, so why break up now? They had all kinds of expensive, professionally printed stickers, and handouts, and other “flare.” It must have cost them a lot of money.
But this time delegates concerned about RCRC were much more prepared and bold in pushing back. When RCRC came up in committee, right away this older gentlemen tried to move to prevent anyone from speaking on the petition. This would have prevented pro-life delegates from sharing concerns about RCRC. But this time it didn’t work. Then they moved to have the president of the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) testify, supposedly just to share the facts. But really she was there to defend RCRC and try to make it seem more moderate by saying things like that RCRC does not support late-term abortion. That is totally false. But this time, several delegates pushed back, and asked her questions about RCRC that she could not answer. But still, the committee majority voted to affirm RCRC. The argument that won the day was that we’ve been in relationship with RCRC for so long, and “we have to stay at the table.”
[But pivoting off of that language, some delegates in that committee presented a minority report that that would get our church to “stay at the table” by seeking an observer status with RCRC, the kind of deal where United Methodist representatives could still talk to RCRC at their famous table, but that our church could no longer be publicly listed as supporting RCRC.]
So then the full plenary session was faced with a choice between the committee majority report to keep affirming all of RCRC’s work or this minority report.
Several delegates spoke very strongly for why we should not offer a blank-check of support to RCRC. They shared about RCRC’s extreme record. But then the chair of that committee assured delegates that this was inaccurate. The statements about RCRC’s record were well documented and anybody could have verified them in five minutes with a quick internet search. But the way General Conference works, RCRC allies like the committee chair could just blatantly misrepresent the truth, claim that those telling the truth were the ones being untruthful, and never face any accountability. And it worked! The minority report, which would have ended our membership in RCRC, failed by just 32 votes. Out of nearly a thousand delegates. That was the closest it had ever been.
The way this vote was scheduled also seemed a bit suspicious. It came soon after a break, when it seemed over 100 African delegates were absent. African delegates are not a monolith, but they tend to be more pro-life. If the vote had come when they were all present, I would been shocked if there would not have been 33 more votes against RCRC.
This was so crushing. But we did not give up.
One month later, I did leave my work at IRD. I came to believe that I could serve the church better in the long run if I got some formal theological education. So I moved up north to start a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School.
One week later, I rented a car, since I didn’t own one, to drive back and forth to the New England annual conference session that year to set up and man a display table for Lifewatch. I wasn’t as well-received as I would have liked, and someone was really over-the-top in being aggressively hostile. That was discouraging.
But I didn’t give up.
At the 2012 General Conference, Lifewatch again sent delegates a list of statements by UMC leaders calling for withdrawal from RCRC. This time, the list was intentionally more international in the leaders it quoted.
Again, we saw pro-life delegates share very well-documented examples of how extreme RCRC was, and then get very harshly accused of lying. Again, we saw efforts to try to bring in an outside speaker to defend RCRC. But then the committee PASSED the motion to end our affiliation with RCRC. It was not even that close. It was such a beautiful moment that my friend who was a pro-life delegate from [overseas] did a video-recording of the moment the vote was announced.
But it was not over. Because no action is final at General Conference until the full plenary session of all delegates takes a final vote on the matter. And this was just a committee. The time had been dramatically reduced from previous years, so there was not going to be time for everything.
There was all kinds of desperate scrambling going on to try to make sure that we could eventually get to at least voting on RCRC. I and other pro-lifers were trying and discussing and arguing about various ways of getting there, and it got really stressful. This was such a historic opportunity – because THIS time the committee chair could not speak in defense of RCRC, since the committee had voted against RCRC. A young lady made a hail-Mary pass at the very end moving to not close General Conference before discussing RCRC. But at that point delegates had already been told to start putting away their voting pads, and there was no more energy for this.
I was devastated. We had done SO much hard work, over so many years to learn the rules, and play by the rules, and then do everything we needed to do to pass a petition fair and square and have the church finally address our concerns about RCRC. But then at the last minute, it seemed that the rules were changed to ensure that we lost once again. And the way some delegates had felt pressured to give up fighting on other important matters in hopes of getting to RCRC, and then never getting to RCRC, really felt abusive.
And right in my moment of real grief and pain, right after the desperate last attempt had been voted down, a prominent general agency leader who knew how passionate I was about RCRC saw me, crushed as I was, and walked by, making a point to laugh at me triumphantly.
Meanwhile a protest group called Love Prevails, led by Amy DeLong, had vowed that if the petition to withdraw from RCRC had been brought up, they would have taken over the floor of General Conference to forcibly prevent a vote. While this group is making its threats and blustery public rhetoric, I did not see a single bishop PUBLICLY say that these sorts of tactics are not acceptable for determining what’s decided in the body of Christ.
I wondered where was any justice and fair play in all of this? Where was the sense of us being a loving community of the body of Christ when seeing my brother in pain causes me pain, rather than is a chance to kick him while he’s down?
I had some good friends leave the denomination in disgust. The situation seemed impossible.
But I didn’t give up.
Over the next four years, I was involved in helping several annual conferences pass petitions calling on the 2016 General Conference to get us out of RCRC, including in my own annual conference.
I also personally traveled to Africa and the Philippines to share concerns with delegates from those parts of the world about RCRC and other abortion issues.
Then I got elected to General Conference. This was amazing! After the last twelve years of having to sit in frustrated silence at every General Conference, now I could be the one to speak and make the key arguments. I was elected on the second ballot, and so I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to get on the committee that would deal with abortion issues.
But then the way the system worked, by the time it was my turn to pick my committee, that one had already been taken. And so had my second and third choices. So I did not get to be on that committee. I was glad that a pastor from my delegation named Beth Ann Cook got to be on that committee, but I wanted it to be me.
But in God’s providence, Beth Ann was a real powerhouse in that committee. Dr. Richard Hoffman of Western Pennsylvania was also in that committee, and was also helpful on life issues. And again, thanks to their good work, the committee passed a petition demanding that our denomination and its relevant agencies end their membership in RCRC.
But this time, the chair of that committee was not out to use his authority to kill that petition. It got fair consideration in the plenary session. Beth Ann even had the door opened for her to be the one to present that petition. RCRC supporters still tried very hard to kill this. There were not only passionate pro-RCRC floor speeches but some of the same sorts of parliamentary tricks we had seen before. One tried at the last-minute to have us stay members of RCRC indefinitely while a general agency studied the matter. Another got an official from the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) to testify in defense of RCRC. Another tried to prevent delegates from voting on it with the argument that it was related to human sexuality, and we had just passed this petition calling for a special commission on human sexuality. But none of that worked.
General Conference voted by over 61 percent to pass the petition that ended our denomination’s affiliation with RCRC, after 43 years of what has felt like a sort of spiritual captivity. Then we voted by over 74 percent to delete the resolution endorsing the work of RCRC. It wasn’t even close.
Some individual United Methodists and even annual conferences still express support for RCRC. But none of this changes the facts that now our denomination is no longer publicly listed as part of RCRC, and that this General Conference in one fell swoop reduced by 40 percent the number of Americans in religious bodies that RCRC has claimed to represent.
Then there was the “Responsible Parenthood” resolution I had mentioned before. I and others really believed that the resolution was too fundamentally flawed, so that a few amendments could make it a less-bad resolution, but not a good resolution. The resolution all seemed based on this idea of setting conditions under which a child could be worthy of life. It had so many specific problems like putting our church on record as supporting not only legal abortion in most cases, but also specifically supporting things like taxpayer funding of abortion and endorsing the way the U.S. Supreme Court had acted in such a constitutionally questionable way to remove all legal protections for unborn children in 1973. So I had also been urging people to really target this resolution at this General Conference. In 2004, “Responsible Parenthood” was re-adopted with no real organized opposition. In 2008, the focus had been on making a few slight improvements. In 2012, some had tried several more efforts to amend it, but those were basically filibustered by a minority. It was time to target the whole thing.
And meanwhile United Methodist Women’s national headquarters had submitted a petition to re-adopt this resolution after making a bunch of major changes. This UMW petition would have shifted the resolution to be even more unapologetically affirming of abortion in several ways.
This was a big deal. United Methodist Women is one of those groups that typically gets whatever it wants when it submits something to General Conference.
So when it came to the floor, some people were really well-organized to push for it. And one delegate also stressed that if we didn’t re-adopt this resolution, we would be deleting an official position statement our church had had for 40 years.
But two women spoke very strongly against it. One of them was Vicki Stahlman from Western Pennsylvania. They both did a great job of cutting through all the misleading euphemisms and efforts to change the subject to focus on what was really at issue: how this resolution really attacked the inherent value and dignity of babies still in their mother’s wombs. And again, the vote was not really close. Only 41 percent voted to keep this resolution on the books.
So this last General Conference spoke very clearly by fairly strong majorities. We are not a church that supports or agrees with RCRC. We are not a church that is on-record as saying the U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing in 1973. We used to be, but we are now a different church!