NOTE: PVUMC will show the film documentary, “An Act of Love,” on Sunday, June 12 at 6:30 pm in the sanctuary. A panel discussion will follow. The documentary, which premiered at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival and won an Audience Award, tells the story of Rev. Frank Schaefer’s religious trials for officiating his son’s same-sex marriage and the ensuing controversy that made national headlines. There is no admission cost. All are welcome to this event, hosted by PVUMC and Dayspring UMC. The message that follows is from Rick Mahrle, chair of PVUMC’s Reconciling Ministry Team.
First, a disclaimer. I attended the UMC General Conference in Portland, not as a casual observer, but as a volunteer with an agenda. I was working with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition and the Reconciling Ministries Network in their efforts to make the UMC the radically inclusive church that I believe that it should be. This means removing language from the church’s discipline that says homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity and prohibits the ordination of openly gay clergy, and prohibits officiating at same sex marriages [http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/homosexuality-full-book-of-discipline-statements.]
I hold to the proposition that we are all children of God, made in his/her image, regardless of sexual orientation. As a result, I was working with a coalition of LGBT pastors, parents who have LGBT children who were shunned by the church, and their supporters like me.
The first day of General Conference, 111 Methodist religious leaders–local pastors, deacons, elders, and candidates for ministry–sent a Love Letter to the church, telling the church that they were Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, or Intersex (LGBTQI) [https://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/calledout/]. This act invites charges to be filed and removal from their positions. By the end of General Conference, that number grew to 125. In response, about 24 bishops, including ours, issued a letter of support. Even more impressive, 1,550 Methodist clergy signed a letter saying that if any of the 125 are removed from their posts, they will not take their places.
Watching the plenary sessions of the General Conference is painful. Matters are brought before the delegates, but if you don’t have the guidebook you have little idea what they are discussing. Parliamentary procedures are kind of followed. But, things move very slowly. Often, the same people get up and talk on every issue being discussed.
On Monday, there was a call for the bishops, who do not vote on matters coming before the General Conference, to demonstrate leadership on LGBT issues. That evening, there was a rumor that the bishops would devise a plan to divide the church, while still keeping some type of loose association. However, on Tuesday morning, there was a statement that the church would stay bound together with ropes and chains, while continuing with the grace of God to work through our differences. This did not sit well with my group. When the delegates came back from a break, we formed two lines, tying our hands together, and sang “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” The delegates had to walk past us to get to their seats.
Later that day, the delegates voted to send the LGBT issues back to the bishops with directions to lead. On Wednesday, the bishops issued a recommendation that the church form a commission to resolve our differences about LGBT issues and to maybe hold a General Conference in two years that would last two to three days to deal solely with human sexuality issues. The recommendation also included language that the church should avoid moving forward with charges and trials related to LGBT issues. The report did not state an outright ban on trials, but one could easily read between the lines that any bishop who wants to avoid charges and trials now has the green light to do so. The General Conference adopted this statement from the bishops, but not by a very wide margin.
The group I was with also held other demonstrations. On Wednesday morning, about 60 of the 120 clergy who had signed the Love Letter lined up outside the two main entrances into the convention center. On each side of them, more than 150 of us stood in a line holding on wooden braces the stoles of Methodist clergy who either resigned, or were forced to resign, because they could no longer refuse to live as their authentic selves. The one I held had, written on the back, words of encouragement from the pastor’s congregation that would move one to tears. https://www.flickr.com/photos/umcommunications/27096979275/in/album-72157666078431994/
Had the bishops’ recommendation not been approved, there were plans to move across the bar and into the delegations in a mass demonstration. There were about 100 people in our group who signed information cards so that we would know basic information about who intended to get arrested. I was part of the legal team that would attend arraignments after the arrests. There were more than 20 women who were much older than me who were willing to get arrested for not leaving the floor had it come to that.
The divide in the church on LGBT issues is wide. Each side is convinced that it is correct and it is inconceivable to me that the hearts and minds of either side will be changed. The conservatives are very frustrated that we will not just leave. Many, but not all, of the delegates from Africa support the position of churches in the south and other parts of the US that view being gay as a sin. One of our members, who was wearing a sign saying that her gay son is a child of God, was confronted by a member of the Liberian delegation who told her that she should have thrown her gay son out with the trash and had nothing to do with him. It makes one wonder who is teaching theology to our African brothers and sisters.
How the church bridges that gap is inconceivable to me. Just Love.
Richard K. Mahrle
Chair of the Reconciling Ministry Team, PVUMC
To view the photostream from United Methodist News Service, click here.
Read the wrap-up of the conference from the point of view of the United Methodist News Service: http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/gc2016-wraps-up-with-budget-divestment