June 23, 2016

Dear Friends in Christ,

In June 1987, I attended a United Methodist annual conference for the first time. As a newly trained and appointed local pastor in North Carolina, my district superintendent told me, I was required to be there. For me the United Methodist world I was being initiated into was entirely new. Having grown-up Baptist – one of the freest expressions of the “Free Church” tradition – I had no experience with the mandatory expectations of a “Connectional” church like the UMC. But, being a “by-the-book” kind of person (I sometimes tell people that my middle initial, B., stands for “by-the-book”), I rarely questioned The Book of Discipline with its clearly defined responsibilities, requirements, and resolutions.

To this day, I continue to be a loyal and largely satisfied United Methodist. However, as most of you know, my one significant frustration with my adopted church is its continuing reprobation of our LGBT sisters and brothers in Christ. Since 1972, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church has either strengthened its legislative stranglehold on sexual intimacy outside the heterosexual “norm” or else held a steady and unwavering course. Like most people my age – not to mention those who grew up Baptist – my thinking about homosexuality has evolved. I know what the Bible says. I am well able to argue the traditional and the progressive positions – and a few in between. But, when I waver, I choose with John Wesley to follow my heart’s inclination toward generosity, liberality, and love.

On May 26, the last time I wrote for The Chronicle, I expressed my frustration with the “Do Nothing” results of the 2016 General Conference of the UMC. For our $10.5 million investment in that quadrennial gathering, United Methodists received something like six pieces of relatively minor legislation and a promise from our bishops to try again, maybe, in a few years to resolve the stalemate between traditionalists and progressives regarding the appropriateness of same-sex attraction and “self-avowed” expression. Last week, when the New England Annual Conference met in Manchester, NH, for three days, I hoped for something better. To be honest, I would say that the outcome was mixed.

The day before we were called to order by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, members of the annual conference received an email. The agenda previously published for the first day would be suspended, it said, to address the frustration lingering after General Conference and to process the grief generated by the prior Sunday’s massacre in Orlando, FL. When Wendy and I arrived, the grieving had already begun. For all of Thursday morning, laity and clergy lined up at the microphones on the floor of the conference to vent their anger and pain. For me – a person whose family of origin allowed shouting only if the house was on fire – this venting felt deeply uncomfortable. For others, however, it seemed cathartic.

By Thursday night, an “Action of Non-Conformity” was introduced to the conference. Our bishop invoked an obscure parliamentary procedure in Roberts Rules of Order and left the room. The conference elected its secretary to preside and the resolution was debated. When the bishop returned to the chair on Friday, the resolution was reintroduced and passed 445-179. Somewhat out of character, one yes vote was cast by a clergy member whose middle initial stands for “by the book.” Here, in its entirety, is the resolution that sets the New England Conference apart from the rest of the UMC:

The NEAC will not conform or comply with provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons, including marriage (161.B), the incompatibility clause (161.F), ordination and appointments (304.3), homosexual unions (341.6), AC funding ban (613.19), GCFA funding ban (806.9), chargeable offenses pertaining to being “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” or to officiating at weddings for couples regardless of the sex of the partners (2702.1b,d).

The NEAC and its members will not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons.

The NEAC insists that any benefits available to clergy and employees and their families are available to all clergy and employees and their families, regardless of the sexes or genders of the partners, and requires the District Superintendents to inform all clergy under their supervision of this right.

The NEAC will realign its funding to reflect these commitments, using no reserve funds to pay for judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons, and instead requests the Connectional table and CCFA develop and fund programs of cultural competency, anti-racism, anti-ageism, anti-sexism, anti-oppression and anti-homophobia training at confer-ence and district levels, as well as for advocacy and implementation efforts related to the same.

Bishop Devadhar was asked almost immediately by a clergy member of the conference to make a “ruling of law” regarding the resolution. Prudently, the bishop chose to invoke his right to respond to the question within the maximum of thirty days allowed by The Book of Discipline.

Anyone who has taken a course in United Methodist polity already knows what the bishop’s ruling will be. A retired pastor, the Rev. Scott Campbell, summarized it nicely on Thursday night while the conference met “as a committee of the whole.” “This resolution,” Campbell said, “is definitely not legal. But it is moral. It’s the right thing to do. I urge you to pass it.”

When our bishop writes his ruling, it will go immediately to the UMC’s Judicial Council – our denomination’s “Supreme Court” – to be adjudicated. More than one outcome can be guaranteed: However the bishop argues for the appropriateness of New England’s resolution, the Judicial Council will strike his ruling down. But, even when it has been struck down, the resolution will “make history” as a principled protest against institutional bigotry and injustice.

That’s why I believe the results of the 2016 New England Annual Conference were mixed. It took us two days to vote the only resolution that is likely to be remembered by historians of the UMC. But, oh what a resolution it was! When the mandatory expectations of our connectional polity are set aside and undone, who knows what will happen next?

See you in church,

Pastor Joel

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