General Conference ignores Wesley’s “do no harm” rule

Bishop Melvin Talbert and Rev. Bruce Robbins at the 2012 General Conference

“The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience. Thus the time has come for those of us who are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to do what is required of us….The time has come to join in an act of Biblical obedience. I call on the more than 1,100 clergy [who have signed marriage initiatives] to stand firm in their resolve to perform marriages for same-sex couples and to do so in the course of their normal pastoral duties, thus defying the laws that prohibit them from doing so….The time for talking is over. It’s time for us to act in defiance of unjust words of immoral and derogatory discrimination and laws that are doing harm to our GLBT sisters and brothers.”

So said Bishop Melvin Talbert on the closing day of General Conference. The occasion was a press conference organized by the Love Your Neighbor coalition to highlight the nationwide work of clergy who have pledged to marry all couples, gay and straight, through organized marriage initiatives like MIND’s We do! Methodists Living Marriage Equality. It was a fitting way to end the coalition’s GC witness, lifting up those who have already found a way to move past the paralysis and spiritual crisis caused by the UMC’s requirement to discriminate at the end of two weeks of distinctly un-holy conferencing that only deepened that spiritual crisis.

Talbert was one of 14 active and retired bishops at the press conference. These same bishops, however, did very little during the two-week verbal and legislative assaults on LGBT people that characterized much of GC. Indeed, this quadrennial meeting of the church was remarkable for both the intensity and the extensiveness of anti-gay hate that was expressed. LGBT people were exposed again and again to hate speech that accused them of bestiality, called them drug addicts, prostitutes and alcoholics and denounced them as evil. Legislative petitions to remove the Incompatibility Clause and end the exclusion of LGBT people from ministry and marriage were defeated.

These developments dashed hopes that after 40 years in the spiritual wilderness of prejudice and exclusion the UMC might finally embrace the radical inclusivity of the Gospel and welcome LGBT people. The unsuccessful battle to end UMC bigotry against gays and lesbians was part of a larger struggle at this General Conference for the soul of the United Methodist Church and its Wesleyan roots. Both the breadth of the attacks on the church’s founding principles and the near-constant protest organized by members of the Love Your Neighbor coalition were unprecedented.

From almost the very beginning, LGBT people and their allies sent up a cry of protest that the conference was ignoring Wesley’s simple rule of “do no harm.” That became the unofficial theme of the progressive witness throughout GC, as harm after harm was done.

A dialogue time on the second day of GC set aside for “holy conversation” about sexuality led to LGBT people being “bullied emotionally, spiritually and physically, and it didn’t seem like anyone did anything,” as Mark Miller movingly summarized the following night on the conference floor. Miller, an openly gay delegate and the UMC’s best known music director, asked other LGBT delegates to stand with him, and was then cut off and ruled out of order. But the witness continued after the evening session, when hundreds of people stood in silent protest outside the plenary meeting space.

As week two unfolded and focused on plenary debate, the battle to change the prejudiced language of the Book of Discipline was already lost following committee votes that shot down proposals for inclusivity. On May 2, several hundred people walked onto the floor and used the people’s mic to proclaim this message:

The General Conference has broken Wesley’s General Rule by doing harm to young adults, people of color, gay and lesbian people, women and others.
Confusion has taken the place of Holy Conferencing.
Legalism has obscured love.
Fear has silenced faith….
We are committed to following Jesus Christ to embody God’s love and justice through the United Methodist Church.
We will work passionately for racial justice.
We will embody full inclusiveness for people of all sexual orientations.
We will celebrate people of all gender identities.
We are global, connectional, and repentant of colonialism.
We will be a people of peace.
We will proclaim the stewardship of creation joyfully.
We will strive for economic justice.
This is what it means to be United Methodist….

It was this vision of “what it means to be United Methodist” that was so consistently in the crosshairs of the right throughout GC. A proposal to add language to the Social Principles that “God’s grace is available to all – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” passed – but only by 56%, stunning many who understand grace to be absolutely central to a Wesleyan theology. Efforts were made to undermine the guiding authority of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, attempting to supplant “scripture, tradition, experience and reason” with a sole focus on scripture. Guaranteed appointments for clergy, a cornerstone of Methodist itinerancy, was abolished. And restructuring plans for the church took central aim at agencies like the General Commission on Race and Religion and the Committee on the Status and Role of Women. Proposals to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which the UMC helped found, and to even further restrict ministry to LGBT people, were passed out of committee.

When the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God hates fags” fame) showed up on the last day of General Conference to protest, many responded with observations like “not sure what’s left to protest.” One widely retweeted comment said, “Fred Phelps is outside for a reason: our theological violence has drawn him like blood draws a shark. We called and he came.”

In the end, it was largely a courageous act of direct action taken by LGBT activists on the conference floor on the penultimate day that kept much additional harm from being done. They occupied the floor and forced the conference to adjourn. As the hall emptied and the lights were turned out on the activists, they kept singing. In fact, they sang “What does the Lord require of you?” non-stop for almost three hours. They agreed to leave and let business resume only after conference leaders promised that they would not allow further harm to be done – in the form of allowing the remaining legislative proposals on sexuality, including the reproductive rights and LGBT items – to be debated and voted on. They enforced that agreement by letting conference leaders know that if any of these proposals did come up, they would immediately reoccupy the floor and prevent further business – further harm – from happening.

The direct action was criticized by some, who said things like LGBT people should “think about some other ways their witness could be made.” But these criticisms call to mind Martin Luther King’s famous words of frustration with “the white moderate,” who he observed “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Bishop Talbert was right: “The time for talking is over. It is action time.”

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