Some Brief Thoughts on “An Action of Non-Conformity”
These thoughts started a conversation that was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, June 26, 2016.
I absolutely enjoy annual conference. For me, it’s a great opportunity for me and my family to see and meet new colleagues and old friends in ministry. My most treasured times at annual conference are sitting around a table catching up, laughing, reminiscing about the past, and dreaming about the future.
For the most part, the business of the annual conference is pretty pedestrian. It follows a pretty straightforward and consistent pattern year after year. The conference is called to order, the clergy and laity meet in their respective sessions, ministry is celebrated, churches are chartered while some are closed, people are commissioned and ordained for ministry, we remember members of the annual conference and their spouses who have died in the previous year, and we approve budgets.
Annual conference is, for the most part, pretty routine. But, the New England Annual Conference was anything but routine this year. The changes started before we arrived. A few days before leaving, an email blast was sent out notifying the members of the schedule change. In response to the tragedy in Orlando, conference leaders felt it was appropriate for us to begin our time together as a conference. Instead of meeting in our separate clergy and laity sessions, which was the original plan, the whole conference would meet together for what I assumed would be a time of prayer and discernment on how we as The United Methodist Church in New England would respond. That change may not sound like that big of a deal, but it was a major alteration to the schedule.
As the bishop stepped forward to the microphone to welcome everyone to the Conference, disruption immediately occurred. The bishop had not finished welcoming everyone to the conference. He hadn’t even finished his first few sentences when folks began stepping up to the microphone to share their pain regarding the churches exclusionary stance against members of the LGBTQIA community and their frustration with the General Conference’s stalemate and in some cases regression on the matter. For an hour and a half, people streamed to the microphone to bear their souls.
The whole thing was far from routine. There were many powerful things said. We were led through an act of repentance over the ways we have been exclusionary and hateful to persons of differing sexual orientations using the ancient symbols of ashes and burlap. But, I think the most impressive thing for me to see was how Bishop Devadhar, even though he was interrupted mid-sentence and could have called the whole thing “out of order,” stood and listened.
The Annual Conference spent nearly a day and a half in unplanned discernment and discussion. What eventually came out of that discussion was a resolution entitled, “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.”
The resolution reads (I spelled out the abbreviations):
The New England Annual Conference (NEAC) as a body affirms our commitment to a fully inclusive church. Therefore:
The NEAC will not conform or comply with provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual persons, including marriage (161.B), the incompatibility clause (161.F), ordination and appointments (304.3), homosexual unions (341.6), Annual Conference funding ban (613.19), General Commission on Finance and Administration 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 or 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 request that the Connectional Table and Conference Council on Finance and Administration develop and fund programs of cultural competency, anti-racism, anti-ageism, anti-sexism, anti-oppression and anti-homophobia training at the conference and district levels, as well as for advocacy and implementation efforts related to the same.
The vote to approve this action was taken by paper ballot. 445 members voted yes, 179-no. 17 abstained, and two ballots were blank. The action passed and history was made.
Immediately following the vote, a member of the annual conference asked for a ruling of law; and, the bishop has 30 days to respond. The judicial council will review the bishop’s ruling and either support it or offer their corrections to it. Frankly, everyone knows what the end result will be. Paragraph 604.1 states that “the annual conference, for its own government, may adopt rules and regulations not in conflict with the Discipline of The United Methodist Church…” Nevertheless, the statement has been made; and, personally, I think now is the time to make it.
Several years ago the Barna group—an evangelical survey group—conducted a massive study in which they found that “nearly nine out of ten (87%) of young [unchurched adults] said that judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity.” 91% of young adults said that “antihomosexual” accurately describes the church and 2/3 of those people have strong, presumably negative, opinions about Christians because of this.
Just a couple of weeks ago right before leaving for annual conference, I had a conversation with a young adult in this congregation who asked, “why do people in this church hate gays so much?”
It is unfortunate, I think, that a religion that Christ said could be summed up in two commands—love God and love your neighbor as yourself—has become known as a religion of bigotry, hate, and exclusion. Jesus said that the world would know that we were his disciples by our love, not by what we despise or disagree with and most definitely not by our judgements of others.
I believe that God’s love knows no bounds. I believe that God’s love is offered freely to all no matter who people are or what they may think. And, I believe that the Scriptures attest to the ever-widening circle of God’s love which culminates in Christ who came to reconcile all things—whether on earth or in the heavens—to God, to bring peace through the cross (see Colossians 1:20).
Some may disagree with me and/or the action of the annual conference, and that’s fine. I want you to know that I believe the Church is big enough for all of us.
I wouldn’t usually take a whole sermon or teaching time to talk about what happens at annual conference, but this was so out of the norm. This year’s New England Annual Conference was historic. And, while history has yet to judge the conference’s action, I think it deserves some time for us to process the action together. So what questions, comments, concerns, and thoughts do you have?
My Additional Thoughts, Questions, and Notes:
8 references to homosexual behavior (separating Romans into two references) in the canon of Scripture:
2 refer to rape (Genesis 19:5, Judges 19:22)
3 refer to intercourse between men (Leviticus 18:21-22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:27)
1 refers to intercourse between women (Romans 1:26)
1 refers to prostitution and possibly pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
1 is general in nature (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
Why do we give these eight references so much weight? Are they really talking about monogamous, same gender relationships in a culture where same-gender marriages are legal? I’m not so certain.
Scripture says that divorcees who get remarried are committing adultery (Matthew 5:31-32); and, the punishment for adultery is death (Leviticus 20:10). The law commands that we are not to plant fields with two kinds of seed, and not to wear clothes made from two kinds of thread (Leviticus 19:19, Common English Bible). It says that women should wear a hijab, or head covering, when they pray and if they don’t their heads should be shaved as a sign of disgrace (1 Corinthians 11:5-6, Common English Bible). It suggests that those who bash the heads of Israel’s enemies’ children against the rock will be blessed (Psalm 137:9). It says that “wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22, Common English Bible) and that “slaves [should] submit by accepting the authority of your masters with all respect. Do not only to good and kind masters but also to those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18, Common English Bible). The Bible says and commands many things we no longer believe to be God’s will (think slavery and the subjugation of women, in particular). We understand these moral teachings (instructions on how we are to live in relation to others) to be rooted in a specific time that is not our own.
When the legal expert asked Jesus what faith was all about, what the two greatest commandments were, Jesus responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37-40, Common English Bible).
The moral trajectory of scripture is to lead humanity into a loving relationship with God and neighbor. So when Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17-20), he means that he has come to restore our relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of Creation. The law was meant to facilitate these relationships, but our penchant for rules made us more infatuated with the law than the relationships they were meant to restore. Thus, our need for Jesus to show us the way to love and life that really is life, the life God wanted for Creation in the very beginning.
I wouldn’t pretend to know all the Discipline by heart (so I may be missing some references). But, it seems to me that we focus on certain things over others; and, that may be intentional.
Why are there annual conference funding bans on alcoholic beverages (para. 613.18) and “any gay caucus or group, or…to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (para. 613.19)? and not other social principles and teachings? Why are these social teaching/principles lifted above others?
Why is the General Council on Finance and Administration responsible for ensuring that United Methodist funds not be used for late-term abortion (para. 806.10) and to “any gay caucus or group, or…[used] to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (para.806.9)? Again, why are these social teachings/principles lifted above others? Note that this is different from the annual conference funding ban. What’s going on there?
Why not a general statement about not funding anything that goes against the Book of Resolutions or Social Principles of The United Methodist Church? Could the fact that we raise some things above others be blatant discrimination (at worst)? or a focus on a specific things over all else (at best, but not sure how much better this really is)?
There are only two things listed in the Book of Discipline as “incompatible:” the practice of homosexuality (para. 161.F) and war (para. 165.C). While there are more than just two things “incompatible” with Christian teaching, why are these two explicitly mentioned? And, why is the practice of homosexuality legislated so thoroughly against (see para. 161.B, 161.F, 304.3, 341.6, 613.19, 806.9, 2702.1)? Why don’t we see similar legislation against those who advocate for and/or participate in war?
Note: para. 164.H mentions that “many Christians believe that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.” In other words, for some, the practice of war which is incompatible with Christian teaching is acceptable. So the church acknowledges and accepts what we agree Scripture calls incompatible? Forgetting that incredible inconsistency or perhaps using that inconsistency: why can’t similar language be adopted for the practice of homosexuality? Language has been proposed at the last two general conferences that would have allowed for diverse views on sexuality, much like we have for war. Each time, the petitions have been voted down. Why? It seems to me that Jesus’ mandate to turn the other cheek (Luke 6:27-36), love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), and lay aside the sword (Matthew 26:52) are way more explicit than his teachings against homosexuality (cause he never mentioned it—the only sexual sin he seems to talk about is lust and adultery). So why give on war (something Jesus spoke against) and not homosexuality (something Jesus didn’t even mention)?
 unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and why it matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), p182
 Ibid. p92-93.