By Tim Tanton*
Delegates leaving the closing worship at General Conference April 26 had to walk between rows of demonstrators who quietly lined the hall and steps outside the assembly area in the Tampa Convention Center.
The approximately 300 demonstrators were responding to the treatment of a number of people during a session of holy conversations on human sexuality April 25. The conversations were planned to help delegates have dialogue about the church’s position on homosexuality. The sharp disagreement over that topic sparks debate and demonstrations at every meeting of the quadrennial gathering.
“After the holy conversations yesterday, there were a number of people who felt abused in what we believed was intended to be a truly holy conversation space,” said Marla Marcum of Lexington, Mass., a volunteer coordinator for the Love Your Neighbor–Common Witness Coalition that organized the demonstration. “But, for whatever reason, in many, many of the rooms, that was not borne out, and delegates and observers were bullied and … (some were) met with derision and scorn.”
That wasn’t the case in every room, she added.
The United Methodist Church officially affirms the sacred worth of every person, regardless of sexual orientation. The denomination condemns homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching, and it forbids the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the performance of same-gender unions by its clergy and in its churches.
The demonstration followed an emotional statement made during the evening plenary by Mark Miller, an openly gay delegate from the Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference. Miller said that gays, lesbians and their supporters were bullied in the holy conversations.
Miller was granted a time of personal privilege to make his statement by Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. of the Oklahoma Area, who presided over the evening plenary.
“The need for authentic conversation about human sexuality is so important,” Miller said. “However, the process that we attempted yesterday failed us. It failed because of our lack of leadership and oversight, because the process did not respect people and didn’t plan for the care of those who were hurt by the process.”
When Miller asked supporters of gays and lesbians and “anyone who believes bullying should not be allowed at our General Conference” to stand, he was ruled out of order and asked to return to his seat.
“We will have an opportunity to discuss this,” Hayes told Miller. “I will acknowledge to you that on yesterday there were a lot of things that were not right. The timeframe in which legislative committees had to be elected was not right. It was a sincere attempt to try holy conferencing.”
At Miller’s request, Hayes then offered a prayer.
Afterward, Miller left the gathering and met privately with a number of church officials, including the Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist, secretary of the General Conference.
“We hope for a community of love,” Reist said after the plenary. “Sometimes our understanding of God’s law gets in our way of our understanding of God’s love.”
A 40-link chain
Meanwhile, the demonstrators gathered outside the doors of the plenary hall. Many of them wore the rainbow-colored stoles that have come to symbolize the groups advocating for full inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the life of The United Methodist Church. As they gathered, several people walked among the demonstrators, gently touching them and offering a blessing.
While most of the delegates kept walking straight out of the building, a few stopped to hug or join the demonstrators. After most of the delegates had left, the demonstrators began singing softly, “We are gentle, angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
The Rev. Amy DeLong of Wisconsin stood among the demonstrators, quietly holding her right fist aloft, gripping a short length of chain. Wesley White, a friend of DeLong’s from Wisconsin, explained that each link of the chain represented one of the 40 years since 1972. That was the first General Conference at which the then four-year-old United Methodist Church addressed human sexuality.
As she held the length of chain, DeLong told the demonstrators, “We do not need it to be 44.”
The experiences of Miller and others had led the coalition to plan the demonstration. “There was no plan to do anything this evening in the realm of witness,” Marcum said. The coalition members were not angry, she said, but “we won’t stand for bullying, and this is our church too.”
The coalition, which has set up a tabernacle tent down the street from the convention center, comprises Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Native American International Caucus of United Methodists, National Association of Asian American United Methodists and Reconciling Ministries Network.
Marcum recounted how a gay friend of hers at the holy conversations had sat next to a person “who went on at length about how evil gay people were.” Her friend barely had time to speak before the session ended, she said.
The limited amount of time given for the holy conversations contributed to the problem, observers said. A longer-than-expected morning plenary delayed the start of the legislative committee meetings, which then ran over schedule, cutting into the amount of time that had been allocated for the conversations.
It was “very, very unfortunate” that there wasn’t enough time for the holy conversations, said Bishop Sally Dyck of the Minnesota Area.
Each room where the conversations were taking place had about 80 people, and the bishops in charge were instructed to organize the people in groups of six to eight, Dyck said. Bishops were told not to be a part of the small groups because their presence might have been intimidating or off-putting, she said.
Dyck said “it hurts me that people are hurt” and commented on the difficulty that the church has had in dealing with this issue.
“It is an issue that just truly seems to fracture the church, and that’s why we wanted to have some time of holy conferencing,” she said.
*Tanton is executive director of content for United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, Tampa, Fla., (813) 574-4837, through May; after May 4, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470, firstname.lastname@example.org.