Protests, Consensus and Community at GA

Protests, Consensus and Community at GA July 15, 2010

by Talitha Phillips

Some further reflections from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent bi-annual national gathering:

Last Friday, 18 protesters entered the General Assembly hall, marched past some temporarily absent (volunteer) gatekeepers, held up signs, stood at the front of the hall, and sang while our moderator first led us in prayer and then called for a temporary recess. They remained, singing, until they were carefully arrested in a very orderly fashion — they had informed the police of their plan in advance — and taken out in handcuffs.
Their signs said: “Prayer!” and a checklist: “Ordinations. Marriage. Pensions.” referring to the 3 areas of discussion where LGBTQI issues were in play at the Assembly (ordination standards, the definition of marriage, and extending coverage to church employees’ same-sex partners and the partners’ children). Two of this issues had already passed favorably to LGBTQI folks (ordination standards is once again, as in 2008, sent to the presbyteries for ratification, and the insurance is effective now)… so somehow I was not sure if they were protesting the 2/3 that had passed, or advocating for the 1/3 that had failed and not been revisited.

So… when they came in, I was on stage running Session Sync. You’ll note from my previous entry that this was a challenging job because of the kind of neutrality it calls for. You can only imagine the unsettledness I felt when these folks entered. I had a bit of a “what is going to happen?” moment and a confused moment (who were they? left or right? do i agree with them? are they here with authorization, or trespassing?) but then as the moderator abruptly closed debate and advised us to stand in prayer, I got a very sinking feeling that I was in the wrong place – that maybe I was supposed to be on the floor with the radicals, not up in the institutional, status quo, center of power on stage. It didn’t help that I was standing next to lawyers in suits who put on a bit of a secret service face. I was not ready to play that game.

I do believe now, however, that I did not want to be in that group of protesters. The news clarified the details: the group, Soulforce, is an LGBTQI advocacy group standing in protest of our assembly’s decision not to look at marriage questions. I support their goals 100%. But I do not like the method.

I’m liberal. If I’d had voice privileges I would have spoken on just about every issue in a leftward direction. If anyone with voice asked me to, I would’ve slipped them a carefully worded substitution motion or two (just kidding! so wrong!). I hate the idea of making up voting sheets ahead of time as the Layman did, checking off which way to vote on each issue, but if I were to make one up it would be easy — take theirs and reverse it.

From this perspective I can easily count the Assembly up in terms of liberal gains and losses, votes and non-votes, 51% in my direction, or 51% to my enemies. But if we all do that, we’re all losers. The intention behind GA is not to have a debate between two sides, winner take all. Commissioners and Advisory Delegates are instructed to come not as representatives of a demographic or constituency, but as spiritual people seeking the will of God. And this works, because you end up seeing people change their minds in committee and even in plenary. In communal process you see entrenched “sides” moving toward mutual forbearance, toward understanding, and even (!) toward consensus, where one is allowed to either actively agree with or passively “live with” the decisions made. I love it when I see conservatives moved thusly in a more liberal direction. LOVE IT.

I guess I got a taste of my own medicine. I had my liberal mind changed in a mildly more conservative direction. I would still NEVER vote for the measure they took on Thursday night — to dismiss all pending items in the civil union/marriage debate and give the presbyteries and congregations 2 years to discuss the study papers created in that area — because justice delayed is justice denied. But looking at it in retrospect, although I cannot in decent conscience actively agree with this decision, I can live with and hence submit to it. I can believe myself to be in “consensus” with the assembly whose conservative members cried out “too much! this is more than we can chew! Give us one task at a time!” I disagree, of course…. *I* think they should buck up and deal with the issues of justice. I think they’re being ridiculous. But I hear pain in their voices, and I have not yet walked a mile in their shoes.

We have a lot of communal processing to do. In the next two years, congregations and presbyteries are supposed to discuss civil union and marriage, and vote on the Belhar confession, changes in ordination standards, and the New Form of Government. I know presbyteries will vote, but may not discuss. Some may as well submit their votes now — they do not intend to have their minds changed. I know that many congregations will not even look at these, much less discuss. But in order to prevent our church from looking like our government (two entrenched opposing sides) we NEED more discussion, more communal process. I believe that the depth of our relational & communal processing might make or break our unity as a denomination. Minds are never going to be changed by 51% votes one way or the other. They were apparently not changed by Soulforce’s protest. They will only be changed by relationships.

The question before us is whether we are a relational church or not – a church that knows and loves one another. We are in relationship, but a dysfunctional one where there’s a lot of divorce talk… “I’ll leave if XYZ…” I wonder if this dysfunctional relationship needs outside intervention as Soulforce tried to supply, or needs a vacation from our issues, (a tactic favored by conservatives — but LGBTQI folks don’t have the privilege of taking a break), or whether as an alternate tactic, we can ask God to somehow rekindle our love and commitment to one another. Like a 30-day “marriage mender” course, adapted to churches? The problem is, one side will ask “how can there be love where there is injustice?” and the other will want to love the “sinner,” but cannot love the “sin”… but I want to believe that love can in fact break down those barriers. We cannot force love, but we can ask for it. I pray that this will be God’s gift to those of us who stay in the denomination: that we will be afflicted (even against our own desires) with a holy compassion for those against whom we are currently entrenched. That the conversations shared over the next two years will enable us to re-engage with firmness and confidence, neither stalling nor forcing others to rush. This is MILES from where we are now… but we serve a great God. We can imagine, ask for, trust in, and act upon our best hopes and intentions.
conversation. compassion. a ferociously loyal, caring love. Too much to expect, yes — but not too much to ask!
Talitha Phillips is a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary and blogs at Madame Future Moderator.

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129 responses to “Protests, Consensus and Community at GA”

  1. I so appreciate this post. I am an Elder in the United Methodist Church. We struggle with the same issues. I choose to stay within the connectional system, honoring our covenant, even though I do not agree with some of the stances on sexuality as expressed in our Book of Discipline.

    I struggle with what feels like a compromise, surrendering something of the demands of justice. At the same time I feel that I need to respect and embrace those who are within our connection and disagree with me.

    One of the things I like about the UMC is that we have the freedom to disagree with each other as long as we remain faithful to our Discipline. The other side of that coin requires that we be in covenant with people who have very different positions on a number of issues.

    I wonder if I would respond differently if the issue were something other than the churches stance on homosexuality. What does that indicate?

    I also wonder what we accomplish by politicizing and polarizing our community around votes that end up with a 51% to 49% decision. The truth is that it accomplishes little except generating divisiveness.

    I resonate with John Howard Yoder who wrote somewhere that when we attempt to resolve such issues by voting, we are trying to compel people to do something based on legislation that we cannot convince people to do based on conscience.

    I have not resolved any of this for myself. So I keep praying and trusting grace.

  2. Thanks Bill for your thoughts – esp the Yoder. The appeal is to the conscience, but the enforcement is through legislation. hmmmmmm how is that working for us? Not so well I’d say. Yet — at the same time — a presbytery overtured the General Assembly asking not to accept any changes to book of order that weren’t approved by 2/3 vote instead of 50%. It was an interesting one to think about, but was defeated because it is important to defend the rights of the minority. If majority was redefined as a larger percentage, it’d just maintain the status quo. I’d be interested in a different setting (where justice is not at issue) of seeing a church operate on that kind of level, where issues couldn’t be flip-flopped around so rapidly. BUT i know we cannot make such a change when we are so divided around such important issues.