Time to move beyond church protests
Another General Conference, another protest by pro-gay groups. Since the 1992 General Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, every General Conference session has been disrupted by some form of protest activity. On one occasion, protesters pounded their feet on the bleachers to prevent the conference from carrying on business. In each of the last four General Conferences, protesters invaded the floor where the delegates were seated in order to stop the business of the conference from continuing. In 2000, a number of the protesters were arrested and fined. In the years since then, some form of accommodation with the protesters al- lowed the protest to happen without arrests being made.
This year in Tampa, the protesters did not desecrate the worship space or altar, as they have in past years. However, they prevented the conference from doing business by singing hymns within the delegate seating area of the conference. About 90 minutes of plenary time was preempted by the demonstration. At $1,500 per minute, that cost the General Church about $135,000 in lost time.That lost time came back to haunt the conference on Friday night, when numerous calendar items were not able to be acted upon for lack of time.
I believe the time has come to say that it is wrong to use protest tactics to disrupt the functioning of General Conference or to circumvent the rules and policies of the church. Such tactics are not in keeping with the gospel, nor are they in keeping with the way our church is governed. People within the church are entitled to disagree with one another and with the policies of our church. We are invited to express that disagreement verbally and in print as a part of the “holy conferencing” that leads up to decision-making in our General Conference. However, going beyond persuasion to disruptive protest crosses a line that threatens not only the unity of the church, but the integrity of the church’s decision-making process.
These disruptive protest tactics are not meant to persuade; they are meant to intimidate the delegates into agreeing with the protesters and to force the church to adopt the protesters’ position.
One blogger stated that when protest is the only voice you have, you use it. But those advocating for the acceptance of homosexuality in the church have had a very loud and effective voice for their position. Two churchwide studies and countless hours of holy conferencing in annual conferences and local churches have given voice to the pro-gay position. In this General Conference, more than half the worship services and sermons advocated for “full inclusion” and sometimes overtly advocated on behalf of the acceptance of homosexuality. We devoted an unprecedented three time periods to holy conferencing during this General Conference, one of which was specifically oriented around homosexuality. Several of the legislative committees devoted substantial amounts of time to holy conferencing on this issue.
Delegate Mark Miller shared his frustration over shortcomings in the process, leading to a beautiful prayer for all by Bishop Hayes. In addition,
there were the daily eight-page newspapers put out by the “Love Your Neighbor Coalition,” the daily rallies and speakers in their “Tabernacle,”
and the dozens of rainbow stoles worn by advocates, as well as delegates and even bishops.
The advocates for the acceptance of homosexuality definitely have a voice, and that voice was heard loud and clear. However, the delegates have chosen for 40 years not to agree with that voice. When advocates say they haven’t been heard, what they really mean is that the church has not agreed with them. In frustration, they then turn to intimidation and coercion through protest tactics.
The attempt at intimidation was felt by the delegates in the demands of the protesters, who negotiated their departure from the floor of General
Conference only after certain demands were met. The intimidation was felt when dozens of protesters lined the edge of the plenary floor and stared at the delegates during the debate on petitions related to homosexuality. Some central conference delegates shared with us that they were literally afraid during that debate because they did not know what would be considered acceptable behavior in the U.S., or whether the protesters
would attempt to cause injury to the delegates. That intimidation was felt through threats from protesters that there would be further disruption if the General Conference agenda was not changed to postpone consideration of petitions that they considered hurtful.
Intimidation and force have no place in the deliberations of the church. They violate the provisions of the holy conferencing process, bringing conversation to a halt. They make a mockery of our claim to be listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our decisions. Protest tactics are simply an attempt to impose a minority viewpoint on the church despite the will of the majority. What we witnessed at General Conference was in part a tyranny of the minority. Holding the bishops and the General Conference hostage to the demands of a small group of demonstrators was a manifestation of tyranny. It exhibited a spirit of “do things my way or else.” That is not how we resolve disagreements in the Church of Jesus Christ.
We can go back to the very first major controversy in the church, settled by the Council of Jerusalem as reported in Acts 15. The decision- making
body gathered (“the apostles and elders,” vs. 6). There was “much discussion” (vs. 7). There was personal testimony (Barnabas and Paul, vs. 12). The leaders spoke (Peter, vs. 7; James, vs. 13). There was appeal to Scripture (vs. 15). A decision was made that could be summarized by the phrase,“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (vs. 28). The decision was conveyed by letter and by word of mouth from those who went to
encourage and build up the church.
Where in this process is there room for intimidation or for protest? The monumental decision to include Gentiles in the church by faith in Jesus
Christ without requiring them to be circumcised was made in one day. And the leadership of the church never revisited that issue again! There were
still “Judaizers” who disagreed with the decision and attempted to promote their teaching in opposition to the apostolic faith, but they were not
accepted by the church. The leaders of the church had defined the church’s position on that fundamental issue, and the decision was never changed.
If The United Methodist Church were to change its position on the acceptance of homosexuality, we could not say that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” We would have to say, “It seemed good to a minority group within our church, and after more than 40 years of pushing, the rest of us have decided to go along to promote peace and unity and stop the conflict.”
The proponents of protest tactics in the church are making a mistake of categories. They are treating the church as if it were a secular government. But the reason that civil disobedience and other pressure tactics are accepted as valid in dealing with a secular government is that the average person has no alternative but to live under that particular government’s authority. The only way to change the perceived unjust circumstance is to change the government’s policy.
A church denomination, on the other hand, is a voluntary association. It is made up of people who have gathered together voluntarily because they
agree with the beliefs and goals and polity of that denomination. If one does not agree with a particular denomination’s beliefs, goals, and polity, one has other alternatives. This is even more true today with regard to homosexuality, as most of the other mainline denominations welcome
practicing homosexuals in membership and ministry. There are other alternatives to The United Methodist Church.
I find it deeply offensive that a group within the UM Church is dedicating itself to remaking the church in their image, regardless of the consequences or the wishes of the majority. Those promoting the acceptance of homosexuality have made their best case for 40 years, and the majority of our church has not agreed. So not only are they continuing to disrupt and penalize the General Conference for not agreeing with them,
they have promised to disobey the rules and policies of the church that they voluntarily joined and remain members in. There is even a bishop now on public record calling upon clergy to violate the Book of Discipline.
Another revealing conflict in the early church, recorded in Acts 15:36-41 just after the Council of Jerusalem, can shed light on a way forward. Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” over methodology. Should Mark come along on their next missionary journey? Paul said no, and Barnabas
said yes. Rather than force Paul to accept Mark as a missionary companion, Barnabas “parted company” with Paul and pursued God’s mission in the way that he felt led to do.
After the vote on homosexual practice at General Conference, one of the leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition overheard some progressive
delegates talking. One said she felt certain that many who share her views would now leave and join another denomination with a more progressive
stance. It is always sad to hear of persons leaving our congregations. But one wonders whether it isn’t time to admit that we have two very different positions regarding homosexuality and to recognize the wisdom of those who think it may be time to “part company” with a church that does not agree with them and probably will not for the foreseeable future.
Is it not time to stop trying to force The United Methodist Church to accept what it will not accept? Is it not time for each group to be free to
passionately pursue the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in the way each feels led by God? Is it not time to take all the energy, time, and money that is being spent on this controversy and channel it into the mission of the church?
Protest and intimidation are not appropriate tactics for resolving disagreement in the church. May all on both sides of this controversy renounce violent or coercive words and actions. And may the Holy Spirit give us wisdom and focus us on the mission of leading the world to Christ.
>strong>Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.