Pulling on the heartstrings, Focus 6

By Karen Booth

As an unofficial observer of the General Conference proceedings, I sat in on an extended session that was added to the Church and Society B subcommittee discussion on homosexuality. Four openly gay lay delegates had self-selected that particular subgroup, and the personal stories they shared were powerful and emotionally moving. By the end of the session I was somewhat surprised to find myself wondering if there was a common way forward that might accommodate all of our perspectives while remaining faithful to a traditional scriptural understanding of human sexuality and marriage.

The feeling—and that is all it really was—did not last. Primarily because I am convinced that our current teachings and policies are filled with both truth and grace. I’m sure that many of the delegates who participated in the “holy conversations” shared their stories authentically and with great sincerity. But I couldn’t help but believe that something more was going on.

Shortly after General Conference 2008, ten pro-gay mainline denominational caucuses joined together to develop and launch what they called the “Believe Out Loud” (BOL) Campaign. The purpose is to change the beliefs and practices of mainline denominations like the UM Church.

The Common Witness Coalition’s “Love Your Neighbor” initiative is the latest stage of the United Methodist version of BOL. According to the online training manual of the Reconciling Ministries Network, the key strategy of the BOL/LYN campaign is to win hearts and minds through a process called public narrative: “the art of translating values into action through stories” (www.loveyourneighbor2012.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Training-Manual.pdf).

Employing the teachings of Harvard public policy expert Marshall Ganz, Love Your Neighbor volunteers and delegates have been specially trained to share their personal experiences in a highly emotional manner. “Stories should pull at the heartstrings of the listener,” the Reconciling training manual advises. “Help the listener understand the values you are describing through the language of emotion.”

While the discussion about homosexuality that I observed in subcommittee may have qualified as “holy conversation,” it fell far short of the “holy conferencing” that our founder John Wesley recommended. Though delegates listened respectfully (in most cases) to each other’s personal opinions and stories, there was no attempt to discern the voice or will of God by reflecting on Scripture and tradition. In fact, the one evangelical delegate who attempted to do so was silently “dissed” by the rainbow-clad observers and cut off by the moderator before he was finished. Consequently, stories and emotion ruled the day.

But there is even more to the “back story” than what is readily apparent. Believe Out Loud was developed and continues to be underwritten financially by the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a non-United Methodist and secular family foundation that has donated over a million dollars to the effort. (By extension, the Love Thy Neighbor campaign has also benefitted through almost $250,000 given to the Reconciling Ministries Network.)

The Haas Fund’s Senior Program Officer for their Gay and Lesbian Program is United Methodist layman Randall Miller. Miller preached at the Believe Out Loud “Power Summit” this past winter in Orlando. He is a three-time delegate to General Conference, participating this year on the Church and Society B legislative committee and the homosexuality subcommittee. And this year he also had the distinction of serving as Chairperson of the Commission on General Conference, in charge of arrangements, program, and agenda.

Is it just a coincidence that our “holy conversations” about homosexuality bore the stamp of the Believe Out Loud and Love Your Neighbor campaigns?

Again, most of those who told their stories did so with complete sincerity. But, there was indeed much more going on than meets the eye.

By Karen Booth, an ordained UM elder, the director of Transforming Congregations, and author of Forgetting How To Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise With The Sexual Revolution (Bristol).