Escalation in disruption

Protesters against the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality prepare to serve Holy Communion inside the bar of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Protesters against the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality prepare to serve Holy Communion inside the bar of the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Tom Lambrecht –

My very first General Conference was in 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky. The conference was held in a field house, and observers had to sit on bleachers. As an alternate delegate, I offered some assistance to Good News.

One of my most vivid memories was of the demonstration that disrupted that General Conference session. During the discussion on how the church should be in ministry with gay and lesbian persons, dozens of protesters paraded through the hall carrying a long banner reading, “The Stones Will Cry Out.” At key points in the debate, protesters stomped on the bleachers, making a noise so loud that it drowned out the proceedings. Eventually, the presiding bishop was able to talk the protesters into allowing the conference to continue.

That was my introduction to the “hardball” side of United Methodist politics.

The 1996 General Conference in Denver is memorable for a speech by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton about her Methodist roots. The “Denver 15” dissident bishops released a statement calling for the church to change its position on homosexuality, throwing the conference into turmoil at this unprecedented public break in the unity of the bishops. Demonstrators used symbolic action to advocate for change. They opened the convention center doors for delegates and placed welcome mats outside delegates’ hotel rooms in an effort to call on the church to welcome practicing homosexuals. Public rallies took place, but there was no disruption of the conference sessions.

All that was to change dramatically in 2000. Outside groups got involved with the protests at the Cleveland Convention Center. Dozens of Mel White’s pro-gay Soulforce demonstrators were arrested after staging a choreographed symbolic “blocking” of the convention center’s exit. The next day, Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist vitriolic anti-gay group shouted homophobic vulgarities at delegates. Transforming Congregations and Good News members counter-protested the Phelps group with signs that read “Love Says No to Hate.”

1992 – Protesters unfurl banner during General Conference.

1992 – Protesters unfurl banner during General Conference.

During a long, but respectful, debate, and following the strong reaffirmation of the church’s current language, protesters interrupted the proceedings by lining the aisles of the main floor and balcony. Randy Miller was given the opportunity to address the conference on behalf of the protesters, saying that “the covenant is already broken; the tapestry is unwoven.” A distraught protester stood on the balcony ledge shouting at the delegates, but was pulled to safety by other demonstrators. Protesters disrupted the proceedings again by singing. Presiding Bishop Solomon gave an anguished call for police to arrest the protesters, so that the conference could continue. More than 25 were arrested, including two bishops. It was an emotionally wrenching experience and marked what is believed to be the first time anyone has been arrested on the floor of the General Conference.

By 2004 in Pittsburgh, the disruption of the conference was much better organized. In a negotiated arrangement with bishops and conference organizers (but without the knowledge or consent of the body), the protesters were welcomed onto the floor of General Conference. Accompanied by a beating drum, several hundred protesters processed into the plenary area. In a politicization of worship, a rainbow candle was set upon the altar and lit, worship songs were co-opted to serve the pro-gay demonstration, and a frustrated protester smashed a communion chalice that had been a gift from Africa to the music director of the conference. After a 35-minute demonstration, the protesters left the hall and the conference was able to continue.

The 2008 conference in Fort Worth saw another escalation of protest. Immediately following votes to uphold the church’s current teaching, protesters attempted to interrupt the session by singing “Jesus Loves Me” for nearly 20 minutes. The next day, more than 200 protesters paraded onto the floor of the conference, interrupting business. They draped the communion table in black crepe and harangued the delegates for our “wrong” and “sinful” policies. Again, after about a half-hour demonstration, the protesters left the hall and the conference continued. At the conclusion of the conference, a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony was held outside the convention center.

2004 – Bishop Donald A. Ott (right) picks up pieces of a communion chalice intentionally broken during a protest. UMNS photo/Paul Jeffrey.

2004 – Bishop Donald A. Ott (right) picks up pieces of a communion chalice intentionally broken during a protest. UMNS photo/Paul Jeffrey.

At the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, protesters were again disappointed by votes to uphold the church’s current teaching on marriage and sexuality. After the first vote on the issue, more than 100 demonstrators wearing rainbow stoles entered the area designated only for delegates and began to sing. As the delegates left for a break, the protesters gathered around the communion table in the center of the auditorium in order to serve communion to one another, once again politicizing a sacramental act of worship. When the delegates returned from their break, the protesters would not leave and continued to sing over the presiding bishop’s directions. During an early lunch break, several bishops negotiated a settlement with the protesters that allowed an openly gay man to offer a prayer to the assembly and agreed to place all further items related to homosexuality and abortion at the end of the agenda, with hopes that there would not be time to act upon them. That is exactly what happened, as dozens of legislative items that were approved in committee failed to receive a vote in the plenary session.

Over the past twenty years, we have seen an escalation in protest tactics. While demonstrators complain that they are the victims of emotional, spiritual, and physical bullying, many General Conference delegates have simultaneously felt bullied by the protesters. The demonstrators have progressed from bearing witness to their views, to disrupting the business of General Conference, to civil disobedience, to politicizing worship, to dictating the agenda of the General Conference. Delegates to Portland justifiably ask where the escalation will stop.

Observers are more deeply troubled by the potential threat of further escalation at the upcoming General Conference in Portland. Speakers at a July 2015 gathering of pro-gay advocates acknowledged that the votes are not there for General Conference to change the church’s position. Leaders declared that, since they have nothing to lose, it is time for new revolutionary tactics. One speaker declared, “We are coming for the Institution, and like a mighty river, we will sweep it away with the might of our love.” She went on, “The Civil Rights movement taught us to put pressure on the institution until it had no choice but to change.”

Another speaker suggested protesters bring “gallons of piss and vinegar,” adding “just think of the trouble we can cause.” There was even talk of beginning the disruptions from the first day of the conference, not waiting until after they lose the votes on changing the church’s stance (as in the past). The disruption could extend to worship services and the 12 legislative committee meetings. Organizers hope to have “waves” of protesters available, so that if one group gets arrested, more are ready to continue the disruption.

Regardless of specific tactics or strategies, the main point has become abundantly clear: If change through democratic processes does not work, resort to force.

Good News has always understood and affirmed the right of church members to make their views known, even if those members occasionally used unconventional methods to get their point across. However, the use of intimidation, bullying, and the disruption of church meetings to get one’s way is not a Christian approach to resolving our differences. Escalating protests are an increasingly forceful attempt to take away the church from its members and impose an unscriptural agenda. The impending collision in Portland looks to further divide an already weakened denomination and could result in the trickle of congregations and members leaving United Methodism becoming a flood.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. 

Comments

  1. It boggles the mind why these sexual deviants and their enablers would force the UMC to abandon historic Christian values. If they value perversion over holy living, then they should switch to another denomination. These protesters don’t seem to understand our Wesleyan roots and distinctives.

    All they understand is that there are other mainline denominations that have caved in to immorality and they want the UMC to be the same. Yet these other denominations are rapidly shrinking, losing old members and not converting new ones. It seems that the more deviant they become, the less likely they can faithfully share the gospel. I don’t want the UMC to become that. We still have a mission to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ in this broken world.

  2. “Our society says it is OK” is an argument that has never convinced God to overlook the world’s sins. Thanks be to God that He can be convinced to overlook the penalty due us for our sins if we believe and accept the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

  3. Now that the conference is over there are 111 cases to investigate

  4. Ellen Berky says:

    Robert P Jones documents in ‘The End of White Christian America’ that not only are mainline Protestant congregations losing members, but the white evangelical ranks are thinning fast as conservative Christians in the US decide to have fewer children, and evangelical youth drop off the bus.

    So…from 2000, ‘outside groups got involved’ and 25 people were arrested in Cleveland. It appears that we Methodists have a lack of spine when it comes to enforcing delegate credentials and following our own agendas. Since nearly half of all Methodists now reside in Africa, it is odd that no one is planning a General convention in South Africa, a country which succeeded in abolishing Apartheid without a civil war and held countrywide ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions as a condition for extending amnesty to many of the former officers of Apartheid who were willing to confess in public and ask for forgiveness! Lambrecht reports that the 1992 Methodist convention delegates were seated on bleachers in an auditorium in Kentucky much like the facilities which were used to seat the people who attended the Truth and Reconciliations hearings throughout South Africa! Sam Hodges predicted in 2013 that the cost of a Methodist general convention in 2016 would top 10 million dollars, up $2 million from Tampa. Hodges also mentions that an obvious remedy would be hold the convention on a college campus and rent the dormitories to house delegates. Holding a general convention outside of the continental US, would be a sacrifice for precisely the Methodists who would benefit the most. We know who we are.

  5. Ellen Berky says:

    Robert P Jones documents in ‘The End of White Christian America’ that not only are mainline Protestant congregations such as Methodists losing members, but the white evangelical ranks are thinning as conservative Christians in the US decide to have fewer children, and evangelical youth get off the bus. Jones distinguishes between White Christians and African American Christians because Christians of color are different cultural creatures. Not only that, but in our own denomination we see that nearly half of the world’s Methodists are now situated in the continent of Africa, a far cry from early Methodism, the quintessential Anglo invention.
    Listen to our founder, John Wesley writing about the ‘peculiar’ institution he witnessed when he was an Anglican priest in the Americas, baptizing at least two Negro slaves who later founded the first Methodist Society in the New World in Antigua:
    In 1791 John Wesley dies. His last letter is one written to anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce, urging him to “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
    Catholic critics have made fun of our democratic process for establishing church order and social policy. Paul Kengor in Crisis Magazine quips: “No Magisterium for Methodists” and yet goes on to note approvingly of our 2016 general conference:
    “There was great news at the United Methodist Church’s gathering at this conference this year in Portland. The diversity-proclaiming liberals did not succeed in shutting out the huge contingent of African Methodists from their rightful representation…… One source told me that “overseas delegates” made up 41 percent of the delegates this year, and that the crucial victories would have been “impossible without them.” In a blessed moment, the assembly voted overwhelmingly (and surprisingly) to withdraw from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The conference also rejected a resolution titled “Responsible Parenthood,” which would have once again further advanced “abortion rights…..By a much narrower margin, but a majority nonetheless, the church did not repudiate its historic position on marriage, despite angry shouts by “LGBTQ” Methodist activists. ”
    Since the 1992 General Conference in Kentucky, Methodist delegates have experienced various disruptions of process, on and off the convention floor at every General Conference, reaching a low point in 2000, when reporter Tom Lambrecht observed ‘outside’ groups got onto the convention floor at the Methodist general convention and 25 people including two bishops were arrested in Cleveland at the request of the presiding bishop.
    It is odd that no General conference is planned in South Africa, a country which succeeded in abolishing Apartheid without a civil war and held countrywide ‘truth and reconciliation’ hearings as a condition for extending amnesty to many of the former officers of Apartheid who were willing to confess in public and ask for forgiveness! Lambrecht reports that the 1992 Methodist convention delegates were seated on bleachers in an auditorium in Kentucky much like the facilities which were used to seat the people who attended the Truth and Reconciliation hearings throughout South Africa! Fast forward to 2012 in Tampa where delegates complained about pricey downtown hotels. I am guessing Portland was even worse for delegates in 2016. How many Methodists in the US did not even consider being delegates because of the cost, not to mention Methodists in other countries?
    I was curious about what sort of a General Conference might ensue if held outside the the continental US. For one thing it would likely be a lot more affordable for the average delegate and the Methodist treasury. Sam Hodges of the United Methodist reporter predicted in 2013 that the cost of a Methodist general conference in Portland would top 10 million dollars, $2 million more than Tampa in 2012. Hodges mentions that an obvious remedy would be hold the convention on a college campus renting dormitories at cost to delegates. Another difference would be experiential. The host country and continent would strive to be good hosts and the local press corps would probably consider nearly a thousand Methodists converging in their country to be a very big deal compared to the attitude in the secular US where the media has a hard time covering anything other than controversy. The likelihood of prominent US Methodists like Hilary Clinton or George W Bush being asked to keynote the convention would be nil. The type of resolutions and the quality of debate would likely be different as well.
    When the African Central Conference bishops convened in 2015 they adopted a position statement which included ideas such as “we will draw the attention of our denomination to the stark realities of needless suffering and pain in our world as a result of current global terrorism, unjust political systems and the manipulation of weaker nations by world powers…As leaders of the church, we believe that there are far more important issues that unite us than issues of sexual orientation. As a church, we are called to be in solidarity with people who suffer as a result of unjust political systems, wars, famine, poverty, natural disasters, diseases, illiteracy….We believe we can be united around these issues rather than allow ourselves to be ripped apart by issues of sexual orientation.”
    I dont know about the rest of you, but I say ‘Amen’ to that.

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