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The Gospel According to General Synod

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Matthew 5:13-16 (from the paraphrase The Message)

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.  “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous [Parent] in heaven.”

This was the theme scripture for the UCC gathering I attended this past week. Every other year, each regional conference in the United Church of Christ sends delegates to our national gathering called General Synod. These delegates are a mix of clergy and laity, and they are supposed to represent the diversity within their conference. This is my first time to attend as a delegate so I want to share with you some about the process, and what those five days in Milwaukee showed me about our church.

Delegates vote on a variety of issues, resolutions, and election of our officers. We follow Robert’s Rules of Order, so after a nomination or motion is made, people may speak on either side of the issue, call for personal privilege or a point of order. The resolutions are sometimes easy to pass and other times are controversial, but the election of officers is usually pretty straight-forward. By the time a candidate gets all the way to the synod floor, it’s almost a done deal. This year our current General Minister and President, the Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, was up for a second term, and I hadn’t heard anything leading up to the event that would cause me to question whether he would be reelected. Apparently I was out of touch! I knew there was disappointment and frustration four years ago when the search committee chose John because many people believed we did not need another straight white male in this position of authority. We have had African American men serve as general minister and president, but we still haven’t had a female president or a president who identifies as LGBTQ. As the most progressive mainline Christian denomination, this is rather shocking.

Evidently the desire for such a candidate has only increased in the last four years. So while Rev. Dorhauer claims to be a strong supporter of women in leadership, and has in fact brought several key women onto the leadership team, and even said in his speech that it was time for a woman to lead, he still sought another term. Many people claimed that if he truly believed what he said, he would have stepped down. We heard impassioned speeches both to reelect and not reelect Rev. Dorhauer. One speaker asked if he was willing to commit to not seeking a third term, which he did. He was ultimately reelected, receiving 68% approval, solidly above the 60% requirement. However, this is a margin of only 30 votes, with a number of people claiming that their electronic voting devices didn’t work. And then there were people like me who voted for him because we did not want to send our national office into turmoil without an elected leader. I feel sure that whoever is on the search committee next time will remember what happened, and I have faith that in four years, our candidate will represent some type of diversity. Or perhaps all the men will simply be too afraid to put in their name!

Then there were the resolutions. How this works is that a local church, association, or conference feels strongly about a particular issue. They gather support in their conference and in other conferences, and they write a long document full of whereas-es and therefore-s. The resolutions then go to the national office, where they are screened for clarity, consistency with our constitution and bylaws, and to make sure they are not duplicates of previous resolutions. Then the delegates to General Synod are randomly assigned to different committees, and each committee considers one or two resolutions. Committee members (40-50 in each one) discuss everything from the original intention of the resolution and whether they think it should pass, to whether a comma is needed after that introductory prepositional phrase. After changes are made and a consensus is reached, then the resolution comes to the floor with a recommendation of whether or not to approve it.

There are two main types of resolutions: Prudential Resolutions and Witness Resolutions. “A Prudential Resolution establishes policy, institutes or revises structure or procedures, authorizes programs, approves directions or requests actions by majority vote.” This sounds boring, and frankly, some of them are. But some of them are also really important. For example, two of the resolutions were about adding groups to what we call “historically underrepresented groups” (acronym: HUGS!). Historically underrepresented groups are given special status when it comes time to add that diversity I talked about to various settings. By specifically saying “including historically underrepresented groups,” we’re saying “We want to hear from everybody—regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc.” This year we added Latinx Ministries and Mental Health Network to the list, so that we make sure we hearing voices of our Latinx community and those affected by mental health issues. In speaking on the resolution regarding adding the mental health network to our list of historically underrepresented groups, one proponent said, “You may be thinking, ‘Wouldn’t this mean that people with mental illness could be delegates?’ Well, we already are!”

Most of the resolutions are called Witness Resolutions. They are public stands that the church takes on a wide variety of justice issues. Most of these resolutions do not have any power. We are not a hierarchical church; we are a congregational system. So nobody at the national office, and no delegates from Synod, can tell the local church what to do. However, resolutions can encourage us to work on certain issues, or to speak up on certain subjects. And Witness Resolutions allow the church, as a whole, to have our voice heard. Resolutions don’t have power, but they do have influence. We can say that the gathered body of the United Church of Christ condemns a certain action, and that is a public statement that we hope will encourage others in their work. It’s the national church’s equivalent of holding signs out on our sidewalk or on the bridge.

This year we passed a whole host of important resolutions. As a body we passed the following:

  • A Resolution To Abolish The Growth And Existence Of Private Prisons
  • Reaffirming The United Church Of Christ’s Commitment To Interreligious Relations, And Deploring Religious Bigotry
  • Addressing The State Of Global Forced Migration
  • Resolution Regarding The Use Of Plastic Foam (I.E. Styrofoam®)
  • On Support For The Energy Innovation And Carbon Dividend Act Of 2019
  • Denouncing Acts Of Violence, Hatred, And Racism Carried Out In The Name Of Neo-Nazi And White Supremacist Ideologies
  • Resolution Calling On The United States To Pull “Back From The Brink” And Prevent Nuclear War
  • Resolution Calling Upon The United Church Of Christ Board To Bring Bylaws Revisions That Include Non-Binary Gender Language
  • Let Justice Roll Down – Declaring Support For The Green New Deal And Affirming The Intersectionality Of Climate Justice With All Justice Issues
  • Protection Of Immigrant Children And Their Families
  • On Recognizing Opioid Addiction As A Health Epidemic, Ensuring Access To Treatment And Pharmaceutical Corporate Responsibility
  • A Call For Congressional Hearings On Violence In America

These are the issues that congregations and conferences around the country felt it was important for us as a church to address. I was proud of us. We took important stands for justice, even if the resolutions don’t have teeth. They still make powerful statements about who we are as a church. I am hoping there will soon be a summary of these resolutions, which I will forward to our Mission & Outreach Team and our Social Witness Ministries Committee for their consideration. I haven’t done this before, and I should have. Resolutions are how the national church speaks to one another and to the broader public. So I want us to wrestle with them, to see which of these might resonate most strongly with us.

And then there was the controversial resolution, the resolution that we all knew was going to be painful. You see, there is a conservative coalition within the church called Faithful and Welcoming. Faithful and Welcoming Churches describe themselves as evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional. But what they are known for is “advocating for an historic understanding of sexuality and marriage.” They call themselves Faithful and Welcoming as an alternative to Open and Affirming.

The controversial resolution I’m talking about was not written by them. Instead it was written about them. The resolution called for us to exclude them from the exhibit hall, to not allow them to have a booth there at General Synod. The resolution listed all of the resolutions at former General Synod gatherings that affirmed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people . . . and then listed the anti-gay content on the Faithful and Welcoming website. After the resolution came out, the group scrubbed its website and removed all of this, but at the time of the resolution’s writing their website said:

“We call the church to prayer for the preservation of the family, and to the practice and proclamation of human sexuality as God’s gift for marriage between a man and a woman.” Their counsel to congregations was to “Change your church’s by-laws to disallow avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy and disallow same sex marriages and civil unions in the church.” They even suggested that churches “Consider redirecting or designating funds marked for the UCC.” So it is an organization within the UCC that says it’s for the UCC, but it suggests not supporting the denomination, and it denies several of the tenets that have been clearly at the heart of our ministry together.

So—what to do! Do we exclude a group because they exclude? Although we are known as an Open & Affirming denomination, only 1/3 of our congregations have gone through the process and officially designated themselves to be ONA. What would this vote say to them? On the other hand, what does this group’s presence in the exhibit hall say to LGBTQ people? And to make the matter even more complicated for me personally, the man who is the president of the Faithful & Welcoming organization is the man who led a two-year battle opposing my ordination back in North Carolina solely because of my sexual orientation.

The debate on the floor was emotional. Those against the resolution pointed out that excluding a portion of our denomination was a slippery slope, and that our slogan “that all may be one” means regardless of disagreement. Those for the resolution pointed out that we would not give exhibit space to any group that organized against racial justice, disability justice, justice for women, or the advancement of human rights, so why do LGBTQ folks not get the same protections? People got up and spoke to the pain they have experienced as LGBTQ individuals, and how walking into UCC General Synod should be a safe space.

I changed my mind several times on this resolution. I thought I was firm in my decision that we should not exclude our more conservative churches . . . until the crying teenagers spoke. It’s really hard to not be moved by crying teenagers who felt betrayed by their church, who felt that their church was not who and what they thought it was if they allowed an anti-gay group exhibit space.

The conversation went on so long that finally we had to stop for the night, and the moderator told everyone who was in line to speak that they would get first chance in the morning. We worshiped together, then went back to our hotels to sleep—or gather with friends over drinks—and then came back the next morning prepared for more heart-wrenching testimony.

Only that’s not what happened. Before anyone else could be heard, someone went to the “Point of order” microphone, which takes precedence over all other microphones. This person moved that we table the resolution and call on the UCC Board of Directors to create a behavioral covenant for the exhibit space. The problem with a motion to table the resolution is that according to Robert’s Rules, there is no debate. There is no conversation. Before we even had time to consider the full implications and ramifications of tabling the resolution, we were told to pick up our electronic voting devices and were given less than 30 seconds to vote. The motion passed, and the resolution was tabled. Those people who had been postponed never got to state their case.

I honestly don’t know if this was the right move. It was probably the least painful, or the least likely to create new wounds. But it silenced people, and it didn’t resolve the true conflict. Basically it was a win for those who opposed the resolution, but without allowing for full conversation. I still wonder if it was a chicken move. We made such bold stands for justice when they weren’t personal, and I was proud of those stands. I can’t say I’m proud of this one. I just don’t know.

But I do know that this is part of what it means to be church. Sometimes we take bold stands and sometimes we get scared. Sometimes we are out there with full voice, and other times we whisper and equivocate. At one meeting our Ministry Council will make some really tough decisions, and at the next we’ll resist making little ones. The church is people, which means the church is human, flawed, prone to poor judgment, sometimes bold and sometimes afraid. And I still love it. I still love “the church,” with all its flaws. I still love our church, in our strongest moments and in our weakest. It’s who we are.

But there’s one other thing from General Synod that I need to tell you. While we were in Milwaukee, news broke about the continuing separation of families at the border and about the horrible conditions that asylum seekers are enduring. One of our retired conference ministers went to the microphone and called on those in leadership to allow time for a public rally, a protest, to stand with those seeking safety within our borders. And they did. The leaders changed the schedule on Monday afternoon so that all who wanted could participate in a march to the local ICE office. More than 500 people went, joining an already-scheduled rally to protest the deportation of a pastor in Wisconsin.

And that’s when I think we lived out our theme scripture. Hear again the paraphrase of our scripture: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine!”

May we do the same.

 

 

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