“The system protects itself, by any means necessary.”
I wrote that on Facebook last month during the General Synod, as I watched a process unfold that was as maddeningly unbelievable as it was predictable.
Two years ago, Jay Cummings and I wrote an anti-bigotry resolution that was endorsed by Woodside Church Board of Directors and forwarded to Michigan Conference, where it was adopted and forwarded to the General Synod for wider-Church consideration.
The full title of the resolution was “Stewardship of Exhibit Space as a Resource for a Mission of Justice,” and the gist of it was this: The exhibit hall is a resource for living out our mission, and if any organization has a message that is counter to the UCC declarations about being open and safe space, especially for LGBTQ folks, that oganization will be denied a platform in the exhibit hall and other public spaces during General Synod.
The resolution singled out one offending organization, the Faithful and Welcoming Churches (FWC), which I find to be neither. It is a collection of about 70 conservative congregations formed in 2005 when the UCC voted affirmation of marriage equality. Its mission is to restore the UCC to its pre-apostate days, the days before the UCC lost its way and became so … liberal. It has been known by other names: Biblical Witness and ECOT (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional). The head of this group is a pastor in N.C., Bob Thompson, who has made it a mission to organize against rights for LGBTQ folk. He’ll tell you that he loves us, loves everybody, in fact; but his work has been to block ordinations and lobby the church against marriage equality — a civil right now guaranteed by the Supreme Court.
(Other rights such as housing and employment are not yet won; the work goes on.)
Denying rights is hard to align with “love,” as our friends of color perhaps would attest.
The “unbelievable and predictable” part began long before we gathered in Milwaukee last month; together with some skewing along the way, the result was deeply frustrating and ultimately inconclusive.
Prior to General Synod convening, we knew the resolution was drawing attention, sparking debate. Jay, Campbell (Lovett, our Conference Minister) and I were asked to speak with some delegations in advance of the Synod, and then with others in caucus in the early days of the Synod. As part of the Michigan delegation, which brought the resolution, I was assigned to be the proponent of the resolution, the primary spokesperson, and I personally met with three delegations, to help them understand the purpose and the stakes.
But the predisposition was clear. This wasn’t going to go well.
First, there was the action by the church hierarchy to change the type of resolution that it was. We submitted it as a prudential resolution, that is, a resolution pertaining to the way we do internal business. It was re-categorized as a resolution of witness, that is, a statement of belief or commitment to the world outside the church doors. This matters, because one type requires simple majority, the other two-thirds. We were being held to the higher margin.
I vociferously challenged this at every possible level of authority, on the grounds that all the underlying witness actions had already been decided over the past 40 years. It was denied.
Then, in the first plenary, the first business meeting of all the gathered delegates, as the resolutions as a package were being presented for acceptance as future action items, a formality prior to being sent to committee, I asked again, this time of the floor parliamentarian, if this was a moment I could challenge that designation; he said no, that the proper moment to challenge was on the floor of the Synod when the resolution was presented to the plenary individually by the appropriate committee — in this case, Committee 8. So I waited.
Second, in that first plenary, as we practiced our voting clickers, it also became apparent that the automatic tally was adding yes + no + abstentions = 100%. This was incorrect, as abstentions do not count. If we were to be held to 2/3, it should only be 2/3 of people actually voting. I raised this issue and it was corrected.
There are two key places that resolutions get airtime prior to the floor debate in a plenary session: first, in an educational intensive, a session to help people understand the background and get a broader view of the issues; and then a committee hearing, when the committee debates, first with and then without the input of anyone interested enough to show up. Delegates are assigned to committees; visitors choose where they’d like to sit in.
So, third, while the educational intensives for other resolutions seemed designed to help people understand the issue, ours was not really.
The educational intensive for Resolution 8 was not about stewardship, not about bigotry or violence against LGBTQ folks, not about the work of FWC or the church’s many, many prior actions affirming the LGBTQ community.
It was instead about civility. It was called “stewarding difference in the exhibit space,” and we were coached on the various ways of responding to issues, drilled on techniques for keeping conversation respectful and keeping people together in hard times.
While other proponents were invited to speak to their resolutions in their educational intensives, in our intensive I was not allowed; in fact, no one was allowed to discuss the resolution at all. All comments were restricted to conversation about civility and process only.
The result was that, when we got to the committee, more than a few people who were actually assigned to the committee had no idea what the fuss was about or why this resolution was anything other than an ugly and personal attempt to silence a particularly charming man, who was head of FWC.
In fact, and fourth, that man, Bob Thompson, was a delegate to Synod, and assigned to Committee 8. I challenged his assignment to the committee, and was told it was random, and that the planners were unwilling to break with the system of randomly assigning. And he was unwilling to recuse himself.
Bob then masterfully co-opted the committee, at one point stating in a hang-dog kind of way that “if y’all don’t want me here, if y’all pass this resolution, I’ll get the message; I’ll just leave. I won’t be back at Synod anymore.”
To which the committee responded “oh, no, Bob! Don’t go!” and they all commented on his nice-ness. How could anyone want Bob to go? they mourned. “Who here wants Bob to stay?” One committee member (who was not the chair) actually asked for a show of hands.
One lone woman called Bob on his attempt to abuse power and privilege. She said, “I feel manipulated by your fragility.” But the committee as a whole was poisoned by his presence.
Bigotry was not really much discussed in Committee 8; harm caused to the LGBTQ community was a secondary concern to excluding opinions, plus the feelings of Bob, the man who has caused — continues to cause — personal and professional harm to any number of LGBTQ pastors and would-be pastors.
I had been advised that, as proponent of the resolution, I would have the privilege of 10 minutes to address the committee, a longer period of time than anyone! (Longer, certainly, than any of the FWC people, until we learned the FWC president was on the committee.)
I wrote and practiced draft after draft of a speech, to ensure I was as efficient as possible and said all that needed to be said in a prescribed period. My remarks came in at 9m50s.
But because Bob was a member of the committee, he had the floor as often and as long as he wanted. He tearfully told a moving story about one woman, a pastor whose ordination he had blocked, who had written a letter he perceived as an invitation to conversation, maybe even “reconciliation,” he said.
I later learned from that pastor herself (who gave me permission to share) that the letter and story had been distorted by him and shared by him without her permission, which caused her fresh pain. She said she felt used, harmed yet again. I imagine so.
Ultimately, the committee adopted a better resolution, with substitute language I had drafted more broadly about bigotry, intended to protect all the “historically under-represented groups” of the UCC, including LGBTQ, Black and LatinX, disabled folks and those living with mental illness.
But ugly was still to come.
Among the deleted and rewritten provisions was this mind-blowing moment:
Regarding one of the action statements,
“Be it resolved that the UCC motto ‘that they may all be one,’ does not require giving voice to bigotry,”
the committee balked, and it barely passed 18-17.
So the one provision stayed in, but then, the committee voted by an overwhelming margin to present the resolution to the plenary with committee recommendation to defeat it.
The resolution’s final step, then, was to the plenary for action by the entire Synod.
Remember, this was the moment I was told to challenge the witness v prudential classification?
So, fifth, just before the resolution was introduced, I was informed by the chief parliamentarian that I had been misinformed by the floor parliamentarian: the time for requesting a resolution be reclassified was two days before — at the moment I had asked the question to begin with. I confess I said aloud “that’s bullshit,” which I’m sure did not endear me to folks in charge. (FYI: Michigan UCC-er and Federal Judge Denise Page Hood was the chief parliamentarian, a lovely person, wonderful to work with.)
Ours was in the last block of resolutions, and the debate, scheduled for Monday afternoon, was delayed, creating confusion. It finally began on Monday evening. (Committees had met Sunday morning.) While other resolutions had maybe half a dozen folks lined up at microphones, this resolution had many more, including our Michigan Youth at Synod, with passionate speakers from Woodside & Manistee congregations.
Anyone wishing to speak was granted one minute, so we had all carefully written and practiced. People had all kinds of comments and critiques, which skewed to calls for civility and unity, and how Jesus didn’t exclude people. Several quoted our church motto, “that they may all be one,” which I pointed out was from a prayer Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed for unity, but worked for justice.
Lots of folks misrepresented the resolution’s intent. They kept referencing exclusion from the communion table (which no one intends) rather than denial of exhibit tables (which are places to market your message). A confusion that seems baffling to me, perhaps disingenuous.
So very many people called on us all to be nice, to be kind, even vilifying some of us for wanting to banish the bigotry. Someone misquoted Jesus: “Turn the other cheek.” Better just to pretend nothing is amiss. Better to glorify charm, whatever the cost.
Meanwhile, I watched Bob, waiting at a “no” mic, moving back every time someone else stepped up, clearly intending to have the last word.
Someone suggested that we should have begun with prayer and so she led us, though no one had led prayer before we voted on carbon dividends or Styrofoam, or divesting from the private prison industry, nor on merging three southern New England conferences into one, or standing against sexual violence or children in cages at the border, or even denouncing neo-Nazis.
None of those required special prayer, because we expect the church to be able to do its job.
The vice-moderator then announced her intent to limit debate (because it’s late and we’re tired, so let’s just vote and call it a night), which isn’t how Robert’s Rules work; someone challenged, and she was overridden by the plenary, which voted to continue in the morning if needed. (Correcting her should not have required a vote), Someone moved to table, and it failed. Debate continued, even the next morning. Then someone else moved to table, and it passed.
So, that was the end. It was tabled.
But (sixth? seventh? eighth?) Bob got the last word anyway. He approached a “procedural” mic, for a moment of “personal privilege,” and was granted an opportunity to give a commercial for the work of FWC, with no clock running.
(You’d have to ask a better parliamentarian than I whether that was a reasonable use of the privilege. Given the content of the resolution and the tenor of the room, I would have said not. But the moderator allowed it.)
Bob talked about how sad they were that their intentions had been misinterpreted, noting the FWC materials have been retooled, (and their website scrubbed, I noted), though he failed to mention that the mission has not changed. He invited folks to drop by the table and experience his nice-ness first-hand. Or something like that.
I’m told the youth requested later, in the final plenary, a moment of privilege to address the group, but were denied by the moderator.
Where does all that leave us?
You may think I’m a jaded conspiracy theorist, but I assessed the wider church’s actions as intentionally working to undermine this resolution. It was hard to see it any other way. Every possible roadblock was employed, not just to keep this from passing, but to keep us from talking about it. Because conversation can be dangerous. It can change things, and change makes us uncomfortable.
I was deflated by the church’s unwillingness to call out bigotry against LGBTQ folks. I just couldn’t imagine we would allow someone to organize, for example, against the children in cages to whom we were pledging our aid. I couldn’t imagine we would allow anti-immigrant or anti-refugee or anti-Arab activity to have a platform in our halls.
Or Border Patrol. We protested against ICE during the event, so could you just imagine an ICE table — a table where they tried to explain they were just following orders, just trying to keep our country pure, or our borders safe, or whatever the hell it is they’re doing?
Later, I spoke with one colleague, a man I love dearly and know to be a progressive mind, who said he was “on the fence” about this resolution. So, I asked whether he would oppose giving exhibit space to some group organizing against the civil rights of black people. He said “you know I would.” I asked what was different, but he couldn’t answer.
I think a lot of people would have a similar take, and perhaps not know why.
So, I have a theory about what is different for them.
In the educational intensive, one of the leaders, talking about the need for civility, said “you know, someone may say ‘I’m gay’ and someone else may say ‘I don’t agree.’”
That’s the problem. People think we can disagree about LGBTQ, in a way we cannot about color or ethnicity. You’d never hear someone say “I’m black” and someone respond “I don’t agree with that.”
When I say “I’m lesbian,” I’m not inviting dissent. You don’t get to vote or disagree or really have a valid opinion. You get to say ok. You can also say “eeeeww.” But that’s on you. I’m not lesbian as a way to annoy you or piss off God. I’m just lesbian. Created to be. It’s not like we’re disagreeing about Styrofoam. It’s about you not believing me when I tell you my truth, when I say that lesbian is my being, not a habit or phase or rebellion or fashion or alternative lifestyle.
Hospitality, then, doesn’t mean giving voice to every opinion, but creating safe space for every person. Even Bob Thompson. He can be in the community, at the table of communion, even stay for fellowship after worship and be cared for and loved. But none of that requires we give him space to organize against another group of human beings just for being themselves. The pain he may claim to feel over losing his microphone is not the same as the pain he causes by working against human, civil and ecclesial rights for LGBTQ folks.
Jesus said to beware of wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and I think we ought to pay a little more attention to that.
What makes it worse for me is that so many of my LGBTQ siblings have drunk the koolaid.
We are struggling with the foot of church hierarchy still on our necks, and very many of us spoke out in favor of civility or some (false) unity instead of justice and safety. It seems to be true still that oppressed people learn to identify in some ways with their oppressors, perhaps without even realizing it.
But it is also true that, as white gay men and lesbians have moved more into the mainstream (men more than women), we have to be aware of how we are using power, aware of the pain of queer people of color, especially trans people of color, for whom the murder rate is off the charts, and for questioning young people, for whom the suicide rate is many times the rate of their straight peers. It would be unconscionable simply to accept our new membership in the power club and not look back. Power always comes with responsibility, always. Mitch McConnell notwithstanding.
On a brighter note, as disgusted as I am with the process we’ve just seen — and the fear and reluctance of the church to have conversation or to come to terms with its own bigotry – I have to report that Michigan is alive and well. Several Michigan folks stood to proclaim words of justice, to share stories of personal pain, including our youth.
And God love Campbell, our Conference Minister; he is a grace. Throughout the tiring process, he never wavered. He supported, advocated, took calls and criticisms from others. “Campbell, what are you doing?!” they would beg to know.
I believe him when he says this isn’t over. The Council of Conference Ministers will not hear the end of it from Campbell, and in this, we will have his back. The church will not get to take the easy way of avoiding conversations, all the while pretending there is no pain involved.
Perhaps it was a mistake to name FWC specifically; they certainly aren’t the only folks harping on us as if we are issues to be addressed or problems to be fixed. But I’m told that naming them, while perhaps contributing to the defeat of the resolution, has shined a light on them unlike before. Since the theme of this General Synod was “Shine!” perhaps we’ve done our work.
After I got home from synod, another post appeared in my Facebook feed, a meme based on a reflection from Naomi Shulman, whose mother was born in Munich, 1934. I find it a good thing to remember, in these days of inoffensive church and inconceivably harmful state, so I offer it to you, a reflection on civility:
“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”