On April 23rd, Dean Kuan, Professor Deborah Appler of Moravian Seminary and I traveled with 16 Drew students and 3 Moravian students to Tampa, Florida for the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our students joined with seminarians from Claremont, Candler, Wesley, Duke, Garrett, and Boston University among others to observe the conference and experience the inner workings of United Methodist Church polity.
Their semester long preparation was intellectually rigorous. During the spring course teleconferenced from Drew, students prepared papers drawing on readings and lectures of general secretaries and directors from various General Boards of the United Methodist Church. The students questioned their preconceived ideas about United Methodism. They delved into their own theological and doctrinal assumptions. They received unique insights concerning globalization, social justice, worship and the arts as they impact the legislation that will direct the United Methodist Church for the next quadrennium. They learned the ways in which this General Conference has the capacity to dramatically change United Methodism’s unique connectional system, ecclesial structure, ordination, ministry, and seminary education. Innovative classroom learning through web conferencing further enriched their experience, bringing Drew and Moravian students together with professors from Drew, Moravian and Drake University.
There are a number of stories I could tell about the 2012 General Conference. I could extol the incredible art and worship experiences that Drew grads Ted Lyddon Hatten and Todd Pick provided. I could describe the powerful and conflicted feelings that unfolded during the Act of Repentance to Indigenous peoples (watch here). I could tell you about Dean Kuan’s tireless work on behalf of Drew and the other 12 United Methodist seminaries, or Dr. Robert Williams’ (C’83) influence on more than a few delegates concerning United Methodist history on a myriad of contested subjects. I could describe the speech of a young man from Congo who argued in favor of a study on the challenges for those of us who are transgendered, because no one should ever be judged by the identity they have been given by God. I could describe the hospitality found at the Love your Neighbor Tabernacle set up across the street from the Tampa Convention Center that provided safe space to process and share stories concerning issues of justice, peace, and reconciliation. Instead, I will tell two stories that I think exemplify the spirit of Drew and its impact on the United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference.
The first day of meetings, the delegates engaged in the practice of “Holy Conversation.” In these intimate gatherings, delegates were invited to speak about their experiences of diversity of human sexuality. Later in the plenary session, Professor Mark Miller requested a personal point of privilege in order to explain that bullying had marred some of the holy conversations. He asked those who had been bullied or affected by bullying, and all in solidarity with those of us who are LGBT within United Methodism, to stand. As Bishop Robert Hayes asked Mark to take his seat and called him out of order, Drew students stood and remained standing as they were joined by countless others in the convention center. Twitter lit up with those outraged that the bishop was keeping the observers from standing. What many followers didn’t realize is that while the bishop spoke trying to rule Mark out of order, we continued to stand for an end to the bullying, and for the rights of all to be heard. Students then gathered together delegates sitting nearby to organize intercessory prayer for Mark. Watch here.
The second story occurred an hour later. A somber sight slowed the delegates who began to stream forth from the auditorium. Lining every exit were hundreds of rainbow stoled United Methodists standing side-by-side, heads bowed. This witness reminded those of us who are calling for an inclusive church that we are not alone, and reminded those of us who want to retain the exclusive language of the discipline concerning ordination and marriage, that our LGBTQ and allied sisters and brothers are present at every level of the UMC. A few Bishops approached the silent witnesses and anointed us with oil, prayer, and blessings. When I asked one Drew student why he stood when it was so dangerous to his future as a pastor within the appointment system of United Methodism, he explained that he had to stand even though he was still weighing the biblical, theological, and ecclesial concerns in his own mind about homosexuality. To stand and wear a rainbow stole was a sign of love. Above all else, his message and his calling was to love. Career and safety could not replace his integrity. I saw numerous examples of this lived out daily in the lives of the students. Throughout the coming days, Drew students stood, marched, and staged demonstrations calling out for a fully inclusive church. Join us this fall in a chapel service where you will hear more and experience some of the worship from General Conference. –Suzanne Duchesne, PhD student in Liturgical Studies