Photo by: Rick Wolcott, East Ohio Annual Conference
General Conference has become known for many things: incredible worship, a diverse audience, the chance to rub elbows with United Methodist thinkers and authors with names like Schnase, Hamilton and Slaughter.
And in recent years, protests have been added to this list of things to be expected. I knew I was in for protests, but had no idea they would look like this.
During the communion portion of the opening worship a handful of LGBTQ protesters brought out a rainbow banner and offered their own communion in the name of inclusivity. And Monday afternoon after lunch, a group of protesters in the name of Black Lives Matter interrupted the business session with a 30 minute protest.
Both of these violated agreed-upon rules for the conference, developed to help us get as much work done as possible and keeping the decorum of the meeting.
In case you’re wondering, General Conference bends over backwards to make sure that all voices across the denomination can be heard. Anyone sitting in a United Methodist pew can submit a petition to change the Book of Discipline, the rules of the Church. On the way into the convention center I run a daily gauntlet of those handing out leaflets, stoles and any number of other items in support of their cause.
Any petition that had been voted down in committee can be brought to the floor of conference with just 20 signatures. We are spending more than $2 million on translation services to keep all delegates involved in the conversation.
So I must say that I am very much opposed to these types of protests. Communion is perhaps the greatest symbolic connection we have to the suffering of Christ at the end of his life. Taking this sacrament as an opportunity to advance a political position is, I believe, both inappropriate and shameful. If they are offering their own communion, does this mean they are no longer in communion with the rest of the church?
Given the amount of work we have before us there was a proposal Monday morning to postpone various reports until after the legislation piece had been completed. Then just a few hours later a group chose to take 30 precious minutes to circumvent the entire conference structure to hear their barely audible chants.
Ironically, just before the Monday afternoon protest began it was announced by Conference leaders that this conference costs $1,386 per minute to operate. So the protest cost us $41,640 and left the body sharply divided. That division was made wider, I believe, when after the protest was finished the leader came back into the hall and tried to outshout Bishop Mike Coyner as he was praying.
And don’t think for a moment that this protest was a spontaneous outpouring of frustration that a few delegates had built up during the morning session. The protest was led by Rev. Pam Lightsey, Associate Dean of the Boston University School of Theology. She is not a delegate to General Conference, but apparently traveled here with the sole goal of disrupting our proceedings. In fact yesterday during the protest she promised to “disrupt this General Conference again and again…”
Now I will readily admit that while I have certainly felt frustration in my life, I have not been on the receiving end of the injustices that African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community are feeling. I’ve never felt that the establishment was stacked against me.
I have written of my commitment to diversity here in Portland and that hasn’t wavered. But this General Conference is costing $10 million, most of which has its origin in offering plates in local churches. We must be good stewards of the financial and time investment that this conference represents.
Allowing us to be hijacked by protesters interferes with our ability to do so.