“We are Coming for the Institution, and like a mighty river, we will sweep it away with the might of our love,” said Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy at the close of her remarks at the “Gather at the River” conference held in San Antonio for progressive United Methodists. The heavily LGBTQ-focused conference was sponsored by Reconciling Ministries Network and the Methodist Federation for Social Action.
Many in the United Methodist Church have been exploring ways to hold together two diametrically opposed views of human sexuality. At General Conference 2012 the church defeated a proposal to agree to disagree on this divisive issue. Conservative orthodox believers who take the authority of Scripture very seriously were not willing to concede this disagreement as a mere matter of interpretation. Since that time any number of similar proposals have surfaced, some of which will be presented at General Conference 2016. But the rhetoric at the gathering in San Antonio indicated at least as much opposition to compromise.
Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy condemned the institution of the UMC, which she described as having become so stagnant, “it seemed like all it is producing is flesh-eating mosquitoes.” Saying there were times she can hardly stand to be in the swamp waters of the institution with the negativity buzzing around her, threatening to eat her alive.
She boldly declared, “I am a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” But she took deep umbrage with the term “practicing.” She stated, “I am not practicing. I’m professional. And if the IRD or the rest of the groups are here, make sure you quote me on that please.” And although she referred to her own sexual acts, she condemned the institution for reducing LGBTQ people “to our sexual acts.”
Tweedy said she had been hurt most by “the white moderates,” and what some call “the mushy Methodist middle.” Tweedy very strongly condemned the institution, making clear her disdain for those who try to have it both ways. She called out those who try to accommodate the LGBTQ agenda and yet maintain the institution at all costs by upholding the Discipline. She decried those who say the church needs to stop focusing on politics and instead focus on ministry.
She ridiculed those who had ordained her “with a wink and a nod.” Her favorite hypocrisy came from bishops who suggested guidelines for ministers who participate in same sex weddings, “You can say a prayer – read a scripture because those are not chargeable offenses.” “These are crumbs,” she declared, “And I can’t live on crumbs.”
She condemned those who had brought formal complaints against her for her choice to violate our denomination’s explicit policies for clergy sexual behavior, complaining that “Suddenly our institution was gearing up to put an effective pastor, a compassionate minister, faithful wife and loving mother on trial thinking it was preserving itself.” She also shared that she was told that if she denied being “practicing,” the complaint would go away. Tweedy applauded all those who had performed same-sex marriages in defiance of the Discipline. She boasted that as a result of their courage, suddenly trials had gone away.
But for all her disdain and condemnation of bishops, institutionalists, the accountability process, and the Methodist mushy middle, Tweedy declared that she and others like her did not intend to leave the United Methodist Church. She said that it is their church, too, which they will not leave; but neither will they wait for the Discipline to be changed.
She boldly stated that they could not wait to be who they are and for their relationships to be celebrated in the churches where they “have worked as hard as anybody to build.” The crowd laughed and cheered when Tweedy declared, she personally could not wait for General Conference 2080 to be her “authentic, self-avowed, practicing, professional lesbian self.”
She emphatically stated LGBTQ members will not accept a “no” vote in Portland. They will not back down, but will be prepared to take additional recourse. She said, “The Civil Rights movement taught us to put pressure on the institution until it had no choice but to change.” Tweedy called on her queer clergy brothers and sisters to stop supporting the ‘don’t ask; don’t tell’ policy implicit in the Discipline. She called for a national clergy “coming out day” – a total coming out – not a one-foot-in-and-one-foot-out position of the institution.
Following her remarks, Bishop James Dorff of the Rio Texas Conference (within whose bounds this gathering took place) came to deliver a brief welcome. A moderator acknowledged the pain in the room but requested the bishop be allowed to speak. Nevertheless protest ensued.
In his remarks, Bishop Dorff chose to go much further than offering the greetings which bishops sometimes customarily give to such caucus gatherings in their areas. He expressed support, however vaguely, for the gathered activists. “It is not a fun time to be a bishop, but more importantly it is not a fun time to be LGTBQ in the church,” he said. He expressed hope that “the Spirit of the Almighty God will continue to bless you, all of you, in your work and your mission.”
Then he declared that God wants a “fully inclusive” church. He said, “I want to be a part of the journey.. I want you to know there are many bishops who wish to be a part of the journey to have a fully inclusive church.” He specifically thanked Bishop Melvin Talbert for “all the work” he has done in his activism, and told Tweedy that he needed to hear what she had said. He also apologized for disappointing some of the activists in some of his administrative duties, in apparent reference to the liberal outrage directed at him for his role in preventing the illegal ordination of a lesbian/transgendered activist in his conference.
But despite the cheers for some of his pandering comments, ultimately, none of this was good enough for the liberal caucuses. When he first came to the front to speak, Bishop Dorff was escorted by Julie Todd, an activist with Amy DeLong’s “Love Prevails” protest group, who carried two posters, one of which said, “DORFF IS NOT A FRIEND TO LGBTQ PEOPLE.” Immediately, seated individuals came up to fill the prayer rails at the front of the sanctuary, some with their mouths gagged and their hand bound. Others held protest signs in the balcony for him to see. At times in his talk, the bishop was shouted down and heckled.
Dorff had done little more than illustrate the hypocrisy that Tweedy had just condemned.
At “Gather at the River” there was no appreciation, only contempt for bishops who attempt to uphold the letter of Discipline while at the same time diminishing consequences for those who violate it. The orthodox conservatives and the LGBTQ community agree; there is no middle ground; there is no “third way.” At the very least, the days of having it both ways, of coexistence, shared ministry, and accommodation appear to be numbered. The Supreme Court decision to allow same sex marriage in all states has emboldened the LGBTQ movement in the church. If Tweedy is correct that they will not back down or go away, then this forty-plus-year conflict is far from over and attempts to preserve unity at General Conference 2016 will be difficult, at best.