While I’m not able to be in the peanut gallery in Tampa this time around, I’m participating as I can digitally. Thanks to the way social media is changing how live events are covered, Twitter (and a number of ‘secret agents’ on the scene) are keeping me fairly well informed.
Last night the live stream fired up for opening worship and sessions. It wasn’t closed captioned. Not that I expected it to be as The UMC has a long history of forgetting that anywhere from 30 to 140 of every 1000 people in the US alone have significant hearing loss. So I tweeted something to that effect and it got retweeted a few times. I fired of an email to my good friend, Bishop Peggy Johnson to start pestering the tech people to either figure out closed captioning or simply add a live feed of the ASL interpreters that are already on site providing access for those in Tampa. We’ll see what happens.
In the meantime, catching what bits I can from the feed and supplementing it with a bevy of Twitter hashtag feeds, I had the interesting experience of not being sure what was being said, but getting everyone’s reaction to it. It was probably far more amusing and interesting to see what people retained from the onslaught of sensory rich worship and stimulation deprived discussion of the rules of order.
In that rules discussion, I noted that the new language of Rules 26 and 27 passed by an 82% margin. As my “secret agent” Pastor Becca notes, these rules change how the General Conference will deal with substitute motions. Rather than taking the substitute motion and working to perfect it then voting on whether it will replace the main motion or not, The first vote will be a simple “which of these two motions do we prefer to work on?” Then the work of perfecting the language of the preferred motion begins.
I took great delight in the passage of these changes because I know I had some influence in their development. After the crush of the 2008 General Conference in Ft. Worth, where we saw the retention of exclusionary language that devalues, degrades, and in three instances prohibits ministry with and by LGBT people in The UMC, I began to reflect on all that I witnessed. My theological mind was in high gear of course but, as a practical theologian, the “how we do things” part of my mind was equally engaged.
What I saw was a wonderfully and carefully crafted paragraph on human sexuality that admitted the truth of where The UMC stands as a body. That we do not yet fully know the mystery of human sexuality given to us by God. This paragraph was crafted by arduous, careful, and honest Holy Conferencing in a very diverse legislative group. Yet, when this committee’s work came to the floor, the minority report was a substitute motion that more or less retained the existing language that excludes LGBT people (although also removed language that explicitly prohibited marital rape– go figure.)
Since the rules were that the minority report would be open to amendments, etc. before being considered as a replacement for the main motion, the body went to work on it. It was the usual grueling, emotional, and long drug out series of amendments and debates. As a result, the debate exhausted the body over the span of several hours and when finally they were exhausted enough to call for the question, the bulk of the body was voting with a spirit of, “Whatever, let’s just move on.” It passed and became the main motion. The body never had one bit of discussion about the work done and passed by a majority of the legislative committee.
It was clever. It was cynical. It was a violation of the spirit of Holy Conferencing where respect and dialogue are the order of the day. But, it was within the rules.
So I wrote a long email where I laid out a theological rationale of Holy Conferencing that the General Conference should consider amending the rules to prohibit substitute motions (as the Faculty Senate where I work at Gallaudet University does)– or find an alternative that would at least allow for the work of legislative committees and minority reports to both get a hearing during debate before the whole body. While I’m sure I’m not the only one to have observed and reflected on this. I know that my email circulated among a number of people and was forwarded on more than once to Randall Miller who is the head of the planning committee for this General Conference in 2012.
(As an aside, I didn’t get the chance to thank Randall in person when I was on the campus of PSR for an interview in February. I was disappointed!)
In that email, I also reflected upon how delegates sitting in rows clustered into their delegations seemed to encourage insular thinking, enforced bloc voting, and a lack of interaction among the great diversity of people who represent our church. Sitting in rows also seemed to lend a strong air of political process rather than spiritual process to the proceedings. We looked more like the UN than The UMC.
So seeing the delegates sitting at round tables and reading their tweets about meeting different people around their tables then seeing rules 26 and 27 pass by a 82% margin was a moment of satisfaction for me.
I may not be there, but I’m there. Behold the mystery of General Conference!