Commentary by Irene R. DeMaris, M.Div
Earlier today, The Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church began a conversation that the New England, Desert Southwest, and California-Pacific Annual Conferences had during their conference sessions this year; the conversation concerned nonconformity with The Book of Discipline.
I am a part of a group working together to bring this legislation to the floor of the annual conference, which requested a Committee of the Whole. This request was made to make space for dialogue, to share stories, and to minimize the use of Robert’s Rules to eliminate conversation. This was a model that New England used last week during their annual conference session and encouraged our group to use moving forward. The group also made the decision to use similar language as New England to stand with them, to clearly express their united in inclusion.
The PNWAC voted to move into a time of the Committee of the Whole. Although it was just for an hour, it gave room for people to speak. The Rev. Ruth Marston was the first to speak and share her story that she wakes up every morning, joyful to be in covenant with people of the church, seeking and living the Gospel. But she also stated: “I also have to choose to not be afraid of these pieces of the Book of Discipline.”
Holding the tension of the joy and the fear is why we need nonconformity. Rev. Marston’s witness set the stage for other to speak and share their stories, calling us to action as she eloquently said, “I long to be perfected… to know and trust that God that imagined us… calls us to perfect loving covenant with each other.”
People lined up and spoke their truth. A youth delegate encouraged adults to stand with LGBTQIA youth and provide them safe spaces. Stories of coming out in the church, finding safe space then finding out it wasn’t were shared. A common thread in it all was that people did not want to stay with the status quo, or business as usual, as they felt it was harmful and not where we think the PNWAC should stand.
Amendments were offered. My favorite came from the Rev. John Helmiere of Valley & Mountain who encouraged us all to bring more holy language into the resolution:
“Trusting in the Author of Life who makes no mistakes when creating her children, inspired by the nonconforming Christ who taught us to defy oppression in all its forms, and led by the Holy Spirit who continually liberates us from our addiction to law and into a life of grace, the PNWAC as a body affirms our commitment to a radically hospitable church.”
At the end of the time, the Rev. Terri Stewart had the last word. She shared about her son who attempted suicide because he though there was no room for him as a beloved child of God in the church. She stated that if nonconformity had been in place, her son would not have attempted to commit suicide. It was a powerful statement to end an hour of stories pointing towards action.
The body was overwhelming affirming in their support of the statement of nonconformity. Although the vote is not binding in a Committee of the Whole, it is a good sign moving forward to a formal plenary session vote. At the end, the Bishop tasked an ad hoc group to work on integrating the suggestions raised on the floor, hopefully giving it some unique Pacific Northwest flavor.
But now, what happens after this is officially voted on. If nonconformity is adopted, what happens with those who do not share the beliefs of the majority and can’t/won’t conform to nonconformity? How do we remain together as God’s beloved in the midst of disagreement? Can we gracefully allow those who need to leave the body, leave with their clergy, bodies, and buildings? Being able to faithfully model love in disagreement will be imperative of the PNWAC.
At General Conference, nonconformity was part of the minority, not the majority. In the PNWAC the opposite is true. Therefore we must be mindful of how it feels to be in the minority, to wonder where do I fit in it all?
Moving forward we need to start having dialogue on how can we be mindful of the theological diversity in our midst while maintaining healthy relationships across difference. That is truly the challenge moving forward, but we also need to keep the stories shared today at the forefront, of the oppression of LGBTQIA community that the church has historically hurt.
If we do this all well, we can be the model of this for the greater church. I have hope that the PNWAC can do this with God’s grace.
Irene R. DeMaris, M.Div. is a feminist and lifelong member of The United Methodist Church who advocates for women’s health through a faith-based lens.