The opening day of the 2016 New England Annual Conference session was anything but “business as usual.”
The original schedule called for June 16 to begin with simultaneous clergy and laity sessions. In response to a call from many, including Conference leaders, who felt that the Conference could not just go ahead with “business as usual” after the mass shooting in Orlando, it was decided to begin by gathering everyone together.
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar and Lay Leader Rene Wilbur had planned to address the body, when people began to approach the microphones.
The first to speak was Pastor Lindsay Flick, who serves Riverside UMC in Parsonsfield, ME. She spoke of her journey coming out and of the United Methodist pastor who told her at 13 she was going to hell.
“So I stand before you all today, asking for truth,” she said. “I am asking that we all quit pretending as though we are providing a healing witness. I ask that we stop pretending like our hands are clean in the spreading of hate, and in the oppression of GLBTQ people. I ask that we stop the white washing of all of our stories.
“… Our God calls us to love, and we have not provided that to some of the people who need it the most. We have failed to witness compassion to children of God. May God have mercy on us.”
Then Flick announced that “In an act of repentance, we will offer burlap stoles and ashes.”
“May this turning be the beginning of a witness we can be proud of,” she said. “In the words of Bishop (Kenneth) Carter, ‘I hope we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God's beloved children.’ And I compel this New England Annual Conference that by ‘all’ we include our black and brown GLBTQ sisters and brothers. Amen.”
At stations around the room, many donned the stoles and ashes before coming to the microphones to share their stories, their pain, and their frustration. Rev. Justin Hildebrandt asked if the bishop would be willing to wear a stole, and Bishop Devadhar, who said he had planned to, was joined by Wilbur and Bishop Violet Fisher in accepting stoles and ashes.
Margaret Sheffield, who serves West Scarborough UMC in Maine, said “I have been a member of this Annual Conference for 20 years, and I have never in all that time stood at a microphone to say the Book of Discipline is incompatible with a loving God.”
During over two hours of discussion, there was more than one call for the Conference to step away from the denomination.
And for some clergy, the morning was an opportunity to come out. One of those was Rev. Vicki Woods, retired.
“My name is Vicki Woods, and this is not the first time I’ve come to the mike at Annual Conference. But I stand for the first time to say that I, too, am incompatible with Christian teaching,” she said. “I’ve been a district superintendent, I’ve been a delegate; I’ve been a faithful pastor, but if I told the truth, I’ve been harmed. I’ve had to sit here and pretend that I’m somebody else. Some of you will think that I’ve lied to you, but today you need to know I love the church, I preach the Gospel and yet in truth today I tell you that I am one of your incompatible Christians. I don’t know what you want to do with me. Thank you.”
Rev. Bob Sweet, retired, came to the microphone after the applause for Rev. Woods died down.
“Vicki Woods, where are you? That applause told you what we think about you,” he said. “We know what we want to do with you, Vicki. We love you. We embrace you ...”
The Rev. Casey Collins, who serves Milford UMC in New Hampshire, said that she felt “20 pounds lighter” after deciding to come out Thursday morning.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time and never quite dared,” she said. “I was out at my last two congregations; the one I’m at now, not so much. But it’s nothing I want to hide. And it’s nothing I should have to hide.”
Rev. Collins also praised Bishop Devadhar for being so supportive “and who actually put on the burlap himself, and praise God for that. Praise God for this supportive – for the most part – Conference.”
When she came to the microphone, she introduced herself as someone who had been in the church even before she was born, as both her father and grandfather were United Methodist pastors.
“My dad, who served this church, loved this denomination himself, would be so happy, I know,” Rev. Collins said. “Thanks, Dad, for being there for me.”
Rev. Woods, who admitted she was “scared to death” about coming out, said she hoped that people would not view her just in
the context of her sexuality after this.
“To do justice was part of my being willing to come out,” she said. “It’s grounded in my theology, my love for God and the church. The United Methodist Church is not acting like who we are, and I wanted that to happen. … maybe I could risk and be vulnerable in that moment for that sake.”
Rev. Woods also said that she feared some in the Conference were feeling “shut out” of the morning’s discussion.
“Some of them made a decision with their feet,” she said. “I don’t want everyone who thinks different to walk out. Please stay. Please tell us stories … that’s really important.
But that was not the feeling that the Rev. Tom Bentum, who is an evangelical, shared when he talked about what he and some of his colleagues were experiencing.
“We didn’t feel like there wasn’t space for us to speak,” said Rev. Bentum, who serves Gales Ferry UMC in Connecticut. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t speak, but we didn’t know what to say, and didn’t want to make things harder or worse. I think we did the right thing in not saying anything.”
“We really have a heart for the pain that’s going on here,” said Rev. Bentum, “though we don’t agree with the way it’s expressed sometimes.”
When asked how the thinks the Conference should move forward, Rev. Bentum said he would like to see the Commission being formed by the Council of Bishops be allowed to do its work.
“The hardest thing for me and some others who I spoke to is the way the Discipline is twisted to make an argument,” he said, referring to people calling themselves “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
“It’s like setting up a straw dog,” he said. “I think it’s a balanced statement of seeing people of sacred worth, but not particularly in favor of choices of lifestyle or choices of behavior; there’s a difference between who you are and what you do.”
“It hurts me to think that (LGBTQ people) don’t think I love them or don’t care for them just because I don’t agree with their choices,” Rev. Bentum said.
Metro Boston Hope District Superintendent LaTrelle Miller Easterling said that she understood people were weary of hearing yet another call to repent.
“But if we understand the true meaning of the word repent, it means to turn away from an action and no longer do it,” she said. “That’s what we need to do as a denomination; that’s what we need to do as a Conference; that’s what we need to do as individuals. We must repent. It is time.”