'You Don't Speak for Me'

5/21/2016

By Sara Isbell
This is not an angry blog, for anybody who might be worried by the title.  It’s a reflection on our assertion that “only the General Conference speaks for the Church.” I understand this, and I accept it.  Official church policy, procedure, polity and position is established by the General Conference, and no single person or group can assert “The Church says...” apart from those decisions. 

However, those of us who have attended General Conference have surely noticed that on the most contentious of our issues (e.g., where we invest our money, time and witness; where we throw our weight on various social positions; with whom we stand on matters of injustice) – each time there is a divided vote (which, by my calculations, is 100 percent of the time), the majority of the Church says, “here is where we stand,” and a minority says, “But that’s not where I stand!”  In other words, “You don’t speak for me!” 

The method of decision-making we have chosen as a body: Robert’s Rules of Order, is ideal for democratic legislation.  Everybody has a vote, and those decisions deemed best for (or, at least, preferred by) the majority, prevail.  The system is intended to promote fairness and equal treatment of all players, and, by and large, it serves its purpose well.  When the questions have answers like “yes” or “no,” Robert’s Rules of Order ensures that both majority and minority viewpoints have the opportunity to be heard before votes are taken.  Sometimes, at large legislative bodies like the General Conference, with lots of decisions to be made (did we mention, there were 864 delegates, and 1200 pages of legislation to read before we even got there?), the orderly process becomes cumbersome, and we look for ways to streamline to save time.  “I move to limit discussion to ‘two speeches for, two against, and no more than two minutes, each.’”  “I move to call the question.  We need to move ahead.”  So much to do in so little time makes these initiatives necessary if we are to get through everything.  Which we don’t, anyway.  But we have to at least try to get through these votes; we were sent to deal with this legislation which thousands of people put in thousands of hours to craft and send.  It’s only a matter of respect. 

And yet…  

And yet, when we emerge from our motions and amendments and appeals and decisions – not everybody feels respected.  Some people still feel “not-heard.”  Two “2-minute-limit” speeches on each side, followed by two choices (Yes or No) did not adequately reflect the complex and conflicted spectrum of opinions and experiences of all (or, even, most) of the people in the room.  There’s no time for telling stories.  There’s no time for sharing experiences.  We have to move forward.  It’s time to vote.  Petitions are abandoned because we ran out of time to deal with them, and in the process, all the hard work and heartfelt conviction that went into writing and defending them (not to mention the effort and dedication of the legislative committees and subcommittees) is abandoned, too.  What’s worse, sometimes the people whose stories lie behind the legislation walk away feeling abandoned, as well. 

I know this happens on both the “left” and the “right.”  Every victory for one “side” (apologies – I really dislike that term.  But Robert’s Rules divides us that way) is a defeat for the other.  The vote that makes me feel validated, encouraged and welcome, makes somebody else at my table feel disregarded and defeated.  No matter whether delegates self-identify as “traditional,” “progressive,” “conservative,” “liberal,” or something else, every vote makes SOMEBODY mutter under their breath, “You don’t speak for me!”  I’m sure “Robert” meant well… but sometimes I just feel like we’ve given him too much power and authority over our Church and its witness. 

I suppose it’s inevitable. The frustrations and (in my opinion) inadequacy of the democratic model for our work together as a Church, are probably a necessary price to pay for order, consistency, fair process and efficiency.  We have to work with it; we have to make the best of it.  It’s the best process we’ve got. 

But there are a few issues we face as a denomination which “Robert” seems incapable of managing for us.  These “issues,” in my opinion, fail the democratic process test, because they are not really “issues” at all, but deeply personal and tender questions of personhood, identity, calling, worth and relationship.  They ask, “who is called by God into ministry?”  “To whom may I dedicate my life and faithfulness in marriage?”  “Who has the right to say whether my gender or sexuality is a gift from God, or a mistake to be corrected?”  These are tender, fragile, personal questions about human beings.  They hardly make sense when divorced from the narrative, the context, the story of a person’s life and self-discovery.  And yet, we are called on the floor of General Conference to answer these fragile questions of “who” and “whom” with “yes” or “no.” 

I came to General Conference hopeful about the potential for Rule 44, yet not particularly optimistic about its passing.  In the end, I was convinced that the body was not ready, not sufficiently trusting of one another or of the proposed process, to proceed.  The resistance I heard expressed around the room did not represent my own hopes, my own longing for transformative trust and vulnerability.  In other words, these voices “did not speak for me.”  But I understand, it takes trust from everybody for this to work.  We just weren’t ready. 

And yet, working our way toward “yes/no” legislation didn’t seem to be working, either.  Rumors began circulating: the far-right wants schism. The far-left is threatening to leave.  Even the bishops are formulating a plan for “amicable separation.”  In the end, I’m not sure any of those rumors were entirely true.  They certainly didn’t speak for me and my hopes for the unity of this Body I have come to know as my family.  But they did raise a great deal of fear and anxiety.  If we don’t deal with these “issues” of human sexuality, identity and relationship as “issues,” how will we deal with them?  And if we don’t deal with them, how many of us are ready to take our toys and go home? 

In the end, our Bishops presented an “offering for a way forward.”  Not yet a “way” forward – but a move toward one, a hope for one, a plea for one.  Let’s take human sexuality off-line, they suggested.  Let’s try to deal with it in a smaller, yet broadly representative group, a special “Commission,” who can take the time to talk, and to listen, rather than just vote “1 for yes, 2 for no.” 

Personally, my own heart was deeply relieved.  I felt like I could breathe again after two days of being so constricted by fear.  This is what we need to do, I thought.  It’s the only thing that can make a difference.  But others were disappointed, even frustrated.  How much longer, they wanted to know, will we leave these issues unresolved?  How much longer will our congregations be confused about what the Church really says, and who has the right to speak for United Methodism? 

I guess we won’t know how it all turns out, until it all turns out.  We don’t yet know who will serve in this Commission, or when/where they will meet, or how the conversations will be structured.  We don’t know how it is that these conversations will be translated into legislation that the majority can agree on – or if that’s even possible. 

But what I hope for the process is this:   All members of the Commission should have an opportunity to speak for themselves.  Each person should have a chance to tell their own story, how they got there, what means the most to them, where their crisis moments have occurred and where God has transformed their hearts.  Each person should get to witness to their own reading of scripture, their own interaction with their received tradition, their own sense of reason, and their own experience of God’s grace working in their lives through the Holy Spirit.  And each person should have the honor of listening to the others and receiving new stories in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust that just might allow every heart in the room to be “strangely warmed.”   It might not lead to a simple “yes/no” answer.  It might not lead to any legislation at all.  But it might lead to the kind of healing in our Body that we so desperately need.  This opportunity speaks for me, and for my hope for the Church.  I’m grateful to the Council of Bishops for speaking my heart.

This is not an angry blog, for anybody who might be worried by the title.  It’s a reflection on our assertion that “only the General Conference speaks for the Church.” I understand this, and I accept it.  Official church policy, procedure, polity and position is established by the General Conference, and no single person or group can assert “The Church says...” apart from those decisions. 

However, those of us who have attended General Conference have surely noticed that on the most contentious of our issues (e.g., where we invest our money, time and witness; where we throw our weight on various social positions; with whom we stand on matters of injustice) – each time there is a divided vote (which, by my calculations, is 100% of the time), the majority of the Church says, “here is where we stand,” and a minority says, “But that’s not where I stand!”  In other words, “You don’t speak for me!” 

The method of decision-making we have chosen as a body: Robert’s Rules of Order, is ideal for democratic legislation.  Everybody has a vote, and those decisions deemed best for (or, at least, preferred by) the majority, prevail.  The system is intended to promote fairness and equal treatment of all players, and, by and large, it serves its purpose well.  When the questions have answers like “yes” or “no,” Robert’s Rules of Order ensures that both majority and minority viewpoints have the opportunity to be heard before votes are taken.  Sometimes, at large legislative bodies like the General Conference, with lots of decisions to be made (did we mention, there were 864 delegates, and 1200 pages of legislation to read before we even got there?), the orderly process becomes cumbersome, and we look for ways to streamline to save time.  “I move to limit discussion to ‘two speeches for, two against, and no more than two minutes, each.’”  “I move to call the question.  We need to move ahead.”  So much to do in so little time makes these initiatives necessary if we are to get through everything.  Which we don’t, anyway.  But we have to at least try to get through these votes; we were sent to deal with this legislation which thousands of people put in thousands of hours to craft and send.  It’s only a matter of respect. 

And yet…  

And yet, when we emerge from our motions and amendments and appeals and decisions – not everybody feels respected.  Some people still feel “not-heard.”  Two “2-minute-limit” speeches on each side, followed by two choices (Yes or No) did not adequately reflect the complex and conflicted spectrum of opinions and experiences of all (or, even, most) of the people in the room.  There’s no time for telling stories.  There’s no time for sharing experiences.  We have to move forward.  It’s time to vote.  Petitions are abandoned because we ran out of time to deal with them, and in the process, all the hard work and heartfelt conviction that went into writing and defending them (not to mention the effort and dedication of the legislative committees and subcommittees) is abandoned, too.  What’s worse, sometimes the people whose stories lie behind the legislation walk away feeling abandoned, as well. 

I know this happens on both the “left” and the “right.”  Every victory for one “side” (apologies – I really dislike that term.  But Robert’s Rules divides us that way) is a defeat for the other.  The vote that makes me feel validated, encouraged and welcome, makes somebody else at my table feel disregarded and defeated.  No matter whether delegates self-identify as “traditional,” “progressive,” “conservative,” “liberal,” or something else, every vote makes SOMEBODY mutter under their breath, “You don’t speak for me!”  I’m sure “Robert” meant well… but sometimes I just feel like we’ve given him too much power and authority over our Church and its witness. 

I suppose it’s inevitable. The frustrations and (in my opinion) inadequacy of the democratic model for our work together as a Church, are probably a necessary price to pay for order, consistency, fair process and efficiency.  We have to work with it; we have to make the best of it.  It’s the best process we’ve got. 

But there are a few issues we face as a denomination which “Robert” seems incapable of managing for us.  These “issues,” in my opinion, fail the democratic process test, because they are not really “issues” at all, but deeply personal and tender questions of personhood, identity, calling, worth and relationship.  They ask, “who is called by God into ministry?”  “To whom may I dedicate my life and faithfulness in marriage?”  “Who has the right to say whether my gender or sexuality is a gift from God, or a mistake to be corrected?”  These are tender, fragile, personal questions about human beings.  They hardly make sense when divorced from the narrative, the context, the story of a person’s life and self-discovery.  And yet, we are called on the floor of General Conference to answer these fragile questions of “who” and “whom” with “yes” or “no.” 

I came to General Conference hopeful about the potential for Rule 44, yet not particularly optimistic about its passing.  In the end, I was convinced that the body was not ready, not sufficiently trusting of one another or of the proposed process, to proceed.  The resistance I heard expressed around the room did not represent my own hopes, my own longing for transformative trust and vulnerability.  In other words, these voices “did not speak for me.”  But I understand, it takes trust from everybody for this to work.  We just weren’t ready. 

And yet, working our way toward “yes/no” legislation didn’t seem to be working, either.  Rumors began circulating: the far-right wants schism. The far-left is threatening to leave.  Even the bishops are formulating a plan for “amicable separation.”  In the end, I’m not sure any of those rumors were entirely true.  They certainly didn’t speak for me and my hopes for the unity of this Body I have come to know as my family.  But they did raise a great deal of fear and anxiety.  If we don’t deal with these “issues” of human sexuality, identity and relationship as “issues,” how will we deal with them?  And if we don’t deal with them, how many of us are ready to take our toys and go home? 

In the end, our Bishops presented an “offering for a way forward.”  Not yet a “way” forward – but a move toward one, a hope for one, a plea for one.  Let’s take human sexuality off-line, they suggested.  Let’s try to deal with it in a smaller, yet broadly representative group, a special “Commission,” who can take the time to talk, and to listen, rather than just vote “1 for yes, 2 for no.” 

Personally, my own heart was deeply relieved.  I felt like I could breathe again after two days of being so constricted by fear.  This is what we need to do, I thought.  It’s the only thing that can make a difference.  But others were disappointed, even frustrated.  How much longer, they wanted to know, will we leave these issues unresolved?  How much longer will our congregations be confused about what the Church really says, and who has the right to speak for United Methodism? 

I guess we won’t know how it all turns out, until it all turns out.  We don’t yet know who will serve in this Commission, or when/where they will meet, or how the conversations will be structured.  We don’t know how it is that these conversations will be translated into legislation that the majority can agree on – or if that’s even possible. 

But what I hope for the process is this:   All members of the Commission should have an opportunity to speak for themselves.  Each person should have a chance to tell their own story, how they got there, what means the most to them, where their crisis moments have occurred and where God has transformed their hearts.  Each person should get to witness to their own reading of scripture, their own interaction with their received tradition, their own sense of reason, and their own experience of God’s grace working in their lives through the Holy Spirit.  And each person should have the honor of listening to the others and receiving new stories in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust that just might allow every heart in the room to be “strangely warmed.”   It might not lead to a simple “yes/no” answer.  It might not lead to any legislation at all.  But it might lead to the kind of healing in our Body that we so desperately need.  This opportunity speaks for me, and for my hope for the Church.  I’m grateful to the Council of Bishops for speaking my heart.

This is not an angry blog, for anybody who might be worried by the title.  It’s a reflection on our assertion that “only the General Conference speaks for the Church.” I understand this, and I accept it.  Official church policy, procedure, polity and position is established by the General Conference, and no single person or group can assert “The Church says...” apart from those decisions. 

However, those of us who have attended General Conference have surely noticed that on the most contentious of our issues (e.g., where we invest our money, time and witness; where we throw our weight on various social positions; with whom we stand on matters of injustice) – each time there is a divided vote (which, by my calculations, is 100% of the time), the majority of the Church says, “here is where we stand,” and a minority says, “But that’s not where I stand!”  In other words, “You don’t speak for me!” 

The method of decision-making we have chosen as a body: Robert’s Rules of Order, is ideal for democratic legislation.  Everybody has a vote, and those decisions deemed best for (or, at least, preferred by) the majority, prevail.  The system is intended to promote fairness and equal treatment of all players, and, by and large, it serves its purpose well.  When the questions have answers like “yes” or “no,” Robert’s Rules of Order ensures that both majority and minority viewpoints have the opportunity to be heard before votes are taken.  Sometimes, at large legislative bodies like the General Conference, with lots of decisions to be made (did we mention, there were 864 delegates, and 1200 pages of legislation to read before we even got there?), the orderly process becomes cumbersome, and we look for ways to streamline to save time.  “I move to limit discussion to ‘two speeches for, two against, and no more than two minutes, each.’”  “I move to call the question.  We need to move ahead.”  So much to do in so little time makes these initiatives necessary if we are to get through everything.  Which we don’t, anyway.  But we have to at least try to get through these votes; we were sent to deal with this legislation which thousands of people put in thousands of hours to craft and send.  It’s only a matter of respect. 

And yet…  

And yet, when we emerge from our motions and amendments and appeals and decisions – not everybody feels respected.  Some people still feel “not-heard.”  Two “2-minute-limit” speeches on each side, followed by two choices (Yes or No) did not adequately reflect the complex and conflicted spectrum of opinions and experiences of all (or, even, most) of the people in the room.  There’s no time for telling stories.  There’s no time for sharing experiences.  We have to move forward.  It’s time to vote.  Petitions are abandoned because we ran out of time to deal with them, and in the process, all the hard work and heartfelt conviction that went into writing and defending them (not to mention the effort and dedication of the legislative committees and subcommittees) is abandoned, too.  What’s worse, sometimes the people whose stories lie behind the legislation walk away feeling abandoned, as well. 

I know this happens on both the “left” and the “right.”  Every victory for one “side” (apologies – I really dislike that term.  But Robert’s Rules divides us that way) is a defeat for the other.  The vote that makes me feel validated, encouraged and welcome, makes somebody else at my table feel disregarded and defeated.  No matter whether delegates self-identify as “traditional,” “progressive,” “conservative,” “liberal,” or something else, every vote makes SOMEBODY mutter under their breath, “You don’t speak for me!”  I’m sure “Robert” meant well… but sometimes I just feel like we’ve given him too much power and authority over our Church and its witness. 

I suppose it’s inevitable. The frustrations and (in my opinion) inadequacy of the democratic model for our work together as a Church, are probably a necessary price to pay for order, consistency, fair process and efficiency.  We have to work with it; we have to make the best of it.  It’s the best process we’ve got. 

But there are a few issues we face as a denomination which “Robert” seems incapable of managing for us.  These “issues,” in my opinion, fail the democratic process test, because they are not really “issues” at all, but deeply personal and tender questions of personhood, identity, calling, worth and relationship.  They ask, “who is called by God into ministry?”  “To whom may I dedicate my life and faithfulness in marriage?”  “Who has the right to say whether my gender or sexuality is a gift from God, or a mistake to be corrected?”  These are tender, fragile, personal questions about human beings.  They hardly make sense when divorced from the narrative, the context, the story of a person’s life and self-discovery.  And yet, we are called on the floor of General Conference to answer these fragile questions of “who” and “whom” with “yes” or “no.” 

I came to General Conference hopeful about the potential for Rule 44, yet not particularly optimistic about its passing.  In the end, I was convinced that the body was not ready, not sufficiently trusting of one another or of the proposed process, to proceed.  The resistance I heard expressed around the room did not represent my own hopes, my own longing for transformative trust and vulnerability.  In other words, these voices “did not speak for me.”  But I understand, it takes trust from everybody for this to work.  We just weren’t ready. 

And yet, working our way toward “yes/no” legislation didn’t seem to be working, either.  Rumors began circulating: the far-right wants schism. The far-left is threatening to leave.  Even the bishops are formulating a plan for “amicable separation.”  In the end, I’m not sure any of those rumors were entirely true.  They certainly didn’t speak for me and my hopes for the unity of this Body I have come to know as my family.  But they did raise a great deal of fear and anxiety.  If we don’t deal with these “issues” of human sexuality, identity and relationship as “issues,” how will we deal with them?  And if we don’t deal with them, how many of us are ready to take our toys and go home? 

In the end, our Bishops presented an “offering for a way forward.”  Not yet a “way” forward – but a move toward one, a hope for one, a plea for one.  Let’s take human sexuality off-line, they suggested.  Let’s try to deal with it in a smaller, yet broadly representative group, a special “Commission,” who can take the time to talk, and to listen, rather than just vote “1 for yes, 2 for no.” 

Personally, my own heart was deeply relieved.  I felt like I could breathe again after two days of being so constricted by fear.  This is what we need to do, I thought.  It’s the only thing that can make a difference.  But others were disappointed, even frustrated.  How much longer, they wanted to know, will we leave these issues unresolved?  How much longer will our congregations be confused about what the Church really says, and who has the right to speak for United Methodism? 

I guess we won’t know how it all turns out, until it all turns out.  We don’t yet know who will serve in this Commission, or when/where they will meet, or how the conversations will be structured.  We don’t know how it is that these conversations will be translated into legislation that the majority can agree on – or if that’s even possible. 

But what I hope for the process is this:   All members of the Commission should have an opportunity to speak for themselves.  Each person should have a chance to tell their own story, how they got there, what means the most to them, where their crisis moments have occurred and where God has transformed their hearts.  Each person should get to witness to their own reading of scripture, their own interaction with their received tradition, their own sense of reason, and their own experience of God’s grace working in their lives through the Holy Spirit.  And each person should have the honor of listening to the others and receiving new stories in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust that just might allow every heart in the room to be “strangely warmed.”  

It might not lead to a simple “yes/no” answer.  It might not lead to any legislation at all.  But it might lead to the kind of healing in our Body that we so desperately need.  This opportunity speaks for me, and for my hope for the Church.  I’m grateful to the Council of Bishops for speaking my heart.