By Tyler Schwaller
Coming into the 2012 General Conference, delegates had before themselves various plans to restructure the institutional church so as to most “effectively” create and sustain “vital congregations.” (I use quotes because I begin to lose the sense that such words have any meaning as they become cliché. Nevertheless, the issue of restructuring to meet the needs of the 21st-century church is truly important work.)
The legislative committee charged with making a recommendation rejected every single plan (some in the last fifteen minutes before the enforced conclusion of committee work). They rejected compromise proposals. So this week, around 1,000 delegates will start at nearly the same place the smaller committee began.
If I seem to be lacking faith in the process, my sentiments are being read correctly. The fact of the matter is that now back-room deals have been made to come up with compromises that delegates might approve.
But who is at the table? And who is being compromised? I will wait to see the names associated with the proposal, but the answer as to who has been engaged in this process will probably not satisfy those who are committed to inclusion and justice.
The compromise proposal that was submitted yesterday afternoon so that delegates can read the petition today and vote tomorrow combines the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race into a new “Committee on Inclusivity.”
But there are compelling, significant reasons not to compromise GCSRW and its work.
First of all, reducing GCSRW to a “committee” undercuts its ability actually to monitor the church effectively. A small office, lodged under a larger Center, cannot speak truth to power at the highest levels of the church and hold the churchwide structures accountable (especially not the Center overseeing it).
Secondly, the compromise proposal fails to deal adequately with the need for the church to enact comprehensive sexual ethics policies and practices in order to prevent and address the problem of sexual misconduct. GCSRW has been facilitating this work now for years and has become a trusted partner of bishops, district superintendents, local churches, and, importantly, victim-survivors. No other agency of the church is equipped to seek fair process for both victim-survivors and the accused since other entities are primarily invested in protecting the clergy or church assets. When people feel that they have been treated fairly, they are less likely to sue the church. And with a current budget of less than $1 million per year, if only one lawsuit is prevented, GCSRW has paid for itself. Reducing GCSRW will save the church little and could cost it significantly.
Third, GCSRW was formed 40 years ago because the UMC committed itself to the idea that gender justice is not just women’s work but the work of the whole church. Addressing gender discrimination and institutional sexism is not nearly complete, especially as the UMC grows in places of the world where women are not always permitted to participate as full and equal members. If we are to be a global church, we have a responsibility to continue and even expand efforts to empower women worldwide.
When considering this structural compromise, the UMC ought to be prepared to answer, ” Who is being compromised?” and then to respond out of a Gospel commitment to be in ministry with and for all, especially the most vulnerable.
Rest assured that the staff of GCSRW is working hard with delegates to maintain the Commission as a free-standing, independent monitoring and advocacy agency.
To give an update on GCSRW petitions: most of our proposed legislation (which can be found here) has been approved, including adding sexual ethics work to our mandates (which, of course, now depends on our essential functions being carried forward, whether as GCSRW or in a new form). Two major pieces of legislation are still pending:
–Adding “gender” to paragraph 4 of the Constitution, which regards the “Inclusiveness of the Church” and specifies categories against which no organization of the church can discriminate. The committee that considered the original petition supported it for adoption by a vote of 59-3.
–Defining pornography in the Social Principles. Church and Society and GCSRW submitted nearly identical petitions with the difference being that C&S offered a definition of pornography so capacious that it could not be used effectively to address problems of pornography use as sexual misconduct. GCSRW, which has done significant work around pornography as part of its sexual ethics work, has offered a petition that defines what is harmful and so can be used in practice to address actual harm. The committee considering the petitions originally accepted the GCSRW definition but then reconsidered it (committee work can be unwieldy and wild!), so GCSRW is preparing delegates to reinstate the language proposed by the Commission.