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General Conference Reflection: The room where it happened

by Rev. Dr. Denyse Barnes, Director of Justice and Compassion EMT

General Conference has been a ride through every single emotion I have ever felt and some new ones I didn’t even know existed!  To say the Holy Spirit has been active is the biggest understatement I have ever made – she has to be more exhausted than every single delegate and observer here in Charlotte combined!

As queer clergy GC is always a challenging and emotional experience, and it is impossible to forget that even when the evidence of God and Spirit moving through our United Methodist Church and her people.  So with every single cautious step we have taken towards regionalization and removal of the harmful language so we can truly live into the all expansive and loving church John Wesley dreamed of, it is hard to trust that the process will continue to work, that we will not once again be harmed, and that maybe, just maybe we can be less cautious in our hopes for each piece of legislation.

The first week of GC is the week for legislation in committees (similar to our legislative sections at Annual Conference).  I joined the committee discussing legislation assigned to Church and Society 2 which covered much of the queer petitions which had been submitted.

As the elections for the chair commenced, I was blown away that the two people nominated were a black queer woman and a white man.  Bishop Easterling was presiding and allowed questions from the seated committee members. It was very quickly exposed that the white man had assisted 133 churches to disaffiliate and also that he had in the past used conversion therapy on queer people.  Not surprisingly he did not succeed with his nomination.

The atmosphere in that room was so different to any I had been in on previous years, and I watched in amazement as piece after piece of legislation was passed by the committee in high numbers and there was no harm being done.

This same atmosphere moved on to the plenary sessions in week 2.  Piece after piece of legislation was approved in staggering numbers and on consent calendars.  Hope began to build, despite the pain and hurt of so many years sitting with us all as we watched and waited.

I was elected as a reserve delegate to Jurisdictional Conference and because we have been in that weird limbo space since Covid, this election had to be ratified by GC.  Unti that happened I could not become a seated delegate on the floor (and was so far down the list that it was unlikely I would be needed at all anyway – it would have taken a major catastrophe to befall 4 or 5 other people!)

On Tuesday evening, it became clear that the harmful incompatibility language around queer clergy was going to be coming to the plenary and was on the consent calendar.  The first elected clergy person on our delegation texted me that afternoon with the words – “when we vote on lifting the ban on gay clergy, I would like for you to sit in for me to take the vote.  Are you good with that?”

Was I good with that?  Really? It was my greatest dream to be able to vote against that language which has done so much harm to so many for so long.  This was one of the biggest gifts ever given to me.  So, once I had wiped away the tears I, of course, accepted with joy and deep gratitude!

Not much sleep was had that night as you can imagine, and I awoke tired but also excited and even allowed a little of that hope which I had been determined to quash every time it reared its little head.  When you are at GC you are on your phone the whole time.  I have been following eight What’s App groups, one Facebook messenger group, and multiple text message chains. As I woke that morning, the first thing I did was check my phone.  There was a message on one of the group chats stating that the revised social principles were still on the consent calendar. No one had tried to remove them!  (The consent calendar is all the legislation which had come before the committees and been approved by them – they remain there for 24 hours and there is an opportunity to remove them and have them sent to the floor of the plenary instead if you can garner twenty signatures.) 

This was a very positive sign and made me open that door to the hope which was pushing hard against it just a little bit more.  The three of us got ready quickly- the days are long at the conference with worship beginning at 8am.  As we got to the bar (literally a physical barrier which marks the legal area of the plenary of the conference,) I saw Allison on the other side and walked through to join her.

The number of delegates for each annual conference is measured by the membership of that conference (we have 6 for Cal-Pac, three clergy and three laity) and the security checks to ensure that there are only that number on the floor and voting at any one time are strict and well managed.  Allison had to physically relinquish her voting card in order for me to receive mine.  Again, more tears.

Allison took me over to where our delegation was seated on the floor of the conference and each one of them greeted me with hugs and smiles, they clearly knew how important this opportunity was to me (and all the queer clergy in our conference, jurisdiction, and global church!)  More tears – so many tears – but excited, hopeful, anticipatory tears!

We had some other business matters to attend to first, but I don’t remember what they were right now!  When the moment came to vote on the consent calendar for the day which included the removal of the harmful language in the book of discipline there was a palpable shift in the atmosphere in the room.  I was so proud, honored, and humbled to have the opportunity to place my vote on removing the words which have done so much harm to so many people for such a long time.  I felt I was carrying the hopes and dreams of so many – those who have stayed with the church throughout this, those who have since departed by passing onto glory or have left the church altogether, and those yet to come – as well as the knowledge that the world was watching and waiting.

As we waited for the results of the vote, our delegation all held hands, waiting without breathing – and of course more tears flowing!  The results were astounding – passed at 93% – stunned joy and an overwhelming rush of so many different emotions.  And of course, more of those tears once more.

We had to tend to some other business before we received a break in the agenda, and I was able to ground myself a little and tend to the other matters before us.  As soon as the break was announced we headed to the bar on the conference floor.  On the other side were all the queer observers, and allies, reaching out wanting to celebrate this momentous occasion.

We sang – many different songs but most significantly for me “Child of God” by Mark Miller – the song which made me realize I could and should answer my call to ordained ministry despite not doing so for many years because of the stance of the church.  This song has accompanied me throughout my ministry and been sung at so many significant moments on that journey.  To get to sing it with queer siblings in a moment of joyous celebration was the best time I had ever sung it!  Even though we all knew the words to be true, now our church also acknowledged it.

Many bishops came down to celebrate with us – Mary Ann Swenson, Dottie, Cedrick, and Carlo to name a few. And they let us have our moment of celebration together as a community, which we had waited on for so long, and which, I certainly, never thought would happen in my lifetime.

Not only was I in the room where it happened but I got to lodge my vote, for me and for so many others.

We have much work to do now – it doesn’t end here – to make sure that the church learns how to make ALL people truly welcomed, steeped in the knowledge that they are beloved children of God, knit together in their mother’s wombs, with a plan all ready for them.