May and June are among the most welcoming months of the year. They coax us outside without benefit of coat or jacket to breathe in the fresh smells of opening blossoms and freshly mown grass. Among United Methodists in the United States, it is a time set aside for annual conferences to make plans, set rules, worship, reunite, and reignite with colleagues and friends.
The past annual conference season was notable for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women as we watched and witnessed discussions around an amendment to Paragraph 4, Article 4 of the Constitution that would guarantee women’s membership in the Church. However, we observed so much more.
In the Mississippi Annual Conference, a sexual ethics training preceded the annual conference session. The planning team recreated a fictitious sexual misconduct scenario, capturing the dynamics and complexity of the complaint process for about 800 participants. Questions poured out of the audience as they quizzed each of the characters in the story. The comments revealed victim blaming, shaming, and church protection.
The following morning, before opening worship, a young clergyman requested a moment of personal privilege and made these remarks:
“Thank you for the ethics training.
I think it exposed many problems that clergy face and how easy it is to blame victims, particularly women. As a male pastor who considers himself a feminist, I have been shaped by many clergywomen, many of whom are in this room and I want to say I’m sorry. Yesterday I heard sexual harassment in many of the questions that were asked and I was not cognizant of the pain many of my friends and colleagues felt, particularly clergywomen who heard that they were predators and responsible for the misconduct that happens to them.
There are women in the room who have experienced sexual misconduct by powerful men in the Church and their experiences were dismissed and diminished by us, their own colleagues….they heard that they were to blame. There continues to be a male-centric perspective, and that can unintentionally marginalize the female experience and perpetuate unhealthy attitudes.
We all have our own experiences and we all felt different things yesterday, and our feelings and our own personal experiences do matter, and so we need to acknowledge that many of our words and inability to call out harassment was indeed hurtful.”
This pastor’s confession was followed by opening worship, in which Bishop Swanson appropriately preached about caring for the pains and suffering of the world. He told us that we have all the resources we need for that…our hearts.
Sensitivity to the hearts of all people seeking a more expansive God was evident in the Michigan Area Annual Conference. Bishop Bard’s masterful use of inclusive language was notable throughout the ordination sermon, which focused on dismantling racism and sexism. He even used the term “Mother God” in the liturgy. Bard went so far as to correct a quoted theologian who used the term “himself”, without including “herself” in relationship to God. Bishop Bard modeled for us what it truly means to open ourselves to a God that is so much more than simply male.
Female-led worship was a marker of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference. Never before have had so many women participated in annual conference worship! During his sermon, Bishop David Graves apologized for the racism and sexism that he has witnessed in the Church. This year’s Alice Lee award, presented by the Annual Conference COSROW and named for the author of the influential novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, went to the director of a groundbreaking ministry for Alzheimer’s patients. Perhaps most powerful were the heartfelt remarks of Rev. Libba Stinson as she passed the torch by the retirees to the ordination class, marking the first time a woman had ever represented the retiring pastors in that capacity.
In the New England Annual Conference, there was much discussion about the aforementioned amendment guaranteeing women membership in the Church. It was Fay Flanary, a deaconess and former GCSRW board member, who gave a rousing speech in favor of the amendment, explaining that GCSRW had been trying to establish women’s right to membership for over 28 years. She clearly explained how women’s membership continues to be unprotected in The United Methodist Constitution and appealed to the body to simply let this “crack open.” When she sat down, 28-year-old Rev. Sara Garrard rose to speak. “Friends, we have been trying to protect women in The United Methodist Church for as long as I have been alive. Isn’t it time?”
It is time for all of us to stand against the sexism that plagues The United Methodist Church and stand up for the rights and protections women deserve. The annual conferences that we attended showed promising signs of a denomination moving closer to equity for women. However, this is only a small sample.
We invite you to tell us the stories from your annual conference. How were women lifted up and encouraged? How did women share in “the full and equal responsibility and participation…in the total life and mission of the Church, sharing fully in the power and in the policy-making at all levels of the Church’s life?” Tell us tales of women being empowered in your annual conference.
Rev. Leigh Goodrich was the former Senior Director Of Leadership and Education of the GCSRW team. She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference.