Affirmation History Today (GC2016 Newsletter May 11)

Affirmation LogoAffirmation members at the 1988 General Conference in St. Louis

by Jan Olson

The first proposal to the General Conference on homosexuality called for treating everyone as a child of God. The first amendment was to reverse that effort. By the mid-1970s gays and lesbians were organizing for full inclusion in churches and society.

Affirmation grew into a national network of individuals who became like family to one another with over 40 local groups that met regularly for support, worship and advocacy. In the 80’s Marches on Washington for Equality included a boisterous group with the Affirmation banner.

Lesbian and gay church professionals like Joan Clark, the Rev. Paul Abels, and the Rev. Julian Rush began to come out in the United Methodist Church. Despite harassment and threats, these pioneers proved that the church could not squelch the developing movement for justice.

The denomination was confused about what was punishable about homosexuality. The 1984 General Conference heightened the climate of oppression when they voted to sanction “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Affirmation responded by creating the Reconciling Congregation Program (RCP.) The RCP was the largest organization in the LGBT religious community other than the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. Hundreds of congregations, Sunday Schools, campus ministries,
and individual United Methodists decided to include LGBTQ people by being reconcilers. In 1988, Affirmation launched Reconciling Congregations and in 2000, became Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), an independent organization.

Affirmation grew in its understanding. First, the group recognized the need to acknowledge women by adding “lesbian” to the official name. Later, we added “bisexual” (1990’s), and “transgender” (2000’s) and “queer” (2005.) Each of these intentional additions to Affirmation’s name required study and reflection, but in each case, the members of Affirmation were a model for the church on what it means to be inclusive.

Affirmation worked behind the scenes to develop the denomination’s domestic and international response to the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, Affirmation members experienced the loss of many at both the national and local levels. Affirmation showed the church what it means to be the church in its care for the sick. We leaned on each other in our grief and anger.

When the 1992 General Conference rejected the recommendations of a study committee on homosexuality, Affirmation led a coalition of progressive groups in testifying that “the stones will cry out” until God’s imperative for inclusion is met by the United Methodist Church. In our growing grief and anger, Affirmation ministered by offering healing liturgy, enthusiastic celebration and pointed reflection through its General Conference presence.

In a powerful witness in 1996, Affirmation joined RCP to challenge the church to “Open the Doors” to its LGBT members. Instead, the General Conference banned services that celebrated the covenants of same-gender couples.

Responding to widespread concern over the unjust church law, in 1990, Affirmation stepped up its organizing by forming an online CovenantRelationships Network (CORNET). This web witness provided information, inspiration, and an arena for strategic partnerships for action.

In 1999, hundreds of courageous clergy pledged to obey the Gospel rather than an unjust law. Two long-time Affirmation members, Jeanne Barnett and Ellie Charlton, leaders in their Annual Conference, celebrated their many years of loving relationship at a covenant service presided over by dozens of clergy. The struggle over covenant services is emblematic of the denomination’s continuing struggle to truly be the church. The church was unequipped to bring every clergy person to trial, but individual pastors were
still being tried and defrocked.

At the 2000 General Conference members of Affirmation, MFSA, and RCP demonstrated on the floor of GC. Over 20 people were arrested including Bishops Joe Sprague and Minerva Carcaño. The protest began in the morning in the central aisle, broke over lunch, and resumed with arrests in theafternoon. Sue Laurie, Randy Miller and Greg Dell led the way.

Affirmation sponsored a set of over 20 “Silent Witnesses,” silhouettes with the stories of gay, lesbian and transgender folk who had been murdered, complete with quotations from the killers citing their religious reasons for the murders. Volunteers, including Velma McConnell, the wife of Bishop Cal McConnell, stood beside the silhouettes along the walkway that folk used to approach the convention center. Many people stopped to read the stories.

The years have dragged on and the church has refused to change the harmful, discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline. Affirmation continues to support those oppressed by the church in the name of God. We have stood by our sisters and brothers like Jeanne Knepper when she appeared before the Judicial Council in 1993, and Amy DeLong when she was brought to trial in 2011, and Tom Ogletree when the announcement of a “just” resolution in the charges brought against him was made. And we are committed to being there for those the church continues to persecute for who they are or for fulfilling their ministerial responsibilities.

Today we are headed toward 50 years and we are still a grassroots organization with global impact. We have attended every General Conference since 1976. We have worshiped, talked, prayed, sang, protested, and proudly displayed our rainbow colors. We have shown the UMC that we will not be driven away from our church. One day we will celebrate full inclusion. Will it be the 2016 General Conference?

Affirmation offers 24-hour counseling during GC2016: call 612-425-5215

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