One of the things I learned pretty quickly in the past 24 years of attending General Conferences is that the rules of the conference, which often seem so unambiguous and clear from one perspective, very often have unintended consequences in their effects on another group or organization.
Those thoughts again came to mind tonight as the 2012 session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church attempted to perfect and adopt a set of common rules for operation of the conference. I can imagine that the Rules Committee, which has spent months talking about and developing the proposed changes (a committee that now has to stay up all night) must have wanted to hyperventilate as person after person stepped to the microphone to trash their work and offer up their own set of rules.
Perhaps the most troubling change in the rules from my perspective would be the several proposals directed at ensuring that no demonstrations could happen on the floor of the General Conference. These proposals sound so innocuous and from one perspective have some logic in their appeal to control the flow of the meeting and avoid the almost ceremonial demonstrations in relation to the church’s positions on sexuality. And yet, I fear that the passage of these rule changes will in fact lead to GREATER chaos — with more demonstrations and the potential for situations that quickly spiral out of control.
Of course we have to understand at the front end that the control of the conference floor is maintained by a presiding bishop, and a cadre ofvolunteermarshals. I have heard delegates in the past chastise the volunteers for allowing the demonstrators inside the bar of the conference. But it is frankly beyond the pay-grade of these servants to physically place themselves in the way of protesters at the risk of their physical and emotional well-being, and, honestly, asking them to be more aggressive in controlling the bar only places them and the conference at risk for things spiraling out of control.
However, my fear is that trying to restrict access to demonstrators only provides a greater incentive for folks to be heard and that those who want to protest will work even harder at ensuring their voices aren’t silenced. The attempt to maintain order could very likely lead to even greater disorder, with the specter of mass arrests on the floor of the General Conference again, something that we have lived through before and don’t want to go through again.
Those who want to be heard will be heard — whether we want them to be or not — and passing rules to restrict access only works to make them more determined to be heard.
In 2000, I was part of of the planning team for that year’s General Conference in Cleveland. We learned very early on that there would be a demonstration, and as a part of that demonstration there would be an intentional effort to be arrested. Concerned about how things would spin out, we met with leaders planning the demonstration and while we tried to argue for a more law-abiding means of expression, they were determined that their voices would not be silenced and that their commitment to full inclusion demanded disruption to the point where they would be arrested.
So, as strange as it may seem, there was a negotiation about how the event would proceed. We did this not because we were colluding with the demonstrators but because our task as planners of the General Conference was to keep ALL people safe. Through planning, we could better ensure that events didn’t get out of hand. Even then, a young woman was caught up in the emotion of the moment, and we came close to having a major tragedy at that event.
All of this is to say that the best of intentions in offering changes to rules often have many unintended consequences. I continue to believe that attempts to control and silence voices in a postmodern world in which transparency is greatly valued may lead from order to chaos.
May this General Conference think wisely and carefully before delegates change the rules.