Further Thoughts on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

My first post about the Protocol seems to have quickly become the most-read post on my blog. It received some “likes” (though they remain ambiguous to me as what they’re supposed to mean) and some clear disdain or passionate argument, both of which I elected (after an ill-advised first decision to engage) to ignore. As such, I think it’s worthwhile to more fully expand on my thoughts on the subject and to take care of a few ancillary issues that have arisen.

First, some may have some questions about who I am. I am an attorney by profession but an aspiring lay theologian and writer of speculative fiction (hence the blog). I am also a foster father with a hope to eventually adopt, which constitutes the “Fatherhood” section of the blog, of course.

It will not take much work to find my name, but I do not overtly advertise it because my wife is a clergyperson in the UMC (in which we were both raised) and my thoughts and opinions are not hers and I prefer that they not be associated with her by default for fairness’ sake.

Like my wife, I was raised in the UMC. Like many young people (but not my wife), I left the Christian church in my late teenage years because I was given an impression by conservative elements in the Church that Christianity was something that it is not: something oppressive, judgmental and that makes the world a darker place, not a better one. I remained personally and professionally (as a scholar of the medieval and Renaissance periods for a time) deeply interested in philosophy and theology.

Thankfully, that interest eventually taught me better than what I’d earlier been led to believe about Christianity. I came to realize that Christianity, as is best known through the living God expressed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ is in fact the best sort of revelation I could ever hope for, a revelation of a God who deeply loves us despite our flaws and who offers abundant and meaningful living now and forever. An example of what I mean by that might be found here. I even found that Wesleyan theology actually matched up with what I had come to believe through my own reading and reflection and that it was hearing theologies that were expressed as Methodist but which were not that had driven me from the Church. Even so, I (re-)became a Christian intellectually before I had an inexplicable and direct encounter with Jesus Christ while participating in a “Bible in 90 Days” program.

To be clear, while that encounter convinced me personally of the truth of Christianity, it gave me no ability to prove that truth to others, nor any special interpretive theological insight. I have no prophetic gift. I consider my spiritual gift to be teaching but believe that that is a matter of the entirely-natural strengths with which God has endowed me combined with my personality and personal inclinations. I think it’s important that I am clear in stating that, as passionately as I argue for my theological assertions, as convicted of them as I am, I make no claim to special priority or authority in making those assertions and arguments. If they don’t stand on the basis of the arguments made, they certainly don’t stand because I’m the person making them. Also, while I’m making disclaimers, if there’s any uncertainty, I do not speak with any position of authority within or on behalf of the United Methodist Church. I am a lay person within the church who has held some minor leadership roles but the thoughts expressed herein are entirely my own.

As an aside, part of the reason I feel that I am called to lay theology is so that my thoughts and arguments can avoid the entanglements of being within the UMC establishment (especially as clergy) where I would have to worry about my career, my next appointment, etc.

Part of the call that I feel as theologian is my belief (from experience) that the misinterpretation and misuse of Christianity has done the most harm to the Gospel–we are, in our words, our thoughts and our actions, often our worst enemies. My passions, preferences and convictions sometimes get in the way of my compassion as well; I am not above human nature.

A summary of my theological approach can be found here. A rough chapter from a theology book that I am working on (off and on again between my other projects) may be found here. My goal is to use all of the logical tools God has given us in our effort to understand Scripture and the divine while arguing that logic and science have their (logical) limits and that the irrational (I’d prefer the term “superrational”) and mystical must necessarily have a place in faith.

I’d also like to make my biases clear to you for your review as you evaluate my thoughts. I am unabashedly progressive in my theological leanings. I reject categorically any argument that the Bible should be read literally in all circumstances. Others have more fully set out the arguments for that position than I (I particularly prefer Karl Barth’s analysis of the difference between Scripture as the word of God and Jesus as the Word of God, which I address somewhat here, here, here and here.) I believe in full inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian faith in general and the UMC in particular; I have laid out some arguments for this in the series here. I believe that those same persons should be allowed to be clergy if they have been called to be so. I vehemently disagree with the invocation of Christianity as an excuse for very un-Christian actions by our hardline conservative politicians (see here, here and here).

I have been a lay delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC for several years now and have reported my thoughts on several annual conferences on the blog. Here are some of my previous thoughts on the current human sexuality issue facing the Church (given mostly to be honest in my biases for all readers):

(1) A split of the UMC by any means other than by detailed agreement between all parties will be devastating to our witness and our missions. See here.
(2) I believe that the Church’s continued mission and relevance is best expressed in progressive theology, but that conservative theology (willing to engage honestly and in good faith with progressive theology) will always be important for accentuating certain aspects of our walk and faith, and that there should be a place for both in the UMC. See here.
(3) I believe that the One Church Plan provided the best avenue for various theologies to remain in productive fellowship with one another. See here.
(4) I believe that the Traditional Plan is, practically speaking, unenforceable and that the insistence upon it represents an unwillingness to compromise by some (not all) traditionalists within the UMC. See here.
(5) I found the actions of the hardline traditionalists at the Called General Conference in 2019 to be devastating, obstinate and infuriating. See here.
(6) I do not think it is right or proper to expel anyone from any Christian church, but especially from the UMC. See here (my first post to the blog, actually).

Okay, that’s a lot of introduction, but I feel that its necessary for me to be open and honest about my positions and thoughts, to hide nothing from readers (whether they agree with or like what I have to say or not) and to allow anyone who spends time reading my thoughts to evaluate them with their own discernment and standing in proper context. In other words, I believe that this information must be provided if I am to comply with the “Catholic Spirit” and the idea of “Holy Conferencing” as described by John Wesley. If you’re still reading, thank you. If you’ve spent time investigating the links I’ve provided throughout, I am touched and honored. If you’ve already left, I won’t know the difference.

Now, a continuation of my thoughts on the Protocol as promised. I’ll try not to repeat myself overmuch from my first post. Prepare for some stream of consciousness, people.

I still wish that the UMC would not split. I think that we are honestly better together and that a diversity of theologies and interpretative positions help us come closer and closer to a true understanding of God’s will for us.

I believe, and have said repeatedly, that the human sexuality issue before the UMC is only a proxy war for a much larger conflict between conservative and progressive approaches to Biblical interpretation. That has at once made the issue much more difficult (and is the explanation I give to those who ask why we’re still fighting about human sexuality) and, simultaneously, using this issue to fight about something else is unfair in the extreme to those affected: the LGBTQ+ community.

I think that it is hypocritical of those traditionalists who have taken the stance that their position is a “matter of conscience” for which there may be no compromise or compassion for disagreement while seeking to punish clergy who have violated the UMC’s Book of Discipline (by performing same-sex weddings or being a “practicing homosexual,” for instance) as a matter of their own conscience and theological convictions.

I acknowledge and respect that there are compatibilist (meaning, willing to continue to live in fellowship with progressives and others who disagree with their own theology) traditionalists. I wish that they were louder so that they might be better heard over the hardliners.

I acknowledge that there are hardline progressives who want to push any traditionalist element out of the UMC. I find it easier to sympathize with them than with hardline traditionalists given the injustices suffered by the LGBTQ+ community, but I still heartily disagree with their position and retain my preference for inclusion–including those of conservative/traditionalist theology willing to live compatibly with those who disagree.

Nevertheless, I believe that the hardline traditionalists have left no option but for a split in the UMC–my impression of the GC 2019 was that the progressives and centrists mostly (not entirely, but mostly) plead for a way to live together and the traditionalists stated that anyone who didn’t agree with their narrow hermeneutic had no place in the Church.

I argue that the acceptance of people who are not cisgendered, who are not gender-binary, whose gender is not the same as their biological sex, who have transitioned from one biological sex to another or who love someone who is the same gender or sex as them is not a matter of “rewriting Scripture” or of “culture corrupting Christianity.” I would liken it to C.S. Lewis’ “natural law.” Lewis argued that our conscience trying to guide us one way or another is the action of the Holy Spirit within us, that some aspects of wrong and right are known through the direct and personal revelation of God without a need to reference Mosaic or Levitical law. In that sense, I think societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is the Holy Spirit telling us what is right.

Before the arguments on that front begin, I would also argue that a good interpretation of Scripture supports what society is saying about LGBTQ+ acceptance, not vice versa. I’m not going to lay out those arguments here, there are plenty of excellent places to find them (just Google or search Amazon).

If you aren’t aware, an earlier commission of the General Conference (not the Commission on the Way Forward; this was the Committee to Study Homosexuality) gave its report to the 1992 UMC General Conference and made a similar statement (admittedly expressed in the negative form against condemnation rather than a positive assertion for acceptance). The majority report stated:  “The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.” Dorothy Lowe Williams and the United Methodist Church (U.S.) Committee to Study Homosexuality, The Church Studies Homosexuality: A Study for United Methodist Groups Using the Report of the Committee to Study Homosexuality (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1994), 36.

So what do all of these statements and assertions mean with regard to the Protocol?

First, I applaud the ability of some within each of the “factions” within the argument to come together to attempt a compromise. This is an example to us all.

Simultaneously, I think that, as honest Christians, we should lament and own that the best our human nature seems to allow us to do in this situation is to split as amicably as possible. This is choosing the best among terrible scenarios. I think that we can rightly compare this to the standard Methodist outlook on divorce: Divorce is not something that God wants, but our reality in this fallen world is that sometimes divorce is preferable under the circumstances to remaining in a broken and damaging relationship. God will not condemn one who leaves an untenable marriage; neither should we.

At the same time, we need to make clear, as Christians, to the unchurched that this is a result of our inability to fully live into Christ’s example for us, a further reminder that we, too, are in need of God’s grace. That in fact, is why we are Christians, not because of some hubris that allows us to look down our nose at those who are not Christians. I think most Christians agree with that premise but we do a terrible job of owning it and communicating it to others; our perceived arrogance and judgment is a primary source of ridicule and rejection of the Christian faith. That’s not a logical argument, but if we take evangelism seriously, we must admit that sometimes perceptions of us are more important than realities.

To that end, I find myself reluctantly supporting the Protocol. To be honest, I’m growing tired of fighting. I’m seeing less and less value arguing with those who disagree with me, no matter how respectful and genial I can keep myself (which isn’t always very, I admit) and I’m beginning to think that my own efforts are better spent where they will have greater effect, cutting my losses with traditionalists who will never listen to anything that possibly diverges from their established beliefs. Part of me wants to say, “I’ll leave that to God, that’s God’s job, not mine.” But I don’t like quitting, and a church split feels like quitting, even if it is necessary.

I want to point out a few things that I very much appreciate in the Protocol, though. First and foremost, the Protocol seeks to protect the material assets (namely retirement and benefits) of all UMC clergy, regardless of whether they stay or go. I don’t think that it is grace for anyone to test the willingness and ability of another person to follow his or her conscience by increasing the cost of doing so. Removing a choice about whether to keep the benefits one has worked so hard for for so long or to sacrifice all of it for conscience’s sake represents the moral obligations to one another our faith instills within us (or should at least), no matter which “side” you’re on. I sometimes feel drawn to aggressively argue my position against traditionalists, and not always in the kindest of ways, I admit. But I can honestly say that I wish no harm upon those who disagree with me, and the Protocol represents a communal agreement to the same.

Likewise, provisions for allowing local churches to keep their possessions and property will be essential and I very much appreciate the efforts of all parties on that front. If you’ve followed the links above (or the history of the split of any other Christian denomination in the U.S.), you know well how much money and acrimony gets devoted to sorting out property rights, taking resources from the Church’s mission. As an attorney (and a real estate attorney at that), I’m fairly comfortable saying that in much property litigation it’s the attorneys who come out best. This should be avoided at (almost) all costs.

As I mentioned in my first post on the Protocol, I do feel some vindication at the Protocol’s provisions that it is an alternative traditionalist denomination that will be formed. Much of this, I admit, is an emotional (and neither rational nor beneficial) reaction to those at the 2019 GC who seemed to say that the UMC is not my church. It is, and as so many progressives have made clear after the 2019 GC, I will fight for it if forced. But it’s better for everyone if we don’t and I’d much prefer not to be driven to say or do things I might later regret.

Still, I think that the circumstances as a whole make the departure of the traditionalists the more reasonable choice. I understand that neither side wants to leave the UMC; both sides want to claim it for their own. I have some empathy for that; it’s a very human inclination. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is a right answer about who should leave. But my own (again biased) opinion is that, if it is the hardline traditionalists who refuse any compromise that allows us to live together, it seems fair that they be the ones to leave.

As I also mentioned in my first post, the Protocol is not a done deal. I imagine that it, too, like the Traditional and One Church Plans, will come to be hotly contested at the 2020 GC, that some will use Machiavellian maneuvering to attempt to stack the deck in their favor, that hopes will be dashed, that relationships will be broken and that spirits will be disheartened in what is to come. I hope that we can be better than that, we’re called to be as Christians, but experience doesn’t make me want to hold my breath.

Part of me thinks that the hardline traditionalists will never accept the Protocol and that they will attempt instead to do what they did in GC 2019–anything they can to get their way to the exclusion of all else. My greatest fear, if we’re being honest, is that they might succeed.

This fear is born out of my analysis of the flow and procedure of UMC conferences. Having gone through the transcript of the 1972 proceedings that led to the “incompatibility” language in the first place, I think that the condensed time frame and procedural confusion in the body (and leadership) of the Conference had as much to do with the change being passed as anything else. Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of circumstances in the Texas Annual Conference where scheduling and procedure seem to take on a life of their own in determining the course of decisions. Some of that may, of course, be tactical manipulation on the part of very savvy actors. More, though, is simply the difficulty of managing a large group of people, most of whom have no idea how things are supposed to proceed and little understanding of how they’re actually proceeding.

Personally, I think that we should, with great regret and reflection on our corporate failings, push for the approval of the Protocol. If this is a great divorce, then the time has come for us to stop talking about the substance of our disagreements and to start trying to be genial as we handle the administrative tasks necessary to end the relationship. I hate that that’s where I end up, but from my very mortal perception I do not see an alternative. The Spirit could always do something unexpected (though I think that perhaps the Protocol may well be that thing).

The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation

Even if you’re not a United Methodist, you’ve probably seen on any given major news outlet the announcement that “The United Methodist Church is set to split over gay marriage…” (The Washington Post) or something similar. If you’ve gotten more than the headlines, you may have seen that the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” was released today, having been signed on December 17th, 2019.

After you’re done snickering about the irony of the title (I know I did), let’s talk first about what the Protocol is (and isn’t). The Protocol is an agreement in principal between important “players” or “Powers that Be” within the UMC that includes a proposed separation between the more conservative branch of the denomination and the more progressive one. So, this is not binding law, a definitive action, a done deal, or anything final in any respect. The Protocol will need to be turned in to legislation that can be passed at the 2020 General Conference, at which point it can start to take actual effect.

Only sixteen people signed on to the Protocol as those directly involved in the agreement, but they represent much larger groups of likeminded people from large swathes of the Church, some directly, some indirectly. Most importantly, I think that the signatories to the Protocol represent all of the major positions that need to be considered as the Church finds its way forward.

I think it’s reasonable to expect that the Protocol represents an actual “way forward.” Using a well-respected attorney to mediate between the gathered power blocs within the Church, the Protocol represents a plan of separation that (hopefully) avoids litigation and further dispute.

As I’ve written before, my preference would truly be a means for conservatives and progressives to continue to be in fellowship together. That said, human nature being what it is, I (reluctantly) acknowledge that that does not look feasible any more. The Protocol, then, may be our last best hope at a resolution.

Under the Protocol, a traditionalist alternative denomination will be formed. Monetary resources from the UMC will be used to initially fund the denomination (and those churches wishing to move to it by vote will keep the local church property) and all other claims to UMC resources will be waived. That’s a fair and gracious resolution, I think.

I do think that the traditionalist position contributes to injustice in our world when it comes to certain issues–LGTBQ rights and acceptance as a local example of the consequences of a judgmental and literalist interpretive hermeneutic as the global issue is Exhibit A. But I also believe that, on other issues, traditionalists do alleviate suffering, increase justice and diligently serve the Lord. Because of that, I don’t take issue with providing monetary support for an amicable (as possible) separation.

Realistically, though, as I’ve also written before, I think that the traditionalist faction that is created won’t be of lasting significance. Christianity does not have a relevance problem–ours is a faith as meaningful and far-reaching today as it ever has been. But the archaic tradition of a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, the focus on God’s judgment and on making sure everyone “does the right thing” over showing mercy to all people to the greatest extent possible, and the refusal to allow others to be who God created them to be is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s not a result of secular culture imposing a new and heretical view of Biblical authority; it’s a result of humanity’s maturity in its understanding of God and theology as expressed through the careful and well-meaning application of all of the tools God has given us to the interpretation of Scripture and the search for greater understanding of the nature of God as expressed in Jesus Christ.

I also (vaingloriously, I admit) feel vindicated by the fact that it is the traditionalists who will leave. In a previous post, I remarked that the Traditional Plan is untenable in the UMC: even if it narrowly passed at the Called General Conference, the resistance within elements of the UMC (I’d like to include myself in that group, though I have admittedly little influence on the actual shape of things) makes enforcement unfeasible. I feel that the Protocol acknowledges that reality. Is that a useful or edifying feeling? Of course not. But it still feels good.

Most important, though, the Protocol represents a good-faith effort by the various factions to come to an agreement as to how to move forward other than one side trying to force its praxis on the other. That is a testament to an attempt by all involved to genuinely live out their faith in Jesus; a message that our world desperately needs in a time of tribes, “us and them” (of which I’m fully guilty, I admit), and demonization of those who disagree with us.

When the Traditional Plan passed at the GC, those of us who felt dejected and rejected by that decision continued to hold out hope that the Spirit might still work something new in the UMC. I’d like to think that the Protocol is just that. It’s maybe not anyone’s first choice (which probably indicates a reasonable compromise), and it’s not exactly what anyone expected, but it may be exactly what we need.

Part of me wants to end on that note of hope, but it’s too early for that. The Protocol still needs to be turned into an actionable collection of legislation and a plan of amicable (and non-litigious) separation that garners the support of the larger UMC (or at least those who get to vote at General Conference this year). There is much work to be done.

I’ve further expanded my thoughts and provided some additional background to my perspective in a follow-up post available here.

After-Action Report: TAC 2019

This year’s conference was a whirlwind. K got commissioned as a deacon this past Tuesday night in what was a beautiful ceremony with a great sermon by the Bishop. I can’t say how proud of her I am; I just don’t have words for it. That’s something, as this blog is itself proof of my usual verbosity.

Amidst all the doom and gloom surrounding the United Methodist Church of late, I left the conference with more hope than I had upon arrival. It’s a voting year for 2020’s General Conference, so nothing that happened at the 2019 Called Special Session of the General Conference is really set in stone yet. Palpable tension settled upon the conference from the beginning, thickening as we approached the clergy voting session Tuesday morning.

Despite extensive technical issues with the voting system, issues which seemed not to affect the voting results but simply to drag out the process, the clergy muddled through in their first voting session to astounding results.

The Texas Annual Conference had nine spots for delegates to General Conference, an additional nine spots for delegates to our Jurisdictional Conference, and spots for four alternates–this each for clergy and for laity, voted on separately.

At the end of voting (clergy voting had to be continued yesterday morning because of the time it took to fight with the electronic balloting system), the clergy had elected progressive/compatibilist delegates for all but two of the alternates, who were from the Confessing Movement/WCA slate. I’m told with some frequency that the Texas Annual Conference is the most conservative conference of the UMC in the U.S., so this was quite a surprising sea change from our last elections (in 2015). I’m not prepared to say that this represents a majority of clergy favoring full-inclusion, as I don’t know that. I do have confidence that this represents a majority of clergy that want to keep the church together, to be in fellowship in our disagreement with one another on theological issues. I can also soundly say that these elections constituted a firm rejection of the Traditional Plan’s passage at the 2019 GC.

A quick note on the word “compatibilist”: it is used within this context (and I believe within the UMC as a whole at present) to mean someone who supports maintaining the unity of the Church despite our theological differences. There are compatibilists on both sides of both the sexuality issue and the issues of theology and scriptural interpretation that underlie that more visible issue.

The laity elections, on the other hand, went exactly the opposite. You will recall, I imagine, that I ran as a lay candidate for the 2020 General Conference this year. As both a staunch progressive and a staunch compatibilist, I had the honor of being part of the “That We May Be One” slate of candidates. Despite having about 45-percent of the lay votes, we were soundly defeated by the traditionalist/Confessing/WCA contingent, electing only two alternates among the 22 total spots for GC and JC. I was not among those elected.

As much of a beating as the election itself felt, the numbers still give me hope. If the lay delegates of the Texas Annual Conference are still forty-five percent on the side of keeping the Church together and finding a way forward in unity, and if we are in fact the most conservative of the U.S. Annual Conferences, I think we’re in for a very interesting delegation to 2020 GC.

Voting this year also pointed out to me a great problem with the Book of Discipline structure of the UMC.

Under the current rules, each delegate gets to vote a number of times equal to the open spots being voted for. So, if we’re voting for 9 GC delegates, each voting member of the conference (again, separated between laity and clergy) gets nine votes.

But each vote must be for a different candidate. To be elected, a candidate needs 50% of the votes cast during that ballot. So, if a group controls 50% of the votes, they will, minor anomalies aside, control all of the delegates elected. This is exactly what happened in our voting this year.

The solution is simple: we go to corporate-style voting. Under corporate voting, each delegate would get nine votes if there are nine spots. But these votes could be allocated between candidates however the voter wishes. So, a voter could give all nine votes to the same candidate. This would ensure that a minority group could get some representation to GC while also maintaining the ability of a majority group to have the majority of the spots. In other words, the results of the election would be a more representative slice of the annual conference the elected delegates are supposed to represent.

Except that they’re not. Delegates are expected to “vote their conscience” at the General Conference and are not actually given any duty to represent those who elected them. On the one hand, this makes sense, as we’re (sometimes) talking about sensitive theological and moral questions. But the practical reality is that it means we’ve essentially taken the worst parts of the American-style democracy on which the UMC governance is based to form our electoral system and the expectations of the delegates to our legislative body.

There’s no fixing this right now. Elections are happened, these rules would have to be changed by the General Conference, and the 2020 GC already has enough on its plate. But this is something to consider for the future of the UMC if we are (as I continue to hope we will be able to) able to keep it together or the successor denominations if we are not.

During the evening session of laity voting, I had a somewhat contentious conversation with an older, conservative lay delegate. I tried to be civil–but did not succeed as well as I should have. Nevertheless, I want to bring up a few points we discussed in case they are common to others or some of my readers encounter them in the future.

The first argument that this man made were that “sociology” (he meant “social issues” rather than the soft science discipline) and theology should be kept separate, as they are separate things.

I could not disagree more. In the immediate, issues of social justice, the treatment of others, who we marry and ordain, and how we view our morality (if we are going to rely on the argument that morality is absolute and comes from God) all soundly fit within the realm of theology. More broadly, if our goal is truly to follow Christ and to “become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect,” everything is theology. I’ll probably write a full post to treat that issue.

But we cannot separate our politics or our social beliefs from our faith. That’s a careful line to walk for me, because I both believe that my faith should guide my politics and that there ought to be a separation of religion and government. This also merits a full post (or a book!) to treat fully. For now, suffice to say that I do not believe that we compartmentalize our social or political and spiritual beliefs when they are contradictory. In my opinion, the conservative Evangelical right as a political force in this country is emblematic of what happens when we do compartmentalize.

The second argument–really a statement of belief–that the man made was that the sexuality issue is “destroying our church.” I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I’m sure that this man and I have very different ideas about the why and how. More important, the principal factor that guides us should be, “what is God calling us to,” not “will this change the institution to which I am accustomed.” I realize that this argument could be used to suggest that the UMC should split, but I believe that we are called to unity in addition to social justice and must attempt as best we can to walk that line.

As I mentioned above, the clergy voting seems an indication of a desire to walk that line. The laity voting, not so much. We would do well to continue to ask ourselves, “Are we destroying the Church?” I don’t know that there’s a right answer to that question, and it’s the one that must inevitably follow that I care about most: “Whatever we’re doing, are we doing it out of an earnest desire to follow after Jesus and live out the Gospels for a world in desperate need of the Good News, or are we pushing our own agendas, propping up our own senses of identity, reshaping our Christianity to fit our preconceived notions, or adapting those notions in light of our faith?” There are no easy answers here, nor should there be.

 

Texas Annual Conference 2019 – A Fiery Start

K and I arrived at the Hilton of the Americas this afternoon at about 4:30, just ahead of the start of our annual “meetings vacation” (her term; she likes meetings way more than me). By good fortune, we managed to avoid the long line to check into the hotel–turns out there’s an app for that now. The future is here.

Of course, checking in remotely didn’t get us a room key, and the app told us we’d have to present ID at the desk to use the phone as a key. I took a chance and asked the concierge whether she could check our IDs and give us phone access to our room. She didn’t seem to be aware that that was a thing, but she was able to make us a physical keycard, so no harm no foul. In the middle of her programming the keycard, she got a phone call. After a few short words exchanged, she apologized to me and made another phone call. I overheard something about a car being on fire on the side of the building. About that time a fire truck rushed by outside.

In all honesty, I didn’t think much of it. I took the keycard and went to check that it worked before K stepped out of the line for check-in. Once inside the room, I first sent a text to Kate telling her that she could meet me upstairs. Then, I sent a message to a colleague asking for confirmation that our 5:30 meeting was still on. She responded with, “The building is on fire.” A non-sequitur if ever I’ve seen one.

I looked out the window from the hotel room and could see black smoke billowing skyward, a disturbingly dense cloud. I left the room in hopes of meeting K and found her coming down the hallway toward me, determinedly, and with her face held tense as she does whenever she worries. “We need to leave. I see smoke,” she said, matter-of-factly.

I went back into the room, grabbed my briefcase with my computer, and we decided to take the stairs. The Hilton of the Americas has internal stairwells as wide as the Champs Elysee, if you didn’t know–and we had them all to ourselves. It wasn’t until we reached the first floor that we heard the fire alarms: piercingly high-pitched and all but irrelevant at that point.

We made a beeline outside, where we were able to confirm that, yes, there was a fire. But it wasn’t actually the hotel, but the parking garage across the street and the skybridge between the two buildings. The parking garage, mind you, where we’d parked our car an hour earlier.

The smoke on the street, couple with the crowds and the multitude of firetrucks, quickly proved unpleasant. We decided to journey a few blocks away and find a place to take refuge. We chose the site of our impending meeting and ended up having a pleasant dinner with great company (which is usual for TAC).

The fire was taken care of in due time, with little permanent damage. The skybridge was reopened, our car and all of clothes (which had remained inside while we got checked in) and everything else turned out fine. The opening worship ceremony was delayed by fifteen minutes, but other than that, everything proceeded as normal.

It’s election year, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m running as a delegate to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, with idealistic hopes of finding some middle ground that can bring inclusion and some amount of justice to my LGBTQ brethren and sistren while preserving the unity of the denomination. It’s a tall order, and the deck isn’t stacked in my favor. Let’s just hope our fiery welcome was not an omen.

More to come…

Voter Fraud is Real! (But Not Where You Think)

I came into the office this morning to begin knocking out my Friday tasks to find an article from the New York Times (click here) detailing voter fraud at the 2019 UMC General Conference.

So far, four fraudulent votes–all against full inclusion–have been discovered. They originate from discrepancies between who voted and who was actually a delegate from the South Congo Conference. One, Phillipe Kasap Kachez, was not a delegate and resides in Brussels but voted as a delegate from South Congo. When asked why, he said that his father–UMC Bishop Kasap Owan–asked him to attend and vote against inclusion (the NYT article contains more direct language but, as the origin of the quotation is questionable, I have not included it).

There was a call from the floor of GC expressing concern about fraudulent voting and asking for investigation. I’m not sure what, if anything, came from the referral to the Ethics Committee that followed. While GC is not in session, the Ethics Committee does not have jurisdiction to investigate, nor are there provisions within the Book of Discipline for dealing with fraudulent or unethical activity in the polity’s legislative process.

Except for cases where clergypersons orchestrated the fraud, I’m not interested in finding a way to punish those who fraudulently participated. I find no utility in that effort. I am, however interested in the truth of what happened and why. Certainly, most of the supporters of the (Modified) Traditional Plan acted and comported themselves in good faith and with honest intent. I may find that intent misguided at best, but I’ve no reason to doubt their sincerity of belief or commitment to following the Book of Discipline in how resolution is reached.

There are those on the conservative side who have been maneuvering politically and playing Machiavellian games to further their goals. That’s not against the letter of the rules (and so not actionable in any way), but it is against the spirit of them. There have been progressives doing the same thing, I’m sure, but my bias prevents me from picking up on that to the same extent.

What the NYT has revealed, however, is on another level. The willingness to commit violations of the trust and fellowship established by the UMC in order to win an issue that they’re afraid they can’t win by honest means is deplorable and should be denounced by all members of the Church, regardless of position on homosexuality or the Traditional Plan versus the One Church Plan.

The NYT reports a 54-vote margin on “the vote against gay clergy and same-sex marriage.” I’m not sure which specific vote this refers to, but the margin between most of the votes was similar. Four fraudulent votes are not enough to change the result by the numbers, but they are enough to throw the whole process into question. It remains to be discovered if more fraudulent activity will be brought to light, but this news does not bode well. The votes also raise the specter of other fraudulent or nefarious activity behind the scenes that may have influenced voting in ways other than improperly cast votes.

I favor removal from office for any bishop shown to have participated in such a breach of trust of the polity. Again, this is not a matter of punishment, per se. With the issue already as divisive as it is, it becomes even more important to protect the integrity of the process by which we reach a decision. Anyone who can be shown to have willfully violated that process should be removed from participation to protect the process itself.

Additionally, we must proceed with caution. These allegations, and those that follow (if any), cannot be fairly imputed to the entirety of the conservative or “traditional” position. It is important that we identify who was involved so that we can protect and respect the integrity of those who were not.

I am curious to see how the leaders of the conservative wing of the UMC respond to this revelation. The bishops have already hired an outside consulting firm (which makes it sound excitingly like Sherlock Holmes, but don’t get your hopes up) to investigate the affairs at General Conference.

The 2019 General Conference, it seems, has created more problems than it has solved.

Heartbreak and Hope

I have waited several days to write this post in hopes that that would give my emotions and chance to settle so that I could write from a place of reason, reflection and respect rather than one based upon frustration and anger. Even now, I’m not sure the extent to which that’s actually possible, but I’ve decided not to wait and to do my best.

A short summary of events for those who were unable to get the play-by-play: On Sunday, the delegates ranked each petition submitted to the Conference by “high priority” or “low priority,” creating a ranked list that established the order in which petitions (or bundles of petitions in the case of the plans) would be reviewed. The highest priority issue for the delegates: pensions. Not whether we could keep the Church together, but whether we’d protect the retirement funds of those who decide to leave. Not a good sign. The Traditional Plan ranked next, followed by two “disaffiliation plans” (read: exit plans), only then followed by the One Church Plan.

On Monday, to satisfy procedural requirements that all petitions first pass through a Legislative Committee, the entire body of the General Conference met as that Legislative Committee to determine what the delegates would actually vote on come Tuesday. The Traditional Plan was relatively quickly passed on to the general body by a vote of 461 to 359. The two disaffiliation plans were sent onward. By vote of 436 to 386 (about 53% to 47%), the One Church Plan was kept from moving forward.

The UMC’s Judicial Council (the church law version of a Supreme Court) determined that a number of provisions in the Traditional Plan violated the UMC constitution (to be fair, there were several provisions in the One Church Plan also found to be unconstitutional). Many efforts were made to amend the Traditional Plan at the conference to pass constitutional muster, but it doesn’t seem that this was effective. Those parts of the plan that are constitutional will (most likely) become church law, for the time being.

The more punitive of the “exit plans” was also passed, one which would extensively reduce the resources of any church that decided to leave. I have heard both that the exit plans were submitted so that the Weslayan Covenant Association members and others could leave the UMC if they didn’t like the result at GC and as a measure to undermine the will of progressives to fight by making it easy for them to leave. I think both were true and, when the very-well-organized conservatives saw how things were going with the Traditional Plan early in the conference, they reasoned that they might be able to take control of the church as a whole and keep the majority of the resources for themselves when progressives left as they were urged to. This is, of course, speculation.

I watched the vast majority of the General Conference 2019 as it happened. I hoped and prayed for a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit to change the trajectory of the conference. While I’m extremely unhappy with the result of the Conference, I know that God often surprises us and moves in ways we do not expect. I remain faithful that what is true and right will prevail in the end and I, for one, remain committed to the United Methodist Church and for advocating that the UMC become a place of inclusion and not rejection, an arm of the greater catholic church that spreads the love of God through Jesus Christ in a manner that accurately reflects that love instead of relying on ignorance and human stubbornness to suborn holy scripture for the isolation and judgment of others.

In the meantime, I am embarrassed to be a United Methodist. I am embarrassed that, any time I want to discuss my faith with others and reveal my denominational affiliation, I must overcome a presumption of bigotry. I am embarrassed that this General Conference did more to support the stereotype of Christians as dogmatic, unthinking zealots who care more about their own feigned self-righteousness than anything else it might have accomplished. I am embarrassed that a very slim majority has overshadowed the fast-growing minority to the greater populace.

My personal experience of the General Conference returned me to my teenage years. I spent a long time in high school and college wondering if I really was a Christian, because those who taught me in Sunday School told me that I had to believe particular things that I could not to be a Christian. The loudest voices among the traditionalists on the floor of conference essentially argued that one must believe that homosexuality is a sin to belong in the United Methodist Church, perhaps even to call yourself a Christian. Others were smarter than to say such things aloud, but I wonder whether they’re thinking them. Still, such sentiments cannot be fairly imputed to all traditionalists or conservatives, and we did hear speeches on the floor of the Conference from conservatives willing to maintain unity with progressives and willing to hold to their beliefs while showing grace to those who disagree. I very much appreciated that kind of honesty and humility.

The speeches from the floor of the Conference did much to reveal the nature of the two sides of the homosexuality issue. The progressives came willing to compromise, saying, “Let’s use the One Church Plan to continue to live in productive fellowship despite our theological differences, because that diversity should not be viewed as blessing and not a curse.” The conservatives came saying, “We are right, you are wrong, and there’s no room for discussion.” In my mind, that behavior demonstrates the flaws in the conservative position as much the lack of careful consideration and reason in their theology. The progressives made arguments for unity; where they provided support for the reasonableness of their position, they pleaded only for understanding sufficient enough to acknowledge the slimmest possibility that their theology could be right, just enough to live in fellowship with them. These arguments were varied and drew upon scripture, logic, experience and tradition. The conservatives only brought the refrain, “the Bible says homosexuality is wrong and that’s all there is to it; we cannot allow impurity into our church.” Get in line, or get out.

That the conservatives had the presumption to make the General Conference a zero-sum game and then to complain that we’re collectively right back where we started before the GC despite all of the effort and resources put into the Commission on a Way Forward and the Special Session of the General Conference, frankly, appalls me. I just cannot find sympathy for those who refuse any resolution but their own way and then complain that they didn’t get everything they wanted–even when, on paper at least, they did.

Likewise, I find some irony in conservatives complaining that they have been called hypocrites by those who believe that Traditional Plan and the values that accompany it are immoral when the thrust of their action and exclusivity is based on their precept that homosexuality is immoral. They want to play the righteousness card for themselves, but they don’t like it when others want to play it against them. This, I think, is the microcosm of making personal holiness the linchpin of one’s faith, the very reason we are warned not to judge, lest ye be judged. I have things to write about this specifically, but I think they’re better saved for another post.

But this is a good time to temper things a little bit in fairness. As I mentioned above, not all conservatives are unreasonable, and it’s unfair to demonize them on any personal level, particularly as a generality. It is one thing to say that they have been lead into hypocrisy and away from what Jesus calls us to by well-intentioned misguidedness; it is another to say that they are evil. I do not believe the latter. To my mind, their dilemma is a failure of understanding, not a matter of malice. This is why I remain willing to be in fellowship with conservatives just as I vehemently oppose their values on this topic. There is far more that we agree about than that we don’t, I think, and I can’t think of a single traditionalist with whom I’m familiar about whom I would not readily say that they genuinely want to walk closer to Christ–and many of them do a better job of it in practice than I do. As much as I’m heartbroken by the feeling that they’ve by and large told even I–who is not part of the LGBTQ community directly but who believes strongly in its inclusion within the Church–am also unwelcome, I’m not interested in giving up on them or our relationship. And I still don’t think that some form of schism leaves us “better off.”

I also want to say that there were people on both sides who behaved badly. And there were people on both sides who set amazing and especially-Christian examples of respect and love for those who disagree with them. Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of the General Conference was that there was not more of that to be found.

Despite the great harm that was suffered by the LGBTQ community and its supporters at the General Conference, I did manage to find some hope. I’d refer you to two high points directly:

JJ Warren Speaks From the Floor
Adam Hamilton Speaks Against the Traditional Plan

The presence of so many rainbow-stole-wearing supporters of full inclusion at the conference brought great joy to my heart. As Rev. Hamilton opined, the conservative approach to General Conference has inspired and mobilized both progressives and centrists who had not previously been active in their support of full inclusion. This gives me hope.

Additionally, as I argued in my post, The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy, the passage of the Traditional Plan will not accomplish what the conservatives wanted to accomplish–at least not fully. In very conservative conferences such as the one to which I belong (the Texas Annual Conference), unless the entire TP is struck down by the Judicial Council, there will be increased opportunities to marginalize and punish members of the UMC who are also members of the LGBTQ community (particularly if they’re also clergy or want to become clergy) as well as their supporters. But in those annual conferences already committed not to play the conservatives’ inquisitorial games, the passage of the Traditional Plan won’t change that.

The numbers from GC are also inspiring. The margins by which votes for the Traditional Plan and Exit Plans passed (and conversely, by which the OCP failed) were far narrower than expected. Traditional wisdom (at least in my part of the country) would be that the vote should have been about two-thirds to one-third. The Good New Network, the WCA and other conservative organizations within the UMC are well-funded and highly mobilized. The numbers from GC2019 show a very different story. To be fair, the voting numbers alone remain somewhat opaque–it’s impossible to parse out who voted against the Traditional Plan or for the One Church Plan because they are progressives in favor of full inclusion, because they are conservatives who value unity more than passing “their” plan (as if there is no diversity amongst the conservatives at all), or for some other reason. But that combined will is a voice that must be respected. Even with passing the Traditional Plan, if the conservatives do not realize that the tide is changing, and faster than they would like to think, there will be some rude awakenings in the near future.

I’ll conclude with this: a friend of mine who is not a Christian asked me this week why it was so important that we don’t split when there’s clearly so much disagreement within the church. I told him that part of our core witness as Christians is that God, the Creator of all things, is fundamentally about love and relationship. If we cannot demonstrate love and relationship between Christians in our own denomination, who can we convince those who are not believers of the truth we know but fail to practice?

 

The End of the Beginning

(This is the 9th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge. Please continue to repost, link, and send your friends my way!)

(The picture above is graciously provided by K, who is attending the Called General Conference as a witness for full inclusion.)

Today the Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church begins to determine the fate of the denomination. Many of us have waited with bated breath to see if these events will unfurl with justice and unity or unravel into division and fractiousness. After nearly fifty years of debate since the institution of anti-homosexual language into the first UMC Book of Discipline (by amendment from a layperson from the floor of the conference, against the advice of the committee who had prepared the language for the BoD) in 1972, there finally seems to be a move toward resolution of the issue.

But this is not the first time such a resolution has been broached–the General Conference established in 1988 a “Committee to Study Homosexuality” (which included no person who identified as belonging to the LGTBQ community) to report to the General Conference in 1992. The report included agreement by the Committee on four points: (1) the seven references to homosexuality in the Bible are artifacts of ancient culture and not definitive expressions of the will of God; (2) Homosexuality is a normal sexual variation which can be expressed in a healthy way; (3) the Church should affirm committed and monogamous homosexual relationships; (4) God’s grace is visible in the life of lesbian and gay Christians.

The majority report from the Committee stated the following:

“The present state of knowledge and insight in the biblical, theological, ethical, biological, psychological and sociological fields does not provide a satisfactory basis upon which the church can responsibly maintain the condemnation of all homosexual practice.

The same year that this Committee reported, the General Conference voted 3 to 1 to affirm the language: “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Since 1972, but particularly in the years since the 2016 General Conference, both conservatives and progressives have been maneuvering for advantage in the moment that is now, finally, at hand. Some of the loudest voices on the conservative side, such as Reverend Rob Renfroe at The Woodlands UMC, have long been advocates of a church split. Members of the Weslayan Covenant Association, the Good News Network and other conservative organizations have spent as much time pushing for a “graceful exit strategy” as for their conservative position; this is my mind has always been a strategy to make it easier for progressives to leave rather than advocate for justice rather than a real measure of grace. As one of the speakers at the last Texas Annual Conference argued (in paraphrase): “When your marriage is in trouble, you don’t begin the conversation with: ‘here’s our divorce plan if we can’t work things out, now let’s talk about the issue.'”

Unless some unforeseen and unlikely change happens over the next few days, the choice really comes down to the One Church Plan and the “Modified” Traditional Plan.

Under the One Church Plan, annual conferences will be able to decide whether they want to allow LGBTQ clergy, each pastor will be able to decide whether to perform LGBTQ marriages, and each congregation will be able to decide whether to host LGBTQ marriages in their facilities while, at the same time, no clergyperson may be forced to go against his or her conscience and perform a ceremony they do not want to perform.

Under the Traditional Plan, we maintain the status quo except to spend more time, energy and money on church trials for those who advocate for full inclusion.

I have written about both plans on this blog and rehashing them is not the point of this post.

Instead, I want to remind readers that the next few days, regardless of what happens, are not the end of the matter, but another beginning.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that, through both human agency and the movement of the Holy Spirit, the One Church Plan will pass. It is not a panacea and does not give the LGTBQ community the vindication and respect they are owed, but it is a step in the right direction that helps to maintain the unity of the UMC.

Regardless of the result, some congregations will leave the Church. At least some of those who remain will view the events of this Called General Conference as a “loss” for their “side.” There will be hurt feelings, fear, disappointment, anger–and another General Conference in 2020 where, depending upon what happens in the next few days, there may be an attempt to undo what happens in this Called Conference and/or a need to find a way to allow the exit of some congregations without the decades of litigation that have followed the split of other denominations.

Regardless of result, there will be an increased need for Christians of all theologies within the UMC to do what all Christians are called to do–to love their neighbors, to show grace to others, and to be agents of peace and reconciliation, not causes of discord nor gloaters in some imagined “victory.”

As such, no one should view the next few days as the end of anything, only another step in the path. For those who, like myself, are progressives with theologies of full inclusion, there will be a very difficult line to walk if the One Church Plan passes. We will need to continue to advocate for the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters within the Church while showing grace to conservatives and ensuring that they remain welcome and valued members of the UMC. We are much more than our positions on homosexuality and related issues, and the people involved in this debate, regardless of position, are well-meaning with the intention of seeking after Christ in a genuine and faithful manner. There is much good done in the name of Christ by the conservatives, even if I wholeheartedly believe that their actions regarding human sexuality have been misguided at best. I am proud to call them my brothers and sisters in Christ.

How do we progressives walk this fine line of the One Church Plan passes? I must admit that I do not know. But I do know that we must seize opportunities for reconciliation, healing, and increased respect and understanding between the conservatives and the progressives in the wake of the Called Conference. Even as we wait for events to unfold over the next few days, we must remember that our work is far from done and that there will be much of great import to do in the days that follow as we try to bring the Kingdom of Heaven a little bit closer to Earth.

The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy

When the United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops presented their initial proposals for the upcoming called session of the Church’s General Conference in February, the “Traditional” Plan was not slated to actually go to discussion and vote before the Conference.

Through political maneuvering through the Judicial Council of the Church (the UMC’s version of a supreme court) by certain conservative leaders within the UMC, judgment was rendered that the Traditional Plan must be presented before the GC if a petition for it to be included is made. From the perspectives of jurisprudence and polity within the UMC, that is absolutely the right call. But it ignores the reason that the Commission on a Way Forward and the Bishops did not include it as potential legislation in their report–it isn’t a way forward.

To a certain extent, I understand the conservatives’ frustration with the Commission and the Bishops: the delay claimed for the need to translate the report before making it public–and the delay in even getting that process started–seems to indicate unhelpful politicking on all sides of the issue. Uncollaborative work only hurts the Church as a whole without benefitting either side at this point.

On the other hand, I vehemently disagree with the conservative complaint that the Commission and Bishops didn’t really provide a way forward, they just gave us the same plan that’s been offered and failed many times before. The conclusion of the Commission after deliberation and prayerful investigation is itself a message–the way forward must be one of compromise, and the fact that conservative elements within the Church have remained implacable in their position does not mean that they should get their way. The “same old thing” is the “same old thing” because nothing else has changed–the conservatives’ best offering for a “way forward” is that we do everything the way we’ve always done it, we just spend more time (and congregants’ money) prosecuting those clergy who disobey the Book of Discipline on moral grounds.

The cynical side of me sees the greater strategy here: conservatives have decided that they have two ways to win: (1) get the Traditional Plan passed at the called General Conference or (2) insure that nothing else gets passed. The fight to get the Traditional Plan included at General Conference is really an effort to avoid honestly coming to the table with progressives at all, not really a matter of what is fair and just. As a lawyer, I’m well familiar with the difference between legal and just.

Conservatives understand that, if nothing happens at the called GC, many progressives will give up on the UMC and leave–which is what the conservatives have wanted all along. See Woodlands UMC senior pastor Rob Renfroe’s book, Are We Really Better Together? An Evangelical Perspective on the Division in the UMC, for a clear example of this. If it is the progressives that leave, the case for conservatives to keep the United Methodist Church name–and perhaps the greater part of collective Church assets–will be stronger.

I’ll also note that, in my observation (for what that’s worth), it has been the conservatives who have been most concerned with ensuring in advance that “graceful exit” language is included in any proposed legislation before the GC. I do not believe that this is about the conservatives’ fear that they will have to sacrifice assets and property if things don’t go their way, it’s about trying to make it easier for the progressives to leave. The progressive–and even the majority at the Texas Annual Conference in May–response has been that “we’re not there yet, and that’s not how you start the conversation when you’re trying to keep everyone together.”

Also in my experience, some of the most conservative Methodists I know are also deeply concerned with reaching the unchurched and the younger generations. They should be, as all Christians should be, but I must note some irony when they want to simultaneously be attractive to younger seekers and maintain what those seekers see as at best an unjust position and at worst a hypocrisy.

As I’ve said before, the societal belief about whether homosexuality is morally wrong or not is not determinative of the objective position established by God. On the other hand, there is legitimate theological argument in favor of not viewing homosexuality as sin, and history gives us numerous examples of Christianity being used to support systems and ideas ultimately determined to be immoral (and thus un-Christian). Since neither side can determinatively prove its position, the statement of being unwilling to see that someone else–even another Christian–might be right about something with which you disagree plays right into the hands of stereotypes of Christians that should not be true (but often are). That’s not going to be enticing to seekers of younger generations, who–despite all the talk about their “relative morality”–tend to have a strong sense of right and wrong and a significant allergy to perceived hypocrisy (real or imagined).

So the split within the UMC, even if it leaves the conservatives holding most of the cards, does not mean a resurgence of conservativism among Methodists–it means a slow death lamenting the “way it used to be.” While there will always be conservative Christians and theologians, and there always should be for us to honestly and eagerly explore theological issues, the Methodist Church is not on the more conservative side of most issues (at least not within our Social Principles), making the conservative position on homosexuality stand out more than seem to be in line with the rest of Methodist positions. This regressivism matches a certain political movement in our country largely based in privilege and the fear of sharing with others.

The Judicial Council will decide this month on the constitutionality of all three plans to be sent to the called General Conference in February. With regard to the Traditional Plan, the only real question of constitutionality falls on the modifications proposed to the status quo–enhanced enforcement and prosecution. But the Council’s decision on this doesn’t really matter. Eight UMC Annual Conferences (Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific, Desert Southwest, New England, New York, Northern Illinois and Oregon-Idaho) have already passed resolutions collectively refusing to participate in trials of homosexual clergy or clergy who perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The Virginia Annual Conference voted in favor of full inclusion for LGBTQ members and to allow both LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages, despite the Book of Discipline, the Judicial Council or the General Conference.

In purposefully electing the first openly-gay bishop in the UMC (Bishop Karen Oliveto), the Western Jurisdictional Conference opted to ignore sexual orientation as an appropriate qualification for clergy.

With this intentional civil disobedience, the Traditional Plan could not be enforced across the US UMC jurisdictions. It’s dead on arrival, a guaranteed split in the church.

To be fair, there are plenty on the progressive side of the issue who have done much to make some form of compromise and reconciliation impossible. We, too (at least corporately), are responsible for the conference-stopping protests at recent General Conferences, the demonization of conservatives, and a refusal to make any compromise in place of “total victory” (which, let’s be honest, is not a thing here at all, regardless of result).

The Methodist doctrine expressed in the Book of Discipline prefers that decisions in the governance (of the local church at the committee level, at least) be made through discernment and consensus-building rather than through purely political democratic vote.

And perhaps that’s the real problem here. While the Book of Discipline does allow us to follow a “take a vote, majority wins” approach, it also understands that that approach is not the best way for the church to operate–without some consensus-building and compromise, the only option is winner-take-all politics. Even if you don’t find that ideologically troublesome in the church-context, the history of the question of human sexuality in The United Methodist Church since 1972 is ample evidence that a tyrannical rule of the majority can’t solve this problem.

A vote for the Traditional Plan in February will not end the issue, it will only force the issue by insisting that there is no place for progressive Christians within the UMC. The same is true of the “no result” strategy, as I’ve discussed above. So why aren’t we calling the Traditional Plan what it really is–the “No Compromise Doctrine”? It’s been clearly articulated outside of the “official” channels of the church, so why not be honest about it within the polity?

 

Counting the Cost: (Legal) Consequences of a Split in the United Methodist Church (in Texas)

As both theologian and lawyer, I tend to view the threatened (or impending, depending upon how fatalistic you’d like to be) split in the Methodist Church from a number of angles–but no single thread (to mix my metaphors) can easily be untangled from the others.

The report of the Commission on a Way Forward has beed released–though not officially by the Council of Bishops as translation has not been completed. I’ll discuss that in a separate post.

For now, I want to talk about the legal landscape, particularly in Texas, and what that might mean if the UMC does split after the General Conference in February. I’ll try not to get too much into the details (though feel free to post comments or send me a message and I can point you to some resources) and to keep things on a relatively-plain-English tone.

Preface and Disclaimer

This post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. I make no claim to be familiar with the current state of law regarding church property disputes in its entirety–with ongoing litigation across the nation, such a comprehensive approach would be extremely time-consuming at best.

This post is instead meant to provide some background information to support the exhortation and conclusion that follows.

Lessons from the Past

In a recent opinion from the Fort Worth Court of Appeals (Episcopal Church v. Salazar, to which I’ll return shortly), the Court noted that “church property disputes [and schisms] are as old as any church.”

Recent memory has given us the split in the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church (over similar issues to those currently facing the UMC). As the styling of the case betrays, Salazar involves the dispute between The Episcopal Church and local parish churches arising out of the split within that denomination.

Salazar is emblematic of the cost of church disputes over property that spill into the courts for resolution. The initial litigation in the Salazar appeal began in 2009! The most recent opinion in the case (given in April of this year) is on the second appeal from the trial court–the case was heard by Supreme Court of Texas in 2014, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear appeal from that court, and the case returned for new procedings in the trial court before being appealed again (resulting in the opinion to which I’ll refer in this post).

That alone is indicative of the cost–in money, time, effort, heartache and reputation–that has accompanied the Episcopal Church’s litigation in the aftermath of its split. Nine years without a decisive resolution, the attorney’s fees quickly stacking up against the value of the properties in dispute (though, given the number of properties involved in this case and a lack of access to attorney billing records, it’s impossible to know exactly how much has been spent and how that compares to the value of the things in dispute). And Salazar is hardly alone; it is but one of similar cases tracking through the legal system across the country.

Why Does the Episcopal Church Example Matter to Methodists?

The answer here is relatively simple: both the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church have, within the documents that constitute the church law of each, a “trust clause” that essentially indicates that the local churches hold their property in trust for the greater denomination. In the Episcopal Church’s case, the diocese in which the church sits; for the Methodists, the conference of which the church is a member.

For reasons I’ll describe below, the Episcopal Church’s trust clause makes for a simpler legal case than the Methodist clause–though I do not dare say that it is a simple case for the Episcopal Church, as the breadth of litigation clearly demonstrates.

The Law of Decision – Up for Grabs

The nation’s courts tend to be split between two approaches to handling church property disputes. The first is called the neutral principles of law doctrine. Under this approach, the court looks solely to state property (and business/trust) law and secular records of ownership to determine the “rightful” owner of any particular property. Currently, this is what the Texas Supreme Court has determined is the proper approach.

The alternative approach, given various names but which we’ll call the deferential approach, is a result of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Under long-established First Amendment principles, the Courts must refrain from interfering in or determining the internal affairs of a religious institution (this itself called the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine).

Under ecclesiastical abstention, a Court must not take any part in a dispute that arises out of doctrine, theology, internal matters of faith or leadership and governance issues within the religious organization, because doing so could be the state “establishing” a government-sponsored religion by approving one side over the other. This is, rightly, I believe, a core component of freedom of religion in this nation.

The important thing to understand about the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and thus the deferential approach, is that it means that the court must defer to the determination of the higher denominational authority as the deciding factor in disputes where the court’s involvement would infringe upon First Amendment rights. Essentially, this means that the denomination gets what it wants when there is a dispute with a local church. In the case of trust clause litigation, it means that the denomination wins issues of property ownership against local churches nearly every time.

As an aside, I should note that we’re only discussing matters of civil (as opposed to criminal) law here–the legal history of criminalization (or not) of religious behavior is another long story best kept discrete from this issue.

For the neutral principles of law approach to be applicable, a Court must determine that the dispute does not involve the sorts of internal religious matters that require obeisance to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

Other cases resulting from the dissolution of the Episcopal Church will be heard by the Supreme Court in the near future (though probably not before the UMC’s called General Conference). While this should provide some guidance for the resolution of future church property disputes, that also means that the ultimate decision will be determined in part by the current politics affecting SCOTUS. With the loss of Justice Kennedy and his likely replacement by a staunchly conservative judge, I think it’s likely that the United States Supreme Court will favor the deferential approach, though the opinion that comes down will ideally also include guidance as to when the netural principles approach may be safely employed. Of course, I have no crystal ball, and my own legal practice does not involve the close tracking of Supreme Court politics, so this is merely speculation.

The bigger issue (for local churches, at least) in the case of the Methodist Church is just how much our trust clause seems to mandate the deferential approach.

Comparing Clauses

The Episcopal Church’s trust clause (known popularly as the Dennis Canon) is a mere two sentences that simply states that local churches hold their property in trust for the greater Episcopal Church. This plain language allowed Texas courts to apply the neutral principles of law approach to disputes over property ownership without fear of First Amendment infringements (though it should be noted that the courts have abstained from addressing certain subissues briefed by the parties because they do involve internal church affairs).

The United Methodist Book of Discipline’s trust clause (Paragraph 2501) describes our trust clause as “an essential element of the historic polity” of the UMC and a “fundamental expression of United Methodism.” These phrases, along with the rest of the language of the UMC trust clause, quite firmly push our property ownership issues into grounds of doctrine and polity that may not be interfered with by the courts.

It is one thing to say that this simply means that the greater UMC will win against local churches in property disputes, but it also means that the courts will only reluctantly interject themselves in the dispute at all (though when they do, if my assessment is correct, they will ultimately side with the enforcement of the trust clause).

Thinking About Salazar

When I was first made aware of the Salazar case, it was described to me as indicating that “Texas had found the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to be unenforceable.”

That is partially correct, but only partially. The steps go like this: (1) The Court determined that the neutral principles of law approach applied. (2) Turning to Texas trust law, the Court determined that only the settlor (the grantor of property to a trust) may establish a trust relationship–a declaration by a putative beneficiary of the trust (as in the Dennis Canon) is not alone sufficient to create a trust relationship. (3) Thus, the Court stated that it must look to the language of the deeds conveying the property and to the governing documents of an intermediary non-profit organization that held some of the property to determine if a trust relationship had been properly created under Texas law. (4) In some cases, the Court determined that it had and property was awarded to the Episcopal Church; in others, the Court found no such trust relationship and awarded property to the local church(es). (5) In giving the Salazar opinion, the appellate Court did not reach certain additional issues that might change the distribution of property after the initial legal determinations described in (4). In particular, the Court did not reach teh Episcopal Church’s argument for constructive trust, a remedy that a court may apply under the right circumstances to deem that a bad actor, though having legal title to property, is really holding that property in trust for the plaintiff as matter of equity, thus transferring ownership to the plaintiff.

So, the following points are important to consider when we Methodists look to Salazar and other Episcopal Church litigation in trying to determine the future in the tragic event that our own church splits: (1) The issues in the Salazar case have not been fully litigated. (2) The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet weighed in. (3) The UMC’s trust clause is likely different enough than the Episcopal Church’s trust clause to lead to a different result. (4) In the event that the neutral principles approach is applied to the UMC, then additional factual determinations must be made to reach a conclusion (i.e. what is the language in the deeds to church properties?).

Conclusion

There is one thing that is certain from all of this. If the UMC splits–and I would urge that our current focus should be on finding a just and theologically-sound way to prevent a split rather than on any of the above–any legal conflict over successorship, use of names, and property ownership will be prolonged, expensive, and–most important–an extremely poor witness for Christ. Thus, should that situation present itself, laity and clergy alike at all levels of authority in the UMC must be willing to make sacrifices for and compromises with one another to quickly resolve such disputes without a need for litigation so that we can all keep our focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 

Interim Report From Texas Annual Conference 2018

It’s 7:40 a.m. before the start of the 8:30 a.m. business session of the TAC on the second full day of the 2018 conference. I’ll be speaking in favor of one of the petitions before the conference. I figure, what better way to prepare myself than to write?

As it often is for me, the conference is a whirlwind of emotions and activities. I’ve gotten to reconnect with friends I do not see nearly often enough–including fellow travelers in Israel earlier this year. I’ve been inspired by sermons, reports and updates from the conference as well as the words of those friends. But it’s also a time of frustration and palpable tension.

I’ve described the Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishop’s recommended plan for the UMC–the One Church Plan–here. Yesterday morning, I attended a breakfast (attended by nearly 500 people) to respectfully discuss the plans with the Texas delegates to the General Conference in small groups. I understand that–especially as a lay person–I’m something of a nerd when it comes to the workings and polity of the UMC, but I was surprised about how little some of my fellow attendees knew about what was going on. This is especially unfortunate as certain interest groups and factions within the UMC attempt to manipulate outcomes and go largely unnoticed in such efforts. Some of the members of our conference are extremely gifted in the fields of rhetoric and diplomacy. Unfortunately, those gifts are not always employed in a way that is direct about the desired outcome. I’m used to political machinations being something I read about in fiction, set up as the backdrop for my own writing or roleplaying games, or that I am otherwise somewhat insulated from. TAC is the exception to that rule, and my involvement this year has given me access to more information about–and even participation in–those political gambits and struggles. But, the heart of our denomination is at stake here, so I feel obligated.

The highlight so far has been hearing Rev. Vicki Flippin, the Pastor of Social Justice, Exploring Faith, and Intergenerational Ministries at the United Methodist Church of the Village (in New York City) speak at the Reconciling United Methodists, Texas Conference dinner last night. If you are not familiar with her, look her up. Listen to some of her sermons. I certainly will be.

She started her inspirational exhortation by drawing upon science fiction–so of course I was sold (and K might have been sizing her up) from the get-go. She spoke about hope (finding and maintaining), conscientious resistance when our Book of Discipline doesn’t match the Gospel, and how narrative carries the power of change. Given my feelings about Paul Tillich’s theology and my own aspirations of professional authorship, these topics carried great weight with me.

This is tempered somewhat by what I hear about the conservative activity at this conference. For those of us who are progressive Christians, much of our goal this year is simply to let our brethren and sistren in the UMC know that Texas is not a monolithic bastion of religious conservativism. From what I hear from reliable sources, some (though I would caution about overgeneralization of this statement) within the conservative groups have labeled we, the progressives, as the Enemy. To my mind, that alone speaks volumes about the mindsets of the two sides (again unfairly generalized) and which interpretation is the closer walk with Jesus (when considered in toto).

Last weekend, after K’s graduation from seminary (I’m so proud of her!), I had a very good, honest conversation with my brother-in-law on my position regarding human sexuality within the Methodist Church. That discussion drew me to make a difficult confession, one that it is only right that I share with you, my readers.

I have chosen to prioritize the unity of the church over the immediate achievement of victory in regards to the justice issue that confronts the UMC. I am willing to compromise with conservatives to accept the One Church Plan because, despite how thoroughly I may oppose their theology, I wish to remain in fellowship with my conservative counterparts in our denomination. I believe that our ability to disagree and yet love and respect one another is a fundamental aspect of the witness we are called to in Jesus Christ.

But this compromise does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. The truest justice for those whose gender identities or sexual orientations do not match with mainstream social expectations is full inclusion and acknowledgment that they are children of God in the fullest sense of the phrase, without caveat or reservation, and that who they are and who they love is not a matter of sin, but a part of the uniqueness in which they were created; something that should be celebrated.

My stance asks the LGBTQ community to wait a bit longer for that true justice and acceptance–something they’ve been waiting for for far too long already. As the Supreme Court says, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Of that, I must confess guilt.

Yes, the One Church Plan will give us permission to do what is already right–to bless marriages born out of Christian love regardless of the sex or gender identities of the participants and to ordain those called to serve God in this Church without reference to their sexuality. But it does not give believers in those positions the full respect and acceptance they deserve, and it will explicitly allow the continuance of discriminatory and un-Christian practices by those who claim that “conscience” prevents them from treating the LGBTQ community as anything other than “less than.”

It is a hard path to walk; my heart aches every time think about how I’ve been forced to prioritize these conflicting convictions. For that, I ask for your prayers and your forgiveness.