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.

The UMC’s One Church Plan: Pragmatic Grace

The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops recently released a report after the progress of the Commission on a Way Forward, detailing three potential plans for the United Methodist Church regarding sexuality issues and recommending that one of those plans be adopted.

If you’re not part of the UMC, you may not be aware of what all this means; I’ll summarize briefly, and you should feel free to skip down some if this is all old hat. The United Methodist Church polity is governed by the Book of Discipline–essentially our canon law. The BoD describes our core theological beliefs, our social principles and devotes a great amount of time and space to the labyrinthine workings of the Church as a whole, from the governance of churches at the local level to the election of bishops to the various conferences and the operation of the Judicial Council for handling complaints agaisnt clergy for violations of the Discipline.

Prior to 1972, the UMC Book of Discipline contained the phrase, “persons of homosexual orientation are persons of sacred worth.” The UMC General Conference of 1972 initiated an unfortunate period of oppression of and prejudice toward the LGBTQ community. (As an aside: I understand that the language about homosexuality in Book of Discipline does not truly address the full spectrum of persons, identities and orientations that are included within the LGBTQ moniker, but for practical purposes, I think that we can treat it as intending to do so). That conference saw the addition of the language, “We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching…”

If that condemnation were not bad enough, in the 1976 General Conference, despite an attempt by some delegates to remove the 1972 language, the conference passed three measures to ban the use of church funds to “promote homosexuality,” whatever that means, and added to the Social Principles the statement, “We do not recognize a relationship between two persons of the same sex as constituting marriage.”

In 1980, conservative delegates attempted to add the language “no self-avowed practicing homosexual therefore shall be ordained or appointed in The United Methodist Church.” On a positive note, the language in the Social Principles regarding same-sex marriage was removed, but replaced by a statement that, “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant…between a man and a woman.”

Further insult and injury occurred at the 1984 General Conference, where the delegation passed a change adding language to the BoD that, “Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” Coincidentally, the 1984 General Conference also added language to show grace to divorced heterosexual persons, recognizing “divorce as regrettable” but also recognizing “the right of divorced persons to remarry.” Strange that there was a movement toward grace on one issue but not the other.

I think that it is more hurtful than helpful that th 1984 language allowed LGBTQ persons called to ministry in the Church to serve, but only if they renounced any chance for meaningful romantic relationship–a sacred gift from God to which all God’s children are entitled.

Since 1984, attempts have been made to remove, soften, or change the Book of Discipline’s statements about homosexuality. The history of the polity shows that, since 1972, there have been advocates for equal standing and treatment for homosexual persons (and the greater LGBTQ community) within the church–but they have remained a significant minority compared to conservatives.

As the Church remained mired in injust and ultimately unjustified traditions of the past, the world changed around us. As a matter of conscience, LGBTQ rights have become increasingly accepted in the world at large. C.S. Lewis’s “natural law” comes to mind here–when our conscience tells us that something is an injustice on a visceral level without the need for an application of logic, we might do well to consider that the movement of the Spirit within us (and for Lewis, this is evidence of God’s existence and active role in Creation).

Other churches (the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church) have already addressed the issue–though it has lead to much difficulty and even a congregational split in the Presbyterian polity.

The Northwest Conference of the (U.S. Jurisdiction of) the United Methodist Church elected an openly-gay Bishop in 2016, Karen Oliveto. Although the UMC Judicial Council ruled that her election was a violation of the Book of Disicpline, it wisely chose to allow her to remain in her episcopal seat.

Young Methodists who are informed of the Church’s official stance see it as backward and wrong, going so far as to wonder why it’s such a big deal in the first place. Many young pastors I know in the UMC are in favor of full inclusion within the Church, but many keep their feelings private either because they are commissioned but not yet fully-ordained or because they fear (perhaps rightly so) that being outspoken on this issue will hurt their future appointments or take away from their ability to minister to all of their congregants.

I also find that many of the conservative laypersons on this issue are generally conservative in their political and theological positions, often such that they would be extremely surprised and frustrated if they took the time to find out what the UMC’s official Social Principles say about things like immigration, the environment, and abortion.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this issue has become (at least since I have been active as a delegate to the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, but most probably well before that) a proxy war for the larger theological issue of Biblical interpretation, with conservatives on the homosexuality issue generally having conservative theological positions that tout the phrase “authority of Scripture” as a buzzphrase for their more literal interpretation of the Bible while those who are more liberal on the homosexuality issue (myself included) tend to put forward arguments about the primacy of love in counterpoint to the conservative position.

Of course, nothing is so simple. The phrase “authority of Scripture” does not really mean anything without a lot of unpacking, and it’s grossly unfair to say that theological progressives have rejected the authority of Scripture, though their approach to its authority certainly differs from conservatives. Likewise, the question of what it means to “love your neighbor” as Christ commands is also so complex that it’s unfair to claim of conservatives that they do not have loving intentions in their position on homosexuality either (however misguided, ultimately wrong, and actually based in fear I may argue those intentions to be).

With respect to the issue of full inclusion (including the performance of same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ persons), the conflation of that argument with broader issues of theological hermeneutics is not helpful, but only further divides us.

We should certainly, I think, see the divisions on this issue as heavily influenced by the at-large divisiveness and demonization of those who disagree that currently grips this nation. As Christians, that’s exactly the sort of thing we should be rising above, but neither side of the debate has accomplished this.

This is the context into which the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced at the General Conference in 2016 that a Commission on a Way Forward would be formed to offer potential solutions to the divide in the UMC.

The amount of time that the Commission and the Council of Bishops have taken in preparing their recommendations, though absolutely justified given the gravity of the situation and the far-reaching consequences of any recommendation to the Church at large, has given the various interest groups time to maneuver without them. The Weslayan Covenant Association and its affiliates have prepared for an exodus from the Church if there is any change to the Book of Discipline except for stronger enforcement against LGBTQ persons and those ordained persons who do not fall into that category but who perform a same-sex marriage. Even since the Council of Bishops has released its summary of the three plans being sent to the special called General Conference in 2019, the WCA has threatened to “pick up its ball and go home” if it does not get its way (the “Traditional Model” included in the three plans).

While pushing all three plans to the delegates of the General Conference, the Council of Bishops has made clear that a majority of them support the One Church Model, even if they really would prefer a more conservative or progressive plan to be put in place.

Under the One Church Model, the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline–including the prohibitions on the performance of marriage for same-sex persons and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” would be removed. In its place, however, would be placed protections on those persons who, “as a matter of conscience” refuse to perform same-sex marriages or to ordain LGBTQ persons.

The idea of this model is to preserve unity wihin the UMC (to the extent possible) by allowing ministry to be conducted “contextually.” More simply put, it allows local congregations and pastors to decide their theological approach to issues of human sexuality and gender identity.

I am disappointed that this approach will–as I see it–allow discrimination to continue in the guise of “conscience.” When the Methodist Church changed the Book of Discipline to integrate people of color into the Church, or to allow for the ordination of women, this was done in the name of social justice and did not give room for certain parties to claim “conscience” and continue to discriminate. I believe that the current issue is more analagous to those than different.

However, I recognize that, at least in a limited sense (without making this a broader issue of proper Biblical interpretation or the practice of love), issues of human sexuality and gender identity are not core aspects of our faith–no particular position on the issue is required to be “a Christian.” That being the case, I would rather remain in communion with those with whom I disagree (where we can continue to share ideas in hopes of better aligining our doctrines and dogmas with God’s desires) than to divide from them. If this compromise is necessary to do that, I’m happy to make that compromise.

I do believe that the progressive side of this issue will win out and that, eventually, there will need be no more arguments about whether Christianity is “compatible” with homosexuality. I also think that this proposal, while not the giant leap I’d really prefer to see, helps to move us in that direction. Most of all, I think that the One Church Model demonstrates the kind of “pragmatic grace” that puts people ahead of ideologies, an approach Jesus Himself employed: we can tell one another to “go and sin no more,” but we’ll love one another regardless.

The other two plans (the Traditional Model and the Connectional-Conference Plan) will lead to a schism in the Church. I don’t believe that that is good for our witness or for our congregations. Only the One Church Plan allows for grace to be shown one side for the other in a way that actually does move us forward. And the world definitely needs more grace right now.

 

 

Rooted

This seems a great follow-up to my last post.

In Chicago, from August 11-13th, the Rooted conference was held. Rooted was a conference for trans and gender-noncomforming Christians. That’s right, despite popular belief and common misconception, there is room for all people within Christianity–our God is everyone’s God.

More of a testament, I think, is the fact that there are enough people of non-binary gender or who are transgendered who manage to reach out to God despite what “mainstream” and (too-)conservative demagogues tell them Christianity is. They have a faith that speaks to the foremost issue currently confronting the Church–our getting in God’s way when we should be making the path to God easier. That they can overcome such obstacles gives me hope that perhaps others will, too–those we refer to as the “unchurched” who by upbringing or by bad experiences in churches have rejected Christianity because it is easier to see fallen people describing our faith than it is to see Jesus who creates our faith.

As I’ve argued in the past, I don’t believe that secularism is simply the result of the evolution of science and technology. Science and technology show us that there are gaps in our understanding and methods of human inquiry that can only be filled by faith, whether it’s faith in God’s provenance or in cold materialism. Thus, the next obvious answer for the push to increased secularism is that the faith isn’t living up to its calling. As a student of theology, I find that there are sound and well-argued philosophies about Christianity that incorporate science and critical methodologies into them; secularism is not the failing of our theology (though it might be a failing of those theologies which remain most popular). Instead, it is the failing of us as the Church to project Christ rather than to hide him.

My soapboxy tangent aside, I’m especially proud that Rooted was coordinated by the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church, an unofficial group of likeminded Methodists in support of full inclusion. I am a member of Reconciling Ministries through my participation in Reconciling United Methodist Texas Conference (formerly “Breaking the Silence.”) At the same time, I’m slightly dismayed by the fact that I only found out about Rooted almost a month after it happened.

I am not one to blow inherent media biases out of proportion (they’re there, but most mainstream journalists–at least in “neutral” outlets–have the integrity to mitigate and minimize them whenever possible) or to give much credence to the “fake news” outcry of the alt-right (boy, is that crying “wolf” if ever I’ve seen it), but I am curious as to why something like the Nashville Statement gets so much press and the only place that I’ve seen Rooted reported on is within the United Methodist News.

Maybe its that the internecine conflict over sexual and gender identity issues within Christian congregations is old hat now–the Episcopals have done it, the Presbyterians have done it, and we Methodists are still in the thick of it. On the other hand, though, I wonder if it’s that the Nashville Statement plays into the popular conception of Christianity, but that Rooted does not. Those of us convicted that full inclusion and the celebration of sexual and gender diversity rather than calling it “sinful” represents the truer understanding of Christianity ought to be looking for more ways to be more vocal about our theologies.

As I’ve also argued in the past, it’s unfortunate that–within Methodism at least– issues of sexuality and gender have become the battleground for a proxy war over hermenuetics and the theology of interpreting scripture. Hence the common buzzwords in issues of sexual and gender theology: “scriptural authority.” That’s not fair to people of faith with non-cisgendered identities or non-heterosexual desires.

Nevertheless, the Rooted conference is evidence of hope, that most necessary of spiritual gifts in any dark time. I am so proud of my siblings in Christ who attended and declared that they know and feel the love of our God despite what the world–and our own denomination–may throw at them.

 

Texas Annual Conference 2017

Last week, I attended the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church as a lay delegate. K was also a delegate; more eager than I, she referred to the several days of the conference as our “Meetings Vacation.” She’s not wrong.

I had started to write a review of my experiences from the conference closer to the event, but I decided to let matters stew for a little while before committing thoughts to (digital) paper. I’m not sure time has helped much, so take these thoughts as what they are—observations that may not accurately reflect realities.

Here’re my comments:

Bishop Scott Jones, A Good Guy

When it was first announced that Bishop Jones would be the new bishop of the Texas Annual Conference, I braced for impact. You may remember a previous post about my first time to hear him speak as bishop. Conference provided greater opportunity to get to know the man and I must say that my opinion of him is favorably changed.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that Bishop Jones and I have quite different theological positions. In his opening address, he (being a scholar of Weslayan and church history), referred to Kenneth Wyatt’s painting “Offer Them Christ,” depicting Wesley sending Thomas Coke to America (with the painting’s title referring to Wesley’s supposed charge to Coke). Bishop Jones pointed out that the scene depicted by Wyatt never actually occurred, but that it nevertheless carries some power and truth with it. As a writer of fiction, I very much agree.

I am led to believe (and this admittedly could be wrong because it comes from my own surmising and third-hand commentary) that Bishop Jones leans toward a more conservative and literalist interpretation of scripture. If this is true, I wonder how our bishop can apply a non-literalist hermeneutic to the painting but not to the interpretation of scripture.

At the end of the day, however, this criticism doesn’t matter, even if it is correct. What I saw in Bishop Jones was a man of deep faith, strong leadership skills, a commitment to the Gospel, a true desire to do good in the world and a sense of reasonableness and compassion. I am led to question my suppositions about him because his comments (both in the opening address and at the Under-35 dinner at which he briefly spoke) lead me to believe that his past actions regarding disciplinary actions against clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies were not governed by his theology but by a rigorous commitment to the discipline of the church as represented in the Book of Discipline. Again, I may disagree with his approach to the church discipline, but I do admire that his commitment carries a certain fairness and predictability with it that may not be found in my own thoughts about the importance of the Book of Discipline.

I think that Bishop Jones will be able to accomplish many great things in our conference and I admire his expressed desire to seek greater diversity in the church (even if it is not as extensive as the diversity I’d argue for). He seems like someone with whom it would be great to spend some time and from whom much can be learned. What the United Methodist Church needs more than anything else to prevent a split is people who can be in fellowship and communion with those Christians with whom they do not theologically agree (on matters other than the Creedal core, of course). Bishop Jones seems just such a person. Given his adherence to church order, I really believe that, if General Conference changed to Book of Discipline to favor full inclusion regardless of gender (there is much work toward gender equality between men and women, but not nearly enough for those who are transgendered, genderfluid or elsewhere on the spectrum) and sexual preference, Bishop Jones would support the modified discipline whether he agreed with it or not because of his commitment to the polity.

Overall, I was forced to reconsider my expectations of the man and to realize that in more ways than not he is a great asset to our conference and to Christianity itself. I wish it did not take me so long to realize something that—according to my own values and beliefs—I should have been open to from the very beginning.

The Resistance (to Progress)

This was the feeling I got most from the laity at conference this year. This does not apply across the board, and I hope that my conclusions were caused by a small number of vocal individuals or congregations rather than a true representation of the conference as a whole.

Our theme, as I’ve alluded to, was diversity and the need for the church to grow more diverse in ways that are authentic. What surprised me was the resistance to diversity that was voiced among laity.

The laity session of the conference involved a panel of clergy and experts in diversity and the diversification of congregations. The core question posed was, “If your congregation doesn’t look something like your community in terms of demographics, is your church failing to advance its missional purpose in some way?” The panel members were clear that the answer is not automatically “Yes”—there are commuter churches and a number of other types of situations that may cause a church not to match demographic percentages in the community. In fact, the panel members were also clear that seeking diversity just to make numbers match up isn’t very realistic and is usually not the right reason to pursue diversity. When it comes down to it, it’s about ministering to the people around you, not about looking good on pie charts.

Nevertheless, there should be a call to congregations to step outside their comfort zones and to seek congregants of cultures other than the dominant one in that church. We should not be neglecting people because of a different skin color or culture—we ought to be learning how to respectfully navigate (navigation being something more achievable than true understanding) those cultures to reach the people of them.

The questions to the panel seemed to seek assurance for the asker that there were good ways or reasons to avoid the call to diversity. The first question asked about which ethnicity statistically tithes the most—the clear subtext being: “Well, the white people bring the most money to the church, so shouldn’t we be focusing on them?” I don’t know whether that’s statistically true (and I really don’t want to know the answer), and I could write a whole post (or more!) on the theological problems with such an approach. Fortunately, the audience itself responded in resistance to the approach suggested by the asker. Unfortunately, this did not stop other individuals from asking questions that revealed equal amounts of intolerance or resistance to diversity.

If you’re not aware, the 2016 General Conference passed some changes to the church’s constitution. According to the legislative procedures established by the Book of Discipline, constitutional changes passed by the General Conference must then be passed by a majority of the delegates across the Annual Conferences to be enacted.

One of the constitutional changes (summarized here) involved changes to use gender non-specific language to talk about God as a whole, partially for theological reasons but most assuredly to make an effort to combat complementarianism and theologies that assign a lesser place to women because of their femininity (K and I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale lately, which has reinforced my support for this amendment).

As one young clergyperson paraphrased after the discussion and voting on that and the other four amendments: “Five people got up to speak about how God has a penis.”

The arguments went like this:

(1) Jesus was a man. Because God incarnated as a man, it’s true that God is masculine (or for the softer argument: “it’s confusing to talk about God as non-gendered”).

(2) God created men and women separate from one another; a man cannot be a woman no matter how hard he tries (and vice versa).

(3) This change is an attempt allow changing societal ideologies to creep into theology.

Number 2 ignores modern science, the experiences of non-gender-conforming persons (also created by God) and, most important, the point and focus of this amendment. Number 3 is just another way of saying “there’s no interpretation to be done in Scripture (there’s only the truth of the literalist way I read it).”

Number 1, however, moved me to go to the microphone to speak in favor of the amendment and to respond. If you have nothing else to do, you can go watch the video of the conference online (Business Session 2, I think) and see my extemporaneous argument. It goes like this: according to orthodox doctrine, Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human. It is therefore foolish to try to extrapolate information about the divine aspect of Jesus by reference to the human aspect—our intellects simply cannot resolve this; it is a mystery of faith. Besides, reference to Jesus (or the Father, for that matter) as an argument for the gender of God comes dangerously close to the heresy of modalism—specifically, “sometimes God manifests as man, but sometimes God could manifest as a woman.” Such a response creates problems in trinitarian doctrine that make my head spin. The short answer, though, is that the trinitarian God is complete and therefore must in some way that we cannot truly parse out contain the entire spectrum of gender.

As important, it is incumbent upon us as the faithful to ensure that the interpretation of Scripture is not twisted to promote violence against or a lesser status for women (or anyone else for that matter). I think that many of us American Methodists forget that our denomination is worldwide and that there are places Methodism where gender inequality is still very much an issue (not to mention that we tend to brush under the rug those places it persists within our own minds and institutions).

The Good Apart from the Bad and Ugly

I’ve spent most of this post complaining about the conference, so I do want to point out a few wonderful things about my experience of it:

(1) Getting to spend time with young clergy was uplifting and inspiring.

(2) We heard some great presentations. At the Reconciling Ministries lunch we heard Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth speak about being a gay, black man in the Methodist Church. His description of times when his blackness prevented getting to issues of sexuality and his gayness prevented getting to issues of race opened my eyes. The presentation on cultural intelligence by Rev. Dr. Maria A. Dixon Hall (Senior Advisor to the Provost at SMU) is nothing short of amazing. You can watch it on YouTube starting at around the 1:30:00 mark here.

(3) One of the panelists in the laity session stated that he believes that house churches will be a big part of the future of Christianity. I’ve been thinking this for a while myself, and validation from an expert is always good for the ego.

(4) Our conference appears to be innovative and vibrant and there are many laypersons and clergy who are proclaiming the Gospel in new and powerful ways.

(5) I got to see K in her element (the intersection of church and meetings) and hit the realization that she’ll be commissioned as a deacon at Conference next year. Time flies! I also got to meet several of her classmates from Perkins seminary.

(6) The affirmation of the social justice values of Christianity (and particularly the Methodist interpretation thereof) is comforting in times where politicians want to use hate and fear to hold power, leaving the world less fair and just all around.

(7) I made new friends in the Conference that I hope to have deep relationships with—it’s always fun to meet young clergy who are nerds like me!

I could go on, but seven being the metaphorical number of completion, that seems like a good stopping point.