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 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.