by Bob Phillips
The natives are beyond the ‘getting restless’ point in the United Methodist village as GC2019 lumbers toward the calendar door. Facebook and website postings abound, some shedding light but most spewing heat about what might happen, should happen, will happen when a committee of 864 gather from all over the linguistic, theological, cultural and geographic landscape to solve the problem. Or not.
There is no right or wrong; There is only fun and boring. (Villain in the movie “Hackers”)
By the standard of this saying, loads of fun await the delegates and the larger church at GC2019. Too much agenda is scheduled and squished into too little time to allow for boredom. This is not the result of any dark conspiracy to derail the integrity of the process. It is the simple reality of numbers and time. That is just as well.
GC2019 will not and cannot resolve conflicts over human sexuality. Any of the proposed plans, or a surprise emerging plan, that garners 80%+ of the global vote would guarantee a reasonable transition as the page is turned on sexuality conflicts, but don’t count on that kind of watershed percentage. More likely is a vote to favor some plan that is a clear majority, not razor-thin, but lacking the bulk of numbers to decisively put contested issues to bed.
If the vote favors the One Church Plan (OCP), several hundred thousand US members will depart the existing denomination within 18 months, either for a new expression birthed from the existing denomination or aligning with other evangelical Wesleyan churches that firmly embrace historic definitions of marriage, such as the African Methodist Episcopal-Christian Methodist Episcopal-AME Zion – Wesleyan-Free Methodist-Nazarene churches among others. As no woman can be ‘slightly’ pregnant, so the UMC under the OCP clearly would become a denomination that blesses same sex marriages and active LGTQIA+ clergy, with fine print exceptions allowed. The “B” component in the acrostic (bisexual) remains problematic and has been virtually invisible among the many discussions surrounding issues in articles and Facebook postings. In short, the OCP will lead the denomination into alignment with the practices of other “mainline” Protestant groups that have embraced this approach, including the numerical and legal implications that have had such a dramatic and adverse impact on these other groups (UCC, PCUSA, TEC, ELCA).
Conservative/traditional leaders who assume a mass exodus may be making assumptions that will not come to pass. Thousands of small UM churches, traditional in theology and practice, will be loath to embrace the practical upheaval required to depart the denomination. Emotional and administrative inertia are strong ties that bind dissatisfied churches to the parent body, where other forms of expressing disapproval can be found without the dramatic break from the annual conference. The OCP deliberately contains no ‘gracious exit’ provision, ostensibly because provisions for departing the denomination already exist. Yes, individuals can walk at any time; local churches cannot go anywhere with their property unless conference leadership agrees. If the precedent set in Cal-Nevada under Bishop Talbert is a guide, when numerous evangelically-oriented churches wish to depart, the message will be simple: Take the fire but leave the stove.
If the vote favors the Traditional Plan (TP) in a modified form, African United Methodism clearly would remain fully affiliated with the US church. The numbers departing the denomination would be minimal, since no precedent exists among American Protestantism for liberal/progressive expressions of faith to leave the mother church. If the decisions of GC2019 contravene the consciences of these clergy and members, expect significant and sustained defiance to whatever enforcement rules the denomination may adopt. Sympathetic secular national media will ensure broad based cultural sympathy for those who refuse to leave the church they love nor acquiesce to bigotry and exclusionary hatred targeted against a class of people deemed “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Conservatives may vigorously contest such language as unfair and false, but use of such language at GC2016 presages things to come if existing teaching on the nature and boundaries of Christian marriage remain in place.
There is a possibility that more conservatives will depart the denomination than liberals, clergy and churches fed up with the bickering and unwilling to remain in ongoing distraction over resistance to any version of the TP that may be adopted. Such moves may or may not shift the voting balance for 2020, as decline accelerates in regions of the US church while global Methodism continues growth, and increased delegate presence to determine the future church.
The Connectional Conference Plan has been given scant attention in practical terms, dismissed as nearly impossible to pass due to the number of constitutional amendments required to make it work. That said, there is irony in the fact that this plan actually may allow sufficient space for liberals and conservatives to remain under the same technical tent, with interior trenches and walls in policies and financing to guarantee true working independence from views deemed either bigoted or disobedient to God. One approach may emerge calling for this plan to pass, with the word on the street that failure for annual conferences to affirm it by super-majorities would serve to retain current church language and dysfunction. This would set the stage for a fresh round of mud wrestling in 2020, preceded almost certainly by a major drop in morale and major defections from congregations truly fed up with the fighting…mostly on the conservative/traditional side. This motivation may yet carry the day for the CCP.
I close with 5 words of hopeful wisdom for GC2019 and beyond:
- The GC2019 cannot, cannot, cannot solve the church’s problems in general or specific to this issue. It can take initial steps to place this issue in the rear-view mirror, enough steps to offer hope to the contestants of better days.
- The ‘Wicked Problem’ of the denomination involves myriad challenges that are slowly sinking the US church and are not being addressed at all at GC2019. Thus, the willingness of leadership to confront the widespread spirit of denial (“protective stupidity”) as of March 1, 2019, is vital.
- Schism is bad, destructive, laced with anger. “Mitosis,” spiritual cell division within the body of Christ, is a good thing and, I insist, absolutely vital to a healthy future expression of Wesleyan Christianity in more progressive and traditional forms. Don’t fear it; seek it!
- How can one tell the difference between schism and mitosis? Schism denigrates the motives, integrity, spiritual conscience, and faithfulness of the ‘other.’ Name-calling and nastiness are its forte. Mitosis affirms a positive vision form one’s own perspective but not by building a fort on the bodies of the ‘others.’ Affirming and releasing those with profound differences to live and preach the gospel as they understand it replaces the angry infighting of arbitrary and artificial unity. Tie the proverbial stray yellow dog and calico cat together by the tail and one has unity and a OCP but no fellowship.
- Folks from several sides of contested issues have made much of John 13… “By this all will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.” Gentleness is not the enemy of firmness. Kindness is not incompatible with convictions. Refusing to be drawn into name calling or false characterizations of others are practical expressions of love that seeks the best interests of the beloved. As Mark Twain said, “Drawing on my vast knowledge of language, I said nothing.” Yes, and amen.
Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement. He is a clergy delegate to the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.