by Bob Phillips
On April 15, 1912 the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of roughly 1,500 lives out of 2,200 passengers and crew. An underwater spike from the iceberg jarred open five compartments. The ship was built to withstand flooding in 4 compartments, where electric water-tight doors and modern pumps could keep the ship afloat. Five flooded compartments spelled doom, even though the openings created by the iceberg probably were no greater initially than the width of a pencil. It is a story told in history, culture, cinema and art.
In February, 2019, the Wesleyan Ship of Zion, UMC Titanic, is scheduled to sail full speed through an ice field in St. Louis. The church’s ‘wicked problem,’ like an errant iceberg, already is splitting the seams of the hull, compromising water-tight integrity, guaranteeing the eventual foundering of the organization. Fifty years of consistent and accelerating decline in the American UMC Titanic has been created by fissures in many of its compartments, where culture and the realities of modernity have cratered the hull.
Consider a partial list of flooding compartments. The median age of a US member soars toward 60, with clergy exceeding that age, signs of a clearly limited future. Demographics of church location, finances and distribution of resources into survival mode or away from mission essential priorities are filling another compartment. Training, education and deployment of clergy (of whatever official status) remain expensive, complicated and detached from validated requirements essential to produce effective pastors and chaplains. Trust deficits and miscommunication within and beyond the organization beset its membership and hinder effective witness and evangelism. Theology, hobbled by viewpoints not simply diverse but contradictory, pours cold water into the hull. G.K. Chesterton once commented that a universe in which both Roman Catholicism and Christian Science were equally true would be a madhouse. Welcome to the bedlam of UMC Titanic.
RMS Titanic sank with tragic loss of life in 1912. Those who refused to leave the ship, confident until their end that somehow it would not sink and afraid of getting wet in a lifeboat, got as wet as those who left the ship, only without any freedom of movement to save their lives. The historical Titanic did not carry enough lifeboats to save all hands. UMC Titanic does carry enough lifeboats to save everyone and preserve the vision of the Wesleyan vision for a new day.
One evacuates a ship on the port (left) or starboard (right) side. There is a point where hunkering down in the center (amidships), which offers the smoothest ride when underway, will not offer rescue. Running from the center to the bow (the pointy end) or the stern (the rear end) and jumping will keep the passenger in the middle but get the passenger run over by the bow or chopped up by the propellers. There comes a time when one must cast lots with port or starboard. As neither port nor starboard on a ship are somehow ‘evil,’ neither left (“progressive”) nor right (“traditional”) need be cast as evil in saving United Methodists from a well-meaning but fatally flawed configuration of the Wesleyan ship of Zion.
Heed a reality check on the forthcoming process, well-intentioned and crafted by sincere United Methodists who have taken unfair flak over stepping into an impossible mandate. A committee consisting of…all 860+ delegates…will spend the first two days in orientation, sifting numerous petitions as a committee of the whole, and deciding what to decide and how to decide. One day will be given to debating various possibilities and one day given to deciding what to decide or deciding not to decide, all interspersed with needed breaks and worship and dismissals. Tasking the delegates with inventing time travel in 4 days would be a comparable task.
More reality checks can balance hopes with common sense. Some pockets of the US church essentially operate under the Simple Plan, with same sex weddings regularly conducted and active gay-lesbian partnered clergy appointed as pastors, extension ministries and at least one as a DS in the Pac-Northwest conference. Unless the denomination is prepared for hundreds of church trials, nothing the General Conference decrees will alter those behaviors, undertaken as part of deep moral convictions and justified as ‘biblical obedience’ rather than organizational obedience. Nor will disobedience result in departure, which is why progressives view as exclusionary the ‘gracious exit’ language that traditionalists see as grace-filled.. The ongoing office of bishop held by Rev. Karen Oliveto regardless of what the Judicial Council ruled, confirms the commitment to disagree and disobey but not depart.
While some traditional congregations will depart the denomination regardless of what the GC decides, the overwhelming majority probably would remain if existing church teaching once again is reaffirmed for and by the global church. A One Church Plan that assumes every individual church will have to decide whether or not to authorize same gender marriage or active gay/lesbian clergy will create a seismic fracture as numerous conservatives depart for conscience’ sake from more liberal churches and vice versa. This is precisely what has happened in the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and UCC churches, and it will happen to the UMC Titanic also.
That said, a 2019 GC that emerges as a coherent springboard to the birthing of two new expressions of Methodism through decisive 2020 actions will create a win-win for the church. The icebergs are more numerous and deadlier than the single sexuality disagreement. Imagine, therefore, a shared strategy that enables the denomination to depart the existing sinking ship for two fresh expressions of Wesleyan Christianity. The sexuality issue is tagged and bagged by the port-side approach that permits all that the church currently prohibits regarding contested issues. Those for whom definitions of marriage and ordination are non-negotiable fruit arising from related theological matters such as the authority of scripture would depart via the starboard side that affirms historic definitions. Those who do not see the issue as grave enough to justify separation could take up residence with either left or right, knowing the issue will be left in the wake of a revitalized church now free to focus on the larger menu of challenges posed by the church’s wicked problem. Affirming freedom to reconfigure current ineffective structures by merging traditional theology with innovation structural re-formation would come with package.
The result would be two expressions of the former United (and ‘untied’) Methodist church, each rebooted for renewed focus on mission. Both expressions would be joined in common ministries such as UMCOR; both would or could collaborate in numerous ways as the result of shared historical DNA. Center/left and center/right expressions of the Wesleyan way will refit and restore the Methodist ship of Zion to navigate the 21st century without ongoing, distracting and incessant battle over sexuality.
That, in brief outline, is one approach. The other is to place the phantom unity of the sacred status quo as the central goal, allow the church’s ‘wicked problem’ to continue filling the compartments, and nose-dive in its US version into memory and obscurity within 30 years. UMC Titanic has a real choice: launch two new and seaworthy vessels…or sink.
Photo Credit: https://www.insideedition.com/monster-iceberg-taller-washington-monument-spotted-north-atlantic-47166
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.