A Guest Post by Cara Nicklas
I hesitate to post about my views on General Conference because I don’t want to contribute to the divisiveness in our church. No matter how I try to be careful with my words, someone will misconstrue them and misinterpret where my heart lies. However, I am being asked my impressions on what many have called a historic event in the United Methodist Church. I don’t have a simple “Love All” type of post that can capture my thoughts. That would be like proof texting which is not the Wesleyan way. If you really want to know my perspective, you’ll have to read a long post and not even that will adequately explain my thoughts. This may not be pastoral. After all, I’m a lawyer, not a pastor. But if you make it to the end, I offer a word of hope.
I am posting an article by Chris Ritter (it has two parts that are important to read). Chris’ article is one of the best I have read in terms of capturing why I have lost sleep all week and feel an incredible sense of sadness about our church. Chris only identifies a few of the many ugly tactics that were used. I am embarrassed and appalled by how our church conducted itself. You may not believe in spiritual warfare but that is how I heard some describe what they saw. This cannot continue into 2020. I offer a critique of General Conference in hopes we can reflect and self-examine our actions before GC 2020. I agree with Chris that “[t]hings need to be named so they can be healed.”
General Conference is supposed to be a time of “holy conferencing.” Delegates are invited to seek God’s wisdom through the Holy Spirit. Chris touched on some of the tactics used by the One Church Plan (OCP) proponents. There are many other examples of lying, name-calling, stalling, deception, etc.
- Traditionalists were accused of “killing people” with our theology and bringing a “virus” into the church.
- During the plenary session when the Traditional Plan (TP) was being debated, the rules called for three speeches for and against a motion. Delegates opposed to the TP entered their name in the que to be called on as a speech in favor and gave sarcastic speeches (which, of course, prevented the traditionalists from their allotted number of speeches).
- There were innumerable ridiculous points of order raised with absolutely no integrity at all.
- During the legislative committee session, a OCP supporter called the question to end debate before traditionalists could make all of the amendments to make perfect the TP. In an article by one of the chief strategists for the OCP, he admits knowing the motion would confuse international delegates due to the language barrier and unfamiliarity with parliamentary procedures. African delegates complained later that the translation made it confusing to know whether it was a motion to end debate on only the amendment or on “all things before us.” Thinking it was a motion to call the question on only the amendment, the motion passed. That confusion resulted in a TP without the constitutional fixes. And for that, the OCP proponents were gleeful.
The tactics didn’t just come from delegates.
- The presiding bishops helped facilitate the stall tactics by starting the plenary session late and having several lengthy breaks knowing full well the traditionalists needed time to perfect the TP. Someone told me it felt like the opposing team was wearing referee uniforms.
- Maxie Dunnam offered a packet of materials to help efficiently move through the process for presenting amendments that would have corrected the constitutional issues in the TP. The packet had been sent to the General Secretary in early December so it could be translated. The General Secretary used a critical tone of voice when wrongly suggesting to the body that Maxie had not cooperated in providing what he requested which was the apparent excuse for not translating the materials and thus denying the request to provide the packet with the written amendments. Maxie had no opportunity to correct the misinformation.
- The presiding bishops were informed by some traditionalist delegates that they had eight amendments to present on Tuesday, several of which would fix the constitutional problems with the TP. There should have been plenty of time to present those eight amendments. I believe there were 20-30 delegates in the que to present those eight amendments. During the entire day, only one traditionalist delegate was called on to present a motion so only one of the 8 amendments was presented.
Does anyone really think the Holy Spirit would guide someone to use such tactics? If I am truly seeking God’s will for our church, would I be led to use deceptive tactics or exploitive tricks to achieve God’s will? Is that holy conferencing?
I have read many comments about the two sides being like squabbling children. To be frank, I am irritated by the suggestion that there was wrongdoing by both sides. Were the traditionalists perfect? Of course not. Were there mean-spirited tactics by the traditionalist delegates? I’d like to hear an example (and I don’t want to hear the example of a delegate who quoted scripture that offended you). What I can tell you is I was a part of a large group of TP proponents who talked strategy. When I say we talked strategy, I mean we tried to organize how we would present motions to amend that would fix the constitutional issues with the TP… that sort of thing. At no time was I involved in any discussion of strategy that lacked integrity. Quite the opposite.
During the legislative committee session on Monday, a motion was on the floor that would have prevented the Simple Plan (SP) from being debated at all. [The SP would have mandated that all conferences permit practicing homosexuals to be ordained and pastors would have been required to marry same-sex couples]. The SP had no chance of passing but there were pleas by the proponents to be heard. The traditionalists could have easily prohibited the SP from being heard but many voted in favor of the motion so that it passed. During the debate on the SP, I was involved in discussions by traditionalist delegates who agreed we would not speak against the SP. We would allow folks to be heard. This, of course, took up a lot of precious time that could have been devoted to fixing the TP. But this is one of many times throughout the GC that I heard traditionalists say, “Take the high road” and “Be gracious.” What did we get in return? On Tuesday during the plenary session, the OCP proponents announced loudly and boldly from the microphone that they would use every parliamentary trick in the book to prevent a vote on the TP. They almost succeeded.
To give equal blame to both sides for the horrible display we witnessed as so-called “holy conferencing” is wrong.
I was standing with Chris Ritter when he spoke with the Russian who commented about the colonial attitude he witnessed. The young Russian was not the only international delegate who made that comment to me. Progressives in our country are usually outspoken about the harm of colonialism. Yet, colonialism was not called out by OCP proponents when it furthered their agenda. In 2016, a progressive US Bishop lectured the Africans about their need to “grow up.” This insult only served to inspire the Africans.
I would have left the UMC a long time ago if we were not a global connection. I appreciate that we as United Methodists do not primarily send Americans to other countries as missionaries. Instead, we support African pastors and Russian pastors and Filipino pastors who lead African churches and Russian churches and Filipino churches. International delegates have equal voice in our church because we don’t (or shouldn’t) think we Americans are more enlightened or have an elevated understanding of God’s wisdom.
Every two years, I go to Beni, Congo for a Justice Conference where Congolese Christian attorneys discuss how to combat corruption in their judicial system. We US attorneys do not go to “fix” their problems. We go to walk alongside them and encourage them. How arrogant would I be to suggest I know how to fix their corruption issues? Likewise, I attend General Conference notwith an arrogance that suggests our international delegates need my US culturally-influenced wisdom; I go with an appreciation for what they bring to the table.
It was no secret our US bishops had an agenda to pass the OCP. The Council of Bishops is not proportional to our membership which skews the numbers of US bishops higher than African bishops. I would suggest this perpetuates the perception of colonialism felt by our international brothers and sisters.
There were accusations throughout the conference that traditionalists were bribing the Africans to vote for the TP. It was suggested the Good News’ offer of breakfast to international delegates was a bribe for votes. I can tell you I received the free breakfast from the Good News. Why are there no allegations that I was bribed for my vote? The OCP proponents spread rumors that the Africans were manipulated by the offering of a “guide” or training. I was offered a “guide” for voting by the renewal groups. I appreciated the help. Why wasn’t I accused of being manipulated? To quote Dr. Jerry Kulah, “the vast majority of African United Methodists will never, ever trade Jesus and the truth of the Bible for money.” The suggestion the Africans are so easily manipulated is patronizing.
A Global Church
I love the richness that comes from our global denomination, one that is committed to the great teachings of the Christian faith that reach all the way back to the early church. The church’s historical and global context keeps us from making a mistake we are prone to make which is to interpret Scripture and the great confessions of our faith solely within the context of our own culture. Our Wesleyan expression of the faith is truly cross-cultural in its appeal. I simply do not believe the definition of Christian marriage can differ depending on geography. And I want to be a part of a denomination that allows voices from all over the world to discern God’s will together so we aren’t tempted to let our culture dictate our doctrine. I don’t have a sense that US centrists and progressives place the same value on connection with our Central Conferences which is why I propose it is time for an amicable separation.
The Substantive Issue
GC2019 was not an environment conducive to a meaningful discussion on church doctrine. How can we discuss the authority and interpretation of Scripture in the midst of name-calling and accusations? Proponents of the OCP argued simply that their plan promoted “love for one another,” implying the TP did not. “Love” is viewed as acceptance of any and all sexual behavior. If it feels good, do it. (In a recent interview, Bishop Oliveto refused to even condemn polyamory).
There was no discussion of I John where the word “love” is used 18 times (more than in any other book in the New Testament) and the word “sin” occurs 27 times. Proof texting allows us to simply quote the Great Commandment while ignoring any parts of Scripture that help define “love.” No mention of scripture regarding the evidence of love or sanctification. Folks, I’m a lay person; yet even I know how Wesley abhorred proof texting.
How do we have discussions with Wesleyan depth at GC2020? We must find a way.
First let me say, overall, I thought the music in worship was exceptional (despite some theological issues). The background music while voting was brilliantly played. Now for the bad part. In opening worship, we were asked to pray to “Father Sky” and “Earth Mother.” Yep. And then we heard a sermon with undertones of advocacy for the OCP. If there is to be integrity in the process and worship, we need Wesleyan theologians on the worship team.
As a woman, I do not appreciate the assumption that because I am a woman, I must think identically to all other women. I am not a young person. But I received feedback from young persons. One of the arguments for the OCP is that if we do not liberalize our definition of marriage, we will lose young people in the church. I heard from young people who did not appreciate the suggestion that all young people believe in same-sex marriage. I can only speak anecdotally. Young people I know who have left the UMC are going to more biblically-based nondenominational churches. They are looking for more depth than they get in the UMC. I do not doubt there are young people who have left the UMC because they desire a church that accepts their homosexual behavior. I am grieved by that. But in 2020, I hope we can refrain from speeches that suggest all women or all young people think alike. No identity group has unified thought which is why we cannot determine our doctrine and discipline based on how any one identity group feels. I am a follower of Christ. Not a follower of an identity group.
I serve on the WCA Council. I was disappointed in the snarky way Adam Hamilton referred to the WCA from the floor. Mostly, I was saddened by his misrepresentation of the WCA. It is true we made plans to leave if the OCP passed. I can tell you (because I have been in the room for the discussions on an exit from the UMC) the WCA made no decision to leave the denomination if the TP passed. For Adam to misrepresent the WCA’s intentions was disheartening.
Leading up to GC, we did not have discussions of an exit from the UMC if the GC process lacked integrity. Who could have expected the lengths delegates would go to advocate for the OCP? I know there are traditionalist folks and churches who may leave our denomination because of the ugliness of GC2019. I get it. At our WCA Council meeting following GC, we spent the first couple of hours expressing sorrow and shedding tears – real tears— about what we witnessed at GC. I do not see how traditionalists will remain in the UMC if we see the lack of integrity at GC2020 that we did at GC2019. But our international members helped us recognize how God worked in the midst of the ugliness of GC2019 (thank you global church!). The passing of the TP was miraculous given the obstacles.
I am excited about the direction of the WCA. We are not focused on human sexuality. As we said from the inception of the WCA, we desire to see a movement within the UMC. If our bishops and OCP supporters long to see renewal and revitalization within our denomination, they will get on board with us. If not, we will see more disobedience gone unaddressed and a fracturing will occur.
The WCA has announced its intention to work within the denomination to bring about revival. Now that the myth about the WCA has been debunked, I encourage you to join the WCA and use the resources available. Our general agencies fail to properly resource local churches to make disciples for Jesus Christ, which is why the WCA is valuable. We are talking about some exciting ideas.
For instance, what if we refocus our idea of mission in the world. Do Africans need water wells? Absolutely. And we must drill more water wells in Africa. But what if we saw US churches in true partnership and relationship with Central Conference churches. Not a partnership based solely on financial support or a trip to build houses but a relationship between churches with opportunities to study Scripture and worship together. Might we have something to learn from our international friends about how to grow the church? The WCA can serve as a coordinator of those efforts.
An Exit Plan
OCP proponents were so intent on vilifying TP supporters they could not see straight. They could not consider that the motive of the TP was pure. Many of us do not see how we can continue to be “one church” when the truth is we have been two churches for a long time. Many in our church chose to blatantly disobey our discipline. There simply is no compromise on the issue of human sexuality. Even centrists have admitted the OCP was merely a step towards a complete change to the church’s sexual ethics. If the TP passed, we offered a gracious exit to those who could not in good conscience stay. We traditionalists did not ask for a fight but wanted to be gracious to those choosing to leave. And yet, at GC, we were criticized for proposing generous terms for local churches who chose to leave.
In the book Are We Really Better Together, Renfroe and Fenton state:
We have been in a cage match, not able to stop fighting and not able to escape each other. Both sides have been bruised and battered. . . . I’m certain neither of us wants to hurt God’s church. But that’s what is happening because neither of us can compromise our deeply held beliefs. And that will continue to happen as long as we’re together. How many more years do we need to stay in this destructive cage match? . . . There is a better way than continuing the cage match where one side is defeated and the side that wins is bruised and battered. Let us stop fighting, wish each other well, and open the cage. That’s not a lack of love. That’s the way of love.
Traditionalists may have “won” but we are bruised and battered. Our Central Conferences are not ready to leave the UMC so I continue to walk alongside them. I hope the cage match we witnessed at GC2019 will persuade our leaders to find a way to amicably separate instead of going for round 2 in 2020. That was the purpose of the exit plan that could not be perfected due to the obstructionists. An avoidance of round 2 now lies in the hands of centrists and progressives. An “honorable, gracious, and amicable way forward” was offered by traditionalists for which we were denigrated. I pray some self-reflection will bring centrists and progressives back to the table with a more honorable plan.
Hope for Our Church
How do we move forward as a church? Our US church is in significant decline. I suggest we best grow as a denomination by emphasizing the global nature of our church and deeper Bible study using a Wesleyan approach to Scripture. GC2019 sent a message loud and clear that our global church’s doctrine and discipline will not be guided by our US culture or a relativist (anything goes) approach to Scripture. Because of that, our church is strengthened.
Perhaps . . . just perhaps, this bloodbath we witnessed will lead to a spiritual awakening before GC2020 and folks can finally shift our church’s focus to matters of evangelism and discipleship. If not, I hope it leads to an amicable separation. That is my hope – not because I don’t want to be in unity with my progressive friends, but because I don’t want to be in a continual battle on issues of human sexuality.
Finally, I want to share a story. It was the very end of the conference. The Traditional Plan had just passed. The protesters in the stands began to chant and sing loudly. The presiding bishop called for a break. I left to go to the restroom feeling sad and heartbroken despite the vote having gone my way. Actually, I felt sick to my stomach as the protesters’ voices rang loudly throughout the conference center. When I returned, there was a large group of Africans near my table gathered in a circle singing a hymn. As I approached, two women from Cote d’Ivoire, who did not speak English, saw me and with huge smiles ecstatically exclaimed, “Cara!” (apparently knowing my name from a speech I gave earlier). They opened their arms wide, gave me a huge hug, and pulled me into their circle where I joined them in song. And so, I ended General Conference still feeling sadness about the process but blessed to be a part of a global church.
Cara Nicklas is an attorney and served as a lay delegate to General Conference 2019 from the Oklahoma Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.