by Bob Phillips
The 2019 General Conference is history. To some, it was the Slugfest in St. Louis, to others gritty vindication, to all it was a cake not turned. Rather than resolution of the issues surrounding sexuality, it has become a catalyst for resolve to win as the usual suspects adopt a three-point stance toward the mash-up in Minneapolis slated for May, 2020.
Consider surprises arising from GC19. The Council of Bishops was surprised. The Council, in what is destined to become an historic example of the peril of religious confirmation bias, was slugged and mugged by the truth of the global nature of the United Methodist Church. In a system where 61% of the bishops represent perhaps 45% of the actual membership, blunt facts collapsed the coordinated efforts of good intentions, peer pressure from institutional entities (colleges, seminaries, etc.), favorable press coverage and the assured results of the US Gallup poll. The complete surprise and bewilderment of the Council reflects a case study in institutional denial that Harvard Business School will dissect for years.
US traditional folks were surprised. Really, truly, a clear majority of US church delegates have no problem with a redefinition of marriage. Let that sink into the spiritual psyche. The recent church-sponsored survey that indicated 44% of US UM members lean traditional means that 56% self-define as other than traditional. This does not make them pagans, heretics or spawn of Satan but it does mean that historic and globally embraced assumptions about doctrine and practice are no longer ‘givens.’ Likely no annual conference, in the event of a separation, would in the majority affiliate with a more traditional theological definition of church and faith.
Advocates of the One Church Plan were surprised. Recall that no leader in the Mainstream lobby or the Uniting Methodists lobby publicly declared their personal support for existing church teaching on the nature of marriage. Had at least some of the leaders said, “I believe what the church teaches that same sex marriage is not God’s intent, but do not believe this honest difference of opinion rises to the level of dividing us,” folks proclaiming a middle way might have had more credibility. OCP advocates seem to think of the church as a spiritual public swimming pool where all are free to swim with those they prefer and to stay out of part of the pool where they don’t feel comfortable. They didn’t understand that traditional folks considered the redefinition of marriage as similar to ‘spitting’ in one end of the pool and telling others that if they didn’t like that practice they didn’t have to do it themselves and were free to stay out of the spitting section. The fact that the OCP called for rewriting the Social Principles in redefining marriage for the global church clinched the deal, and the rejection. No spitting in the pool.
The media was surprised and surprising. Many secular and religious outlets assumed the denomination would go with the flow set by Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. One reporter from a major newspaper who chatted with me for over an hour on the first day of conference was astonished to learn there was any serious reservation about affirming same sex marriage. Unlike the other churches who shifted their teaching, the global nature of United Methodism could lead to a different outcome. His subsequent stories, and those of many other outlets, certainly described the pain and anger of advocates for change but in my personal opinion largely refrained from default into name-calling or inferences of hate-bigotry-ignorance or other terms casually used to describe those who embrace traditional Christian definitions of marriage.
I offer four cautions. To the Council of Bishops: Your collective and individual responses to GC19, in the light of the profound misreading of the outcome, will redeem or crash the collective trust needed to lead into the future. Statements acknowledging the pain caused by the GC to many are needed and pastoral. Statements and actions that suggest those who affirmed existing church teaching really can be tagged as ‘problems,’ haters or ignorant will end respect and guarantee combat in regions of the US church where conservatives have not already been marginalized or effectively eliminated. Acknowledge that a person can be well-adjusted, well-informed, compassionate and still have principled Christian objection to same gender sexual behaviors, and room for dialogue and trust will be created. Limit comfort and affirmation to only one part of the church and secular studies will offer a follow-up work on what happens when institutional leaders double-down in denial. Please do not go there. Grace is available for all.
To the proponents of the OCP-Simple Plan-redefinitions: A comment months ago in the Washington Post relative to the political conflicts roiling the US included the observation that people were shifting from saying, “I disagree with you because I think you are wrong,” to “I disagree with you because I think you are evil.” Chants about the Manichean choice between love and hate, or flinging a litany of contemptuous insults at traditional folks burns every bridge it crosses. Please do not make the only growing part of our denomination into an uppity enemy that needs to be fenced, reflecting to secular bystanders the revival of the worst in Western arrogance. Remember that part of our church has members murdered by hostile religious groups each year because they are Christians. Do not let a sense of wounded justice on one issue lead you into imperial threats to cut off the money or wall them off from we who have ‘grown up.’
To Traditionalists: In many ways the peril is greatest for those in the US whose preferences most prevailed at GC19. Remember most traditional-evangelical UM churches in the US are in decline. It isn’t just a liberal thing. Be sensitive to the fact that many UM churches in the US will lose members and support because of the GC19 decision, and every departure is a Kingdom loss. Beware temptations to try to game the system for African and other non-US delegate support; these folks have integrity and will not be ‘had’ by any side in this distinctly US fight. Beware treating ‘Traditional’ as a synonym for “really true Christian,’ for followers of Jesus are in every camp. Be willing to confront any voices who speak with anger, holy bigotry or stereotype designed to belittle or diminish others.
To the 2020 delegates: Plan and scheme toward winning the votes and GC2020 will become a poorly played gladiatorial contest where all will be wounded and the only true winner will be Satan, who laughs whenever God’s children slash at the jugular. Elect one-issue slates of delegates and we will wind up with the church we deserve, trading off that redeeming grace which always means getting what we don’t deserve and not getting what we do deserve. Given the reality of a global church, move without presumption or confirmation bias toward win-win scenarios. This probably involves a version of spiritual mitosis, healthy cell division within the body of Christ that empowers and enables two expressions of Wesleyan Christianity, birthed by the United Methodist church in her 54thyear. Choose to move with freedom into the future, with fighting over sexuality replaced by focus on renewal and reformation to offer Christ to the 21stcentury. It can happen. The Boss said, “I will build my church,” and we are his tools if we yield to his way with conviction, compassion and courage. The GC2020 motto: Hey, Hey; Ho, Ho; The status quo has got to go. On that I suspect all parties, all contenders, can agree!