by Bob Phillips 

Arguably the finest and most readable book outlining that beginning of World War 1 was Barbara Tuchman’s masterful work, The Guns of August.  Published in 1962, it so impressed President Kennedy that he gifted his cabinet and key military leaders with copies. Awarded the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction, it remains in print to this day, very readable and very relevant to consumers of its wisdom. In his own assessment of the war, Winston Churchill talked about how “the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulated, drawing Europe into a collective disaster no one could foresee and no one wished to see.

As the United Methodist Church lumbers toward its own version of events (the Guns of Minneapolis?), several simple insights from the book can assist in making sense of the process, assumptions and attitudes pushing the global church toward some ‘dark and indefinite shore,’ words Lincoln used to describe a dream shortly before his own death of a boat journey to an unknown destination.  Consider the following examples.

First, in late July Kaiser Wilhelm developed a last-minute notion of pausing the mobilization and deployment of the German army if certain concessions were made by potential adversaries in France and England. War had not been declared but the German staff had been working meticulously on plans for war for years. When General von Moltke heard the Kaiser’s idea about a pause, he melted with rage, arguing that all plans had moved the army in one direction and that it was impossible and impractical to shift direction on short notice.  Application: Hold all assumptions of ‘what next’ in an open hand. Conservatives (like me) are wise to plan for contingencies but unwise to let the tail wag the dog, i.e., if reaffirming a form of the Traditional plan “fouls up all my arrangements” (to leave?) something is odd. If progressives are successful in swinging a bare majority (nothing more) to repeal the decisions of GC2019, they are wise to plan for contingencies but unwise to assume a status quo of selective obedience rooted in conscience can continue without real upheaval. Think apportionments, refusing to accept appointed clergy (Glide Church?) or planting satellite churches without ‘permission.’

Second, French senior leaders were convinced that the offensive attack, regardless of circumstances, would win the day as French elan, inner bold spirit, would triumph. Hundreds of thousands of French troops were butchered in needless and hopeless attacks when the tactical situation called for calm and prepared defense. On a lesser scale, when they received requests prior to the outbreak of war to shift French combat uniforms away from the bright red pantaloons of tradition, senior staff responded with outrage. Only after tens of thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered in the opening two months of the war, obvious targets in their bright red pants, did common sense prevail and uniforms fit for trench warfare produced. Application: Beware the bane of denial, or “protective stupidity” as is defined by Richard Tedlow of Harvard. Conservatives are wise to assume that many of like-minded will depart the UMC if the GC votes certain actions, but unwise to assume the size of that number. Liberals are wise to assume a broad sense of discomfort with profound change that makes a resuscitated One Church Plan appealing but unwise to bless protecting the status quo of a dysfunction and deathly ill US church in the name of unity.

Third, the German war plan called for a decisive strike at France by crossing through neutral Belgium. The tight and meticulous time table prepared by the German general staff required a slashing shortcut to push France off balance and win the day, and the war, in weeks. No one dreamed that tiny Belgium, with its minuscule army and meager resources would put up anything beyond token resistance, especially when promised that the Germans would not damage their land or people or things. The Germans were stunned when Belgium resisted, somehow bothered by the jack-boot invasion of their nation without notice. Their defenses were overwhelmed, the great medieval library at Louvain was torched together with much of the country, civilians were shot by the thousands…but the German schedule was thrown off course, setting the stage for the loss of precious time, precious movement to predetermined points, and eventually after four years, loss of the war. Application: Beware projecting your definition of “reasonable behavior” on others whose views you reject and whose stories you do not know. Conservatives are wise to envision gracious exits rather than vicious legal and financial battles but are unwise to assume more than a handful of liberals will leave the denomination if GC2020 again votes traditional, i.e., prepare for the “Belgian” liberals to resist.  Liberals are wise to seek generosity of conscience in a One Church Plan approach on marriage but unwise to assume most will prefer what they perceive as a weather vane over a compass in discerning moral direction in matters such as the nature of marriage. Huge slabs of “Belgian” conservatives will leave, drop out, or quit actively supporting their local church. Research suggests 80% of American adults who tithe their income to church or charity are self-avowed, practicing evangelicals; loose change will become lost change, lots of it.

Comparisons of the upcoming General Conference with the start of WW1 can get out of hand.  True, in the 20-year projection of the Presbyterian Church USA, the casualty rate for membership from 2000-2020 in fighting over this and other issues is projected to be 60%, which in a real combat environment would render the unit functionally useless. And our mainline Reformed friends included only US members. The good news is that each of the simple lessons offered above are easy to grasp, relevant to all stakeholders, and conducive to the humility essential to any Christian conferencing on contested issues. Naming these demons can help the church avoid their peril in forward motion toward the center of God’s will for the church in the 21st century.


Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)