by Bob Phillips
“The only grounds for divorce in California is marriage.” (Cher)
“Cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war” (Mark Anthony, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar)
“Who lets the dogs out…?” (Baha Men, 2000 release)
Aftershocks continue from GC2019 on the left and in the center and on the right. The Western Jurisdiction has announced it will become its own ecclesial sanctuary city for sexually active gay and lesbian clergy. Like Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in the classic 1930’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the WJ bishops stand on the ramparts and cry, ‘Sanctuary’ to the teeming mob of fundamentalists hungering below the battlements for innocent blood. Since the WJ has ignored church teaching on this issue for several years, excitement at the new announcement has been surprisingly mute, eliciting the same surprise one would find if the St. Louis Cardinals front office issued a solemn announcement that they have decided to play baseball.
Others have issued public statements that no one is turned away from UM churches. Petitions of protest have been proffered and signed by the multitude, worded with code language thick enough to stump the notorious Enigma machine of the Germans in World War Two. Some of the language, however, is not coded but uncloaked and naked to the hearing. The United Methodist church, reflected in the GC19, has embraced hatred, bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ageism, colonialism, genderism, fundamentalism, and presumably ism-ism. Precisely how the African delegates who strongly supported the church’s existing teaching have been lapdog stooges of colonialism remains unclear, unless by inference that the African delegates are “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command,” to borrow an exact quote describing American evangelical Protestants that appeared in The Washington Post in 1993 (the Post subsequently apologized for the unfortunate language). One must presume that the loud reminder the church is inclusive and open to all comes with the fine print that such a welcome is extended even to the human mouse droppings who support traditional Christian definitions, i.e., “Bigots welcome?”
One bishop in the NC Jurisdiction succinctly summarized the outcome of the conference by merrily observing it was a contest “between those who read the Bible and see condemnation and others who read the Bible and see grace.” Given the invective and contempt spewed on traditional Christians for their affirmation of the historic understanding of marriage, one may wonder who precisely are the condemners and who are those standing in the light of grace.
The progressive left mobilized the minions of indignation and captured the entirety of clergy delegations in several US annual conferences as delegates to the 2020 General Conference. To a lesser extent, they increased the number of lay delegates committed to affirming, if not personally embracing, same gender marriage and the ordination of sexually active gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered persons. The theological left successfully framed the outcome of GC2019 as the triumph of bigotry (sustaining the definition of Christian marriage as between a man and a woman) and vindictiveness (actively pursuing sexual questions of candidates for ordination rather than the entirety of a lifestyle of holiness and implementing mandatory sentences for violators including the ‘death penalty’ of loss of credentials for a second offence). Bluntly, there was some merit to those concerns. These understandings, sincerely held, apparently swayed many previously disengaged active and retired clergy. In many conferences any semblance of having delegations that reflected the diversity of conference churches on contested issues gave way to a winner-take-all mindset, reminiscent of the movie, 300, and the war cries, “Give them nothing but take from them everything…no prisoners, no mercy.”
On the right one hears increasing calls reflecting 1 Kings 12:16: ‘To your tents, O Israel; look to your own house, David.” Or as one might hear it in the Bronx, “I’m outta here.” Social media roils with the passion of angry traditional/orthodox saints who are mad with Hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. The longing for freedom from all the hassle is powerful and is linked to a spiritual confidence of rightness that is willing to stomp out of the room and leave the liberals to…themselves. As one friend once described the era when folks left the Methodist Church to found the Church of the Nazarene: They took the fire and left us the stove.
Such holy passion is exhilarating but risks driving the denomination off a cliff with a Thelma and Louise righteous whoop. A traditional, theologically centered, evangelical Wesleyan theology and vision reflect the clear majority of the global United Methodist Church. With relatively few exceptions, they don’t appear to be mad with anyone once they leave the heated kitchen of sexuality debates. African and Asian and European visions of Christian social conscience provide helpful and crucial corrective to American conservatives tempted to devalue the spiritual and evangelistic issues of poverty and social justice in their global contexts.
Most UM official seminaries have hired one traditional-evangelical faculty member; a few have hired more than one; a couple have hired several, despite snickering and complaining from left-handed saints. The aversion to fighting by conservatives is a deep motive to depart a denomination moving toward a Wesleyan version of the Hundred Years’ War. Offsetting that temptation is the fact that in virtually every crucial vote regarding the theological direction of the global church, it appears clear the traditional folks own the furniture and the keys to house and car. The departure of frustrated evangelical Presbyterians and Anglicans and Lutherans led to wide leftward swings and shift in doctrine by the diminished mainline versions of their traditions. The UM evangelicals do not need to go there, must not go there.
While the vote would be closer, the number crunching in the aftermath of the delegate elections for GC2020 suggest the traditional doctrine of marriage would be upheld if the various contestants insist on a total-war approach. However, the margin of ‘victory’ would be so modest as to settle nothing. Likewise, if the math is skewed and a more liberal redefinition of Christian marriage is affirmed, it would be a squeaker vote that would settle nothing.
Here the best hope for GC2020 enters the picture. During his final hospitalization prior to his death, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was asked for insight on a brewing Berlin crisis with the Soviet Union. He replied, “If we are willing to go to war over Berlin, there will be no war over Berlin.” The crisis receded after his death, in part because his advice in this instance was sound. It bears repeating for the UMC of 2020.
The various ‘sides’ in the sexuality conflict, with the exception of a few Machiavellian types on left and right, neither seek nor desire war. GC2019 was a bucket of ice water, ice chunks included, dumped into the bed of denial where the snoozing collective Council of Bishops and institutional movers and shakers were stunned awake by reality. Doubling down on denial is one option but one can hope that after the passions of the moment ease, Spirit-inspired realism will marry hope in birthing a gracious Wesleyan future.
Liberals and conservatives have a way forward. By the way, I use those terms rather than ‘progressive’ or ‘orthodox.’ The opposite of progressive is regressive, knuckle-dragging primitives. The opposite of orthodox is hissy-fit heretics, candidates for a church barbeque. Liberal and conservative are honorable terms. As for moderates, they do exist in large number in local churches. The angry rhetoric of leaders in the Mainstream and Uniting Methodists movements belie any claim to an authentic center where those who firmly reject same gender sexual behaviors truly are welcomed. Tolerated, perhaps but clearly not welcomed. UM/Next seeks increased visibility and cachet in weighing options for the center-left as the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Good News (among others) currently operate on behalf of the center-right.
The recent intriguing proposal to birth two or three new expressions of Methodism from the womb of the existing denomination, offered by Bishops David Bard and Scott Jones (Methodism’s Mutt and Jeff…in a good sense) presages the intensified struggle toward moving past denial and toward Spirit-led open field running in forming a vibrant future of the US church. Other proposals likely will be test driven across the pages of UM News and countless blogs.
The central truth that can enable a healthy new birth of Methodism is this: It is not about the sex. Delegates to General Conference from outside the US have grown publicly weary of the repeated head-knocking and now, at long last, most US colleagues seem to have joined them. The denomination faces a ‘wicked problem,’ replete with trust deficits, miscommunications, outmoded structures, ineffective ways and means of organization-education-training-deployment, outdated locations of churches, diminishing human and financial resources, contradictory theologies vying for equal time under a tattered circus tent institution, symbolized by a policy that decrees profound systemic change can be authorized throughout the 12 million member organization during a 10 day window every four years. “Every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets,” and the 51 years of sustained decline in the US church is exhibit A of that truth.
A fix that simply reaffirms traditional teaching will fix…nothing. Defiance and disobedience by bishops, conferences and clergy in the US will be the result. A fix that redefines the nature of Christian marriage and sexuality will fix…nothing, unless severing the US church from nearly all of its global and growing body is viewed as a good thing, together with the million or so in the US church who will walk away or just melt away. A fix that reverts its definition of marriage to the time of the Judges in which issues like sexuality and marriage can be decided by zip code without theological coherence that transcends culture or language will fix…nothing. Once that institutional precedent has been adopted, it cannot be confined to a single preferred issue. Why not that approach to infant baptism, the ordination of women, paying apportionments, or the freedom to take the resurrection of Jesus seriously…but not literally? In settings where everyone does what is right in their own eyes, the eyes quickly tend to cross and moral myopia runs rampant.
The debate over sexuality, and the conflict and the passionate disagreement, are tinder that can light the spark to a God-honoring explosion of reformation and renewal that far exceeds the issues of sexuality. Or the delegates to GC2020 and the official contestants representing the various interest groups can live out an ecclesial version of the description of poet Matthew Arnold and transmute Minneapolis into “a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night.” Schism is to walk away from something. Spiritual mitosis or new birth is not primarily defined by that from which one walks away but by that toward which one chooses to walk.
GC2020 cannot solve or tame the wicked problem of the church, whether on sexuality or any other presenting issue. What GC2020 can do, and must do, is to plow the ground in a serious and sustained manner to create the template for re-formation of new expressions of the Wesleyan way. Bard-Jones or some other proposal…what brings reformation, not revenge, is our future.
Bob Phillips was a delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church and holds degrees from St. Andrews (Scotland), Princeton, and Asbury. He was once the highest ranking United Methodist in U.S. Navy chaplaincy and is a clergy member of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference where he served Peoria First UMC before his retirement.