By Chris Ritter
[Jesus] replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”Matthew 16:2,3
A few years back a beloved church member lost consciousness in the middle of our Easter Sunday celebration. The house was packed. Bud was seated well behind me in the back row of the choir. Preachers usually become aware of these sorts of things when they notice everyone’s eyes are on the same thing… and that thing is not them. There is always that awkward moment: Is this a little distraction that I should ignore (like someone leaving for the restroom) or should I turn around? I scanned hundreds of sets of eyes for clues. Yep, this was a turn-around-and-look situation.
Bud was out cold and people had begun working with him. The special staging constructed for Easter made it impossible to get a stretcher to to him. Choristers and orchestra members started getting up and moving chairs and music stands so that a path could be cleared for emergency personnel.
It was a mess.
As the pastor, it was my prerogative to keep right on preaching. After all, I had prepared long and hard for the message and this was the biggest Sunday of the year. But that would have been the acme of foolishness. This was no time for business as usual. This was time to make sure the right people were in the right place, give whatever clear instructions needed to be given from the front, and to pray. Clumsily, that is what we did. I am happy to report that Bud eventually stood up and both he and Easter made a full recovery.
Advent is a time of preparation. True preparation begins with situational awareness, a sober graspe of reality. Jesus criticized the leaders of his day for failing to recognize the signs all around them. They could look well enough in the sky and tell whether or not to carry an umbrella. But they could not seem to read the troubled condition of the nation in their spiritual care.
It is not always required that leaders know exactly what to do, but it is realistic to expect that they at least know when to abandon business as usual. The opposite of being prepared is pretending.
The UMC has been struck with an epidemic of pretending that replaces sober preparation. It started with promotion of the One Church Plan as a solution to our woes:
- Pretending the things that divide us really don’t matter all that much.
- Pretending Traditionalists can live with the definition of marriage being changed.
- Pretending Progressives will be satisfied with some annual conferences and local churches denying the full acceptance of same-sex marriage.
- Pretending Africans would vote their pocketbooks instead of their principles.
- Pretending the old UMC institutional ship is not taking on water faster than any of our connectional bilge pumps could ever hope to compensate.
We can theorize about why leaders pretend at the cost of their own credibility. I have a theory that cheap solutions and quick fixes look better to people within a few years of their own retirement. Pretending is self-deception in which we hope others will join us.
But pretending is not a UMC universal. Many of our bishops acknowledge major, systemic change must come. We should appreciate recent decisions by The United Methodist Publishing House and Discipleship Ministries. General Conference 2016 approved work on a new hymnal. At the time, there was reasonable hope that a cohesive solution could be found to the denominational divisions over human sexuality. GC2019 proved otherwise. Rather than forge ahead, the Hymnal Revision Committee hit the pause button. It was a good call. They refocused on what legitimately could be done in the meantime and undoubtedly saved the us the money and embarrassment of a pretenders’ hymnal.
Let’s contrast this with the General Board of Church and Society and the Connectional Table. Both have been working for a long time on big projects. GBSC was charged with drafting a new, globally relevant Social Principles. The Connectional Table has been grappling with the Global Structure of the church. Rather than read the signs of the times, they both are moving ahead with business as usual.
The GCCS originally proceeded with everything but the sections on human sexuality. The first draft (now unaccessible online) left blanks in these areas with the notation that these matters would be decided by the specially-called GC2019. After General Conference spoke, GBCS inserted their own language that directly contradicts that which was decided at the special session! I suppose it was their right to do so, but it was at the expense of their own credibility.
The Connectional Table has been involved in efforts to restructure our global church since its inception. It brought 23 constitutional changes that were approved at GC2008, only to later fail ratification once the implications were understood relative to the human sexuality debate. The changes would have technically allowed General Conference to form a U.S, Regional Conference with power to write its own Book of Discipline. The alarm was raised by Jerry Kulah and others, and the amendments were rejected by a 95+% margin in some African conferences.
The Connectional Table chose this moment in history to bring that idea back around… with no reference to how it might interact with the human sexuality issue. I can only assume we are being invited to pretend:
- Pretend the U.S. is not hopelessly divided internally.
- Pretend there are no troubling implications of a “gated community”* formed by a new legislative line with 95% white wealthier people on one side and 95% poorer People of Color on the other.
- Pretend that the U.S. is not being privileged with four layers of conferencing when the rest of the world gets three.
- Pretend the new U.S. Regional Conference is not given powers of adaption that go well beyond those allowed to the central conferences (the plan effectively nullifies General Conference by authorizing an America First Regional Conference to meet afterwards and change whatever was not to our liking).
- Pretend this plan would not gerrymander a Progressive/Centrist majority with the power of adapt the Book of Discipline where one does not currently exist.
- Pretend this plan doesn’t add new upper judicatory structures to a system that is already hopelessly top-heavy (there are already five upper-judicatory U.S.-only conferences called jurisdictions).
- Pretend that the administration of pensions create justification for a “U.S. only” structure when Wespath serves the entire global church through Central Conference Pensions.
- Pretend that the endorsement of Central Conference bishops inoculates the plan against the charge of global segregation. (The fact that five African American conferences voted in 1930’s to create the Central Jurisdiction does not make it less problematic).
The new set of Social Principles and Global Structure come to General Conference as if from an alternate universe where trust has not been exhausted, institutional leaders have the credibility to speak for all of us, and the denomination is not falling apart at the seams. Such tone-deaf leadership opens its practitioners to the charge of intentional misdirection. We can be thankful for the Hymnal Revision Committee and those bishops who are taking a more sober and straightforward approach.
The new Social Principles should be tabled and/or referred to the various bodies that may emerge from GC2020. The Connectional Table might help us by withdrawing their plan… or at least offering a straight-forward analysis on how their proposed changes would affect the church. They might have also offered a structural plan that acknowledges the divisions in the U.S. church and provided a means to honestly alleviate them.
The UMC cannot pretend and prepare at the same time. We honor our leaders best by expecting them to read the signs of the times.
* A phrase borrowed from Ryan Kiblinger, probably better than my earlier analogy of Apartheid.