by Bob Phillips
Several months prior to GC2019 I wrote about how that upcoming General Conference would fail and could succeed. The piece was based on applying Wicked Problem Theory (WPT) to the woes of the church. Basically, the single-issue focus of the conference guaranteed failure, as delegates received a single item entrée to consume in St. Louis related to resolving the homosexuality debate. WPT makes clear that the church faces a buffet of woes: trust deficits, theological contradictions and confusion, communication failures, demographic challenges of age and population placement, challenges arising from a now-confirmed membership majority status residing outside the US, ineffective and outmoded structures and organization…among others. Pushing attention to any single issue, no matter how compelling the issue may be its own right, reinforces the wicked problem of the institution rather than resolves it. Perspectives become skewed around a single issue rather than enhanced by a realistic grasp of the deeper and more complicated issues.
Precisely that outcome was the product of St. Louis. Delegates with a traditional Christian sexual moral view believed the One Church Plan violated conscience and was rejected. Non-US delegates found that the middle-ground sought by the Connectional Conference plan still aligned them with behaviors they morally clearly reject to a level conscience could not support. The Traditional plan that passed easily, though not overwhelmingly, collided with the conscience of many US delegates and some from Western Europe who find nothing intrinsically immoral with same gender sexual behaviors. Like heterosexual behaviors, the relational and committal context of such behaviors make or break divine intent. They found the plan mean-spirited, punitive and hypocritical in holding only one sexual behavior to special account.
“People must not be humiliated. That is the main thing.” These words of Russian author Anton Chekov in a letter to his brother embody a wisdom lost in the United Methodist sexuality debate. Those who experience humiliation, belittling or denigration respond in understandably negative ways. Labeling people and their convictions as bigoted, on the wrong side of history, and aligned with the spirit of segregationists and oppressors of women score no points in the game that matters most. Labeling people and their convictions as unchristian, unbiblical, licentious and spiritually compromised likewise scars rather than scores. These attitudes, rampant during and in the aftermath of GC2019, reflect the trust deficits and miscommunication dimensions of the church’s deeper wicked problem.
Thus, rather than resolve the sexuality impasse, GC2019 unintentionally exacerbated it. The hemorrhage in membership and worship attendance in the US church almost certainly will have accelerated in 2019, as some angry liberals departed in response to the Traditional plan and some angry conservatives departed over the uproar within the church to a restatement of traditional ideas of marriage. Meanwhile, others have or will depart out of weariness over the time, energy and harsh feelings generated toward this single issue. WTP saw it coming.
The upside of GC2019 was a reality check for all major stakeholders. Progressives and centrists who lean progressive on marriage definitions, including most of the US and European membership of the Council of Bishops, received a rude reality check of how their agenda was received by the global sheep. Traditional and conservatives who were quietly encouraged by ‘victory and vindication’ at the votes that followed a day of intense collective prayer soon began to feel the backlash of anger. It was expressed through public denunciation by many bishops and the declaration of several annual conferences and one jurisdiction that it would not feel themselves bound to obey what conscience rejected. The ongoing ordination and appointment of sexually active and partnered LGBTQIA+ clergy, also as actions of defiant conscience, sealed the deal. WPT also saw this coming.
The upside of GC2019 from a wicked problem perspective is that it did succeed, though not in the sense of fulfilling pre-set agendas of the various contestants. All stakeholders were reminded of the implications of dismissing, discarding or rationalizing away lines drawn by the conscience of others, whether those others are on’ the wrong side’ of history or ‘the wrong side’ of scripture. All have tasted the fruit of belittling and demeaning those whose convictions do not bend to preferred views.
Any liberal wishful thinking that conservative United Methodists, like their Presbyterian and Lutheran counterparts, would ‘go gently into that good night’ took a body blow. Unlike the Presbyterian and Lutheran examples, United Methodism is a global movement and a clear majority of members reject key pieces of liberal desires…and the conservatives aren’t going anywhere under duress. Any conservative wishful thinking that liberals would wake up and smell the coffee of their minority status and gently accept a gracious exit plan, a.k.a. “the boot,” out of the church quickly realized that a critical mass of progressives and sympathetic US centrists control enough of the American membership, resources and money to resist defeatist departure, no matter how graceful the terms may sound…to conservatives. That said, the idea of collaboration into the mitosis or healthy division or separation of the existing church into new expressions became a real option. Prior to GC2019, such thoughts routinely were dismissed under the label of schism, even though the institutional alternative was all-out war. No more.
For all US and Western European leaders of left or right, the emergence of the hegemony of African and Filipino Methodism in their shared desire to retain the brand name, the reliable systemic support, and clear traditional understandings of scripture, gospel and sexuality, likewise had an impact. For GC2020 no one special interest group, which includes the Council of Bishops in that category, knows what this decisive group of delegates will do. The US church has created a bifurcated set of options, i.e., a gracious exit for conservatives or liberals or revised definitions of marriage, sexuality, ordination and holiness. Africa has made clear it will not buy into any redefinition of marriage, and that it will look with dubious care at proposals that whisper division.
This multi-layered collision with reality can set the stage for a GC2020 in which all key players no longer operate under win-lose illusions. An authentic collaborative outcome that frees the global church to get about the larger mission of the gospel truly is the preferred and the most practical positive outcome. A collaboration that may involve a spiritual and ecclesial mitosis, the birthing of new but clearly related expressions of Wesleyan Christianity, offers an alternative to the trench warfare and vitriol of schism.
Caution and hope have joined hands in anticipation of GC2020. The caution is a revised reminder from WPT that far more expectations have been laid on that conference than possibly can be achieved. Once again, sexuality holds center stage. A disproportionate number of US delegates were elected in response to this single-issue concern, though GC2020 has a full menu of woes for the church to address. The unintended impact of this approach has been to leave several annual conferences bereft of clergy or laity delegates who speak any language other than English or who bring experience and track records of effectiveness to the table on a variety of the complicated issues facing the denomination. It will be hard for many to hear WPT that resolving the sexuality issue is impossible. Taming the sexuality aspect of the church’s wicked problem is possible.
Meanwhile, issues related to a multiverse of challenges beckon. These involve theological education, apportionments, trust between clergy and laity or members and the institution, addressing the clergy status of local pastors, reinforcing support for smaller US congregations, dealing with revised Social Principles, empowering increased effectiveness in outreach to non-English speaking populations in the US, and unpacking the implications of US minority membership. Addressing the wild disparity of wealth within the denomination (the white-minority US church controls roughly 95% of all monies and assets), and energizing church planting as crucial for any viable future…the list of necessary items for action will nudge the church toward a rise or fall (in the US at least), no matter what GC2020 decides on sexuality. A GC that shifts priorities toward addressing these issues can produce rich rewards. The alternative will be accelerated decline in the US church, fueled by overt schism that wounds the global church and handicaps the only regions where existing United Methodism is growing in numbers and social influence.
WPT suggests that organizations with a wicked problem often try, and fail, in initial efforts to use authority or conflict to bring resolution. That has been the approach thus far for the UMC. The third option is collaboration, though organizations typically “fail” into collaboration only when convinced authority has lacks sufficient clout to dictate outcomes and the institutional bloodshed of conflict is too high a price to pay for a Pyrrhic victory.
The emergence of alternative plans that acknowledge the impasse of conscience on the sexuality issue is a positive note of reality in moving toward GC2020. Rather than express favor for any of the existing plans, all of which their authors acknowledge would require modification by the conference, consider these contours to bring construction outcomes for GC2020, notes relevant also for the recently released “Protocol for Separation”:
- Conscience and humiliation. Seek an approach that offers genuine protection and affirmation for the conscience of the various stakeholders and that is framed in honest ways that avoids and renounces the personal insults, innuendo and efforts to humiliate those with principled disagreement on contested issues.
- Mission. What approach offers the best avenue for the global church to accomplish the Great Commission in the strength of the gospel of Christ working through the Great Commandment? Any version of institutional unity that imposes enforcement (trials) or punishments (property fights) places the value of the stove above that of the fire the stove exists to nurture. Bluntly, some other denominations have stumbled into that approach. The UMC is under no obligation to conform to similar actions while expecting different outcomes.
- Mitosis is not schism. There was no US Air Force during World War 2. The US Army had a branch of its organization given to air cover and the like. The mitosis that created the US Air Force after World War 2 was not a schism but a recognition that the essential mission of defending the nation was best served by a constructive division. The old wineskin of the US UMC has delivered 52 years of sustained losses; new wineskins in parameters set through common sense, prayer and the guidance of the Spirit can transform conflict into collaboration for a renewed future. This is mitosis or Spirit-led separation, not schism.
- Engage the reality of minority status. At least 75% of millennial aged members of the church live outside the US. Over 25% of the denomination’s membership live where the median average income is $400 per year. Delegates will be at GC2020 from some nations where their church includes members who are martyred every year because of their Christian faith. English is no longer the first language of most UM laity. Unpacking how a General Conference can constructively empower such a global church is an impossible task apart from scripture, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit.
- What IS working? The Spirit is active in the life of Christ’s church. Where and what are those Spirit-inspired sources of life? Plan and work in ways that nurture and enable what is thriving and good and resist efforts to simply declare everything broken. Hard work and discernment must join hands to make this happen.
- “Mutually assured destruction” (MAD) is not a healthy approach to Christian mission. This approach to nuclear weapons policy during the Cold War did serve a deterrent purpose, when leaders of diametrically opposed views realized that extinction is not a helpful option. Since liberals and many centrists have made clear they will not obey what any General Conference says if it contradicts conscience, and conservatives have made clear they will not bend on redefinitions of marriage or sexuality if it contradicts scripture, the impasse is absolute and a Methodist version of the Hundred Years’ war is already halfway toward living into that title.
General Conference delegates will face unprecedented pressures. Secular media in the US already frames the struggle within the church in terms of whether or not the church will “continue its discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people” (New York Times article, January 3, 2020). Will progressive leaders stand up to correct such simplistic characterizations or, by silence, endorse them? Conservative talking heads will frame the debates in stark Manichean terms of pure good verses pure evil. Will traditional leaders stand up to correct such simplistic characterizations or, by silence, endorse them?
Human nature whispers, “It is not enough I succeed; others must fail.” Will bean counting the specifics of a proposed mitosis devolve into fresh winner-loser scenarios over money, property or legacy names? I have heard as recently as today, while worshipping in a UM church in the Cal-Nevada conference, a description of the Protocol for Separation as a way for those opposed to inclusion to leave the denomination and start a different church, which is not how traditional United Methodists (the majority of the global denomination) would see it. I have read as recently as today Facebook postings comparing the existing denomination and UM progressives as dwellers in Sodom: time for the righteous traditionalists to flee before the fire falls. If delegates buy this type of language, and the attitudes that feed them, the battles of Gettysburg, Iwo Jima and the Bulge will seem like middle school food fights compared to what could break loose in Minneapolis. That would not honor God.
If GC2020 embraces a collaborative mitosis/separation, with all sides doing advanced self-criticism of their own unhelpful or sarcastic behaviors, a process for meaningful reformation can begin. United Methodism has not been in accelerated decline in the American West because the church doesn’t do gay weddings. It is not in decline in other parts of the US because its teaching on sexuality is right or wrong. The wide scope of the church’s wicked problem finally could be seriously addressed in the opening shot of a focused, faith-inspired vision of a renewed Wesleyan witness, offered in two or even three specific forms. GC2020 has the potential to do such good.
Prophesying about GC2020, Moses said, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). GC2020 will and should tweak proposals but the need, and the time, for institutional new birth is here, and now.
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)