by Bob Phillips
[Editor’s Note: Bob Phillips recently critiqued a statement approved on November 11 by a special session of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church. I am taking the liberty of publishing his thoughts (originally shared on Facebook) so they can be more widely circulated.]
Missing: Central reference to Jesus
If one eliminates the placeholder copy of the baptismal ritual the document contains nearly no reference to Jesus, and most of the few references one finds are generic, as in reference to “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” Mention of various causes abound; mention of Christ requires a careful search. The impression, if not the intent, communicates to others Jesus as present but not “preeminent” (Colossians 1:18).
Missing: Mention of evangelism
Acknowledge the elephant in the room, sustained, accelerating decline. The year I was ordained deacon IGRC had 288,000 members. As of 2020 that stood at 109,000, with 52 years of sustained and accelerating decline. This is reflected in every conference in the Jurisdiction, yet nothing is said about this central threat. What difference does it make how a church stands on any issue if the end game is that no church is left standing?
Missing: Reference to GC2019
As in zero reference. This was the last time the entire church gathered to address the single stated issue of sexuality. One third of the entire time together was devoted to prayer (one out of 3 days). Representatives from the global church and all viewpoints spoke, listened and prayerfully voted. No reference, no mention, no admission any of this happened. To rewrite history is problematic. To ignore history reflects exclusion of other, inconvenient voices.
Missing: Reference to the Protocol
The process creating this understanding is the only formal effort that included representatives from all major viewpoints, led by a world-class objective negotiator in Kenneth Feinberg. The “Call to Grace” letter, endorsed by the NCJ delegates, and prepared with no diversity of views at the table, offers a well-intended (really) but totally skewed approach to issues that is inevitable when the exclusion of diverse views defines the process.
Missing: Reference to personal sin
The seven deadly sins (lust, pride, greed, sloth, etc.) get a pass in the expansion of the baptismal confession of sin, replaced by systemic and corporate sins (racism, classism, heterosexism, colonialism, sexism). Historically confession of corporate/systemic sin occurs during the Eucharist, when the community of faith gathers, while personal sin is the focus of baptismal confession. Did John the Baptist or Jesus call during baptisms for the penitent to repent of their (Roman? Jewish?) colonialism?
Missing: Reference to sexual holiness
Our culture is awash with sexual sin, engaging in practices and attitudes contrary to God’s intention for the meaning and use of his gift. Sex outside the covenant of marriage is the norm. The growing “kink” lobby advocates (within the church) for affirmation of expressions of S/M (sadism-masochism) and humiliation for consenting adults, without addressing how such behaviors deface the image of God or reflect human fallenness. The greatest indicator of poverty and disadvantage is births out of wedlock, children brought into a setting without consistent modeling by father and mother in life’s values and actions (and eliminating the child is not the answer). Pornography, straight and gay, is an epidemic thanks to easy internet access. The report says nothing of any of these overwhelming issues and is content to focus passionately on a single issue, and even there without suggesting moral accountability for behaviors. For example, 46% of adult straight males and 61% of adult gay males are HPV positive, indicative of sexual behavior outside marriage. All church leaders of all perspectives have plenty to address.
Missing: Reference to the reality of trust deficits
The denominational report, “Call to Action” in 2010 highlighted the reality of trust deficits at all levels of church life. That has increased. The “Call to Grace” document and the NCJ report seem to be totally unaware of this tiger in the nursery. The documents assume confident trust in the status quo system and the bishops. Has anyone heard of what is happening in North Georgia, in Greater New Jersey, or in Cal-Pac where WCA-aligned large churches are suddenly told their pastors will be moved, without consultation, the picketing of the Cal-Pac bishop, the legal action initiated by the North Georgia bishop? Has anyone heard the voices of numerous clergy in various conferences, warned to keep their head down and mouths shut about contested issues, lest they be punished or suddenly moved? This NJC statement reflects what happens when delegate elections are weaponized to exclude certain voices and perspectives. Some bishops and some conferences probably will be, and have been, gracious when churches have sought to depart, but definitely not all. California’s largest church left after litigation and North Georgia’s largest church is embroiled in bishop-directed litigation. In short, these statements assume a level of trust that is not real…had diverse voices been involved as equals in the process, such would have been clear.
Missing: Obedience to the covenant
The precedent for selective obedience to the Discipline and the covenant already is established. Consider the pastor who eliminated “Father-Son-Spirit” reference in baptismal services, replaced by baptism in the name of “the People,” and who decided Charge Conference was unnecessary and thus did not have one in 8 years as pastor, and who eliminated SPRC-Trustees-Finance-Church Council as unnecessary, regardless of what the Discipline said. (The above is taken directly from the letter sent by Bishop Carcano to the Cal-Nevada conference to explain her refusal to appoint more clergy to Glide, and why she was starting legal action). The system held the pastor accountable by electing her to the office of Bishop and when the Judicial Council ruled she was an invalid candidate for that position, the College and Council of Bishops bluntly ignored the ruling. Selective obedience now is a given. Thus, the NCJ delegates call for simply disobeying the Discipline in selective issues. Does this claim of conscience extend to the areas practiced by the pastor described above? Does it extend to conscience-based non-payment of apportionments? Being ‘mostly obedient’ rivals the wisdom of being ‘slightly pregnant’ or ‘usually’ faithful. The unintended consequences birth future unnamed and unknown calamity.
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)